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Robert's Blog ideas about design and development

In this time of constant technological change, we as software providers are always worried about our application being replaced, outmoded or discarded.

Usability research and design can keep our applications from finding the scrap heap as quickly as they might otherwise. Think about how quickly you as a consumer cast something to the side (especially freeware programs) if you can't figure out how to use it without an exhaustive manual or an online tutorial. Now why should the audience for your application behave any differently? You may think you know what your users want or need without asking (product owners and clients are especially guilty of this in my experience), but you are probably wrong.

Let's put that last statement in a different context. Imagine your significant other or your child has been eagerly awaiting a Christmas or birthday present from you. They absolutely with out a doubt know that you, as smart as you are, are going to buy them the item at the very tippy-top of the list that they handed you six months ago. If you didn't look at this list, chances are that you are going to be spending a few cold nights on the couch or getting some grumpy looks from across the breakfast table after the gifts have been received. Chances are, most of you are smart enough to avoid that particular pitfall, so why let yourselves fall into a usability pitfall, especially if your user base is close at hand?

If we do better usability research and testing than the competition, chances are our product will outlast theirs, meaning consumer dollars will be lining our pockets and theirs.

Should we do a decent job figuring out our users' wants and needs, chances are we will be continuing to grace their desktop with our quick-launch icon or their web-browser with a link to our app for quite some time.

It is human nature to want to find and use better tools. Unfortunately (and this goes double in software) the tool-maker doesn't give the user of his product a second thought after the initial discussion of what is needed.

Usability and Agility go hand in hand. HCI pundits say otherwise. I say said pundits have bumped their collective heads. Users' needs change as time goes on, and you need a mechanism to cope with those changes. Agile software development methodologies (specifically Scrum) are a good way to provide that mechanism.

I know of a large software producer that gathers all the requirements for a projects that they can (big upfront design), and they even go to the length (so I'm told) of creating a proposed mockup (picture of the interface) for each "screen" in the proposed application before proceeding on to code. This might not bother me that much if they didn't lock their clients in to this list of requirements and all these proposed interfaces.

The absolute gall. All of this is done without any representative of the user body present. No room is given for changes to the requirements should a usability SNAFU crop up. Thou shall eat thine gruel, and thou shalt be happy about it. Puh-LEASE!

Managers and product owners are usually the hardest to sell on user centered design. Let's consider why I became such an advocate for user centered design. In an previous job, I was basically a one man band. The boss gave me the requirements, I cranked out the design and developed it. Poof! We were done! Or were we? Most of these projects came back to haunt me in one way or another. Here's a list of what usually crapped out:

  • My lingo didn't match up with the industry lingo for the industry in which the product was to be used. This translated into hours of rewriting links, labels and help text.
  • The users couldn't figure out how the application was structured. What made perfect sense to me made no sense at all to them. If you can't figure out what link/button to push next, you are pretty well out of luck.

Granted that's really only two things, but a lot of the applications I worked on at that place of employ never saw the light of day! To me, this all seemed like a lot of unnecessary waste and lost profit. I am a designer and I was thinking these things! So eventually I started begging for access to the end user. Eventually I got access to the client, but still not the end user. A little while after that, I made a break for greener pastures.

The moral of the story here is that you have to meet the end users on their terms if you want your application to survive and thrive. Doing this from the very start, and doing this continuously throughout the development of your application will go a long way to ensuring the happiness and productivity of your end user, and ensuring that your clients will come back to you with repeat business!

Posted on Sunday, April 6, 2008 9:09 AM | Back to top

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