Noticing when the glasses fall off

User-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but it can sometimes feel like a new pair of glasses that you carry around and sometimes forget to wear.

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Although I am now a user experience designer with the Yale Student Developers, and have always seen myself as a very user-centred person – whether I’m programming or drawing a magazine cover – I haven’t been doing this quite long enough that this way of thinking is completely internalized. If you’ll forgive the somewhat contrived analogy, user-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but to me it still feels like a new pair of glasses that I carry around but sometimes forget to wear.

Today I had to borrow a laptop from a friend to record a short video for German class. (I actually had to try three friends and three laptops, and none of them worked properly, so I’m going to give the speech in person after class tomorrow. Yay, “technology-enabled learning” done wrong!) While trying to get to the webpage that would let me submit my homework, I couldn’t help noticing that this friend’s laptop was horribly slow. Tabs in Chrome were all unresponsive. It took me 20 seconds just to application-switch.

Curious, I looked at what was running in the background and the first signs of the problem became evident: he somehow had four antivirus suites (two expired, one semi-functional, one apparently working) and five file-syncing/cloud backup services all running at the same time. Despite the presence of the file-syncing clients, he also wasn’t keeping backups of any of his data. The applications running might not have been the source of the slowness, but that the machine (and his data) was in this state gave a good hint as to what the problem might be.

When I returned his laptop to him I asked if he was aware of this situation. “Uh, yeah,” he told me, sounding unsure. “I think I installed all those programs by accident? I can’t find the uninstallers. And I don’t back up my data, yeah, I know I should, but…”

This is a facepalm moment, isn’t it? This is the kind of story that you tell back at the tech support office, to collective head-shakes and horrified looks. “Oh my god,” we go. “Why are users so inept?” And then we exchange smug looks. Users, man.

This is the moment you have to catch yourself. Is it really the user who is at fault? Or is it because the uninstallation process** isn’t intuitive? Why isn’t he backing up his data despite having multiple user-friendly cloud backup services at his disposal? Does he think it’s too difficult? Does he not realize that these programs offer him a way to back up his data? Could it be that these aren’t as easy-to-understand as we think they are? (You’d be surprised at how hard it is to explain the concept of file syncing to people, even college undergraduates who have spent at least half their lives online.)

I certainly didn’t realize what I was doing at first – after all, poking fun at the less tech-savvy is a comfortable and familiar hobby for most of us. I was telling a programmer friend about what had happened, and we were expressing amazement at how widespread bad computing habits were when he remarked, “people need to take better care of their computers” – and I suddenly became very aware of how we were pinning all the blame on this guy who had lent me his laptop so I could do my homework.***

As UX and product management people in the tech world, it’s only natural that the user-centric glasses we try our best to wear still fall off our nosebridges sometimes. After all, we’re mostly in this industry because we care about the people using our products, yes, but also because we love technology. We think the stuff engineers can come up with is awesome, and we want to make it even better. We’re all geeks. (Some more than others.) There will always be times when we forget that not everyone is the same way, when we’re baffled by another person’s unfamiliarity with something we work with every day, when we’re tempted to roll our eyes and declare the the problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

What’s important is realizing when that happens, taking stock of the situation, putting the glasses back on, and looking again.


* I considered adding the sentence “my goal is to have the mental equivalent of laser surgery”, but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided that this isn’t really something I want. Although great in theory, I suspect that would tip me too far into the other direction, and cause me to lose touch with engineers instead. I need to be able to see how others see – not fully become others and lose the ability to view things from multiple perspectives.

** Mobile is one place that really gets this right. Uninstalling apps on smartphones is almost universally painless – perform the action that brings up a context menu, then select “remove” or tap a cross or drag it to a trash bin. Macs come a close second, except that the drag-to-Trash gesture doesn’t work for every type of application. The desktop environment is so wide open and subject to developer whims that the same kind of standardization is hard to achieve.

*** The way we instinctively shift responsibility off our products onto users reminds me a little of the language used in contemporary misogyny, actually: “women need to be less aggressive”, “women need to wear less revealing clothes”, “women need to sacrifice their careers to focus on their families”. If we can put so many resources into hiring UX people and good PMs to change the dialogue surrounding our products from “users need to X if they don’t want broken computers” to “computers should make it easy or needless for users to X”, we can definitely put the same amount of effort into changing the power dynamics and dialogue surrounding non-males in the tech

Author: krysjez

I'm a student of computer/cognitive science, artist and geek. Nice to meet you! Follow my adventures at https://inmannheim.wordpress.com

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