Last week I had the opportunity to speak about my Take 3 experience at the vUE conference (VMware User Experience). I thought about how my Take 3 project has impacted my design thinking and vice versa. I talked about what I called “reminders” because we all learn these things as designers, but it’s easy to forget as we get caught up in the day-to-day activities of getting a product shipped.
The first “reminder” is that on-site user research (or Contextual Inquiry) is important. I had prepared a set of questions to ask users about their experience ranging from installation and setup to making loans and tracking them. Before I went to India and Kenya, I spoke with several users around the globe by phone. From these conversations, I was able to update the questions to be more precise. But it wasn’t until I saw the process in action (see Missions of Hope and Grameen field posts) that I was really able to understand what questions I should be asking. This insight was very important to understanding the physical realities that these users deal with (old computers, slow bandwidth, regular power outages, personal insecurity – i.e. dealing with cash can be problematic.)
Which brings me to my next “reminder”, the oft-repeated UX adage: you (the designer) are not the user. But as any UX designer knows, and anyone seasoned enough can admit – it is all too easy to think this way. We begin to believe that an heuristic evaluation of the software is good enough, when it often is just the first step.
In all the discussions I had with various customers of Mifos, one topic came up over and over again – we understand your goal is to improve the user interface, but please don’t change it too much. Again, as a designer, particularly one new to a project, it is tempting to want to redesign everything from scratch – all the while wondering what on earth the previous designer must have been thinking. 🙂 But one should never lose sight of the investment the customer and users have put into using the product. And after spending enough time with Mifos I learned that the users were right – while there is certainly room for improvement (isn’t there always?) the workflow is actually pretty good and maybe shouldn’t be tampered with too much.
3rd reminder: evolutionary not revolutionary. Note: there is a time and place for revolutionary. If you find yourself working on a bold, new product idea with no existing UI or with savvy, eager, early-adopter users, by all means, go all out for fancy and state-of-the-art – that is the time and place and it’s a very satisfying design experience. (I got to do this on a couple of projects at VMware and at NuvoMedia where I designed the UI for one of the first electronic books. I can definitely say it is most gratifying.)
In this case, however, many of the Mifos users – loan officers and data entry clerks – are not well educated nor particularly tech savvy. They have spent time and energy to learn the existing system and the MFIs they work for don’t want to invest a lot more time relearning something new. So the trick (and the real challenge to a good UX designer) is how to balance knowledge of the existing UI with current and state-of-the-art designs and technologies. But this sometimes means letting go of cool, slick new ideas because they are too different from the existing methodologies and don’t provide enough productivity boost to be worth the relearning effort.
“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s the UX designer’s job to find out.