Power to the People
Issue № 208

Power to the People

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.

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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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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?

About the Author

D. Keith Robinson

D. Keith Robinson is a writer, designer, developer, and web architect living in Seattle, Washington. He's the Creative Director for Blue Flavor, an experience and web design consultancy, and he's more like a pirate than a ninja.

29 Reader Comments

  1. I completely agree with your charge that tools and technology need to come second to creating useful interfaces. There are a whole lot of new technologies and services being thrown out there without a lot of usability being considered. We would do well to consider what AJAX brings to the design before implementing it because it looks flashy.

    For example, the WordPress 2.0 beta introduces a lot of slick collapse and expand sections on the write page but it remains to be seen if it really makes it easier to use. It looks cool, but the old way gave you ready access to everything you needed without having to open a collapsed section.

    Technology without usability isn’t using the technology to it’s full potential.

  2. The Gap’s website redirects me to a screen saying that I’m using an unsupported browser. And it’s the most up-to-date version of Opera

    And is it because they care about their users?

  3. A lot of good points – it’s easy to get carried away with the technology.

    But a lot of the clients I deal with here in the UK are organisations with their own goals and objectives. Their websites were initially developed to reflect their own organisational structure and technology, and the users could go to hell.

    But now, weirdly, it’s sometimes swinging too far the other way – being purely user led and subordinating business goals to user preferences and topline feedback.

    Ultimately, a great designer has to find a way of combining the two – what the organisation wants to do achieve with its site, and what things its customers will want to achieve – and then choose the approach that flows naturally from the scope and specification that emerges.

  4. I completely agree with what everyone’s pointed out so far. The user comes first, and a lot of the time your users, if you’re trying to launch some major web app, aren’t going to be extremely computer savvy. Break it down in laymans terms for the average user and make everything as easy as possible to use.

    as for Gap, well, their neglegance of some browsers will surely have some effect on the amount of people purchasing products online. And as for Ajax, I belive it’s a great technology, but I don’t think it’s quite ready for widespread use with mainstream users.

    anyway, great article. My next website design will most definitely be focused on the user instead of my own craving for creativity.

  5. It’s the old adage about __ being a solution looking for a problem. Too many people think that because they _can_, they *should*, and that’s where it ends. And that’s what leads to Flash, PDF, and database-driven websites where pages have names like _page.php?id=7752_ … because nobody has stopped to think about the people who will be using it.

    These are people, bear in mind, who will type a full URL into Google and who will click on a vibrating “dialogue box” that says ‘You have a virus – click here to remove’ … these are people who need things made *simple*. Each and every tiny increase in complexity will result in lost sales.

    Any website that needs a “How to use” section is almost certainly going to fail for users – that doesn’t mean go without it, it means re-engineer the site. That might mean you need to *reduce* the technology and make it simpler, _or_ it might mean you need to *increase* the technology and functionality. Either way, you need to examine how users are using the site before making any major changes.

  6. When I tried to visit Gap’s web site using Safari, and couldn’t, I went so far as to email the tech people. Developers should be beyond the “this only works in…” stage of web design. My philosophy is things should work cross-platform and cross-browser, and it something takes too many hacks to get there, I must be doing something wrong.

  7. As a web designer, I completely agree with the idea that new, trendy technologies should not drive the way we construct the web. The web is for people, all types of people with all types of browsers and we should be designing accordingly. I make the best effort I can on every project I am a part of. However, having just completed work on a fairly substantial commerce site, I completely disagree with Gap’s new site being an example of bad site construction.

    As we began research for the commerce site, we asked our client and specifically a few of their less tech-savvy customers for examples of good online shopping experiences and also examples of bad online shopping experiences. One site that made the list of good examples was Gap. I don’t have exact comments from the users, but the basic idea was that Gap’s site presents me (the user) with everything I could possibly need to know in order to make a qualified buying decision.

    I completely agree with the users’ comments. Gap’s site (while not necessarily working in all browsers, but in at least one browser on every major platform—I don’t need to point out browser stats, we all know them well enough) provides the user, even the least tech-savvy user, with loads of information about every product in a simple and effective way and then makes it incredibly easy to purchase those items. In my humble opinion, that’s a job well done, regardless of what underlying technology was used.

  8. You make some valid points about the overall user experience, but why are you trying to sell me on Basecamp, Textmate, etc.? I can understanding highlighting a few case studies, but you are flat out promoting these products as part of your piece. Also, what concrete proof do you have that 1-Click made it simpler to donate to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort? Or is this just your opinion? Honestly, you could’ve written the same piece without relying on trademarks for critical authority. Just my two bits.

  9. bq. Let’s face it, there are many, many people out there who don’t like using computers at all.

    So the correct design solution would be to provide the service by phone or by fax or something these some people actually like, not?

    As much as i appreciate the idea to focus on goals instead of new fuzzy technologies and the way this argument is presented in this well-written article, i am a bit tired of this constantly repeated paradigma that everything should be made for people who actually are interested in nothing and do not like to use anything “new”: it should be “easy and simple”.

    This brought us to the uninventive, boiled-down interface culture we have today — tho it was incresing sales of computers. Everything is optimized for first time users who do not seem to have the required attention span to read two paragraphs of instructions.

    For me this can really result in feeling offended when i have to look at reduced options, step-by-step interfaces, big “hints” where to click and in what order …

    To connect amazon’s ridiculous patent on “one click shopping” with the saving of lives is a bit over the top. It was made to sell more products, using affect-driven “i want to have it maybe”-shopping. So while customers brood over if they really want to buy something or not, amazon makes it easy to decide in the direction of yes.

    Now, if a national catastrophy occurs and donators are unable to make an electronic transaction for it and instead need such an affect-driven aid, if they cannot remember that this catastrophy occured for long enough, if they lose their interest in it after 30 seconds –; well this is a culture i would rather like to avoid.

    I think interfaces should be there to help users to act responsible, controlled, competent and souvereign with a computer. Interfaces can also act educative. Things can be simple or easy, but not too simple or too easy. Too simple and too easy promotes a culture where people click on anything that moves or is blue and underlined.

    This is quite close to what we have now.

  10. To David (#11) — I wasn’t actually trying to showcase The Gap as a bad example. The main reason why they’re even mentioned is because of the graphic I highlighted.

    To Dino (#12) — I was using examples of products I like, it was not intended as any kind of sales pitch. I can see how it comes of like that, but it was unintentional.

    To Dragan (#13) — You make some good points. However, the idea is that most interfaces are not easy. If you disagree with that then I can see how you’d have a problem with what I’m trying to say.

  11. I tried visiting it with Opera, Konqueror, Firefox, Lynx – nope, nothing, null. It keeps telling me to use IE5, NS7 or Mozilla. I don’t have IE on in my Linux-box.

    I must admit, it’s the most inaccessible page I have ever met.

  12. I don’t work for GAP and I don’t like their clothing.

    I looked at the source for a few pages, and guess what – not a single table used for layout, its using CSS.

    The markup (strict XHTML) didn’t look too bad either imho.

    So the site requires JavaScript and isn’t working on some browsers. Bad? definitely. But didn’t the author mention its a new site? I’d imagine they will work out these problems.

    I agree the message about the new site isn’t very wise, but they do mention an ‘extraordinary shopping experience’ as a result of the changes. The author was not picking on Gap, it was an illustration of his point.

    Lastly, I don’t agree that the site really ‘clunky, and awkward’. Perhaps slow, I’m on a very fast connection, I didn’t notice.

  13. Keith’s main point (the nut para, for all you journalism nitpickers) was that designers should “understand what people want, and give it to them in as clear and simple a way as possible.”

    To meet that rhetorical end, Keith rightly used Gap.com as an example of what not to do. It’s been *four months* since the Gap redesigned and redeployed. Four months?! We wrote an article on them at Publish.com in September (http://www.publish.com/article2/0,1759,1861854,00.asp). And still, the site has problems.

    The Gap has clearly failed to reach their goals, and they’ve clearly failed to give people what they want: convenient shopping, simply done.

  14. My company produces software for a specific job in a specific industry. The interface isn’t super-easy, but, if you explore the menu options, it should become clear after a day or two.

    For some of our users, this is way too hard. They call and ask questions that reveal their ignorance to industry standards. Standards that should have be taught to them in the part-time college course they took to get the job.

    For other users, the system allows them to enter data extremely fast and report on that data with a reasonable amount of flexibility. They recommend the system to colleagues and praise it when they call me “just to see what’s new”.

    Should we dumb-down our interface for people who are too lazy/stupid/stubborn/scared to learn their job requirements and take an interest in their tools?

    Software can only do so much. After that, skill and knowledge must bridge the distance.

    For instance, in(near) the beginning, there was DOS. Command-line interface. You had to memorize the commands or look them up. Then there was GUI’s. Click on what you want, drag and drop. Most users said “yay!”. MS made a lot of money. A while ago I tried Basecamp’s “Tada Lists”. You type in list items, and, using special mark-up, the software “understands” what type of item you just entered and handles it appropriately. Sounds like a command-line interface to me.

    Maybe I’m just a cranky coot. Maybe I’m just tired of “certified” users asking me why the hammer I gave them won’t pound in a screw very well.

  15. technical knowledge vs. people skills – the job market loves people skills, even in technical fields. on the job training can make up for a general lack of technical knowledge. people skills come through experience and observation not readily available through training. from an educational point of view, psychology and sociology equal programing and aesthetics in importance when it comes to well rounded web designers ready to tackle real world issues. we work in a service industry. technology provide a means to an end, serving people.

    “The more you know the better your solutions will be.” – allow me to argue semantics for a moment. i disagree with this statement because of the connotation of the word “know”. knowing, to me, implies an absolute understanding and we live in a world constructed out of quantum probabilities where absolutes do not exist.

    i perfer understanding to knowing. understanding implies a willingness to intigrate new data into itself, even if that new data contradicts previous interpretations. understanding leaves the system open. knowing considers itself complete and therefore tends to favor closed mindedness.

    someone who “knows” what users want will move forward secure in this knowledge, loosing sight of the fact that this knowledge relies on assumptions and functions as a convienent model; a simple metaphor at it’s core. each project cements this knowledge as testing provides feedback in support of the assumptions. eventually this security blanket of knowledge may lead this hypothetical designer to forgo testing alltogether, or to ignore data from unhappy users dismissing those users as atypical. this designer has stopped seeing users as a changing, organic entity (or, more technically corect, a collection of entities) and confused his mental map for the human territory.

    the users in our heads serve as models that stand in for the users in real life. we provide services to these real users, not the convienent models in our heads. therefore, we should approach each project as if we know nothing and seek to gain fresh understanding for each new set of problems, their circumstances, and the users faced with these problems.

    this post brought to you by “e-prime”:http://www.nobeliefs.com/eprime.htm

  16. When I have redesigned web apps for work or built sites at home, I’ve always used two groups to test the projects’ friendliness.

    I have asked the most technically unsavvy users to test the site. If it fulfills the business plan and function, but the user either can’t navigate coherently or does not fully use the site, then I go back to the drawing board. Usually it is a case of paring down and providing a more simple way to do the same thing.

    At home, I let my kids — apprentice geek 4, 11 and 12 year old boys — loose on whatever site I’m making. They are brutally honest (“Gee, Dad — that really sucks.” or “Cool!”) with their comments.

    In both instances, simple and effective wins out over flashy tech-heaviness.

    Just my $.02.

  17. I absolutely agree, many use new techonlogy just for the sake of it. Sure AJAX is cool, but being able to bookmark something is way cooler for me, my dad and my dog.

    Let’s make a test. I recently developed something at work (a product filter), where many will see AJAX written all over it.
    Have a look at the movie on my “Blog”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html and let me know wether this is AJAX or not? Should open an interesting discussion.

    URL to the “Article”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html
    http://www.stefanseiz.com/archives/2005/12/ajax_just_because_we_can.html

    URL to the “Movie”:http://www.stefanseiz.com/movies/Ajax.mov
    http://www.stefanseiz.com/movies/Ajax.mov

    PS: Textile sucks. It wouldn’t let me create two links on one line 😉

  18. I am using firefox 1.5 (final) on linux, and was blocked from the site. I emailed the gap webmaster with this information and a request not to block unknown browsers. The following is the response I got this morning.

    ———————————————————————-

    Thank you for your e-mail. We apologize for the difficulties you
    experienced on our site. Currently we support AOL, Netscape Navigator,
    Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Firefox for PC users. Unfortunately,
    we temporarily do not support Microsoft Internet Explorer for Macintosh,
    or the operating system Linux. Our developers are aware of this issue
    and hope to have this resolved soon.

    ———————————————————————-

    I suspect that this is a clasic example of a blanket “deny” rule and then some allows for their known working browsers. I made the suggestion that they consider allowing all browsers and adding a notice for the ones that they knew were not working. I suspect FF 1.5 is fully functional, but that their regexes are not open ended enough!

  19. My company is in the middle of designing a completely new ecommerce application for selling vacations online. The current application is good, but not good enough. The idea is to move more people to purchase online, instead of the call center. That means we have to create a better experience for the guest.

    The IA’s for this project are very excited about the newest technology available, ie. AJAX. The problem is, they have no idea how to use it properly. This very argument occured a couple days ago in a wireframe review. AJAX is great, but as your article mentioned, only valuable when used in the right way for the right things.

    I am forwarding this link to them, and the other web developers at my company. Hopefully this will make them think before trying to create something that is just cool.

    Long live the guest!!!!

  20. Browser detection on gap.com is based on UA self-description.
    Using FF 1.5 on Ubuntu Linux 5.04 and switching the user agent string to IE on Win XP (via User Agent Switcher extension) I can access the whole gap.com.

    As you can guess nothing is wrong and as far as I can see all that cool (?) layout renders properly. Yes, including menus scrolling up and down and all the rest.

    I did everything, including an order, stopping only when requested to give real money.
    It worked.

  21. That Gap.com example is perfect. I’m getting blocked from their site using FF 1.0.7, Ubuntu 5.04, but I can access it using IE 6.0 Wine. As far as I can see, there’s nothing too exciting about their so-called innovative tools (the layout and menu look fairly standard to me, unless their old ones really sucked) and nothing that Linux can’t cope with. “You spoke. We listened”. I wonder if their customers told them to block Linux users.

  22. I think amazon did a great job with the one click buy button. No doubt alot of time went into making it but to patent the idea is a little much in my opinon, but none the less a great job

  23. I don’t understand companies like GAP that allow technology to prevail over their brand experience. They should see usability as an *opportunity* to go beyond their competitors and develop a user experience that is on-par with their brand. I e-mailed their website technical support when I could not visit it in Safari any longer. They responded and politely told me that they do not support *Internet Explorer for the Mac* (my e-mail to them said nothing about Internet Explorer). Then they had a canned message suggesting that Mac Safari users can solve their problem by downloading Firefox. I have nothing against Firefox and use it all the time, but I wouldn’t consider forcing users to switch applications to be a solution. Their online brand experience no longer lives up to their in-store brand experience. Too bad.

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