Data Driven Design

By Pragmatic Institute August 10, 2007

It is generally believed that “easy-to-use” and “powerful” are contradictions in design. “My mom should be able to use it” translates into making an easy interface while “I want absolute control over the placement of items in my document” requires a powerful interface. The cash register at the local fast food restaurant is a Fisher-Price® user interface: “just touch the picture of the food you want.”

It’s as if “Easy” and “Powerful” are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

It feels true. I often invite my peers to check out the desktop and My Documents folder on their family member’s computers. Clearly, few in your family understand folders and hierarchal filing. There was a hue and cry a year ago when Microsoft leaked that they planned to remove Windows Explorer in Vista (then project “Longhorn”). The power users freaked! And yet, the idea is sound. A great user interface shouldn’t require the user to understand the data model and that’s exactly what Explorer does. But power users do understand the data model and didn’t want to be penalized. An ideal solution would be to return to Windows Home and Windows Professional. If you want Explorer, buy the Professional Edition; if you don’t know what Explorer is, you should buy the Home edition. Yet I doubt that this is the approach that Microsoft will take.

Meanwhile, the Microsoft Office team has developed a new user interaction design that they hope will meet the broad range of needs for novices, proficient, and power users. Quite a challenge, don’t you think? Microsoft has posted this video introducing their new design for Office products. In particular, they are expanding the tabs concept to become contextual menu items called “ribbons.” Clicking on an object introduces a new menu with appropriate controls. For instance, clicking on a picture will add a new menu with all the picture controls in it.

Jensen Harris is blogging on the rationale behind their decisions. In particular, read this post on Customer Experience Improvement Program and how the data drives the team’s design decisions. The stats reveal the most commonly used commands in Word are Paste, Save, Copy, Undo, and Bold.

Jensen comments:

What we didn't know until we analyzed the data was that even though so many people do use CTRL+V and do use 'Paste' on the context menu, the toolbar button for Paste still gets clicked more than any other button. The command is so incredibly popular that even though there are more efficient ways of using it, many people do prefer to click the toolbar button.

When changing user interaction elements, developers often take a binary approach: “let’s put it here and remove it from there.” Why not have it both places if it makes sense to the customer? As a power user, I’m concerned about how this new Office design will impact my productivity. Yet I also find that I spend a lot of time looking for a command that I know exists somewhere. Microsoft has taken opinions out of the equation by examining what people actually do.

Good design begins with a deep understanding of the customer and her goals. In a recent meeting, a development team was discussing the merits of putting dozens and hundreds of items in the menu bar. Their suggestion was to remove the menu bar entirely if the item count exceeded some arbitrary amount. Instead, the designer suggested that they give the option to the customer: choose which items should be displayed and pick others from a drop-down. Articulating a typical use scenario made the design choice obvious.

What are you doing to capture the customer experience? Few vendors have implemented a customer experience improvement program like Microsoft has done. Absent this type of program—and even with it—product managers need to watch people use their products.

Watch your family members use Word and you’ll see what Microsoft’s data reveal: novice and even proficient users are overwhelmed by Word and its myriad options. How often do they click and select text that is already selected? How often do they click the undo button or menu item instead of pressing Ctrl-Z?

Watch your customers. They rarely use the coolest features and probably love the dumb ones. Watch what they do, not what they say they do! They repeatedly solve their problems in a roundabout way instead of the direct way—because the direct way requires a deeper understanding of how the product works or how the data is stored.

Watching your customers reveals requirements that no one thinks to mention.

For more on understanding customers, attend Pragmatic Institute's Foundations.

Categories: Requirements Working with Development
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