Users, how they make my day!

As a Design Anthropologist there is nothing more rewarding and invigorating than getting to observe and/or engage users on a personal level. Don’t get me wrong, I love the design aspects of what I do; translating research into design decisions, innovation and ideation, designing and building concepts and prototypes, or exposing the underlying information architecture of complex systems. All of that design work is rewarding, but there is something that is so viscerally appealing about engaging real users. Sure, it’s not the same as being involved in protest marches that help overthrow a South American government, or skinny dipping in the Napo Valley River Basin, but damn, it can be just as exciting.

What is bringing all this to the surface? Why am I talking about this?

In truth, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to make it out into the field, for more than an hour or so, and that’s been eating at my being on an existential level as well as professionally. Well, until recently anyway. We just finished a round of usability testing on a great new product that is expected to hit the market within the next year.*

As we typically do, we conducted an expert analysis and usability audit on the product and its documentation, packaging, and out-of-box experience before we ever put it in front of users. During those early phases, based on our expert opinions and years of experience, we reworked both the user documentation and product packaging. We thought we did a pretty good job and made vast improvements over the previous designs. It’s been challenging because the product essentially creates a new class of products, so there aren’t familiar metaphors to build the user experience around **

But wow, it never fails, get the product in front of the users and you will always be amazed by what they do (and try to do) with your designs. I can’t help myself, but I get so giddy when I get a chance to watch people do whatever it is that they do.*** One of the incredible things that happened were that two of the pilot tests we ran had catastrophic failures, which meant some quick re-engineering of the user documentation and the quick-start guide to correct the problem. As a result none of the actual participants experienced the same problem as our pilot participants.

One said to me during one of the down times, “You must be bored out of your mind having to watch me do this on a Saturday morning.” I could only think to myself, “Are you kidding me? No, this is exactly what I’ve been yearning for. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

  • Unfortunately, I can’t say more about the product itself b/c we have been sworn to secrecy – but that’s not what I’m writing about anyway [ up ]

  • That’s another topic entirely. Too often design firms simply follow the Hessian herd by just following best practices or best-in-class approaches. Yes, there is a time and a place for best practices and due diligence must be done to understand the competitive landscape we are designing within. But come on, as designers we can’t forget how to innovate and move beyond what everyone else is doing. [ up ]

  • Of course ethnography and usability testing is much more than just eyes and ears on users. Both are mature methodological practices of collection, analysis, and synthesis. [ up ]

  • Apparently I’m into using footnotes today
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