It’s not just that we aren’t the users

We can never be a normal user of our own services. We can temper that by being self-c0nscious in reflecting on our experiences as users of other people’s. But even that tacitly assumes that we are like normal users other than in our expertise as providers of a particular service.

But that assumption may be badly wrong if in fact we are unlike typical users in ways which introduce the risk of systematic skews in our perceptions. And it’s a safe starting point to assert that if you are reading this, you are sufficiently abnormal that you should worry about that distortion (and if follows that I am so much more abnormal for writing it that I am almost certainly beyond hope).

The first step is to recognise that you can only have a personal appreciaton of the usability of a service by using the service.

I spent a great day on Friday visiting a local authority and talking about ways in which local and central government could work more closely together around service delivery, particularly for people we know will have to deal with both (or several) of us. They took me round their one stop shop, and showed me their plans for a newer and shinier one. It was truly impressive stuff. But there was a small voice in my head reminding me of my own experience a few weeks ago at a one stop shop as a resident in my own local authority which, as I reflected then, wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either. It’s not that the voice was telling me it might not be as good as it looked. It was telling me that I would never be able to tell by looking.

In the early days of the web, the DTI (I am pretty sure it was) won an award for having the best government website. I understood why: it has a level of visual and structural clarity which was well ahead of the standard of the competition. Asked which government site deserved the prize, I would have awarded it to them too. Looked at without any specific purpose in mind, it was superb. But as I discovered when I had to look for something I knew was in there somewhere, it was much less good at meeting actual needs.

Even those who might be supposed to have an experience sufficiently close to the end user to have a reliable understanding of their experience can’t be assumed actually to do so. I wrote a few months ago about the difference between bus drivers and bus conductors which is one illustration of that point, but there are many more to be found wherever you look for them.

The second step is to recognise that whatever your experience as a user, you should not assume that your reactions are normal.

Designers and builders of services tend to assume that we are just like the people who will use those services, except that we have some specialist inside knowledge which gives us a slightly altered perspective. Having acknowledged that, we may – we should – go on to recognise that there are needs some users of the service may have which we don’t share. So we will think about accessibility and plainness of English (to say nothing of plainness of Welsh). But still we are tacitly assuming that while people may be at different points along a spectrum, there is only one spectrum.

I was helped to recognise the danger of that assumption a few years ago by hearing an account of a small qualitative research study into channel preferences, particularly the relative attractiveness of doing things online and by phone. It turned out that what everybody wanted was to be sure that the information they had provided had been correctly recorded and confident that action would be taken as a result. No surprise in that, that’s pretty much what I want too. For me, the conclusion is obvious: given that objective, an online transaction is clearly to be preferred. I can be completely clear about what data is being captured, avoid having to say, ‘no, that’s B for Bertie’ in increasingly exasperated tones and can be pretty sure that whatever system the organisation concerned has for doing whatever needs to be done next, it knows it has that thing to do. But for a lot of people, it turned out, the answer is equally obvious, and is precisely the opposite. Talking to a person gives you the confidence that the organisation has asked the questions it needs to ask, and as a result knows what it needs to know. Critically, it is felt to mean that responsibility for accuracy and completeness has been accepted by the organisation, whereas self-service data entry leaves an unwanted sense of responsibility somehow sticking to the user. And a human having accepted that the transaction is complete is more reassuring than any form of electronic confirmation.

Bruce Tognazzini has just published an essay on the apparently esoteric topic of whether the navigation of an iphone contacts list is better done by scrolling or searching. If that’s an important issue for you, it’s worth reading. If it isn’t (as it isn’t for me, since I don’t have an iphone), it’s worth reading anyway, as the core of his argument is much more general. It is in essence that some patterns of thinking are over-represented among those who design and build services, with a real risk that services so designed are optimised for people who think like them, not for a potentially much larger group whose mental model and heuristic preferences may be very different.

For all our bluster about how special we in high tech are, we really tend to think of ourselves as average—average intelligence, average likes and dislikes, average knowledge. We are none of the above. In fact, only one person in the entire world is average, and we don’t know who that person is.

Engineers (including programmers), he argues- are typically much more logical, much more abstract and better at rote memory than the rest of us. Unconstrained, that can have interesting results. Tognazzini takes as an example Steve Wozniak, one of the brains behind the Apple II:

[He] later developed the CL 9, the first programmable universal remote control. It featured the keys 0 through F, labelled with the standard Hexadecimal notation so familiar to everyone born with 16 fingers. It enabled you to capture and command 256 different codes spread across 16 invisible “pages.” You just had to memorize the page and position of all 256 of those codes and you could control everything! Woz and about three other people were able to make excellent use of the resulting product. Engineering, even genius engineering (and Woz was and is second to none), must be balanced with equally talented design.

So we need designers too. But that (shades of Officer Krupke) isn’t the whole answer either:

Graphic designers, left unchecked and unschooled, are likely to aim for maximum visual simplicity at the expense of both learnability and usability. Such interfaces require users to discover new capabilities by clicking around and seeing what happens. Users don’t do that. In the most extreme cases, functionality desperately needed by the majority of users may actually be removed from products in the effort to generate visual simplicity.

So it turns out that we also needs human-computer interface (HCI) experts, of which, of course, Tognazzini happens to be one.

The three professions, working together, with a healthy tension among them, produce good software and good products. That balance of power is critical to success.

But even that, of course, is not enough: we still haven’t got to the people who will actually use this service yet. So it doesn’t really matter whether you agree that a constructive tension between the three disciplines Tognazzini discusses is the optimal approach, the question is still whether the people who end up designing and building services are systematically dissimilar to the people who end up using them.

That’s not an argument that those professional disciplines are wrong or irrelevant: on the contrary, they are essential. Nor is it an argument about superiority: this is not a demand to dissolve the people and elect another. It is instead a recognition of the need to correct for skewed representation of different mental models. It is an argument that what seems most obvious may be most dangerous, because it may not be at all obvious to others.

So it’s not just that we aren’t the users, but that we may be too unlike them to understand the gap.

Small footnote: I know that ‘user’ is a controversial and imperfect word, but in the context of what is being discussed here it isn’t easy to find another one. I have argued elsewhere that ‘customer’ is the least worst word, but then and now I am not persuaded that it is a particularly productive debate.

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