Thursday, September 9, 2010

Your User's Computer Sucks

I often tell people that “you are not your user.” I’m an interaction designer. It’s part of my job description. What I should probably also be reminding people is that your computer is not your user’s computer. Nor is your internet connection, monitor, environment, or a lot of other things.

Why is this important? These things mean that, aside from making your product usable in a lab setting or in your office, it’s also got to work well in the standard environment of your user.

So, ok, if you build tools for lean startups, you can probably ignore most of this post. Your users all have dual core machines (probably more than one), fiber internet connections, 24 inch flat screen monitors, and a cubicle or office in which to use those things. They probably also have a smart phone that never leaves their hand and a comparable set up at home so that they are never more than a few inches from enough computer power to get them burned as witches in some parts of the world.

But the rest of you probably build products for teens or busy families or doctors or construction workers or business travelers or, you know, the vast majority of humanity that doesn’t use a computer for a living. And you need to not only understand your users; you need to understand your user’s computing environment.

I do a lot of in-home/office studies as well as remote usability testing. This means that, not only do I get to see real users with my products, I get to see them use them on their computers, and I’ve seen this over and over.

Here are a few examples of how your user’s environment really matters:

Your Computer is Faster than Your User’s

Interactions that take a split second on my machine sitting right next to the server may take two or three seconds on an old computer half way around the world. This doesn’t seem like much, but it has a pretty big impact.

When an interaction takes a split second, I don’t need to plan for any intermediate feedback (a spinner, a progress bar, a disabled button, etc.). When an interaction takes three seconds, I really, really do need one of those things, or else I’m going to get repeated button presses and confused users who don’t know whether anything is happening. Of course, interactions that are annoyingly slow on my computer are going to be completely intolerable to a lot of my users.

You Have More Computers than Your User Does

I have a laptop and a smartphone at home that are all my own, and I use them constantly.  The other day, I asked a user why she chose to use a product late at night. She explained that she had school aged kids who needed the computer in the afternoons, and during the day she was typically out of the house. Her only computer time was a few minutes after the family was all in bed.

Many products are used by multiple people during the day on the same computer, sometimes at the same time. Having limited time on a shared computer creates all sorts of design implications for things like privacy and the need to be able to interrupt and resume tasks.

Your Monitor is Bigger than Your User’s Monitor

Of course, then there’s monitor size. Many people have declared the death of “the fold” because people don’t mind scrolling a bit for interesting information, but I still see products with really important calls to action that don’t show up on screens smaller than a bay window.

Guess what? I’ll scroll to read the second half of a blog post, but I’m not going on a damn treasure hunt for your Buy button. If I don’t find it quickly, there are a whole lot of other sites that will sell me what I want. If your target audience accesses your site on laptops or smartphones or Etch A Sketches, figure it out and design accordingly.

Look, “getting out of the building” isn’t just another way of saying “chatting with customers.” It means understanding customers and how they use your product. A big part of how people use your product is dictated by the environment in which they use it. So make sure that you don’t only understand who is using your product and how they are using it. Learn WHERE they’re using it and on what sort of equipment. It can make a huge difference.

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