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User-centered design: Science or common sense?


Authors: Monica Granfield
Posted: Mon, March 11, 2013 - 1:46:47

There are many approaches to creating a user-centered design. There are methods such as user observations, creating personas, workflows, storyboards, journaling, conducting user interviews, voice-of-the-customer sessions, and usability testing. These can all be used to gain insight into how users will interact with software, what features they desire in the software, what they don’t know they need, and how we design the software to meet their needs and expectations. Then there is common sense, an understanding based on what we already know. Even though we have all these methods and tools to gather information around the users, tasks, and expectations, I have begun to wonder if user-centered design has become nothing more than a buzzword and if common sense has left design. 

A good example to explore this question can be found in online shopping. I do a good deal of online shopping. Online shopping is not a new phenomenon. It’s been around long enough to have certain design patterns down solid. Add an item to your shopping cart, got it. We all love to hate one click shopping. Impulsive, yet useful and oh so convenient! We know from Paco Underhills book Why We Buy that there is a science to selling to shoppers. However, something like shopping has been around long enough to form some common and obvious patterns in the task flow. So it would seem that some of the issues that challenge online shopping are known, and therefore are closer to common sense than they are to science.

When I go into a store to buy something I am able to “kick the tires,”—touch it, feel it, smell it, try it on. For many people, missing out on kicking the tires is the disadvantage to online shopping. This is why free shipping on returns makes online shopping more desirable. Makes sense, right? When buying clothing online it also makes sense to provide size charts that give a sense of the fit of a garment. As we very well know there is no such thing as sizing standards. So it’s important to have size charts for an item of clothing or provide the dimensions of a rug or couch. Having this information makes us feel more confident in placing our order. However, I recently encountered a website for a major retailer that is no longer providing size charts for its clothing. I have ordered clothing and shoes from this retailer many times and been very pleased with my purchases. Why? Because I was able to order the right size and not have to go through any extra steps, however minor they might be, to process a return. I despise having to make returns, so anything I can do to avoid returning an item will make me all the happier! I contacted this retailer and was told that because they represent various vendors, they are not able to provide size charts and that they are happy to take returns (returns that are not free).

Now, I wondered, how does this make sense, as this retailer has always represented multiple vendors. What users might have been interviewed and provided feedback that sizing information is no longer necessary when buying clothing, and returns are a solution for not having that information? I can only equate this rationale to the ever-so-rare “grab-and-go” event. This is when one is in a desperate rush to attend a function, has a wardrobe malfunction, rushes into a store and grabs a replacement garment in a ballpark size range, holds it up to the body for a quick fitting estimate, and purchases the item as quickly as possible. Here there is still the added benefit of the ability to eyeball the garment in relation to your build. To me, the size chart for online purchasing is akin to the grab-and-go, and even this is no longer available on this site. How does this make sense? How can anyone purchase a garment without any eyeballing or ballpark dimensions for it?

How about the process of online shopping? This was something I would not only have expected large online retailers to have nailed down by now, but to also have innovated on. Innovated? Innovation often comes from understanding a task flow, a user’s process, and the subtle pain points or gaps in the process. Sounds logical, right? A few years ago I noticed that quite often, while in the checkout process for online shopping, I realize I have forgotten something that I would like to purchase. I want to add something to my purchase. However, I am no longer in my cart; metaphorically the clerk is already in the process of ringing up my purchases. I am in mid-ring. In the physical world the experience would play out with me asking if I it’s OK if I quickly go and get the item that I would like to add to my purchase. The clerk gives me the OK and I rapidly run to grab the item, returning breathless with the missing item. Whew, done, and now I have the cream for my coffee in the morning! Happy customer.

In the online shopping world this scenario plays out more like this: I am entering my credit card number or selecting the address I want the order to ship to when I remember I have forgotten something. I really don’t want to click “Purchase Now” and have to pay twice for shipping. If I don’t forge ahead my only other choice is to trudge all the way back. Hit the back button again and again. Then find the item and start the checkout process all over again. This does not usually equate to a quick run to the dairy case and back. This is usually more akin to completely unloading your shopping cart, putting everything back on the shelf, and starting over at the entrance to the store. Imagine if every time you forgot something while in line at the checkout you had to start over. You would wonder, how does that make sense?

These shopping scenarios are just a couple of examples where deep user research and science are not needed as much as some common sense. Taking a step back, listening to your customers, walking through the process yourself, and realizing the obvious. This could mean doing what might not be easy for the provider and instead doing what makes sense to the user. This is not always rocket science. It is user-centered design. 


Posted in: on Mon, March 11, 2013 - 1:46:47

Monica Granfield

Monica Granfield is a user experience strategist at Go Design LLC.
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