This feels like pretty basic stuff to me, but it’s incredibly important not to overlook the basics, so let’s talk about it.
I was prompted to think about this again when taking questions after talking at the GUADEC conference in Istanbul recently and someone asked about how you design a good experience when you’re designing for everyone – technical experts and newbies, people in countries around the world.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the answer is quite simple.
Just don’t. Don’t design for everyone. It’s impossible.
All you end up doing is designing something that makes everyone unhappy. Who needs that.
But why does this happen? I call it the myth of the general public.
So, there is this idea of the general public … but have you ever met *anyone* who considers themselves to be ‘the general public’? I don’t think I have.
This became particularly clear to me on a research project I was working on a few months ago where every single person I met told me about how unique their particular area of interest was, and how my client, a museum, only catered to ‘the general public’. The people I talked with complained that museums have ‘dumbed down’ so much because they are talking to ‘the general public’ and said that this made museums less useful for them to interact with, because of their specific interest and expertise.
This is what happens when we design for everyone – we ‘dumb things down’ to the point that they become useless or inefficient for most people. How does this happen? Well, because although everyone in the world might want to use your product or your website, they’ll want to use it in a very particular way.
In order to design your product well for them, you need to understand how they’ll use it and design to support that behaviour.
But wait! That means that all of a sudden the whole world is not my target audience! Horror!
Never fear, all is not lost. Despite the fact that you’ve design the experience beautifully for the specific audience (or audiences, you are allowed more than one!) that you have selected and understand well, other users will insist on using your product/service/website even if they are not in your target audience. In fact, the glowing recommendations that your audiences will provide will encourage others to use your service.
Yes, some audiences may have to work a little harder than others, but some audiences are better equipped to work harder. And at least the audience you *really* care about is being well looked after.
Josh Porter in his recently published book ‘designing for the social web’ (which I recommend that you read because if you don’t know everything that’s in his book, you should) makes this argument a lot more succintly than I have here so I’m going to quote you a slab:
Get as Specific As You Can
Question: Who is the audience you’re targeting?
Wrong Answer: Well, anyone really. Our application has a very broad set of uses.
Right Answer: People who do this very specific activity…
This is a discussion I had with an entrepreneur who was starting a new software company. He was targeting his software at what he called ‘the general public’. And on the surface of things, this makes sense. He didn’t want to limit his softward by saying that it was for a particular audience, as that would make it harder to swim with the current if that strategy didn’t work out. (Investors like flexibility too). For whatever reason, his software ended up being for all audiences.
In practice, however, software built for the masses rarely works. Even in the cases where software has gone to the masses, it started off in a nice and then grew outward, as people realized that it doesn’t have to be used in any one way.
Targeting a broad audience is precisely the wrong approach. The more specific you can get about how to use your application, the more your software will resonate with your potential audience.
Del.icio.us, the social bookmarking tool, is about as broad a tool as you can get. Anybody who wants to bookmark web pages can use it. That is to say that their potential audience is everyone on the web.
This seems to be my theme at the moment. Respect conventions.
Respecting conventions doesn’t mean that you have to slavishly follow them, that would be boring and unnecessary, BUT if you *are* going to break with convention then make sure it is very well sign posted, otherwise people will make mistakes.
I give you terminal 5 at Heathrow.
Firstly a quick question – how long before an international flight do you need to get to the airport?
The vast majority of people would say that the conservative answer is 2 hours but they don’t usually give it quite that long.
Another quick question – how long before a flight to a European destination do you need to get to Heathrow?
Again, most people will give you an answer around the 1 hour mark.
Now… you may already know this, but if you want to fly from London Heathrow Terminal 5 to Istanbul in Turkey (as I did the other day – yes the weather is beautiful, thank you!) they want you to get there not one, not two, but THREE hours before your flight.
We arrived an hour before our flight the other day and were severely reprimanded and had to be given ‘permission’ to proceed from the check in desk to try to get our flight. Fortunately (for us) the entire security software system crashed and massive queues meant that most flights (including ours) were delayed and we made our flight with plenty of time to spare.
So, given that getting to the airport 3 hours before the flight is apparently a big deal for BA, and given that T5 is relatively new, and given that in all my years of international flights, I’ve never been expected to be anywhere any earlier than 2 hours before the flight, you might expect that BA would make a big song and dance about this 3 hour requirement.
You’d be wrong.
They *do* make a big song and dance about the fact that we were leaving from T5 and that T5 is a new terminal. I definitely knew that because they advised me at almost every interaction I had with them regarding this flight (and these days there are quite a few touchpoints between purchasing the ticket and boarding the flight). But what did they tell me about time?
This is an excerpt from the email they sent me one week before the flight, specifically to help me to prepare for my upcoming flight:
IMPORTANT: For flights departing from Terminal 5, you must pass through ticket presentation and security at least 35 minutes before the flight departs. For other important information about passport, visa and UK domestic flight security checks, please visit ba.com/t5information.
So, honestly. Do they *really* expect me to turn up 3 hours early when this is the information they give me.
Perhaps they do, but I can tell you that a good portion of the passengers for the Istanbul flight were stuck in the security queue with us, having arrived much later than 3 hours before. And I doubt that it was because they were being naughty travelers, or that they liked the adrenaline rush of almost missing a flight. They just assumed, as we did, that turning up an hour before a flight from London to somewhere in Europe was the right thing to do, because that’s what we’ve done many times before.
This is what we do as humans. We make assumptions based on past experience and if we think we *know* how something works we don’t bother investigating it in detail, because we could spend our time and energy investigating things we think are new and interesting.
If people are making assumptions about your product, service or interface design and you’re *not* following the conventional approach, make sure whatever you’re doing differently is very clearly signposted. And then signposted again. Otherwise mistakes will happen.
And a customer who is making a mistake is very rarely a happy customer.
(disclaimer – yes, yes. I know that technical Istanbul is both European and Asian, doesn’t really make a difference to the discussion tho’)
Here is a new phone we got the other day. It’s our landline phone. Pretty cute huh? It’s called the Aqua by BT. Don’t buy it. I paid about £100 for a set of these phones. They are going to cost me a lot more than that in no time.
Here’s the thing. How do you end a call on a slide phone (which is what these are)? Simple – you close the slide, right? Well – yes, on every other slide phone that I’ve ever encountered, but not on this phone. Closing the slide does nothing… except closing the slide. So, when I went to make a call last night I discovered that, in fact, a call was still in progress. A call to a mobile phone, that had been connected for 8 hours. Ouch. I am *dreading* seeing this months phone bill because this isn’t the first time we’ve made this mistake. Although, this is probably the worst example.
We keep making this mistake because the slide-to-end-call convention is such a strong part of our model of how a slide phone works. We will keep making this mistake – despite the fact that we will be punished, seriously, by our telco.
As cute as these phones are, they’re going to be returned very soon because the experience of using them is so broken.
Moral to the story – if you’re designing something that has existing conventions associated with it – ignore them at your peril. Otherwise you’ll end up designing something that sucks as badly as this phone. And we don’t want that, do we.
Yes, I’ve seen the Sex In the City Movie, I’ll admit it. Either the rest of the UX community hasn’t seen it yet or we’re all just ignoring the fabulous user experience moment that Carrie has with the iPhone. For those who haven’t seen it, she is handed the iPhone (not hers) at a time when she urgently needs to make a phone call. She looks at it briefly, pronounces ‘I can’t work this’ and asks for a proper phone.
Personally, this was my favourite part of the whole movie (which says more about the movie than it does this particular moment). I loved the fierceness of her reaction to the unfamiliar interface.
It reminded me again that those of us who are ‘into’ interface design are really a fairly small group and how important it is for us to remember that the vast majority of people who encounter our interfaces do so on the way to achieving a task – sometimes one that is urgent and very important to them.
The people who encounter our interfaces in that kind of moment are not going to find them interesting, but an obstacle. And that they won’t take the time to ‘explore’ and ‘enjoy’ and ‘learn’ our amazing interface design.
It would be easy to say that SJP’s encounter with the iPhone showed that it lacked ‘usability’, but in fact it is probably more instructive as to the importance of evaluating usability over a longer term than just a one hour session in a usability lab. As I’ve said in the past, if something like the iPod, and no doubt the iPhone had been ‘usability tested’ using the traditional methods, they no doubt would have ‘failed’ and the world would be poorer for it.
All these things I had to think about because the movie was so disappointing… (speaking of bad UX).
My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
I lead a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design.
If you're interested in working with me or would like to talk more please email me