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April 30, 2011 / X_Y

Cave Man and Space Shuttle

Once I was talking to a company, who was so proudly trying to sell space shuttles to cave men. Err, actually, they’re making a software, which introduces a new work procedure to network administrators. With this new tool, their customers can save millions of dollars by dramatically reduce problem-solving time.

“OK, I need to do some user research about your users, so I can understand them.” I said.

“Nooo, I don’t think you can get anything valuable from them.” The boss said, “They’re all old school people,  doing things in a very inefficient way. What’s more, the area we’re working on is a new trend in network administration. What we’re going to introduce is something they’ve never seen before, and it is how they’re supposed to work with this new area. You can’t get much by watching old school people working with old technology.”

Give this to a cave man!

Generally it’s like this: the cave men (users) can only walk a few miles a day (they don’t even have shoes!). And the innovators can provide them with a space shuttle (the new tool) which moves them out of solar system in a blink. What a great improvement in productivity! And what’s the point of researching the cave men then?

You may say that we need to educate the users. New area, new tool, how can someone get it without any training? It is the users who should adapt to our ideas, instead of we adapting to them! Remember the good old days when we’re studying hard in school, to be well educated for the career life?

True, but remember there’re good teachers and bad teachers, good tools and bad tools. Why people nowadays are using Windows, Mac OS or Ubuntu instead of Dos? If you look at those tech nerds working with Linux, you’ll find out that they’re actually just adding a layer of graphic interface, and everything can still be achieved by typing in command lines. But if you just want to use the computer, do you need to learn all these commands? Or just the graphic interface? And how much learning do they need respectively?

That's what happening beneath a Graphical User Interface

The point is, you have the technology, but it’s not the end stage of a product development. You need to decide how it is presented to the users, and good or bad, it can be done in totally different ways. That’s where design is. Depending on how you design it, users can use it easily or hardly, the learning curve can be steep or flat. A lot of the difficulties are just unnecessary. There’re so many products with great ideas but poor designs! Take your microwave oven for example, why should there be so many unnecessary buttons and puzzling icons when you just want to heat something up?

What should I do to heat some food?

So where are all the genius designs coming from? Geniuses? Inspiration is an important aspect, but it is mostly grounded on good research and careful planning. I like the example of iPhone App “Things” mentioned in Simple and Usable. How a task list application can be outstanding? The developers of the App did in-depth research of people using task lists, and find out that people want to be in control of their tasks. So the app divide tasks according to their importance and due time. You wouldn’t see all tasks of the entire month in one long list,  and it still makes sure that you get proper alarm from all tasks. You feel in control, you like it. The design idea may seem plain and simple, but that’s how research makes a design strong.

Back to the cave man story, so how should you sell a space shuttle to cave men? First you need to design it in the way they can understand, and easily adapt to. The users have their language, mental model, which is often very different from you the developer. So even if you feel the product is straight forward enough, the users can still be thinking in a totally different way. You need to understand your user, and research helps that. Second you need to coin your strength with users’ needs. Your technology has its core values, and the users have their core needs. If they seamlessly connect with each other, the users will love it. To hit this “sweet pot”, you need to have good understanding of both your product and users’ real needs. What are the real needs? Even themselves can’t tell you, and research is the best way to find them out.

So, don’t make things you believe that are going to work, but things users can really work with. The cave man can use space shuttle too, but you need to design it with good understanding.

They can use space shuttles as well!

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