Keep Users in Mind in Your Design

General Electric Company used to say in their advertising, “Progress is our most important product.” In terms of project management, satisfied users are often our most important product. Users may not be our direct clients, but they are the ones that eventually decide if our efforts to develop a software system helped or hindered getting their job done.

In previous posts — Business Analysts and Helping the Business Analyst Helps Your Project – I talked about the role of the Business Analyst in collecting user requirements and evaluating performance from a user’s perspective. Integral to our support of the user’s experience at Cognitive Technologies is Performance-Centered Design and Development addressed in detail in this white paper by Dr. Karen McGraw. In today’s post, I want to summarize the key points in Karen’s paper and tell you about an interesting site I found that adds another perspective to designing for users.

Performance-Centered Design
Cognitive Technologies works with users from the beginning of a project through final testing and support. We seek to capture and document work processes and information needs as well as user characteristics. We recommend rapid prototyping to develop a proof of concept or visual prototype to test early understandings and determine/refine requirements. Our user-centric activities include:

  • Identifying the information needs, including required input and output, sources and destinations for data, and information manipulation
  • Defining responsibilities or assignments, including understanding the job functions and goals, work processes, and critical success factors for the user community
  • Documenting standards and criteria for the user’s job performance that may be impacted by the new system
  • Capturing decision making factors and heuristics (i.e., rules of thumb) users apply in performing job functions affected by the system
  • Capturing problem solving patterns and preferences within the user community
  • Documenting difficulties and problem areas (in the way the job is performed today) that technology will or can improve

Design with Intent
Dan Lockton’s background in Industrial Design Engineering followed by a Master’s in Technology Policy from the University of Cambridge and his doctorate work at Brunel University in England focused on the impact of design on user behavior. Lockton and colleagues from Brunel developed a group of design concepts they call: Design with Intent, which are available for review and download.

Lockton uses the term Design with Intent to mean “design that’s intended to influence or result in certain user behaviour — it’s an attempt to describe lots of types of systems (products, services, interfaces, environments) that have been strategically designed with the intent to influence how people use them.” Although Lockton does not limit his thinking to software, many of his ideas are provocative in terms of their implications for software design. I picked 10 of over one hundred such suggestions to list here:

  1. Can you recognize the ‘desire paths’ of some of your users, and then codify them into your system, so others follow too?
  2. Can you edit the choices presented to users so only the ones you want them to have are available?
  3. Can you make the default setting the behavior you prefer users to perform?
  4. Can you detect and suggest a better option to users when it looks like they’re making an error (i.e. Google search correcting typo errors)?
  5. Can you let users know their progress towards achieving a goal or let users know how what they’re doing is affecting the system?
  6. Can you give users a preview or simulation of the results of different actions or choices?
  7. Could your system adapt what it offers to match individual users’ needs and abilities?
  8. Can you give people a ‘map’ of the routes or choices they can use to achieve different goals?
  9. Can you give users different choices or access to functions depending on the capabilities they can demonstrate?
  10. Can you make elements look similar so users perceive them to share characteristics, or that they should be used together?

What does this mean to project managers?
First, consider if the ideas about structuring user interaction suggested in Design with Intent make sense for your product and customer. If so, prepare a brown bag training topic about Design with Intent – or ask someone on your staff to do it. After your business analyst develops an overview of the users, their requirements and operating environment, brainstorm with the design team how some of the Design with Intent suggestions could be implemented. For those individual guidelines that you support, make sure that product testing includes an evaluation of those items.

One Response to “Keep Users in Mind in Your Design”

  1. 10 Guidelines for Making a User Interface People-Friendly « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] September 2010, I talked about the user design from the perspective of flow and functionality in “Keep Users in Mind in Your Design.”  In this post, I am going to talk more about the presentation of information or action […]


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