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The User Is Not You: Where Do I Start?

The user is not you. It’s a mantra we hear everywhere in User Experience and software design circles. But what does it really mean, and how can those of us without formal UX training bring its principles into our work?

There are a few useful starting points for thinking about how users – whether they are people you know personally or a wider swath of the unknown public – will approach your software differently than you would yourself.

Computer and Software Skill Level

By definition, as someone working in software, you know more about using software and computers than most people. And just how much more you know might shock you, at this late date of 2020 with online everything and smartphones in nearly every hand.

The Nielsen Norman Group did a formal study to quantify the distribution of computing skills among users, which makes interesting brief reading. Bottom line: “If you think something is easy, or that ‘surely people can do this simple thing on our website,’ then you may very well be wrong.”

Previous Experiences and Diversity

Where did you grow up? How much money did your family have? What kind of education did you go through? Have you ever changed careers? Do you have a long-running hobby? Do you like to travel?

All the experiences of our lives help us bring different perspectives to our work. Often the combination of things that makes us US is why we are good at our jobs. But the person using your software has a different combination of experiences and may have very different needs. They might be so different you can’t even imagine them right away.

This short article about tech ethicist Nancy Douyon starts with an example of Uber starting to extend into countries outside the U.S. Nancy’s task was to identify user interface changes that might be needed. What she found was that in some countries, credit cards are scarce, and in some countries, there’s no security code on the cards at all. Uber’s standard user interface would have been dead in the water under those conditions.

“Designing for edge cases often yields greater innovation for all.” Adapting Uber’s app to support the use of cash allowed them to expand globally, but also may have expanded their user population domestically, to enable Americans who lack a credit card to access the service.

Your users are people, not just task-performers, and knowing about their goals, skills, and resources as whole people helps you meet their goals as they perform tasks with your software. But you don’t know which details are going to be relevant until they’re relevant. Learning as much as you can about the people you’re building software for is just good sense. Cultivating that curiosity about everyone, near and far, will serve you well in designing interfaces.

Time Runs Only One Way: Accessibility

You’re not the user, sure, but we are all human. Lots of our past experiences are ones we share with many other people. Everyone has a few memories of being a child or a teenager. But you definitely DON’T have the experience of being any older than you are today.

We all have eyes and ears and so forth, but maybe they don’t work the same way for all of us. And I can tell you from the perspective of advancing middle age that it’s HARD to imagine the changes of age ahead of time. Accounting for accessibility challenges can yield products that better serve all of us.

“Almost anything that will help the elderly population will end up helping everyone,” as this Fast Company article from UX elder statesman Don Norman reminds us.

(From the bio on this article: “Aside from being old, Don Norman is a leading authority on the design of emotional pleasing and useable technology. He is the author of Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design, a former vice president at Apple, and professor and director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego.”)

Older people might have declining vision, but young folks use their phones in bright sunshine sometimes and could use vision-enhancing features too. Older people might struggle to balance packages as they walk through a door, but so too might a young parent with a baby in one arm and a sack of groceries in the other. And remember that article from earlier about how 95% of people aren’t as good at using computers as you are? Great-grandma might not be the quickest at using your software, but perhaps the harried 30-year-old fielding ten phone calls while trying to use your software could use the same assistance.

Next Steps for Your Software

It’s always best if you can connect directly with a group of users and learn what they need specifically. Do as much UX research and testing as you can. But just keeping these few principles in mind will take you far in designing products that work well for as many users as possible:

  • Most people need guidance to use a computer effectively.
  • Learn details about many kinds of people and places to put software in context.
  • Consider accessibility needs.

Do you need an objective review of your software UX? Our team may be able to help. Contact us to set up a call.

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