Robert Hoekman, Jr on understanding the user

He’s the author of Designing the Obvious, a prolific speaker and the founder of user experience collective Miskeeto.com. Robert Hoekman, Jr talks to Tom May about how to understand the user

This article first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue (#218) of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

.net: How do you get into a user’s mind?
RH: There are few different ways. One of them is metrics: you can learn a lot about human behaviour by looking at the factual numbers of what they’re doing. Another way is through usability testing. When you watch people first-hand performing tasks within a website or application, you tend to learn a ridiculous amount of information about how people think and how they make decisions. A third way, which is becoming increasingly important for me, is by studying psychology: user decision-making processes; how people make buying decisions; how to market to people. There are all sorts of research papers about how people act and why, and they can provide some incredible insights. So between psychology, metrics and usability testing you build a sixth sense about it, almost.

.net: Really, a sixth sense?
RH: Sure. Earlier in my career I was involved in a particular project where I literally worked on about 300 hours’ worth of usability testing in a single project in two months. And it changed me. Since then I’ve learned that when people stare at a computer screen they’re not seeing the hierarchy that went into it, they’re not seeing the functionality: all they understand is what they see in front of them. And if that’s not understandable, they’re done.

One you’ve watched that happen enough times, you really start to understand the way people think. And you start talking clients out of everything (!) and trying to find the most understandable ways to handle any interactions.

.net: Is that becoming more prevalent?
RH: Definitely. Five to 10 years ago, user experience was still kind of an obscure term, even within design circles, but now it’s got a lot of steam behind it. Consumers are using the term more freely, and because of that companies are starting to focus more and more on it.

Over the past few years a lot of sites and apps have become much simpler. So instead of being a jack-of-all-trades application where you might be able to do 27 things and it’s all-encompassing, most applications will be focused on a very narrow set of tasks. Like on Flickr you can share photos, and there are a bunch of tasks that are associated with that, but it’s basically about one thing.

.net: Is that trend likely to continue?
RH: Actually, over the next few years I expect it to swing the other way a bit. We’ll have got so good at making things incredibly simple that the next task will be about better integration. That’s happening now with APIs: everybody’s releasing an API right now so that third parties can make stuff and latch services together. So I think the next few years will be much more about integrating those narrowscope services.

.net: One of the design principles in your book is “take out anything that’s sexy and cool”. Does that stand in opposition to emotional design?
RH: What I was getting at in my book was sort of that Ernest Hemingway mindset: write the story, take out all the good lines and see if it still works. In other words, once you get down to the very utilitarian aspects of a design, where it’s really functional and usable and people can understand it, it should still work. You have to make sure that the best lines aren’t just the really cool, sexy things: the best lines are what’s left.

So apps need to be usable – but they need to be usable in a way that drives you to take action. And a lot of that will come from setting the emotional tone. So if you’re designing an app well, you’re not just designing it to be usable: you’re designing it so you’ll drive people to do what you want them to do.

.net: Are web builders good at thinking like users?
RH: A lot of designers and developers are kind of stuck in a bubble and don’t spend enough time experiencing how people actually use websites. And every time they do so, they walk away from it totally shocked. It’s not necessarily that their mindset is in conflict with users’ needs; they are very interested in what users need. I just think they don’t have enough exposure to how people think and work. And when they can do that, they’ll be
able to design much more effectively.