Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web
By Lukas Mathis
(Pragmatic Bookshelf, $35.00 paperback)
There’s no code inside this well-written book for programmers and visual designers. Instead, the focus is on usability — how people use things — and how you can make big, modest or subtle improvements to their experiences with digital interfaces.
You may be designing a software product that you think will be user friendly. Yet how good, really, is your knowledge of efficient and effective design? And what do you really know about how users will respond to what you create? Are you relying on formal focus groups to tell you what your users supposedly will want?
If you are, you are not doing nearly enough research, insists the author, Lukas Mathis, a developer and user interface designer for Numcom Software. “[P]eople often aren’t able to tell us how we can solve their problems. Worse, people may not even be able to tell us what their problems are. And worst of all, people are pretty bad at predicting whether and how they would use a product if we proposed to build it for them,” he writes.
Instead of depending on focus groups, you should spend some time doing “job shadowing” and “contextual interviews” to help you shape a better interface.
“Since people don’t know what they want, a good approach is to simply observe what they do. The idea of [job] shadowing is to visit users in our target audience at the place where they will use our product. The goal is to find out how our product will help them achieve their goals.”
He adds: “With usability testing, the goal is to find issues with the user interface. When you are shadowing someone, the goal is to figure out what kind of product to create or how to change your product on a more fundamental level.”
In contextual interviews, you interview a user after doing some job shadowing. And: “What you see is more important than what people say. Still, by asking the right questions, you can often get some useful information out of people….The kinds of things you’re looking for are areas where improvements seem possible. Don’t ask for opinions, and avoid questions that force the person to play product designer.”
Mathis has structured his 322-page book into three parts – research, design and implementation – and 36 short, nicely focused chapters that deal with everything from “[c]reating documentation as soon as possible” to “learning from video games” to doing “guerilla usability testing,” overcoming common testing mistakes and dealing with bad user feedback.
Designed for Use has numerous illustrations that highlight common interface design mistakes. The book also shows major, minor and subtle ways to improve customers’ understanding, acceptance and appreciation of what happens when they use product interfaces on their computer screens or phones.
The author also emphasizes the importance of keeping in mind “that you don’t have to own 100 percent of your market. It’s true that adding more features to your product allows you to target more users, but doing so comes at a cost. Your product becomes more desirable to the people who would not be able to use it if it didn’t offer a specific feature. However, it also makes your product less desirable to the people who have no use for that specific feature.”
In his view: “It’s OK to let some people go to your competitors to get what they need; you can’t be everything to everybody.”
— Si Dunn