Jared Spool on usability and intuitive design

He’s been working in the field of usability since 1978 – before the term was ever associated with computers. Speaker, author and CEO Jared Spool chats to Tom May about how to research your users and make your sites and apps intuitive

This article first appeared in issue 222 of .net magazine the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

It’s often said that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design – it’s totally subjective. But Jared Spool reckons that’s a lot of tosh. The CEO of User Interface Engineering, the world’s largest research, training and consulting firm specialising in website and product usability, believes it boils down to one thing: whether or not your design is intuitive.

“Intuitive design means coming up with something that when a user sees it, they know exactly what to do,” he explains. “An interface that’s intuitive doesn’t get in the way of the user: they’re able to accomplish their goals easily, without having to puzzle over how to go about it.”

So far, so good – but the problem is that what constitutes ‘intuitive’ is very personal. “Something that I find intuitive other people may find to be very unintuitive,” Spool points out. “For example, I don’t find much of Facebook’s functionality very intuitive. I find myself constantly fighting the interface when I go to do something like create a Facebook event. Yet I know for a fact there are people who find it completely intuitive.

“That’s partly because they do it frequently enough for things that are very important in their lives. It may not always have been intuitive but now it is.” So how do you determine whether your site or app is intuitive for your target audience? It’s all about what Spool calls the ‘knowledge gap’.

“Imagine you can draw a line that represents all of the knowledge that somebody needs to accomplish a task,” he explains. “At one end you have people who have zero knowledge about getting something done and at the other end people who know everything that can be known about using this design. Most of us land somewhere in the middle.”

Current vs target knowledge

“There are two points on the line that we’re interested in,” Spool continues. “The first is what we call ‘current knowledge’. This is what you know at the time you walk up to the design. So someone who’s used Facebook before has a different point on that line than someone who’s brand new to it.

“The other point on the line that we care about, we call ‘target knowledge’. This is the point which you need to complete the objective. In my case, this is the knowledge I need in order to create an event on Facebook.

“So we have current knowledge and we have target knowledge. The space between them is what we call the knowledge gap. And the knowledge gap is where we do our design work.

“We don’t have to design before current knowledge,” Spool explains, “because the user already knows that stuff. We don’t have to design after target knowledge because they don’t need to know that stuff. So if the Facebook team’s going to design anything, they’re going to design the act of helping me get from my current knowledge to the target knowledge.”

And Spool proposes two ways they can do just that. “They can either create design elements that train me, like help and tutorials. Or they can simplify the interface, and thereby bring current knowledge closer to target knowledge.”

Keep it simple, sort of

The word ‘simplify’ needs a little unpacking here: it’s not the same as being minimalistic. While people often assume the ‘cleanest’ web page is the best, that’s a mistake, Spool says. A quite complex design can often be intuitive, he points out, while an uncluttered page can often be confusing.

“For this reason, I define ‘simplicity’ by how close you get to current knowledge,” he says. “In other words, anything that matches up with my current knowledge will seem simple to me, even though it may seem complex to someone who has current knowledge someplace else.”

One of the ‘cleanest’ page designs, and one that’s often held up as a model, is the Google homepage. “But the intuitiveness of the Google search bar is actually debatable,” Spool argues. “For instance, there was a recent university study that showed – to the surprise of the professors – that students don’t understand how to use Google. For example, they assume that because something appears on the first page at the top it’s the most authoritative source. So just because a page is simple and uncluttered, it doesn’t mean it will be intuitive.”

Watching users

So how do we achieve intuitive design in practice? For Spool it all comes down to watching people use our sites and apps, and discovering from their behaviour where our designs are failing to match up with current knowledge. It’s a simple approach but one that, in Spool’s experience, few people actually follow. “The average developer or designer doesn’t spend any time ever watching people use the things they are designing,” he complains. “It’s crazy. Imagine that you were a cook who came up with all sorts of new recipes, but you never tasted any of them, and you never ended up getting to see anybody enjoy them. How good a cook would you become?

The average developer or designer doesn’t spend any time ever watching people use the things they are designing

“What we’re only just starting to realise as an industry is that if you think of a designer as a type of artist, their medium – where they do their art – is actually the behaviour of the users. In other words, a good designer creates behaviours.” In this light, observing users’ behaviour isn’t just a nice thing to do: it’s at the very core of design. And Spool is horrified by the notion that you should consider contracting this user research out to a third party. “If you let somebody else watch on your behalf, it’s like letting somebody else take your vacation for you,” he retorts.

“It’s vital that you observe your users yourself,” Spool argues. “If you just get this error report that says ‘The user tried to do this’, your first reaction is: ‘Well, why would anyone try to do that?’ But when you actually sit there and you meet the guy and interact with him, you think: ‘Ah! This guy’s pretty sharp.’ And then you watch him, and you see behaviours you didn’t expect to see.

“For example, I was researching a piece of enterprise software. This is a multi-hundred-million dollar business that’s been around for 10 years successfully. Yet nobody on the development team had seen someone actually use the software.

“The first guy we watched was a district sales manager. And he couldn’t figure out how to go back to the main menu. So he had to sign out of the app and sign back in again.

“He did that a dozen times. And it was only when we saw this guy – who we all really liked and thought, ‘Yeah that’s exactly the kind of customer we want’ – that we went: ‘Hmmm, maybe the design is broken.’ It was a problem that was easily fixed, but no one had even known it was an issue.”

Passion for usability

Aside from running UIE, which he founded in 1988, Spool has written a number of books on usability, speaks at more than 20 conferences per year, organises the annual UI Conference and Web App Masters Tour and curates the UIE Virtual Seminars, a monthly series of videos from leading UX experts. He’s so passionate about usability that his company doesn’t just have a five- year plan: it has a (wait for it) 100-year plan.

Our 100-year mission is this: we want to get rid of all of the bad design in the worldJared Spool

“Our 100-year mission is this: we want to get rid of all of the bad design in the world,” Spool explains. “At this point we know almost all there is to know about great design. And it’s possible that we’re close to knowing how to do that consistently: that’s what our research is about. But what we don’t know is how to get all the designers in the world to always make the right decisions and do great designs – so that no one has to deal with bad design any more.

“So that’s our 100-year mission, to figure it out. It occurred to us that this would take a really long time, so that’s how long we’ve given ourselves. It’s an interesting challenge, because I’ve had to build a company that’s going to keep working on these problems long after I’m gone.”