Technology can help, of course. In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas L. Friedman wrote about the software that lets Wal-Mart stockpile building supplies near an area before a hurricane strikes. Of course, this requires that the people in charge have the information they need to make the decisions that set the supply chain in motion. Those managers may interact with software, but the end result is supplies on trucks, heading where people need them.
How does all this connect to a user experience professional? The crisis response to Katrina was a big disaster. A large, complex system of people, policies, and technology went publicly and horribly haywire. It’s worth thinking about. Smaller systems go wrong all the time for very much the same reason: in our rush to solve the technology challenges, it’s too easy to forget the people for whom we are, after all, creating these systems in the first place. And that reality is central to the premise behind this column.
Saying that people are the focus of user experience is stating the obvious, but when we are deeply engaged in our own work as user experience designers, it can be difficult to constantly remember to keep people at the center of design. For most of us, it’s hard not to get caught up in the skills and techniques that the technologies we work with require and even harder not to want to use technology to solve problems. But as user experience designers, we need to keep our eye on people. Unless you are working on a participatory design project, your users are at least one step away and out of sight can easily become out of mind.
In this column, I’ll explore how people and technology fit together and how this intersection succeeds or fails. When the fit is bad, it is often because products—and their designers—have failed either to
- anticipate and design for the complexity of users’ tasks
- understand the range of differences in people who will use a product
There are lots of examples of the first problem—evidence of how we get it wrong. A recent example comes from the Denver Airport, which is quietly mothballing its much-heralded computerized baggage-handling system to “put people back in charge.” One expert who has studied the sad-sack arc of baggage movement in Denver said that the designers had invested too much belief in the wizardry they thought was at their command. According to Richard de Neufville, an expert on civil engineering quoted in a New York Times article, “It wasn't the technology per se; it was a misplaced faith in it. The builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise.”
In her book Interaction Design for Complex Systems, Barbara Mirel looks at the process of understanding and designing for rich complexity. Along the way, she shares some case studies of projects that were less than successful, such as a clinical system that a hospital designed to reduce errors in giving patients their medications. Unfortunately, this system expected nurses, dealing with a busy hospital, to work like clockwork, with no delays or other slips. It all reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times. Charlie’s tramp is used as the subject of an experiment with an automatic feeding machine, which is intended to let factory workers stay at their posts during meals, but which, inevitably, runs out of control.
The second problem, designing for diversity, led me to one of the more interesting user experience design philosophies that emphasizes thinking about people: universal usability, or universal design, from which I’ve taken the name for this column. This is an approach to design that starts from the understanding that users are a broad range of people—not just the young, physically fit, technologically sophisticated, and highly connected—and has as its goal creating products that are more universally usable and that provide better experiences for more people. This does not mean that products must have a bland, one-size-fits-all design that ignores the richness of cultural differences and users’ personal preferences.
The vision for universal usability blends the following goals—all important aspects of user experience:
- the social goal of making new technologies available to all people, not just an elite
- enabling independence and experience equity for people with disabilities
- encouraging new standards and programming tools that support design for diverse user needs
Since I invented neither the term nor the concept, here’s a definition from an early project at North Carolina State University’s Center for Universal Design, where Ronald Mace, an architect and designer, devoted his career to creating accessible products:
“Universal usability is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”