I think we’re all comfortable admitting that designing a web app takes research, testing, and an unholy amount of iteration to get right.
This excellent article by Jessica Harllee, product designer at Etsy, shows how far a customer-focused company must go to not only create the features their users want, but also implement them the way their users prefer to work. Research, prototyping, user testing, feedback, and iteration form the basis of a virtuous circle that results in a better product — and happier customers.
The opposite of this method is, of course, designing in a vacuum, like Harllee was tempted to do as a younger, junior designer:
I was uncomfortable showing work that wasn’t “done.” I thought that design was something I should show only in its glorious, final state.
This kind of thinking is a trap that self-conscious or inexperienced designers (and writers, I can admit from personal experience) fall into, and can result in a hard-to-use product, or worse, time wasted on work that customers outright reject.
Harllee’s article is an excellent illustration of why you should test, test, and test some more. But I’d like to take a moment to discuss the psychology behind why you can’t be the sole judge of your own design.
You already know how it works.
A teacher of mine once told me to ask people, when I show them work from my portfolio, not “Do you like it,” but “Do you get it?”
Liking something is subjective, but getting something isn’t. When your test subject gets the work, that shows it works as intended. It flows logically, whether it’s an ad, a story, or, yes, a user flow for your website or app.
You get everything you make, because you made it. This is a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge, which Wikipedia describes as “a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed parties.” Because you planned the user flow or designed the button, you already know how it works, and therefore find it difficult to believe anyone else could get lost or confused.
How do you counteract the curse of knowledge? Show your work to someone who isn’t already familiar with it. Show it to hundreds of people, if you have the opportunity. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a fully mocked-up site page, a freshly-crafted UI element like a button or icon, or just a wireframe.
Don’t say anything other than “do you get it?” (I mean, after you say “Hey, can I show you something?” It would be weird to just shove something in a person’s face and say, “Do you see? DO YOU SEE?”)
Don’t explain it. Don’t show them the proper order, the little details, or the differences from the previous versions. Don’t. Say. Anything.
And then see if they get it.
Because that’s how your end user will be receiving your work. You don’t have the luxury of saying, “No, that’s a lock icon, not a shopping bag. See the tiny keyhole?” There’s nobody watching over the user’s shoulder, making sure they figure it out.
You have a style and you, personally, like it.
I’m not suggesting you’re automatically guilty of this, but it’s entirely possible you’ve designed something at some point in your life that only you could love, because you completely forgot about the end user’s wants or needs.
To make an interior design comparison: last spring, a house near me went on the market that, objectively, should have been easy to sell. It was huge, well-maintained, had a yard and a driveway in a neighborhood where those things are rare commodities.
Only problem was the sellers had completely decked out the home in extravagant French Rococo fashion. Nothing was spared: the wallpaper, the crown moulding, the bathroom mirrors, the doors, the window frames… everything was maroon and gold, covered with ornate details. The faucets were swan heads. Every bathtub had claw feet.
So it sat on the market for months. No matter how terrific were the underlying features of the house, nobody in their right mind could bring themselves to live in it, and Donald Trump wasn’t interested in moving to Atlanta. So the sellers wound up taking the house off the market and cancelling their plans to move.
This can be a metaphor for your website, if you use your imagination. Are nested drop-down menus your thing? Low-contrast, gray-on-gray type? Sidebars? Animation?
If every single thing you like as a designer has been worked into your project, you may have to examine the possibility that your faucets are swan heads. I mean, you’ve been designing for you and alienating everyone else.
Don’t be offended if it turns out not everyone likes what you like. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong and they’re right, or vice versa. Try to find a happy medium. It takes all kinds to make a World Wide Web.
You don’t want to kill your ideas.
Ideas, no matter how badly they need to be killed, are hard to let go.
You’ve put time, effort, sweat, blood, and tears into developing this idea, so naturally you’re attached to it. It’s your beautiful baby; you’re blind to its flaws, and you don’t understand why not everyone loves your concept as much as you do.
This is the toughest hurdle to overcome, because there’s no voice of reason, creative director, or focus group that will make you feel any better about your idea being squashed. The only way to get over the sting of killing your own idea is to get used to it.
Letting go of ideas is an important part of the creative process. It may seem like you’re back to square one, but really, you’re on at least square two. Possibly three. You’ve eliminated an idea that won’t work, narrowed down your project requirements, and ratcheted closer to a solution that you and your customers will agree is terrific.
Ready to start user-testing your design?
We’ve just discussed why it’s impossible to do customer-focused design in a vacuum, and Harllee’s article beautifully establishes the importance of user feedback at every step of the product development process. But all of this begs the question, how do you obtain that precious, precious feedback?
It can be hard to get the user’s opinion, particularly in the early concepting stages of your product, but you can try showing your ideas to your mom. Or this guy’s mom. Have the beginning stages of a working app? A professional user testing service might be of some use to you (if you have the cash to fork over).
But if you already have a product and some customers, then the best test subjects are the customers themselves, Harllee explains. Etsy uses “prototype groups,” segments of customers to whom they roll out new features before the rest. The prototype group then gives their feedback to the product designers via a private forum.
The beauty of FullStory, however, is that it lets you test iterations completely transparently to your users. And unlike receiving your feedback in written form (where the information isn’t directly linked to the experience and can be tedious to reproduce), product designers have access to an undisputed source of truth: the customer’s actual session, visually re-created for your analysis.
Whatever method you use to test, don’t stop, and never assume you’re an adequate judge of your own design. It’s really darn hard to tell when your baby is ugly, or your claw-foot tubs have taken one step too far.