Tommi Moilanen // November 28 2017

Involving Users in the Design Process

“I get it but I’m not sure everyone will.” I heard a variation of this comment some time ago from a user I was receiving design feedback from. It is a valid concern and a completely understandable comment to make. I’ve thought about something like that myself, usually when I figure out something that is not overly explained or if I encounter some particularly clever solution.

There is a kind of joy in figuring things out on your own. The reaction can be anything from “this product is made for me since I get it” to “oh, that is kind of clever” to “yeah, that’s what this probably means”. Then after a while you’ll learn that, yeah, that’s what it was, no big deal.

As a piece of design feedback it is an interesting one since it appears to indicate that something should be changed but actually it just validated the design. Design is tested with multiple people precisely so that everybody can represent themselves. Test subjects are usually selected to cover the basic user types.

How people actually interact with the product or prototype can also be different from what they say. Actions beat words every time. The person conducting the user testing can sum up all the findings so they can see if multiple people had the same problems or made similar comments. If multiple people make comments along these lines but nobody actually had any problems using the product or feature it can be considered a pretty good outcome.

Good design gets rid off unnecessary clutter and gets to the essence of the product. Downright shitty design solutions usually get more critical feedback and general confusion from the users. This reaction mentioned in the beginning of this post is elicited from solutions that have a point of view and have already taken all the unnecessary elements away. They make you wonder did the designer go one step too far.

Design should always be understood in its context. The journey the user takes and the flow of different steps along the way either comfort or confuse the user. If the whole experience makes sense you don’t need to overly explain things in every step. If the user gets confused or agitated along the way because of design that does not make sense you need to do more convincing later on to restore the trust. This importance of contextual understanding applies both to the actual design work as well as to the user testing phase. If the design work gets chopped into too little pieces this bigger picture view is lost to the detriment of the design and its intended users.

I still remember the first iPhone I bought almost ten years ago. I took me months to figure out that you can tap the top of the screen to scroll a long web page back to the top. When I finally figured this out, instead of wondering why they didn’t explain this in the non-existent user manual my reaction was delight that they had considered even a detail like this one. I managed without this knowledge because the basics were covered so well, scrolling the big touch screen up and down felt so novel anyway that I didn’t mind doing it at first.

Everybody doesn’t have to get everything at the instant they encounter a new product (unless we are talking about ticket machines). They should grasp the basics though. That is the foundation that everything else is build upon.

Involving users generally leads to better designed products. In addition to user testing that happens when there is already something tangible to test, users or intended users can have some valuable point of views and ideas to be heard before any design work has been done. Hearing out wishes or frustrations with the current products and services can be a good kick start to a design project.

What happens between this initial idea gathering and testing of the prototypes later on is where professional designers take the lead. Users can have great improvement ideas or feature requests but it is not their job to think how these individual ideas fit in with the bigger picture, business objectives or how technically challenging or feasible they are to execute.

I guess I’m trying to say that the myth of a star designer that pulls designs out of their ass is not true. That was mostly a misunderstanding of the design process anyway or lack of understanding that there is a process in the first place. Good design is born from collaboration between business, technology and design with an important input from actual users. You shouldn’t go overboard either and think that users can dictate what your design should be and do the job of the designer.

Research informs the designer, not the design.

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