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You are not your users!

Garrett Heath recounts Tony Santos' fantastic OSCON talk on human-centered design

You may not think that a designer would be presenting at OSCON, the conference focusing on open source development. But Tony Santos, user experience designer at Mozilla, packed the room for his talk entitled ‘Supercharged human-centered design in open source software’. Santos even quipped at the beginning of the talk that he was surprised to see so many people at the session.

“Human-centered design is more-or-less designing things with a focus on the people who are going to be using them,” Santos said. “[It’s] thinking about how is somebody going to use this instead of, ‘Is this the fastest way I can make server A talk to server B over a 1 Gigabit Ethernet connection?’” Santos challenged his audience to not forget who they were designing their software for.

Reasons to favor human-centered design

The world is littered with examples of design that are not human-centered. Doors with two pull handles and computer programs that have windows with a variety of checkboxes, dropdowns and radio buttons. One example plaguing modern ecommerce sites is when a user is required to give their email address before being allowed to browse the site. While that might serve the business needs of driving signups and even sales, that is not a very human-centered approach. So why should businesses have a focus on human-centered design?

“If you don’t care about the people who are using your [software], they will very quickly not care about your [software] anymore,” Santos said. “We’re kind of special in that we really love technology and get excited by it, but a lot of normal people don’t. If it’s not working for them, in the context of their lives solving the problems that they have, then they’re going to give up on it.” He cautioned that this opens the door for a competitor to come along with a better, human-focused experience that will steal your customers away.

Determining your users

One issue common with both designers and developers is determining who your users are. While personas are en vogue, they are also time-consuming and costly to create. Santos advocated defining more of a user profile that can be agreed upon.

“It’s really important to write them down. You need to know who these people are and you need to be able to go back to them later,” Santos advised. Not recording your user profiles can lead a group into the trap of the “elastic user”—people bending the definition and characteristics of the user to accommodate their feature requests or own personal agendas for the software.

As you define your users, you should consider the following three types:

  • Primary Users – the group of people that must have all their needs met
  • Secondary Users – the group that almost gets everything that they want
  • Negative Users – the group of people you are purposefully ignoring

When defining your users, it may be helpful to start with people who are not using your software or product in order to whittle down to the group of people who are your primary users. Regardless, Santos gave his golden rule of design:

YOU ARE NOT YOUR USERS (and your coworkers probably aren’t either, but they’ll do in a pinch).

Building empathy with your users

After determining the profiles of your users, it is important for you to build empathy with them, to feel their pain, understand their problems and to look at the world through their eyes. Santos said that there are three ways to build empathy, starting with asking your users questions. Try to discover what they are doing, what they need to do and what problems they have. But you must be careful to not ask explicitly what they want, rather focus on what they need and draw your own conclusions from there.

Another way to build empathy is to observe your users. While this process can yield rich data, it is hard to do and can be expensive. One key point Santos mentioned was trying to observe your users in their natural environment rather than in one that was staged. “You will be amazed at all the things you will see. You will be amazed at how they use your thing in ways that you never ever imagined before,” Santos said.

Participatory design is a research method where you get to both ask and watch in a process called “designing with.” Santos said that designers could get the best of both worlds, both asking and observing at the same time in a participatory session. However, the goal of participatory design is not to crowd source your design, but rather to examine the needs and requirements you customers have in real time.

Designing with your users

There are three ways for you to use participatory design with your users:

  1. Ask for stories – This option is desirable for people who are terrified of drawing, be sure to record your users or ask them to write down the story so that it remains in their own words.
  2. Have a collage party – One way to get participants who are adverse to drawing to help out with a visual design is to have a preset group of components, or squares, for them to use. Santos advises that if you print out these components be sure to have an excess of them; you don’t want people to be constrained where they feel that they should use all the collage pieces.
  3. Let’s all draw – If you have participants who are willing to draw, ask them to do so in ink and resist the urge to ask questions before they finish. As they make revisions, have them do it on a new sheet of paper so that you can have a “version control” of the creative process.

Once you have collected this data, it is time to analyze it. Qualitative in nature, it will take a designer a while to interpret and find the patterns. Santos advises that you will need to work with a range of six to eight participants to see the patterns emerge. The designer will then want to see how this data aligns with the personas or profiles of the users in an effort to better understand how people are thinking.

You can find Tony Santos on Twitter at @tsmuse and download the slides from his OSCON presentation here

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