Uups! I forget this was “user centered design”!

October 20, 2009

Years ago a client asked me to write a program to help them deal with credit cards that had been declined for pending shipments.  Operators would use this screen to see what had gone wrong, often speak with the customer, perhaps resubmit the credit card or try to process another credit card.  I listened carefully, designed what I thought was a great tool, and tested it with a number of the staff who would be using the system.  Operators could use the up, down, home, or end keys to scroll the list of credit card attempts, and tab into any of the “buttons” on the bottom line of this screen, and take just about any action that might be required.  In testing it all worked beautifully.

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But as soon as it was installed, I started getting reports that it was no longer working.  I spent some time watching the users, and saw that they were trying to use the navigation keys to move through the browse of credit card attempts while they were anchored on a button.  That was wrong.

And so I instructed the users to first tab into the browser, and then use the navigation keys.  “It’s about getting the right focus”, I explained.  But the users didn’t get it.  They were confused and upset.

It turns out they were right!  They shouldn’t have need to understand “focus” or any other system term.  It made sense for them to use the navigation keys anywhere, but my program wouldn’t allow that.  And it was the program — not these users — that needed to change.  Pressing a navigation key indicated that an operator wanted to control the browse, and I had to arrange for the program to first get focus there, and then handle the navigation action.

I lecture around the world about user interface design, about listening to users, and about being “user friendly”.  But here I’d violated every principle that I teach — telling the users what they had to do, instead of making the program interpret their very reasonable actions.

This is what user centered design is all about.  Despite our best efforts, we get it wrong much too often.  But no matter . . . watching the users, we can see where they have difficulty or get stuck, and we can design interactions that respond to natural user commands.  And we can learn by watching our own mistakes!

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One Response to “Uups! I forget this was “user centered design”!”

  1. Stefan said

    Another great story about watching what users do

    Reading the above triggered this story. Our customer informed if we could create a setting to print reports once instead of twice.

    “Twice?” we asked.

    “Yes, twice.” the customer replied.

    Quite a few days passed before customer support realized what was going on.

    “Can you please guide us through EXACTLY what you are doing?” customer support asked.

    “Well,”, the customer said, “we start the report, view results on screen, double click on the print button, and two copies of the report come out of the printer…”.

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