By default, technology is very complicated and users are not. Leo Cherne is believed to have said that the “computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a force beyond calculation.”
Like me, you maybe had to read that a couple of times to appreciate its veracity – people have brilliant ideas and goals to accomplish, but they’re often slowed down by the limitations that come with being human. Enter technology to the frame. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes; it’s fast, accurate, and when designed right, it’s easy to use and it does what we tell it to do (for now).
But we know from experience that our relationship with technology isn’t always a happy marriage. How many times have you used a website and thought ‘why is it doing that?!’ Maybe you’ve found yourself:
- having to squint to read some copy because the nice colour scheme lacks sufficient contrast to read
- submitting an online form, only to have to start again from scratch when a single mistake resets all of the fields
- rage–clicking some text because, despite realising it’s not a responsive element, you absolutely know that it should be.
We’ve all had annoying experiences online, and sometimes we are left feeling stupid, angry and fed up. So, what can be done about this?
When we zoom out for a second, whose fault is it? Is it the user? The internet provider? The developer? Although the user is left feeling stupid, I propose that the root of the problem lies in the interface design. The interface is the critical bridge between humans and technology, and for a bridge to work, the design has to support all of its users. That means designers are ultimately responsible for finding out who those users are, what they need from technology, and what problems they might face when they use a design – before they use it.
Get out of your bubble
A few years back, the OECD published a paper on the ICT literacy of adult users representing 90 countries. Only 5% were categorised as ‘specialists’ – those who are able to complete a complicated task in the email client (Quintini, 2014). Here’s the takeaway: we assume that the rest of the population is able keep up with our iteration cycles and new feature releases, however we have to remind ourselves that, quite often, we are building products for the 95%. When we break away from our old mindset, we will immediately create better experiences for our users. This can only come by prioritising ease of use – also known as usability. Martijn Welie summarises this well when he says “we design for people and the systems we develop need to be usable by them” (2001).
A user–centred approach isn’t just good for users – it makes commercial sense too. Business owners should no longer see usability as an extra cost to their process. In order to gain a competitive advantage and improve sales, focusing on ease of use has two major benefits (Karat, 1994). Firstly, you get less user error and more productivity. Instead of struggling through the app, website or service, the user can spend more time focusing on getting their task done – ordering something online, sending a file to a friend or updating their details in their account. Secondly, support and training costs are lowered. Rather than firefighting software bugs and being inundated with customer phone calls, the role of the support team can evolve to focus more on creating better product experiences.
Remember, it’s never the user’s fault
Humans aren’t pre–programmed to use technology. The way an individual uses a product or service comes from a complex blend of their human nature and learned behaviours. We can’t judge a product by the ability of the end user – we can only judge it on how well it has been designed for the ability of that end user. That’s why at Fathom, any time we carry out a usability test, one of the first things we do is to reassure the participant that it’s the product we’re testing – not them. Our position is this: if the user needs our help, the design has failed.
When you’re thinking about the next iteration of your software or website, remember who you’re designing for. The vast majority of people aren’t digital specialists, but they can accomplish amazing things with technology when it is designed to work for them. Your users are humans, which means they can be slow, inaccurate – but brilliant.
Karat, C.–M. (1994). A business case approach to usability cost justification, in Cost–justifying usability, Randolph G. Bias and Deborah J. Mayhew (Eds.). Academic Press, Inc., Orlando, FL, USA (pp. 45–70).
Quintini, G. (2014). Skills at Work: How Skills and their Use Matter in the Labour Market, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers (No. 158), OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jz44fdfjm7j-en
Welie, Martijn. (2001). Task–Based User Interface Design. Retrieved from Research Gate.
Cover image attribution: Chakera, S. (image owner) The rope bridge at Carrick–a–Rede [digital image]. CC BY–SA 2.0. Retrieved from Wikimedia / Cropped and filtered from original.