Monday, March 17, 2008

Bridging the Designer–User Gap

Designers not users ...

"Depending on how representative designers are of the target audience, a project might need more or less user testing. Still, usability concerns never go away completely.

One of usability's main laws is that "designers are not users." This insight is about as important as "vice presidents are not users" and "users are not designers" (so don't listen to them; watch them).

The usability discipline exists because systematic methods can overcome the gap between the design team and its target audience. You don't have to rely on your best guesses: you can find out how actual customers behave and what you can do to make them buy more.

There are 3 different degrees of difference between designers and their users, from a small fissure to a gaping gulf. The strategy for bridging the gap depends on how severe it is.

Level 1: The Designer Is the User
Sometimes this is literally true: you're designing something that only you will use. If you're making a spreadsheet to track your butterfly collection, feel free to use any obscure abbreviations you please. If no one else needs to understand the design, you can safely toss the usability book out the window.

More commonly, designers at this level are core members of the larger target audience. Open software often falls into this category: designed by geeks, for geeks. That's why Linux, Apache, Perl, and many similar products have been so successful — at least as long as the audience remains a group of technology-obsessed users. Of course, these same products don't stand a chance of growing their user base to include ordinary humans.

This level is our best-case scenario. But, even when designers are representative of the target audience, a crucial difference remains: designers know far more about the product simply because they built it.

So, even here, you need usability studies both to find out how your target users think about the product and to optimize it accordingly.

Level 2: The Designer Understands the Product
Say you're designing a mobile phone. You use one yourself. You use voice mail a bit. And, from talking with your mother over dinner this last holiday, you even have some insights into how non-geeks use their phones. Bravo! You have your core persona nailed ("Mom"), you know what features are the most useful, and you know what buttons are annoying to push. You're ready to design the next killer phone — no doubt about it.

Uh, not so fast. It's true, you do use a phone. But you don't necessarily know the features people need to do their jobs (which are likely completely different than yours). And you don't know what UI most people will find easy or difficult to use.

As with the cell phone, so, too, with a whole range of other designs, such as workhorse consumer websites, news sites, photo sharing sites, intranet employee directories, or project management applications. Simply because you use these yourself, you assume you know what other users need.

In fact, there's a big gap between designers and the majority of users. Last month, for example, we tested Banana Republic's website and several male participants had trouble buying a suit there. This wasn't because the site designers didn't know about suits. It was because the navigation and product pages confused people who didn't understand how the company thinks about its products:

1. Click Men in the top navigation, followed by Suits in the left nav.
2. Get a category page with thumbnails of guys in various suits.
3. Click a photo of a suit you like.
4. Get a product page with a bigger photo of a guy wearing the suit.
5. Click Add to Bag if you like the suit, and complete the checkout process.
6. A few days later, you receive a package from Banana Republic. Surprise: You got only the jacket, not the complete suit.

Turns out that, to buy a suit, you have to buy both the jacket and the pants as separate SKUs. Given the interaction sequence I just outlined, how would you know? Well, if you read everything closely, you would realize that the product page under step 4 was the page for the jacket, not the suit. But the product page shows the guy wearing the suit, and we know that users don't read every last word on every Web page."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

A Banana Republic product page reached by clicking through from the

A Banana Republic product page reached by clicking through from the "suits" category page. The initial view (left); the view after users selected an alternate view (right).

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