Designing for “Not Us”

April 26th, 2010 11 Comments

Image by uuzinger from Flickr used under Creative Commons

The release of the iPad and the subsequent debate around who would use it and why has me on a personal crusade to design simpler software.

Technology inspires nervousness and fear among everyday users, and frequently, geeks don’t help the uninitiated, as we saw when ReadWriteWeb was mistaken for Facebook.

Prowess with code puts us in a position of power and frequently, we display a cavalier attitude. I myself am also guilty of this. The haughty geek is a stereotype that plays out in film and television all the time, especially as Facebook and Twitter attract more people.

I don’t want to be that stereotype anymore. So, lately I’ve tried to employ a more empathetic attitude toward my design.

This is much harder than it seems though. In the How to Design for the 15 Minutes session at SXSW, Rob Goodlatte (@rsg) of Facebook emphasized the importance of the first-time experience with an app.

This is very challenging because product development cannot detach from the product, so design tends to be done for existing users with less emphasis on the initial experience.

Testing a product works well to capture first-time emotions, but for a small development team, finding testers is a big challenge. On a large team, it can be equally difficult to get real results unless development is present in the room, observing, but not contributing.

As if designing for “not us” wasn’t already a challenge, it’s particularly tough for an existing product because you must balance the investment of learned behavior made by current users with simplicity and ease of use for new ones.

This is a challenge we tackled with our redesign of the internal WebCenter instance. Without testers and user profiling, you really have to make best-guesses and hope everything turns out fine.

You also have to prepare to defend your decisions and recognize the difference between a single squeaky wheel and real loss of functionality affecting a large segment of your users.

Anyway, I think we geeks could all use a dose of empathy (not sympathy) in our work, whether it’s development or support.

Maybe I’m just turning into a hippie in my old age. Years ago, I sat on the other side of this argument, but apparently, the years have mellowed me.

What about you? Find the comments.


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11 Responses to “Designing for “Not Us””

  1. Jim Says:

    Hi Jake – I think you're right about the empathy thing. As people who spend all of our time working with IT / technology, it's easy to forget that lots of other people don't do that, and might only use the web / Oracle / iProcurement etc. etc. infrequently. Where I work we often send out emails about the Oracle system we develop / support, and then complain when users don't take time to read them. Then when the tables are turned, and we get an email from another part of the system, e.g. Email / Active Directory etc. etc. we don't read it thoroughly ourselves! But I'm with you on the empathy thing – users sometimes come on the phone sounding really stressed out with the system, but often calm down a lot when you empathise with them, instead of take the know-all approach, and make them feel stupid etc.

  2. Jake Says:

    Good support is as much about calming the person as it is about fixing the issue. This may be an evolutionary thing for our field.

    Lots of people use tech with very little training, which is unlike other fields. The closest analog I can think of is driving a car, but tech would be analogous to driving any type of motor vehicle, i.e. if you can drive an automobile, you should be able to drive a forklift. If you can use email, you can use a word processor.

    The point is that people are pushed into tech without enough training, and the software isn't designed for them. Since the training will never be adequate for all the tech people need to use, the design should compensate.

  3. joel garry Says:

    This is what disturbs me about the Droid advertising blitz. It takes the whole idea of apps and makes it into some info-testosterone-crazed-cyborg thing. Where's John Connor's mom when you need her?

    The best product I've seen has come from where some Jobs-like strong personality, who also has an eye for simplicity and design, has been the choke point. Of course far too many product managers overrate themselves (or Peter-principle is invoked) so as a general case it doesn't work.

    Empathy tends to be an opposite personality trait to simple design. You want to do everything to help the user, which means complicated. So you need tension between these things in a development group.

  4. Jake Says:

    Ding-dong. Sarah Connor? Sorry, couldn't resist.

    I don't agree that empathy is necessarily at odds with simple design. That's sympathy. If you really empathize with the problems/requirements that the design hopes to address, you'll keep it simple, whereas sympathy tends to clutter design with “helpful” features.

  5. oraclenerd Says:

    I couldn't agree more. The last couple of months I've seen this recurrent theme, design.

    Why design?

    For the users.

    Who are the users?

    Not us (mostly anyway).

    This is why I got into IT…well, not specifically design, but that uber-geek mentality that exists out there, “How dare you not know what I do!”

    It still exists out there, only now I can combat it. I'll win out most times (given technical arguments are equal) because I don't have that holier-than-thou personality.

    I digress.

    I bought an iPad for my parents recently. I was actually picking one up for someone else and while I waited, caught a glimpse of the MLB.com app for the iPad. Wow. I though, “Dad would love this.”

    Sure enough he did.

    But Mom loved it too. Despite having worked on a computer (newspaper copy-editor) since the 70's, she just can't get used to them. We bought her a laptop…no go. The iPad however…it's been amazing to watch. It's not a panacea by any means, but she's watching movies and reading books, which is a start. The point is that it doesn't scare her. As you have said, “It just works.”

  6. Jake Says:

    Totally agreed. If only I had the stones to take away all the features I *know* people don't want and would make their experience with product better.

    Plus, just works means different things to different people in different contexts, so by extension, it would mean reinventing the iPad for every use case.

    Sigh. A noble cause for which I do not have the bandwidth.

    So, we do what we can.

  7. joel garry Says:

    This is what disturbs me about the Droid advertising blitz. It takes the whole idea of apps and makes it into some info-testosterone-crazed-cyborg thing. Where's John Connor's mom when you need her?

    The best product I've seen has come from where some Jobs-like strong personality, who also has an eye for simplicity and design, has been the choke point. Of course far too many product managers overrate themselves (or Peter-principle is invoked) so as a general case it doesn't work.

    Empathy tends to be an opposite personality trait to simple design. You want to do everything to help the user, which means complicated. So you need tension between these things in a development group.

  8. Jake Says:

    Ding-dong. Sarah Connor? Sorry, couldn't resist.

    I don't agree that empathy is necessarily at odds with simple design. That's sympathy. If you really empathize with the problems/requirements that the design hopes to address, you'll keep it simple, whereas sympathy tends to clutter design with “helpful” features.

  9. oraclenerd Says:

    I couldn't agree more. The last couple of months I've seen this recurrent theme, design.

    Why design?

    For the users.

    Who are the users?

    Not us (mostly anyway).

    This is why I got into IT…well, not specifically design, but that uber-geek mentality that exists out there, “How dare you not know what I do!”

    It still exists out there, only now I can combat it. I'll win out most times (given technical arguments are equal) because I don't have that holier-than-thou personality.

    I digress.

    I bought an iPad for my parents recently. I was actually picking one up for someone else and while I waited, caught a glimpse of the MLB.com app for the iPad. Wow. I though, “Dad would love this.”

    Sure enough he did.

    But Mom loved it too. Despite having worked on a computer (newspaper copy-editor) since the 70's, she just can't get used to them. We bought her a laptop…no go. The iPad however…it's been amazing to watch. It's not a panacea by any means, but she's watching movies and reading books, which is a start. The point is that it doesn't scare her. As you have said, “It just works.”

  10. Jake Says:

    Totally agreed. If only I had the stones to take away all the features I *know* people don't want and would make their experience with product better.

    Plus, just works means different things to different people in different contexts, so by extension, it would mean reinventing the iPad for every use case.

    Sigh. A noble cause for which I do not have the bandwidth.

    So, we do what we can.

  11. Stoked for Windows 8 « oracle fusion identity Says:

    […] Designing for “Not Us” […]

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