All Aboard For User-centered Design

Scott Cook of Intuit had some very important things to say in the Opening Plenary of CHI2006, now taking place in Montreal. It’s all about being user-centric. A culture of innovation results when you go out to your customers first and design from that. Customer connectivity is hugely important. Getting out into the customer’s actual space means discarding the old ideas and letting new ideas come in. “Before you can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes you must first remove your own.”

That theme was well described in another blog item seen today, Designing for the Average User, by Frank Spillers. One particular paragraph at the end nicely links to the CHI theme:

Ignoring the average user can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies. I often hear product managers say “our users are power users” or “if they don’t get this, they are not our users”. These assumptions are largely self-preserving and seem to counter the usability attitude of “user advocacy”. Promote a culture within your team of “Outside-In” design. Stop defending the merits of features and functionality without some independent outside verification from your users.

Frank Spillers is of course reminding us that the Average User is not necessarily like us. Somehow we’ve got to capture the variety of experiences that different users will have as they interact with the product or web page we have designed. They must all be satisfactory.

It struck me that of course even with this approach it won’t work for everyone. Some potential users will find they have such problems with a given web page that they cannot ‘come aboard’ that user-centered design and enjoy it. So to simplify, we have the Haves and the Have-Nots. It’s that old Occam’s Razor notion. You could decide that you’ll try to make sure the Haves do have a good user experience with the web page. However Occam may suggest another approach.

In practice many web designers might be surprised at how large the group of Have-Nots for any given web page may be. With the rapid pace of technology, there may be many reasons why they’re excluded for any given web page. Any of the following might apply:

  • Wrong browser
  • Wrong device
  • Wrong screen resolution
  • Plug-ins not available
  • Javascript disabled
  • Dial-up modem
  • Visual impairment

and so on, and so on.

So a good design principle might be to try to make sure the group of Have-Nots is as small as possible. At the very least, you should know how many people you’re leaving out of the boat. It’s an application of the KISS principle. You’d probably find that as you’re trying to minimize the number of Have-Nots, you’re also improving the experience for the average Have. So it’s win-win for all.

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