Monday, 4 June 2018

User Centred Design - the New Marketting

Well, if one thought that studying Computer Science meant that you didn't have to worry about sales, marketing, or even networking, well unfortunately the world doesn't work like that. For instance, how do you think people like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and what not managed to reach the peak of their game - it didn't just involve them sitting in a dusty garage banging away at the keyboard (well, not entirely).

Anyway, moving beyond the corporate behemoths, we come to an aspect of Computer Science that is pretty quickly dominating the field. When I worked in the corporate world, getting people into roles to sell stuff was much more important than getting people to actually do the grunt work. Why do you think a lot of office jobs have moved overseas? They don't make money, but they certainly cost a lot of money.

So, if you have browsed the job websites you might have noticed that two jobs seem to dominate - UI and UX, which stands for User Interface and User Experience. This is basically the role of creating flashy websites that not only keep people there but keep them coming back. The reality these days is that you could have the most killer app, great website, or awesome program, but if nobody visits or uses it then, well, it is development money down the drain. As such, User Centered Design has become one of the core topics (and doesn't always deal with having to make things look pretty).

User Experience Job Ad

The problem is that the field is so new that there isn't really a consensus with regards to how it should be approached, though one of the leading figures is a chap named Jakob Neilsen (whom we will encounter again). A colleague of his is named David Norman, who came up with the concept of the Norman Door. That sounds odd, but it really does make sense. So, if you come to a door with a handle on it, what is your normal reaction? Well, if you said kick it in then you probably are not one of the majority of society because people really don't kick doors unless all else has failed (and it happens to be their door). No, if there is a handle. the automatic reaction is to pull on the handle, which causes problems when you are actually supposed to push it.


This is what User Centered Design is about, working on the principle that people should be able to intuitively use a product, or at least use it with the minimal amount of instructions required. In fact these instructions need to be clear and correct, because in reality people generally don't think, rather they act on instinct, and in many cases instincts will tend to overwhelm that which is rational. As such, when designing an app or a web page we really need to play into that instinctual behaviour. So, when designing a product we need to ask ourselves a number of questions:
  • How easy is it for the user to learn how to use the product?
  • Once the user has learned the product, how easy is it for the user to perform a basic task?
  • How well do the functions remain with the user when they don't use it for a period of time? Do they have to learn how to use it all over again, or does instinct take over?
  • If the user makes an error, how easy is it for the user to back track or delete that error?
  • Probably one of the most important aspects, and that is do the users actually want to use it?
  • Finally, is using the product actually fun, or is it a chore?

The User

In the end I guess the user is the most import part of the product, much the same as the customer. The thing is that without the user there really is no product. I guess it provides the answer to the age old question as to whether a tree that falls in the forest without anybody to hear it makes a sound? Well, of course it doesn't, because sounds only exist when there are entities to be able to perceive that sound (you know, physics and all). It is the same with products, because without users, or without customers, there is no product. So, the first thing we need to do is to identity the user of the product.

Now, here is an interesting video that pretty much defines what it is to mean to be able to interact with the user:


Yep, users are pretty much like cats. You simply cannot force them to do something that they do not want to do. Sure, you can goad them, or bribe them, or give them a pretty good incentive to perform a task, but if left to their own devices, it is pretty difficult, if not impossible, to get them to do something that they are not particularly interested in doing. So, when we come to looking at a product, whether it be one in development, or one already on the market, we need to identify the users.

Defining a user is pretty simple, namely it is anybody that will be gaining value from using the product. However, there is a catch, not all users are equal, this is why we need to separate them into user groups. Each of these users have different reasons for using the product, and different things that they use the product for. For instance, an employee that uses Microsoft Explorer at work because the IT department will not let them install Firefox is vastly different to the baby boomers who use Explorer because that is what the computer comes with, and they wouldn't know the first thing about Firefox, or even know it exists.

So, when identifying these users, we need to generate some characteristics. We have the personal ones, such as age, gender, and ethnicity. We then have their skills, and while these may not necessarily relate to skills in using a computer, when designing apps, these play a major role. For instance, a Youtube content creator is going to have a completely different skill set to, say, a 60 year old author that only uses a type writer, and is already a number of years late in releasing his next book and the TV series has already overtaken him. Then there is the software developer - they are going do have a vastly different skill set once again. However, while these users might not necessarily use the same product, they do highlight how skill sets change.

Finally there is the domain experience, which basically comes down to the actual aspect of the website. For instance, if we were to run a site that sells computer parts, to what extent are the users going to understand the technical jargon. What type of people are we wanting to attract, and are we going to cater for the novice user as opposed to the professional one. If we want to cater to both groups, maybe we need to have an aspect where a novice user can type in 'I want the best mouse', while the professional user can be much more specific in their search, such as 'An AMD Microprocessor with simultaneous multi-threading'.

Finding Stuff Out

Well, this is turning out longer than I thought, but I guess that's what happens when you try to cram two lectures into a single post. Anyway, once we have identified who the users are (usually through guess work), we then need to get feedback from them, and this is done through a multiple number of methods. I'm sure, while we have been surfing the Internet, we have had the occasional annoying pop-up which asks us what we think of the app? Well, that is the UX team attempting to get feedback from us. There are a number of other ways that they do this as well - through interviews, online surveys, actual surveys, and even analytics such as Google Analytics and the like. Mind you, I wouldn't be sticking to a single method, and I certainly wouldn't be using the analytics in, say, Blogger, because they really don't give you all the information that you need to know.


One thing you need to be aware of is noise, and that can even come from your skewed perception. For instance, what you perceive as useful, may not actually be useful. Another thing is that some analytical tools do not necessarily give proper feedback. For instance, the Blogger analytics say that this blog gets heaps of hits, however when I go over to Google Analytics, the information that I get is generally 'this blog is crap' and they immediately leave. Mind you, my post on the Bar Girls of Phuket seems to be particularly popular.

Blogger Analytics - Skewed
The Russians seem to really like this blog

This is one of the reasons why we have to separate user groups, because what one particular user tells us, such as a regular user that is pretty happy with everything, won't provide the same feedback as somebody who comes to the site, says 'this is crap' and immediately leaves. However, one key metric is that users really don't want to have to learn anything, and they don't want to have to remember anything. In a way what they want is plug and play, not like the old systems where to actually get something to work you had to install the correct device driver, and in fact when you get home you discover that there wasn't a device driver for your particular machine.

Mind you, we all need to take into account that sometimes you will get the odd one out. Sure, one person might say that he really likes the fact that Iron Maiden blares out over his speakers whenever he visits your site, but if everybody else hates it, well, you may want to ditch that. Hey, if you really want some Iron Maiden, well, there is always Youtube, and the embedded video below.


Look, you are also going to have some other things to deal with, such as the information overloader, who simply wants to tell you everything. or the control freak who gets incredibly pedantic. Then there is the devil's advocate who simply tries to pick apart every minor detail. While they can provide useful feedback, it is important that we don't get bogged down by them, Another thing is that while negativity may not be productive, and while receiving criticism is never fun, we need to embrace feedback, and remember that what we are trying to do is to develop something that everybody can enjoy.

So, finally, how many people should we survey. Well, the not particularly helpful answer is that it depends, and also who we are approaching. Once again, if we ask too many people then we just end up with information overload, however if we ask too few then we don't get enough data. Neilson suggests that 15 is the sweet spot when it comes to surveys, namely because he believes that this is where we are able to identify a bulk of the problems, and of course we are looking to get a balanced view across all of the user groups. Once again, if we ask too few, and not across a good range, then we are going to have the problem of not catching enough of the issues.

Creative Commons License

User Centred Design - the New Marketting by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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