Last week on the Cre8PC blog Kim Krause Berg mentioned two new usability documents released by Larry Constantine. The post led me to one of Larry's older documents entitled Beyond User-Centered Design and User Experience: Designing for User Performance, which I have just recently read. The previous link will take you to a page where you can download the PDF.
The paper is almost two years old so forgive me if you've read it. Like I said it was new to me and whether you've read it or not I think it's worthy of discussion. It might seem obvious in a user centered approach that you find out from users what they want and then give it to them. But is asking users and giving them all the foucs really the best approach?
Yes, you should work to create a site for your users. In fact if your users aren't a central concern when developing your site you may as well not bother developing that site. The question is how much should what your users say they want be at the center of your design.
Is What Users Say They Want Always More Usable?
People's words and actions aren't always inline with each other. We all know people who insist they want something, but when they get it they hardly ever use it. The same thing can happen when asking users what they want from your site. It's quite possible they'll tell you one thing while really wanting something else. Or they may think they prefer something when in fact that something makes the site harder to use.
The Constantine paper talks about taking user centered design to the next level and calls it user performance design. Instead of focusing on what our users want we should instead focus on what makes their tasks easier.
Instead of focusing on user experience we should focus on user performance. I don't want to give up on providing a good experience to visitors of my site, but I agree that it's improving their performance on the site that's most important. And improving how well people can interact with your site will improve their experience.
Recently I've been involved in a small business forum thread where the thread starter urged people not to ask for reviews of their website. The conversation is really about something different than what I'm discussing here, but should you trust what people say about reviews of your site.
Asking your target market what they think of your site can yield valuable market data, but how much should you trust it. If you target audience prefers a certain color for instance does that mean you can't use any other colors? What if your users say they like websites that are heavy on images and Flash. Should you ignore the fact that it will slow the site down, possibly to the point where your visitors won't wait around for the Flash they wanted to load?
Is Usability All About Convention
One of the other ideas in the Constantine paper was that focusing too much on what users say they want can stifle innovation. I think this is a very important point. Usability often goes hand in hand with convention and with good reason.
If visitors to your site are used to seeing navigation at the top of the page or along the left side then placing your navigation there will make it quicker for them to find it. But it shouldn't stop you from placing your navigation on the right side of the page. Many blog templates have done this and now it's probably safe to consider right side navigation as part of convention as well. At one time, though, conventional wisdom would have said not to place your navigation on the right side.
I'll admit I'm generally one that believes following convention leads to more usuable designs. As people grow accustomed to a certain interface their ease of use when interacting with a similar interface becomes intuitive. In truth it should be just as easy to drive on the right or left side of the road, but outside of a couple of places most of us drive on the right side.
Reversing things makes it more difficult when we first encounter the new way, but again it's not really any harder. Just different until we get used to it. The same is true for any interface. People get used to doing things a certain way and offering them the same way of doing things on your site should in theory make it more usable.
But the best ideas are often those that break with convention and are different from what most users would say works best for them. Some of the most successful sites are successful due to their originality. They broke with what had come before and found a new way of doing something. Placing too much emphasis on what your users say about your site can hinder original ideas and thoughts.
Go Beyond User Centered Design To User Performance Design
I want to make it clear that I believe in a user centered approach to design. Every decision you make about your design should be made because it includes the people who visit and use your site in the discussion. But just as you don't want to be a slave to convention you don't necessarily want to do everything that your customers would say they want you to do. Ask them what they want and place a lot of weight on their opinions, but keep in mind that sometimes what they say they want isn't really what they need or what will make your site most usable to them.
Place the emphasis on what users do when interactng with your site and be willing to use your own judgement about when to break away from the tried and true. Know that you take a risk whenever you do break with convention, but many successful designs are successful, because they found a way to break with that convention in a way that was more usuable than what had come before.
Improving usability means improving performance. Often your visitors will be able to tell you what would help improve their performance with your site, but sometimes they won't. Pay more attention to what they do when interacting with yoru site than what they say they want to do.