Involving the Customer in Design

You learn best from mistakes, but it’s far more fun when it’s someone else’s mistakes.

One of my earliest lessons in user design occurred while I was still in sales. We bid on a large government project for a registration software. We lost out on a big government deal for a registration software. We pretty much had the thing already built, a great price, expertise, BUT NONE OF THAT MATTERS. I was pretty bitter.

But that’s sales. You move on quickly.

Then one day a knock comes on the door. The same government group had finished the system but it tanked.

“Nobody’s using our system and we need to salvage it. Also, we’ve already spent most of our budget. Can you help?”

We weren’t desperate or masochistic enough to endure that code base, but we couldn’t resist looking at what they’d built. We didn’t even have to look at the code, we just had to use the tool.

The interface was a mess, it required perfect user entry otherwise it failed, there was no feedback loop and it was built EXACTLY as they’d asked.

“We don’t understand why nobody is using it!”

Our eyebrows momentarily retreated to the back of our heads. They’d designed and built the tool without ever consulting or testing it with their customer. Even worse, they had no grasp how the customer did their work today.

Through my ups and downs I’ve taken away a couple important points on user experience. They seem obvious at first, but don’t take simple user testing for granted.


The environment MATTERS

We were exploring a new feature set for a client’s HR team. We did a soft launch and asked for their feedback. There was some serious frowny faces.

“Why don’t you come down and spend an afternoon with our team?”

It was a great idea. We set up shop in their offices and simply watched them go through their daily lives.

The first thing they did was drop a 4” stack of paper on their desk, grab a coffee and roll up their sleeves. Over the next couple hours we watched them go through their daily motions. It wasn’t long before problems started creeping up.

A phone would ring and they would spend 20 minutes away from their desk. They’d return to their computes, auto-logged out and now having to re-enter a ton of data. It was painful.

We went back to the office and immediately started working on auto-save functions, admin controlled logout timers and the ability to save draft content.

Lifestyle often dictates usability, and that’s difficult to predict from behind a programming desk. We started making it a regular part of our design process to do user testing of existing methods.


There is no OBVIOUS

A while back we were putting on an online contest with a survey and signup form. We thought it was pretty sharp, but to our credit, we did user testing.

“Where do I go next?” A young woman asked.

“You have to click there to move on.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know what to do.”

I wanted to defend our design.

“Look how simple it is! How could she not know what to do next? It’s obvious! Oh wait. Nevermind. We’ll fix it.”

In many cases you are not your customer. You’re an experienced professional in what you do, so stop thinking that because you can figure it out your customer can.


Don’t rely on TRAINING

If you need a tutorial, you’re probably in trouble.

There was a small tech startup I worked for that had a handful of clients. I managed to grow the customer based substantially, but the more I did, the more I found myself teaching customers how to use the tool. Onboarding, training and customer service became more than half my workday.


Building a perfect system that required no initial training may be impossible, but you have to think about your program like a fancy new board game. If you have to spend the first couple hours just explaining the rules, the rest of your friends probably don’t want to play anymore.

Sit your customer down with the program and don’t explain it. Just let them go free. If they get lost and ask questions, ask them to press on.

Take every hiccup as an opportunity to improve. The more steps you have to explain or train, the more room you have to mess up.


I have a lot of respect for my customers, but I have to imagine them as lazy. Not as a criticism, but nobody wants to do more work or go through extra steps. That’s just nature.

Design for the lazy and clueless, the busy and distracted, and your system will be better for it. It’s pretty rare you’ll get criticized for having a system too easy to use.