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A Few Good Men

A Few Good Tests

I watched A Few Good Men again recently and a quote sparked my thoughts on User Experience. As most things do. Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) says “I represent the government of the United States without passion or prejudice.”

Sure, this is how you want your lawyers to think. But this is also how good UX researchers and designers should treat design – without passion or prejudice. It’s obvious that a researcher should be objective about the design they’re testing but should a designer not be passionate? It’s great to have passion but not if it adversely affects usability or business goals. Design trends, such as the initial rush to flat design show, can negatively impact business as design decisions are made without testing with users. And as I may have mentioned once or twice over the years, if you don’t involve the user – it’s not user experience.

The problem frequently occurs when a hero designer is hired with the expectation of creating a functional, usable and aesthetic solution first time. That’s a lot of pressure and if that’s the expectation in the organisation then it may not be easy to put up your hand early on to ask which of these designs work better before continuing. This forces the designer to put great effort into one design which makes it harder to change later due to emotional commitment and the cognitive dissonance involved in accepting it’s not working well. Changing a finished digital product typically costs two orders of magnitude more than changing a design so from a business perspective it’s best to catch usability issues early.

All you need is a few good tests (groan – but you knew it was coming). Testing designs with about six users per user group can unearth 80% of issues with a design. It doesn’t require expensive labs with one way mirrors or eye-tracking hardware just simply watch and record representative people using your designs while they tell you what they’re doing. Iterate. Test again.

It’s quite trite (even for me!) but the most famous quote, “You can’t handle the truth!”, is often the reason designers, developers and product managers will avoid usability testing. But it’s better business to test designs early and then be as passionate as you like about the detail of the one that works best for your users.

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Break Step

When to break step

There are basic design principles that you should stick to and there are some design elements you should never use. Right?

Design Patterns are recurring solutions that solve common design problems. For example, most online retailers use a design pattern that shows the product with a short description while giving the option to view more detail or buy now. Many academic sites tend to order their information in similar ways as their users are used to that style of site which, hopefully, was designed to reflect their understanding of that domain. When we drill down to the individual elements on a page, design patterns may determine certain principles such as the position of a search box at the top of a page or the placement of a privacy policy in the page footer. The patterns vary according to whom the site is targeted such as having navigation along the top (most people) or the side (engineers) of the page.

Similarly, there are principles that evolve where we learn what not to do. For example, there are many studies that show that users hate scrolling sideways. So does that mean we should never allow it? Should we redesign legacy systems that employ horizontal scrolling to eliminate it? Well, if it was a website for a mass audience then we most likely should. But, and this is the heart of user-centred design, if we were designing for a niche financial audience for whom Excel is second nature, then probably not.

But what if the customer was the Excel expert but the software will be used by an assistant not so familiar with Excel...

Ideally, we would perform usability tests on prototypes of both types of system with the actual users to find out which is more efficient and which they prefer before making the design decision. People vary greatly between groups so what is good for the goose might not be good for the gander.

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