A List Apart


Power to the People

Issue № 208

Power to the People

by Published in Interaction Design, Usability29 Comments

Over the last few months, the web has helped thousands of people help thousands more deal with the devastation of hurricane Katrina. Services like Amazon’s 1-Click are leading the charge by making it easy to donate money.

People are motivated to donate in times of tragedy, and that motivation will carry them through mild technical trouble or user experience problems. Still, it’s probably true that the easier it is to donate, the more people will take the time to do so. I made my own donation a bit sooner than I might have otherwise, because I knew how easy and quick it would be.

Of course, the time when organizations really need people to donate is when motivation isn’t as high—when there’s no tragedy to call people to action. A simple solution like 1-Click is even more important on those “regular” days.

By taking the time and effort to understand the needs of their customers, and then design a simple solution, the team who designed Amazon’s 1-Click technology can take some pride in knowing that, not only do they make it easier to buy the new Harry Potter novel, or pick up the latest by Kanye West, they could help save lives.

Not every solution will have this kind of impact. But when it comes to the design and development of web sites and applications, there is a lesson to be learned: understand what people want, and give it to them in as clear and simple a way as possible.

The web has (almost) always been about people

I used to approach almost every problem looking for a technological solution instead of trying to fully understand the problem from the user’s perspective. This was due, in large part, to simple inexperience. However, when you’ve got powerful technologies at hand, you may tend to rely on them instead of digging deeper to uncover the true problem.

I’ve since learned, over and over again, that a great solution isn’t one I come up with in a vacuum; a great solution is one based on knowledge of what people want. A great solution is hard to come by. You’ve got to dig.

As a designer and a developer I constantly want to jump on the “latest and greatest” technology or technique and get it integrated into my work. It’s a part of why I love what I do. But I also know that adding new technology doesn’t always make things better. In fact, great solutions often require the ability to resist those urges.

I’ve often said that I want technology (including a World Wide Web) that works for me, not the other way around. I want my own experience on the web to be as painless as possible. I’m pretty sure all the other readers, shoppers, fun-seekers, learners, information-gatherers and donators on the web would agree with me on this one.

And many of them don’t have the lust for web technology that I’ve got.  Let’s face it, there are many, many people out there who don’t like using computers at all.  Part of our job should be making things as easy as possible.

Getting to know people

Knowing what people want on the web can be hard. You either need to have incredible empathy or have done fairly extensive research. This empathy I’m talking about, in my opinion, can really only be built up over time observing all kinds of people doing all kinds of things on all kinds of web sites and applications. Even then as you move from project to project the people, problems, and needs change.

So we’re left with research.

Get out there and mingle with the people. Talk to them, create forums or blogs through which you can have conversations. Elicit feedback and respond with probing questions. Observe people doing what they do on the Web. Watch them interacting with your sites or applications.

It’s doesn’t have to be exhaustive. A little down and dirty research can go a long, long way. Try things like café testing or set up a simple survey to send to potential audiences. User testing doesn’t have to be hard and every little bit can help.

Solving problems simply

Really taking the time to understand the needs and problems of people is the first step to an elegant and powerfully simple solution. Often I feel that the reason web applications and web sites fail is because we’ve never taken the time to actually understand what people are wanting and then we overcompensate with features, visual elements and hyped techniques.

Not understanding the core needs, problems and desires of your customers is a recipe for disaster on the web and no number of “killer features” will get you around that. Focus on the core needs or problems and deal with them first. Don’t be blinded by technology or your own assumptions.

Look at some of the best web applications out there: Flickr, Basecamp, and Mint, for instance. All of these take a small slice of what people want and tackle those things first. Sure Flickr might add the ability to order photos online at some point, but they’re making sure people can share photos really, really well first.

Let’s use Basecamp as an example. Before I used Basecamp, I had tried quite a few project management “solutions.” In fact, I’d tried and had bad experiences with so many different ones that I was really reluctant to even try Basecamp. Then I read a bit about why the people at 37 Signals decided to build it. Turns out, they’d had the same problems I’d been having. They knew what I was looking for.

Most project management solutions are complicated. They try to do too much. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Basecamp isn’t perfect (no website or application is) and there are some things I wish that it did. However, it does what it does very well and it’s the first application of it’s kind that I’ve used for more than a few months.

I like it because:

  • It was created with my needs in mind.
  • It’s relatively simple and easy to use.

Basecamp’s developers considered people’s real wants and needs and then created simple solutions to meet those needs. It does use the latest technologies and has an ample feature set, but everything it does has been carefully weighed against how people use it.

When it comes to the web, added features and new technology can be great, again, as long as these things really give people what they need and want. It’s important to take the time to listen first; then you can respond with a real solution. Many learn by doing, and I’m not suggesting you quit experimenting. Sure, you can experiment, but if you add a design element or feature that people complain about or that doesn’t work properly, remove it. When it comes to making things real, you should experiment from a knowledgeable, informed place.

The more you know the better your solutions will be.  There is way too much guesswork out there already, and I’m a firm believer that informed design begins with real data, real experience, and understanding real people.

People come first

Gap just completed an extensive overhaul of their site and they actually took down their old site while they were redesigning. Their goal was to provide a better shopping experience for their customers. That’s highly commendable and the site seems like an improvement on the surface. However, I have to wonder if they didn’t let technology and hype come before the wants and needs of their customers after all.

I used to be able to use their site correctly in Safari. At the time of this writing, however, I can’t. When I can get it to work, it is pretty cool, but unfortunately for The Gap and the people who use their website, “cool” also means slow, clunky and awkward. It’s not all bad, and they have taken the time to listen to their customers and work out many of the kinks. I do get a bit worried, however, when I see what they’re saying about their design:

[Promotional Image] Reads: You spoke. We listened. Based on your feedback, we’ve updated our site with the latest technologies—and developed a few innovative tools of our own—to bring you an extraordinary shopping experience.

They’re saying the right things, only they’ve got them backwards. “Latest technologies”, “innovative tools,” and “new features” are pretty much meaningless if the “shopping experience” isn’t better. Now, I don’t want to pick on Gap, but this illustrates (rather well) the point I’m trying to make: Put the people first, then devise simple solutions—the experience is what matters.

Tools and technology come second

The need for quickness and simplicity is what turned me on to technologies like CSS. Sure, there is a learning curve, and it’s not initially as sexy as, say, Flash, but I see CSS as a people-friendly technology. It allows me to do more with less and, at the same time, provide a simpler, more accessible, and generally better experience.

Despite steep learning curves, technologies like CSS can make developers’ lives easier by providing them with an easy and powerful framework to get the job done and solve problems. CSS is a technology that, by and large, works well for me.

I know many web designers and developers who feel the same way. We want powerful tools that allow us to do more with less. When I work, I use the tool that works best for me. Sure Dreamweaver can edit HTML, but it’s much slower and more cumbersome than Textmate. Sure Textmate doesn’t have all the features Dreamweaver does, but for editing HTML, which is pretty much text, it works great.

If only our web solutions worked so well.

You see, geeks that we are, we often put technology before people in our work. There are many more discussions going on right now about how to use Ajax than there are about how Ajax should be used. I see this as potentially dangerous. I worry that we spend way too much time learning tools and technologies and not enough trying to develop empathy and understanding for the people who benefit most from our work.

Sure technologies like Ajax have the ability to add value to an experience, but we need to know who it’s for and why they need it or want it first. Then, and only then, can we begin to seek out a solution.

We should be providing solutions that work for people, not the other way around. Much like the tools and technologies we choose for ourselves. I know I love my work, and I enjoy what I do very much. However, I’ll take something that will help me do my job better and faster every time. The people who use the solutions I provide feel the same way. I know; I’ve asked them.

It’s worth the effort

The best solutions are sometimes the hardest to come by. Amazon figured out how to make the buying process easier by coming up with 1-Click, and I’m sure many hours of hard work, design, and engineering went into getting it right. But to the people who donate with it, the realization is very simple. And to the people those donations are helping, it’s quite powerful. It is a solution that has the power to help change the world.

I think that’s worth the effort, don’t you?

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