Sunday, 20 April 2008

If it wasn't for those pesky users

Some projects do seem be run from the point of view that the user is simply an irritant. That’s why it’s been so refreshing to see MomoLondon and OTA paying particular attention to the user experience (or UX) over the past few weeks. Highlights include Future Platforms‘s inspirational astronomy case study led by Tom Hume and Bryan Rieger; Steve Ives on UE testing for Taptu; and Scott Weiss‘s pearls of wisdom. I’m also looking forward to continuing the discussions at the MEX conference in a few weeks, thanks to being offered a MoMo sponsorship placement. The mobile device, being pitched as being the device to enable the user at the point of inspiration, is ironically constrained by the input interfaces which restrict that inspiration. The iPhone is pushing the standard, but it’s only early days and it’s not exactly mass market yet. These constraints and barriers are dropping, but they won’t drop quickly, and they won’t drop at all if service providers do not apply due care and attention to the UX.

A few reoccurring themes emerge:

  • Paper prototypes are very effective. Nothing beats rapidly knocking up diagrams and notes with just paper and pen. Sitting in a meeting staring at a screen as another person grapples with some particular tool, capturing everyone’s feedback, is not an ideal situation. Personally, I think much more creatively with a pen in my hand. Whack the paper prototypes on the wall and encourage your team to add scribbles and post it notes as required – over coffee or after a heated lunch time debate. Yes, it’ll eventually end up in your favourite drawing tool, such as OmniGraffle or Visio, but, if you hold out until the paper prototypes are refined, you’ll end up having more focused lightweight documentation and not have so much personal attachment to ideas and thoughts that you’ve discarded along the way.
  • Think about personas and not just abstract concepts such as UML actors. A persona is a fictitious character which brings a particular user type to life. Encourage everyone, involved in the solution development process, to put themselves in the shoes of the user. Give the persona a name, provide a photo of them, describe what they like to see at the cinema and describe what they had for lunch last Sunday.
  • Listen to the user. Treat the user with respect and pay attention to what they’re saying. OmniGroup, FileMaker, 37signals and (to jump sector) FirstDirect, naming just a few, are all doing well in this front. Run user sessions that let the user provide natural feedback, without having words put in their mouth and without putting them under pressure. That said, don’t be constrained by just the input from your users. A service provider has the opportunity to show flare and create experiences that users would flock to. It is within inspirational teams that new radical ideas emerge. As Henry Ford said – “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.
  • Don’t led technology drive the UX. Yes you need to be aware of feasibility and be real, and you will have iterations in which a UX is adjusted according to technological constraints, but the UX must stay primarily focused on what is right for the user. I’ve seen projects, for example, where the UI is driven from the content model or where the project’s treated as a technological show case. Resist all temptations to let the technology lead. Technology enables.

The mobile device is so user focused. You know your user – location, direct billing – and the interface limitations are such that your UX mistakes are amplified. The mass market has not yet started using the mobile web, snubbing it as fiddly and ineffective. If you want food for though enjoy the debate following ReadWriteWeb’s mobile web baiting “Is the Mobile Web Dead?” blog. These complaints, although justifiable, are more often than not based on the constraints of the mobile, cost confusion and the limited services that are available. This situation provides a great opportunity for the industry. When we can tear down the constraints and when we can apply the appropriate attention to the user experience, the uses will come flooding.