Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XIV.3 May + June 2007
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Hunting for patterns and contradictions

Dr. Usability

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Dear Dr. Usability,

How can we design an application that works for everyone? People are so different; I'm grappling with the issue of how to design for the perfect user experience. My product manager has asked me to create the iPod version of checkbook-balancing software—software so sexy it will make everyone race to balance their checkbooks.

I have conducted the user research, and it's just mind-numbing. No one agrees on anything; they can't even agree on what background colors they use, let alone how they balance their checkbooks! Right now I'm looking at a combined task analysis, and it is a plate of spaghetti. Just to balance a checkbook. Please help me!

Checking out in New York

Dear Checking Out,

You are having a synthesis problem. Let go of the details. You're missing what I call the "Great Line." The Great Line is the overarching theme, the overarching desire of the end user as embodied in a set of abstract tasks, where "abstract" is the key. Wandering in too many concrete details? Draw the line.

The Great Line is the center line of the activity. Let's take the case of balancing one's checkbook (a topic on which I have no particular expertise, having just bounced a check at the grocery store last week). Let's assume your Great Line is "the user can effortlessly balance his checkbook by entering expenditures and income, and in return get insightful reports, which in turn makes the dreadful exercise of balancing a checkbook worthwhile in the first place." With this as the Great Line, plot your user research along this axis. What supports it, what doesn't support it? You need to care about the things that support the Great Line. If no one agrees about the rest of it, you have my permission not to care.

When users are in general agreement, you will see a pattern emerge. For example, if one task everyone does is list checks in some fashion, you will find that this activity falls along the Great Line. You have a pattern you can build on. Patterns, however, fray at the edges. Beyond the general verity of your pattern, you will see that users can go off in all different directions: hence, contradictions. These contradictions prove useful; they provide parameters on the general pattern. Balance the parameters against the pattern, and decide not to care about the extreme-edge cases.

Permit the Great Line to distill your patterns and contradictions, and your user research will suddenly appear to have focus. There. I just saved you countless hours of analysis.

Dr. U

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