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Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Good Designs Starts with the User

As designers, we want to make something unique, something that stands out, catches the eye. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. We want to prove to the world how great we are. It can be difficult to design something that’s been done a thousand times before. It’s tempting to redo it completely, presenting the design as a fresh take on an old idea. I get it. What we have to remember, though, is that good design is not about the designer. Good design is judged by those who use it. And they have practical measurements in mind when they reflect on their experience.

Did I get the job done?

wooden wagon wheel in grass with dandelions in front of vegetation

Help them get that job done by focusing on the product and having a good understanding of how your users will judge its success.

Know the Task

I’ve written previously that you cannot design without understanding the context of the product. You have to dig into the various tasks you wish to enable via your product.

  • What are the prerequisites?
  • What are the steps?
  • What is the happy path?
  • What are all of the ways things can go wrong?
  • What are the outputs at the end of the task?

The answers to these questions are the skeleton upon which you will build the interface.

Know the Users’ Expectations

The key to a good design is how well your product maps to how your target audience sees the world. Your users will arrive at your product with an idea of how to use it; either because it is something they’ve done before or similarity to past experiences.

I’m generally not a fan of focus groups. What people say can and does vary greatly from what they will do. What can be useful, however, is sussing out their expectations and what they think are comparable activities. Knowing how your target audience defines success is critical to good design.

While you should be leery of what your users say about how they might behave in a specific situation, you should sit up and take notice when they express an emotion about that situation. Dig deeper to learn the source of that emotion. Frequently, this can be:

  • The inability to execute the task because they don’t have the necessary information.
  • Not knowing how long the task will take, or the length of time has already surpassed what was expected and they’re not done yet.
  • The reward for completion of the task is less than what they believe they deserve.

Translate Those Expectations

Your job as a designer is to define those expectations in a way that can be used in the design of your product and the evaluation of its performance.

Any new design is, ultimately, a guess, even if an educated one. As the designer, you want to test whether your guess was a good one. Your design should be a hypothesis that expresses your understanding of the users’ world. Then define the metrics you will need to test that hypothesis through usage and outcomes.

Those metrics are an integral part of your hypothesis. In addition to defining what to gather, you should also make an educated guess as to what good and bad measurements might look like.

We expect 85% of the people who begin the registration process will complete it.

You’re drawing a line in the sand here. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just in the ballpark as you currently understand it. The goal is to be clear what your expectations are in order to evaluate the effectiveness of your understanding of the users’ world.

Verify Your Understanding

Once you’ve gathered enough metrics to draw a reasonable conclusion, revisit your hypothesis. In the above example, given what we now know after a period of real-world usage, does the fact that only 75% of the people completed the registration process mean we failed? Maybe we were overconfident? Maybe too many people started the registration process who shouldn’t have?

And, yes, you will evaluate how well your design works at this stage. Are people leaving before attaining the goals you’ve laid out for them? Are they achieving those goals, but not in the way you envisioned?

Changes to your design at this stage does not mean you have failed. It means you have learned new information that helps you better understand the current universe in which your product operates. As you update your design, make sure you update the metrics you gather and your expected outcomes. That is, tweak your hypothesis.

Design is never done until the product itself is done. The world constantly changes. New people start using your product. Your current customers become experienced in its use. New competitors arise, while others fall by the wayside.

Be sure you document your lessons learned, keep your metrics and expectations up to date, and get ready for the next round.

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