Almost two decades after the release of Don Norman’s landmark book Psychology of Everyday Things, I still find many designers are simply unwilling or unable to understand that the way they designed a product made it difficult for people to use it. Typical reactions of designers and product managers to usability problems involve some variation of:
- “Test users are stupid.”
- “Real users don’t mind complex designs.”
- “Some people are too stupid to serve.”
Predictably, this kind of thinking universally produces products that are confusing, hard to use, and are constant sources of frustration and wasted time. Edward Tufte has spoken eloquently about the need for clarity and simplicity.
“Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite of simple-mindedness. ... The operating moral premise of information design should be that our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid.”—Edward Tufte
Contrasting the Concepts of Users and Experience Partners
The concept of experience partners does not refer to a new human/computer interaction (HCI) methodology. Rather, it is a new way of thinking about our customers—as partners sharing an experience within a global community. We need new terminology to achieve this change in perspectives, because the term users:
- implies convenience for computers comes before convenience for people
- reflects a mindset that blames a person using a product for errors
- implies busy work
- causes featuritis
- carries a lot of baggage that traditional HCI techniques cannot overcome
- leads to sloppy design thinking
- does not reflect the emerging paradigm of a human-to-human digital community
On the other hand, the term experience partners and related terms like partner experience design and partner-centered design reflect a focus on creating holistic product experiences that employ the best environmental options available, delight our customers, and enrich people’s lives. Experience-partner design thinking:
- re-enforces the idea that design serves an on-going human-to-human partnership between the designer and the customer, working toward common goals
- moves our focus beyond features to the larger holistic product experience
- embraces the larger concept of a partnership—recognizing the fact that the only way modern companies can succeed is by helping their customers to succeed in achieving their own goals
- takes into the account the environment in which the customer experiences interactions
- emphasizes human-to-human relationships, with the goal of using technology to create a global digital community
In the following sections, I’ll explain why the idea of a user is a dying metaphor and why we need to invent new terms like experience partner to fully embrace the paradigm shift in our thinking about the people who use our products.
Putting People First
The term user implies convenience for computers comes before convenience for people. One consequence of this is blaming a person who uses a product for any errors.
Engineers who built early computer systems employed the term user to differentiate the people who use a system on a daily basis from the clients or managers who defined a product’s features and business rules and paid the bills. Thus, from the start, engineers were concerned primarily with pleasing their clients and were completely uninterested in things like usability, long-term customer loyalty, and tailored experiences. Today, for many modern companies like Yahoo! and Amazon, clients and users are essentially one and the same. Unfortunately, for many designers and engineers, the old term user still carries a great deal of negative baggage and implies entities who have no input into the design of a product. Business rules and back-end efficiency are still the primary focus of many modern design efforts.
“…current interfaces illustrate how many computer scientists are biased toward efficiency with technological resources rather than human attention; or to put it bluntly, toward convenience for computers before convenience for people.”—Malcolm McCullough, in Digital Ground, 2004
In contrast to the old term users, the term experience partners places our focus above all on the convenience of customers—on creating products that speak their language. Thus, the term experience partners emphasizes a holistic approach to design and expands designers’ thinking to encompass everything experience partners see and touch, including interactions, visual elements, content, customer service, product delivery, packaging, and brand. When Philips adopted the concept of Sense and Simplicity, one of the first things they redesigned was the box their televisions came in. This is just one example of how using the power of experience-partner design thinking can create an exceptional total experience by removing all barriers to a person’s having the best possible first experience with a product.
In most cases, the old user world-view concerns itself solely with efficiency and features, completely disregarding the effectiveness of the human operator, empathy with that person, and the importance of a product’s desirability to customers.
“The focus is on things other than the essence of the actual people that will use the products … the intentional attempt to satisfy people’s internal needs and desires simply isn’t there.”—Dirk Knemeyer
However, people’s real-world experience with simple, experience-centric consumer products like the iPod has shown that only by redesigning the workflows that bring machine and human together as partners can we achieve the efficiency gains the computer age has promised. The same holds true for office automation systems. That is why we need a new concept like experience partners to help us think about our customers differently—as partners in interaction experiences. As Po Bronson has said, “Customer satisfaction in the meeting will be correlated to how much they get to speak.” The idea of experience partners reflects our need to engage customers early and continuously throughout product design and development.
“If they are not involved in the process, they are hardly likely to approve the product. It’s that simple.”—Roger Fisher
We also need the term experience partners to reflect the reality that many modern companies share liability, financial resources, responsibility, and ultimately, success with their customers. This is so, because many companies no longer produce products in the traditional sense, but instead provide virtual services—like Facebook—to which many customers contribute content. Therefore, they are dependent on the good will and success of the people who are actually using their products rather than on some third-party client. Customers decide to become part of a service, pay the bills, and tell others about it, so they too will become customers. The term users does not begin to reflect the realities of this kind of customer relationship—the term experience partners fits much better. However, this is a new breed of partner—in a relationship that is both voluntary and potentially transitory, because even your best experience partners will leave your for your competitor if you don’t take care to provide the best possible experience for them.
“Why is it that the only humans who seemingly make errors are the people who are trying to use the product? … why not point the finger at all the other people that had a hand in the situation: programmers, designers, product managers, and quality testers? Whose human error is it anyway?”—Whitney Quesenbery
Changing our thinking to adopt the concept of experience partners emphasizes the realities that human beings on both sides of the design divide are fallible, and there is no such thing as a perfect system. We need to think of the designer/customer relationship as an ongoing conversation—a long-term partnership to which both sides must contribute to create a better experience. Experience-partner design thinking implies that both human and machine mistakes are at times unavoidable, so we must integrate error-handling into a product in ways that create learning experiences. Failure is no longer a separate, undesirable outcome of the experience of using a product. Instead, making errors is an integral, harmonious part of a customer’s discovery and exploration of a product. For example, the “Did you mean…” feature on Google and the related products features on Amazon and many other ecommerce sites complement the search experience—in the event a search engine does not give the exact results an experience partner desires.
Technology Serving the People Who Use It
The term user implies a mindset that tolerates busywork for people, results in featuritis, and pushes technology to the center stage.
Wikipedia identifies users as “the class of people that uses a system without complete technical expertise required to fully understand the system.”
Neal Stephenson compares “technically unsophisticated computer users” to the Eloi, a futuristic race of cosseted, non-technological beings who were completely dependent on their keepers, the technology-wielding, underground race of Morlocks who raised them as a food source in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. According to Stephenson, the Morlocks represent the designer overclass.
This telling metaphor precisely reflects the current dysfunctional nature of the relationship between users and designers. The term users is a generalization designers have employed to describe those who perform all sorts of work that is not very technical. Programmers program and designers design; the rest—the Eloi—use data or information systems in a rather limited way to do some stuff—whatever users can do with all those nifty features programmers programmed and designers designed—including many features that, as it turns out, almost no one actually uses.
“If you are like me, and like most other consumers, you have never used ninety percent of the available features on your microwave oven, VCR, or cell phone. You don’t even know that these features exist. The small benefit they might bring you is outweighed by the sheer hassle of having to learn about them.”—Neal Stephenson
Featuritis, an emphasis on adding more features to the detriment of other design goals, is one consequence of using a sloppy and imprecise word like users to describe the assorted roles and goals of knowledge workers. This imprecision implies that users will be forced to muddle through their tasks, using whatever features programmers and designers throw at them, rather than their creating a true man/machine partnership with the aim of achieving a specific, well-defined goal. More, in the context of the idea of users, means “more features for users to use” and that is exactly the basis on which many companies choose to compete.
In sharp contrast to feature-leaden monstrosities, the best products and Web applications focus first on simplicity and ease of use. For example, as a result of its simple, yet sophisticated design, no one talks in terms of using Google—you just google it or find it.
“Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple; it’s elegant; you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open—and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”—Marissa Mayer
The best technology is transparent and simple—providing the ultimate sophistication, efficiency, and desirability. As Milton Glaser has said, “just enough is more.”
The best and most sophisticated technology operates in the background to achieve a desired outcome as if by magic. With the best technology, we don’t talk in terms of “using the keypad to dial the telephone” or “using the steering wheel and pedals to drive.” Instead, we talk in terms of our goals and desired outcomes like this: “I called Jim to let him know our plans.” “I drove to work today.”
“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”—Antoine de Saint Exupery
The concept of experience partner encourages our thinking about design in terms of customer goals, because we are invited to treat our customers as partners in creating the product experience. Speaking in terms of experience partners naturally leads us to ask, “What is our partner trying to do?” Then, we can focus on enabling the desired outcome in the easiest, most fun way possible. For example, instead of talking about which address-book features our users would prefer to use, we can focus our efforts on helping an experience partner quickly call his boss.