There's been a lot of talk about user centred design at PlusNet recently. Everyone seems to agree that it's a good idea but not has been done about it. This is about to change... it's time to act!
What is User Centred Design?
The traditional design process works something like this:
Write a specification - possibly go through a few iterations, refining the spec
Make a prototype - again, maybe refine it a few times because The Boss doesn't like the font ;-)
Test - internally or with a public beta
It isn't until the very end that the users get to actually try the product, by which time it's way too late to make any significant changes. But that's OK because we're professional designers and we already know what users need, right? Well, not really.
The trouble is, the more we use computers, the more we lose sight of how other people use computers. I see so many people double-clicking on web links. To us it's obvious but have you tried explaining the difference between things that require a double-click to activate (e.g. icons) and things that only require a single click (e.g. links and buttons)? It's not that easy.
The point is that nobody knows what users need — not even users! Oh, rats. How do we get out of this one then? The answer is... (can you guess?)... user centred design!
User centred design puts the user at the centre of the design process (there's a clue in the name there):
Gather requirements - ideally from your users, i.e. ask "what would you like the product to do?"
Build some paper prototypes and test them on users (see below)
Make a real prototype - test it on users
Build - test it on users
Launch - test it on users!
As you see, at each stage we're testing the product on the people (or at least the kind of people) who will be using it. This means that failures in the initial design can be caught very early on when changing the design is quick, easy and cheap. "Oh so people can't find the 'add' button in the top right corner? Let's put it at the bottom." Then test again.
How will this help us?
Not only does this result in a better product that more people will enjoy using but it also saves loads in support costs because people will have less trouble using it!
So right now we're doing a trial run. We selected the 'Manage my Mail' tool in 'My Account' as a candidate because many people have been having difficulty with it recently due to the spam incident. For this trial we'll be selecting users internally to save time but finding non-techy people in Plusnet is actually quite hard! If you're in the Sheffield area and would like to come in for an hour or so one day to help out that would be awesome! I don't think we can give you any money but we'll certainly get you a free lunch, a game of pool and Wii tennis or whatever else
So hopefully this trial will be a success and we'll be integrating user centred design into the business much more. I'm excited!
What is User Testing?
User testing usually involves three steps
Find some users - from elsewhere in the company, off the street, from a recruitment firm, friends & family... wherever. It's important that the users match your target demographic though. No point testing on teenagers if you're building a website about mortgages.
Sit the users down, one at a time, in front of your site; set them some tasks; watch them fail! Every time a user has difficulty performing a task, that's your website failing and it needs to be fixed.
Collate the results and feed back to the design team. Ideally you'd have the whole design team watching every user test but that's not usually practical and might be a bit intimidating for the user!
What is Paper Prototyping?
Paper prototyping is exactly what it sounds: instead of designing your interface on a computer, just draw it on a piece of paper! You can even 'run' paper prototypes where one person acts as the computer, responding to user actions by moving switching bits of paper or even drawing new 'screens' on-the-fly. This has several advantages:
Encourages participation from less techy folks. Adobe Macromedia Design Studioshop Max 9.0... what?! Using specialist software locks out people who don't know how to use it. Paper, on the other hand, is far more accessible.
Easy to change. Don't like that layout? Here's another sheet of paper and a pen. Need to move that login box? Here's some scissors and some glue. Old school cut & paste.