Design starts with Proposition (ergo Usability)

Layers of Customer Experience

Here’s a typical story.

A project is in its final phases when it gets to the part of the Gant chart that says ‘usability testing’, and so they do.

People come in and are asked to perform tasks, and so they do, with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty. And yet, something else is wrong.

It’s not so much that they *can’t* use your website, it’s just that they don’t want to.

People ask me all kinds of questions about usability. What are the most common usability problems? What’s the best way to make sure our site/application/system is usable? That kind of thing.

It’s pretty clear when they ask these questions that they’re thinking on the presentation layer. Is that button in the right place? Is it big enough? Has it got the right label.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the presentation layer is important, but it’s not the biggest usability problem I see in my work. The biggest problem is that you’re designing something that people don’t care about. You’ve got your proposition wrong.

What’s your proposition? Well, basically it’s the value you’re offering to your customer. Are you offering something they want? Are you solving *real* problems for them? You’d be amazed how often this is not the case, and how often people don’t know about this until they’re about to launch their product or, worse still, once it has launched and is failing.

The diagram above is one that I pull out fairly often these days (it’s another one I’ve borrowed from Flow). It talks about how you need to design from the proposition down. You need to get the value offering right, then look at the model for delivering that value to clients at a conceptual level, then start looking more at what elements go on a page, what functionality is included, how it is structured and ordered. Unless you have all of these in order, it doesn’t really matter where your buttons go or what they’re labeled. Appearance level usability is the most superficial, easily remedied and perhaps even least important of all of the levels of design.

If you’ve got a flaw in your thinking at the top of the chain, then no amount of surface usability is going to save your product.

So, how do you approach this kind of Proposition design and usability? It’s pretty simple really, you test your proposition. This kind of testing (or really, research) is more about talking than tasks, and it’s about understanding your customers better and checking whether you are conceptually on the same page as they are.

I’ve been involved in several projects just in the past twelve months where doing this kind of research has saved companies tens of thousands of pounds (double that if you’re talking dollars) in *not* designing and developing functionality that either was unwanted by their customers or was designed to solve the wrong problems.

Working this out when you have a few pencil sketches or a couple of visio wireframes with a few days invested is an awful lot better than working it out when you get to the ‘usability testing’ line in your Gant chart.

So, if you really want my advice about usability, it’s that it starts right at the very beginning. Before a line (or a box) has been drawn. If you’re not designing the *right thing* then no amount of design expertise is going to get you a really usable product.

Talk to the people you’re designing for.

You’ll save lots of time and money and look really smart.  


WWAD? (What would Apple do?)

Apple Store 

People say that it is some kind of Steve Jobs special sauce that makes Apple the company that it is, but as this Fortune article reveals, they reap rewards from using design techniques that we all have access to, and should *all* be doing. All the time.

These techniques include prototyping:

“One of the best pieces of advice Mickey ever gave us was to go rent a warehouse and build a prototype of a store, and not, you know, just design it, go build 20 of them, then discover it didn’t work,” says Jobs. In other words, design it as you would a product. Apple Store Version 0.0 took shape in a warehouse near the Apple campus. “Ron and I had a store all designed,” says Jobs, when they were stopped by an insight: The computer was evolving from a simple productivity tool to a “hub” for video, photography, music, information, and so forth. The sale, then, was less about the machine than what you could do with it.

But looking at their store, they winced. The hardware was laid out by product category – in other words, by how the company was organized internally, not by how a customer might actually want to buy things. “We were like, ‘Oh, God, we’re screwed!'” says Jobs.

But they weren’t screwed; they were in a mockup. “So we redesigned it,” he says. “And it cost us, I don’t know, six, nine months. But it was the right decision by a million miles.”

and User Research:

“When we launched retail, I got this group together, people from a variety of walks of life,” says Johnson. “As an icebreaker, we said, ‘Tell us about the best service experience you’ve ever had.'” Of the 18 people, 16 said it was in a hotel. This was unexpected. But of course: The concierge desk at a hotel isn’t selling anything; it’s there to help. “We said, ‘Well, how do we create a store that has the friendliness of a Four Seasons Hotel?'” The answer: “Let’s put a bar in our stores. But instead of dispensing alcohol, we dispense advice.”

OK. So maybe you don’t have budget to build a store twenty times over, but everyone has time and budget to do a paper prototype and show some people. Even if that’s all you can do, do it. 

Both of these techniques have been key in helping Apple make more dollars per square foot than stores like Saks or Tiffany – a pretty successful outcome by any measure, not to mention the way that the experience of the Apple store contributes to the over all Apple brand equity.

WWAD? Prototyping and user research. Go crazy.