This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of short posts on the topic of ‘the user experience’.
Disclaimer: As always, these are my own thoughts and ideas and are posted here purely for my own satisfaction and use. It should not be assumed that these reflect in any way upon my employer.
One of the things that I am very passionate about is what you might call ‘The User Experience’. These days when people talk about things like the user experience they tend to mean some sort of GUI, be it a desktop application, a mobile app or a web page but for me the user experience covers a much broader range of interfaces, and in fact users.
The user experience really starts with the installer. Back in my day as a systems programmer (still got a yellow card somewhere!) a product was usually one component. Today it can be made up of several parts and you might not even need them all so the user user interface you will probably deal with first is a book! OK, so it might be online and it might be PDF but you are still reading a book.
But let’s say the product is a bunch of components. How do you know which ones you actually need. I would hope that since you are paying for them you do actually want them all but that’s not always the case, sometime multiple parts are packaged and sold together so you get them even if you don’t actually need them all. The problem I find at this point is that the book often fails to explain the consequences of my choices and I think that in itself becomes an important factor when considering ‘the user experience’.
I heard someone mention something along these lines recently. When making a choice, you have to ask yourself, what happens next. We naturally do this all the time. Should I go now or wait for that truck coming the other way to pass before I make that turn is probably one of the more common occurrences, but there are many others. Usually our past experience lets us decide the likely outcome and make appropriate choices but when it comes to software, especially new software or software with new features that we have not seen before, we have no appropriate experience to draw on and so we have to rely of the documentation. But what I see all to often is that documentation fails to tell me ‘what happens next’, what are the consequences of my choices?. Take a look at the typical camera or camcorder user manual. I think those are pretty much ‘the best’ examples of lack of ‘what happens next’. They tell you how to set this option or that option but they don’t combine it into a workflow that achieves a desired result. Instead they lead you down a path often with little idea of what the end result will be. Let’s face it, have you ‘ever’ actually read the user manual for your camera? Or did you figure to how to turn it on, how to set the date and that was pretty much it.
Someone spent a lot of time putting that user manual together, but why? Is it because corporate standards require that the vendor ship a user manual in 27 languages with every product because as far as I can see, no one reads these things.
My kid (now 21 so not so much a kid anymore) is a great example of ‘not reading the manual’. He picks up a piece of technology and learns to use it a process I can only describe as ‘osmosis’! He does some programming (virtual reality stuff and games) and when he needs to know how to do something, he goes online and finds an example of something that is close to what he wants and adapts it. He never reads the books, he learns by doing and by example. When people had questions, the response was often RTFM, now the response is more along the lines of ‘Google it’.
For me, it comes down to this. I think people know where they want to go,what they need is a road map of how to get there. When you plan a trip you start with the ‘destination’ and so it should be with software. In fact, for software, the journey (install, configure, deploy etc) is just something that stands between you and what you want to achieve with that software. Unlike life, it is the destination that is important. Too often though I see software that starts asking me questions and expecting me to make choices regarding the direction I want to go in, without telling me anything about where those choices will lead me. Just as with a journey, if you start of with no destination in mind, you are highly unlikely to end up where you expect.