When you design a user experience for you

by Les James on March 28, 2011

in Design

Do you remember Microsoft’s Zune? One of the features was that you could share the music on your Zune with people around you. The only problem is that no one around you owns a Zune so the feature was worthless. I bet the idea was cool in the Microsoft offices though and since they thought it was cool then the public will surely think it’s a great feature too right?

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The tech community was buzzing last week with the release of Color, an app that lets people share pictures from events they attend together. This app is just another fish in a sea of photo sharing apps but the reason it got noticed was the creators managed to raise 41 million in venture funding. That kind of press prompted the tech community to download the app and give it a whirl. So after you install the it, tell it your name and take a photo of yourself there is nothing left to do. Seriously nothing. For the app to be effective you need to find someone else within 150 feet of you that has the app running as well. Since no one around you is using the app it got a flood of one star reviews on iTunes. What did the creators think? Did they think everyone and their Mom was going to download the app and start taking pictures together like we’re at a college keg party?

When ideas for these kinds of apps come around I think the creators get all excited in the fact that because they think it’s cool everyone else will think it’s cool too. When I was all into Gowalla I thought it was awesome so I tried to get a couple of my close friends using the app too. Almost all of them thought it was pretty dumb so eventually my enthusiasm for location based sharing fizzled out.

There is no shortage of ideas for apps, everyone has a couple tucked away in some secret vault that we can’t share because someone might steal it. What we won’t admit to ourselves is that these ideas are only valuable to us and if we got a chance to build our dream app the chances of everyone thinking it’s as cool as you are slim to none. Wannabe innovators think they know what people want but usually end up making something that only they want. It takes a true visionary to create something special but those people are rare. Adding to the problem of creating is that the people we are trying to appeal to often don’t know what they want.

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

“If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

We think we know what users want, in fact there are job titles dedicated to being an expert on what users want, but I’ve met very few User Experience gurus that really do get it. When we try to understand the user we often only end up making assumptions and guesses. We rarely take the time to understand problems the actual user has or if there’s even a problem at all to be solved. The mistake of designing for yourself and not your audience is an easy one to make. I’ve done it plenty of times. What I often convince myself of is that because a design works for me it should work for everyone else too. When I do get a chance to see a real person (real meaning not in the tech industry) use my design it’s often a painful experience. Things that seem so obvious and intuitive to me are just that, only obvious and intuitive to me. When I really want to give my design a real crash test I get my Mom to use it. I learn real quick how unintuitive my design actually is.

So how do we design for the end user? We can start by…

  1. Stop making assumptions about what the user thinks. You are not a user and you can’t pretend to think like one.
  2. Stop designing for problems that don’t exist. Chasing the latest and greatest is easy to get wrapped up in. When we do this we ignore the real problems at hand and end up inventing solutions to problems that weren’t even there.
  3. Stop designing for yourself. Designing for the end user sounds like a no brainer but our personal agendas always seem to find their way into a design.

I can’t help but wonder what would have been different had the creators of Color tested their app outside their office with a blank slate and no one else around. Did they try focus groups? Did they ever stop to think about what the end user is really going to get out of using the app? It sounds to me like they made a lot of assumptions about user behavior and designed a solution for a problem that didn’t exist.

[Update] So the founder of Color Bill Nguyen says that the app is misunderstood, it’s not about photo sharing but collecting and analyzing massive amounts of data. Oh good, because that’s just what I needed in my life, more people analyzing everything I do. Please Bill, let me put time and energy into your app so that you can figure out how to make money off of me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this kind of app and honestly I would have beat you to it had I tripped over 41 million dollars.

We designers talk a big game when it comes to designing for the user, but I feel like that’s all it is, talk. Lets try to make a conscious effort to put some real hard work into designing a better user experience. Yes, it takes time and money to get a true understanding of what users want, but the effort will pay off in the form of a design that’s not only more intuitive but a better experience. And thats what we should really be designing, not a shiny UI or trendy color pallet but a better experience and that starts when we stop making assumptions.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgan Siem March 28, 2011 at 10:44 am

You’re dead on that “There is no shortage of ideas for apps.” The problem is that many of these apps are developed without a strategy. A lot of the app developers don’t have a sense of the big picture. What’s the value proposition for the user? What problem does the app solve?

Many times clients come to us wanting to build a mobile app. Why? Because their competitor did. As a user, that’s not a compelling reason for me to download your app and use it on a regular basis.

You’ve got a valuable app when you can answer the question, why does your customer NEED it or at least really, really, really want it?

Great post, Les.


Rachel Nabors March 28, 2011 at 10:48 am

You know the saying, “We despise most in others what we hate about ourselves?” For all we web designers wail and moan about arbitrary design decisions that results in poor user experience, we often end up so carried away in our own “brilliance” that we don’t notice our arbitrary decisions. But they don’t feel arbitrary because our intuition “justifies” our actions and assumptions for us.

It reminds me of a Tiny Toons episode where all the characters write and produce their own movie. They throw out the director and the editors because they want to do it “right.” During the creative process, one of our protagonists can’t stop exclaiming, “This. Is. So. BRILLIANT!” Then opening night comes and everyone leaves the theater laughing, much to the humiliation of our trio of would-be creative geniuses.

Humility is worth cultivating. Proud people assume they know already. Humble people want to know more. Who do you think ends up further along in the long run?


Michael Hubbard Michael Hubbard March 28, 2011 at 11:41 am

So I always agree with an ending that says let’s design with a higher purpose, but that being said, my media-driven mind was still stuck on the first couple paragraphs that said “cool apps – but nobody uses them”. We have no idea of what their strategy was in developing the apps, so I always find it short sighted when people take shots at others strategies, but what if the $41 million weren’t used on development and rather it was all used on marketing to the consumer. Again – full disclaimer – I have no idea if Color used their money for development or marketing, but let’s say this is an app that could have mass appeal. That means buying search terms would be relatively cheap, and display could be run via DSP and RTB – making attaining visitors relatively inexpensive. For easy math, we’ll assume we could get 2 visitors per every $1 spent. That would generate 82 million visitors. Let’s also say that 10% are interested and download the app. Now you’ve got 8,200,000 people with the app. Assuming they are all like Les, and force 2 of their friends to use the app, you’re now at 24 million… And again, you can start making assumptions on pass along of those people. So the question now becomes, what is the critical mass needed? To me, at 24 million – you should be able to start crossing paths with other Color users.

Again – it’s easy to be a back seat driver, but to me, I say keep developing the kick-ass apps, just figure out how you’re going to market them… And if you’ve got $41 million – you shouldn’t have any issue making this a trending app rather one that is misunderstood by the masses.


Les James Les James March 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

You’re right, I don’t know what their strategy is or how they plan to market the app. According to the interview I linked to their goal is to analyze peoples photos to come up with some kind of real time news reporting. My point is that creating a positive first impression of the app was completely ignored in this case. In a market where you don’t have a chance to make a second impression this was a huge oversight by the developers. If they don’t fix the the first run experience or make it clear to the end user why using this app is going to be valuable then no amount of marketing is going to save this app.


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