When Designing New Features, Know Thy User | TechWell

When Designing New Features, Know Thy User

Thirty years ago, people used to buy books about how to use word processors, another about the operating system, and a third for connecting the hardware. It was a good time to be in documentation.

When the web hit, we stopped expecting people to read books, and instead went to online help. Today, the application is expected to be discoverable; you are simply supposed to pick it up and use it.

Yet twice, lately, I have heard about a “really cool” app, downloaded it, and had no idea what to do next. In the case of Periscope, the website didn’t say how to use the software. It just had a video of some guy in a balloon. I was intimidated and didn’t touch the app for three weeks.

Then I was at a concert and thought I would try to share a video. The user interface on Periscope is incredibly easy—you push the start button to begin making a broadcast, and the stop button to stop. That’s it. It doesn’t need a user guide; you just need to play with it.

The other application was a little more complex. It was a new social media competitor with public and private messages that disappear twenty-four hours after viewing, along with some video features. The text had advice about swiping, rotating the screen, double clicking, and selecting features to do this or that. That one I tuned out, and I haven’t been back since.

My children will pick these things up and play with them, but I’ve been twisted by the worst part of being in Generation X and using Twitter: I have a short attention span and expect help! So please, allow me to paint users with a very broad brush.

Baby boomers expect to be told how to use an application and don’t like change. A baby boomer who learned about mouse-over tooltips ten years ago likely won’t grasp click-to-summon tooltips on a mobile device—it’s best to include the text on the page.

Generation X may be slightly quicker to learn but, as I said, may be frustrated by systems that are “so easy” they should “just work.”

Millennials, who are defined as having been born after 1982, grew up with technology. They’ll expect to be able to use the application on their own devices, and expect you to figure out how to get the VPN to work.

Personally, I’m most interested in the group born after 1995, who was twelve or younger when the iPhone was launched, and fourteen for the iPad. These are the folks with selfie sticks who “get” one-button applications, understand why applications with instantly disappearing things are good, see the Internet the way we see the power grid, and store their lives online.

I’m mentioning this because the very things that make some users of your service ecstatic just scare others.

The next time you’re designing an “awesome” new feature, take a step back and think, awesome for whom? Are the customers the sixth-grade students who use the lunch charge card, or the moms and dads who fill up the card? Or both, and you have two fundamentally different user experiences to design?

That’s the kind of thing we don’t talk about enough in design meetings.

Or maybe you do, in which case: Please tell me your story.

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January 11, 2016

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