Wednesday, May 26, 2010

When You Should Hurt Your Users

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I don't always do what's best for users. I know, I know. This is a horrible thing for a UX person to admit, but it's true.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody, but it's shocked enough of my clients that it bears stating clearly. As an interaction designer, my job isn't (or at least, it shouldn't be) always to optimize everything exactly for the end user. There are several reasons for this.

The Best Thing For the User May Be Bad for Business

One of my favorite Dilbert cartoons explained that what users really want is "better stuff for free." As much as I dearly love to help the end user, my clients would quickly go broke if I gave users everything they wanted. A big part of the UX job should be balancing what is best for the user with what is best for the business. Sadly, those aren't always the same thing.

What does this mean in reality? It means that every time you see a banner on a free site, some UX designer accepted the necessary evil of showing an advertisement for acai berry in return for offering content for free. It means that sometimes a pricing page will be designed to showcase a more expensive option than the user might otherwise have chosen. It also means we have to work extra hard to identify features that are good for both users and the business (for example, features that make current paying users happy and thereby increase retention), so that we don't always feel like we have to sacrifice either revenue or customer happiness. 

Caution! This can go too far in the other direction. I would argue that a lot of Facebook's recent privacy debacles have been driven by optimizing too much for the business and not enough for the end user experience. The result of this, of course, can be losing end users, which can end up being bad for business in the long run.

Getting It Out There May Be Better Than Getting It Perfect

Nothing is perfect the first time it's released. If it is, you probably spent too much time on it. And sometimes the very best solution for the user is impractical for a lot of other reasons.

What does this mean in reality? Well, it means that if the absolute optimal solution for end users will take 6 years and a team of 20 geniuses to implement, I will try my hardest to find the next best alternative. I'm not saying I'm going to settle for a bad user experience. I'm just saying that there are a lot of different ways of making the user happy, and if it can be done without killing the engineering department, that's a bonus. 

Caution! This does not mean that you get to ship a bunch of crappy features and then never touch them again. If I give you a pass to deliver a suboptimal first version to the user in the interest of time and engineering effort, I expect that it will be iterated upon and improved in the very near future. It may never be perfect, but it had better improve!

Monday, May 24, 2010

When Talking to Customers Isn't Enough

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the head of a small company about next steps. His company had a product with many happy, paying customers, and he wanted to know what to do next to make his current customers happier and attract some new ones.

The company had already made a good start. They had done surveys of current users asking the standard questions like, "How disappointed would you be if you could no longer use this product." They'd even surveyed current users about what new features they would like to see. The problem was, the happy customers couldn't think of anything else they wanted, and while the slightly less happy customers wanted some new features, there was no general consensus on one big, missing piece or fantastic new idea. So, the CEO wanted to know what to do next.

I believe this can be a problem with the "go out and talk to your customers" solution to product development. We can get so focused on talking to customers that we forget that it's not always the best way to figure out what to do next.

Observe Your Customers

Customers lie. They don't always mean to lie, but it often ends up that way. It's especially problematic when you ask people to explain how they currently use your product. Sometimes they forget parts of their process, or they don't even realize that they're doing certain things because it's all become so routine. Also, they tend to explain their process of using your product from start to finish, as if they weren't doing seven other things while trying to use your product. This can give you a totally skewed vision of what people are actually doing with your product.

What's the solution? Go out and watch them. Sit with them in their offices or homes and observe their real behavior. Most importantly, watch what they do immediately before and after they use your product.

I was talking with somebody who used to work for a marketplace that allows people to buy and sell products directly to each other. While observing users, her team noticed that, while people had very little trouble using the marketplace itself, the sellers spent a huge amount of time arranging shipping of the items. In fact, the shipping process took so much time that it limited the number of items they could list. By integrating with a shipping company to help customers print labels and schedule pickups, the company increased the number of items that could be listed which increased revenue.

Why didn't users ask for that? Well, the customers had a particular way of doing things. They thought of the marketplace as a place where they could buy and sell things, not as a product that helped them mail things. They had another solution that helped them mail things, and they didn't know that there was a better way to do that until they were presented with it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How Many Features Does it Take to Destroy Your Product?

I work with a lot of startup founders who are extremely excited about their products. This is unsurprising, since nobody in their right mind would launch a startup without being totally convinced that their product is going to be awesome. It’s just too much work and risk for something that you aren’t passionate about.

Passion in startups is a great thing. It can also be incredibly dangerous.

The story is the same with pretty much every group of founders I work with: they have hundreds of great feature ideas for their product. Let me be clear: HUNDREDS of great feature ideas. Don’t get me wrong, many of these are genuinely great ideas. Almost every time I hear one, I think, “Wow, that would be really nice to have in this product and would add a lot of value.”

Unfortunately, starting a product with all of those features causes a lot of problems.

More Features = More Time to Build

Imagine building a house that includes a single room vs. one that has twenty rooms on three floors. There’s a lot more work, design, and planning that needs to go into the bigger design to make sure that people don’t get lost and that the house won't collapse.

This may seem obvious, but building one feature takes a lot less time than building ten. And the more time you spend building your initial product, the longer it takes to start getting metrics from actual users. Sure, you can and should start getting feedback from people using mockups and prototypes, but nothing beats actual data from your real product in the hands of users.

More Features = More UX Complexity

Remember that 20 room house? It has a lot more windows, doors, staircases, and electrical outlets than the one room place. It can be hard to find a reasonable place for everything. The more complex your product is, the more challenging it can be to present all of your features to your users in a usable way.

It’s hard to design a product that has a lot of different features. Everything needs to have an obvious, findable place in the product structure. All the features need to fit together in such a way that a user never gets lost or confused. Starting with a couple of key features keeps the overall UX much simpler and vastly reduces both your design time and the chances that your product will look like a giant mess.

More Features = Less Clear Value Proposition

Ever come to a web site or opened a product and thought, “What on earth does it DO?” Generally, the culprit is a confusing jumble of features, menus, buttons, and calls to action that prevent you from understanding the main value proposition of the product. Sure, companies try to combat the problem with wordy feature descriptions, video tutorials, and on-rails first time user experiences, but those often make things worse.

The simple fact is that the fewer features your product has, the easier it is for a new user to immediately understand what your product has to offer them. When all you have is new users, making sure they don’t get confused and leave is a pretty high priority.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Visual Design is Important, But Maybe Not Just Yet

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about visual design. A few weeks ago, at the Startup Lessons Learned conference, somebody asked how important visual design is in user experience, and recently somebody asked how much time I spend on visual design early in the design process. The answers to those two questions are: “incredibly important” and “not much.”

Why Is Visual Design Important in UX?

A lot of people, even a lot of designers, write off visual design as “making something pretty.” Frankly, I’ve been guilty of this myself. Meanwhile, companies like Google and Facebook have made fortunes while keeping their visual design so spare as to be almost non-existent. So you may reasonably wonder, why is visual design important to my startup or new product, and why should I bother spending time and resources on it?
But visual design doesn’t just make things pretty. It’s instrumental in a lot of ways, including:
  • Enhancing your information design
  • Reinforcing desired user actions
  • Setting the tone for your product

Visuals Enhance Information Design

Sure, Facebook has a very simple, blue, gray, and white look. That’s because Facebook is all about delivering an enormous amount of content and information to you quickly. A bright, distracting, or cluttered interface would make it hard to read large numbers of news items and could clash with user-posted pictures.

Same with Google. Google, at least the main search product, is about getting you to type in a search term and then giving you access to everything on the internet that matches it. That’s a lot of information to process. Sites that are about delivering large quantities of information need to keep their visual design simple. But a simple design doesn’t mean no visual design at all.