June 16, 2008

Usage-Centered Take 2

I tried to draw a distinction in a previous blog about how user-centered design differs from usage-centered design. Although our focus should remain on the user persona, we have to make sure we have a good understanding of the tasks that user performs.

Unfortunately for the designer, most businesses are no longer in the assembly-line mode. It used to be much easier to design an interface that would fit uniformly across all the users of that system. The green screen character mode was that attempt. Some of us built on top of that a menu layer that allowed certain types of users (administrators, managers, and the like) to see different options that the "regular" user didn't have access to.

That carries on today. We have personas for management, admins, and the "regular" user. Sometimes, however, our focus becomes too narrow. Remember the good old days of systems analysis? For a long time we built systems from the bottom up. Then we were taught top-down design in the 70's – see the big picture and then build out the layers below them to get to the details. It was an approach that worked well for a while. Then, we came full circle again and started building bottom-up, focusing on a single user view of the system.

But we forgot a major tenant of design. Make the work more efficient. We're trained to look at a better way to do things. The user knows how he/she does certain things, and a good designer can put together a screen flow that can make that task sing. But we've forgotten to ask the "why" questions. Designers should always understand the "What" before diving into the "How" issues. Start with the goals. Work your way down through the objectives (they are not the same thing… maybe that's another column). Now, you can look at those objectives and see – is this really HOW you want to do it? Once you understand WHAT they are trying to do, use your training and help them discover the HOW with careful analysis.

The USAGE of a product is more important than the USER. It's really not blasphemy. It's common sense.