Understanding the Mysterious Behavior of Complex Digital Product Users
Dean Schuster presented “Understanding the Mysterious Behavior of Complex Digital Product Users” at UX Camp Spring 2021. Enjoy!
Founder and partner of truematter, a user experience strategy firm, Dean has created user-centered digital products for 25 years. He oversees truematter’s UX practice, leading engagements for regional organizations as well as the Fortune 100. Dean specializes in defining, designing, and building complex digital products. His expertise includes UX strategy, user research, prototyping, and building UX-focused teams. He regularly speaks, writes, and teaches on these subjects. Dean is also an avid ultra marathoner, reader, and adventure traveler.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
Alright, so I’m a little delayed here, so I’m gonna choose my slides and hopefully that’ll work out a little bit, in fact, what I might do is say Heidi all and then just sort of close off my face, which is a bonus really for everyone. So I’m gonna go ahead and see if this is… Yeah, this is working. Okay, awesome, so we’re gonna today focus on understanding the mysterious behavior of complex digital product users. That’s me, experienced Dean. Find me on Twitter. I’m a principal in a company called True matter, we’re in sunny South Carolina, where it is like 55 degrees today, which means it’s freaking freezing here, and everyone’s inside or getting their winter coat, so let me go ahead and kill my video, and I think that’s gonna help us a lot. So we’re just gonna dive right on in. And once upon a time, there was an interface that was created and delivered to a client, and this isn’t exactly the interface, but you can imagine it looked a lot like this. Now, the real excitement about this interface was coming completely from the product team, and they deliver this lovely thing to the clients and they’re very excited, they’re very proud of it.
I think it hits everything just right.
Of course, there’s one problem, and the problem is simple, the users absolutely are perplexed, life, they hate it, they hate it with a passion, they hated a lot about it, they hated the big ness of it, they hated the fact that they couldn’t see everything. They heated the air quotes here, which you can’t see white space, the head of the note hated that they had to go find things and enter another area and Scroll down to see more the…
Fair to say. They despised it completely. So the question I have today that I want us to explore is Why, why did they hate it? Because this was produced by a UX team, ostensibly did research and spend time with users, right.
That happens all the time, and I expect you all are doing that as well, so let’s dive in because we have this feeling together, and I think maybe not everyone here, but you know people feel this way, that you have products out there that we hold out as holier than thou. And we have this notion, and Apple or Google or whatever their products are great, but you are… As my friend absolutely sucks and kinda looks like this, and
I’ve seen this a lot in designers, I’ve seen this a lot in user experience professionals, the idea is we wanna get away from this horrible, cluttered nonsense, this terrible, awful, perpetrated mess that’s been thrown at us for years and years and decades, and we’re trying to un-cork all of those problems and just try to release the beauty of simplicity to the world, and I think that’s actually a wonderful way to think about our mission, but we could also get it completely wrong.
So when we come back to this interface, I just wanna ask the question, what’s so wrong with this thing? Why exactly? Did it not work? So what we’re gonna do is talk a little bit about users, ’cause that’s where we should always spend our time as use your experience professionals. And if you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’m gonna create what I call for UI quadrants. Now, these are my own creation, I don’t think there’s any science to this, I don’t think there’s any official anything to it, but it’s just something I’ve noticed when thinking about users of this sort, so let’s say we have a top and bottom, and down below, we have what we call rare use stuff, we don’t use very much at all, bind our quadrate, we’ve have constant use, our stuff we’re using all the time. Every day. Now, let’s go left and right on the left, let’s imagine a novice user, and we know all about novice users, don’t we… We encounter them all the time, they’re technologist, re super aware usually that they’re noticed or slow, the methodical, all these things about your typical novice, we know we’re used to these people, and over on the right, we’ve got our power user, we know these people to…
These people are hugely impatient, they’re more likely to have errors when trying tasks because they’re impatient, they’re dismissive of complexity, my goodness, they’re never gonna read anything and they’re gonna be reluctant to ask for help, all that sort of thing. We kinda know power uses, we probably are ourselves power users, so we get it, and we typically have interfaces we’re having to deal with, sometimes we are not… Is sometimes more power users or whatever, but we have to figure that up, so now we have four quadrants, frequency of use goes up, tech savvy goes to the right. So now we have these four lovely quadrants, which means that business schools or they’re loving me because I used four quadrants. Now, we’re gonna focus on just two of them, the lower left and upper right rear use by novices and constant use by power users, so that gives us a lovely little grid, and let’s talk about our friends, the novices, because if they’re using things all the time, they’re probably texting, that’s something that a novice uses all the time, or maybe it’s an online banking app, every one of every sort of Tech-Savvy has to use things like this or does…
Now, on the rare side, these might be things that I know this just uses every now and again, maybe they’re booking a vacation or looking forward to finally looking at other one, they’re doing taxes of medical survey, whatever, whatever, and let’s think about these rare use items. So Airbnb, always a great example of lovely, lovely design and experience, and we notice right away that it fulfills all these wonderful notions we have as UX professionals about what should be… How things should feel for the masses. Super simple. It’s easy, it appear. So the interactions that we encounter are common interactions, they’re not foreign to us, we are looking at basic basic stuff, and when we get down to look at a specific place, well, there’s not much to do here except sort of see it, see how much it is… We could look a little further, but there’s not much complexity in terms of how we perceive it, obviously, we know as people who make things that the simplest things, right, Russ can have all sets of complexity, but the perception here, simplicity, when I choose to look at images as all I’m doing.
It’s easy. Mobile. It doesn’t freak me out. This doesn’t scare me, this wouldn’t even scare my mud. We’ll just say something. So if you’re doing taxes, same sort of thing, we give this perception of simplicity behind an extremely complex thing, tax is crazy, but it has to be made for anyone and everyone, so we have to make it a pear simple and be easy and have very limited paths we can’t do much, we’re gonna do one thing at a time, and that particularly comes out on mobile where we do one thing, move to the next thing, do one thing. Move to the next thing. Or go back. It’s great.
Now, imagine you are at a doctor’s office, you’re handed that tablet and you have to answer questions or our survey… Well, you could be anybody.
You could be a six-year-old kid, you could be a 60-year-old and an 80-year-old Al, maybe you have vision problems, low vision, poor vision, or maybe your hands are just knowle by arthritis and you have a hard time so you’re gonna make something like this be like hyper easy to use, and everything is super big, and it’s really hard to make a mistake… No problem. Simple Things To Do. That’s fine and dandy. That’s rare use for novice users, these novice users, they just want to be sure they did something and they just got through it, they did it right, just please tell me I didn’t screw up, I just want to have done it and feel good about it. I wanna be satisfied with my experience that it went right and I didn’t mess it up.
That’s why all the interfaces for these types of people have certain types of quality and these qualities tend to be the things that we value super, highly as well, we should as UX professionals. Now, power users. Now, I actually wanna talk about a specific kind of power user today, I don’t just wanna think about a super tech-savvy person, I wanna go a little further and talk about the expert user, the expert user. Now, this person is a power user, but they’re a power user who has very specific industry experience, domain knowledge and tons of experience using a tool, which means they might be even trained on the use of a tool, they’re probably dealing with it quite frequently. And this is like a sub-class or subset, power users that you may have experienced in your travels in the digital products that you’re helping to find and create, if you have experienced these are run into these people who you know who they are right away, and we’re gonna deal with them as we go, because these folks are using productivity stuff and intense data dashboards and internal software galore, they are probably using this stuff all day Law, and I know of several expert power users who don’t just use one interface all day long, they have many screens, there are many digital products they’re looking at all day long, and they have different needs for interfaces, their interfaces tend to have a lot of junk in them, and I’m giving you some sort of random examples of types of interfaces that people might use all day every day they’re gonna have Big Data Grids, searches and all this stuff, and I’m not holding this screen out as some sort of paragon of perfection when it comes to a complex digital product, but it has the qualities of these products, and you might see that in a product where you just have a lot of complex interactions with a lot of management and just a lot of stuff that you have to patch into interface, even in this case of administration section.
Maybe you have different types of actions that occur in an interface that require very complex data choices, and they have to be explained and clarified and they’re invested and all sorts of crazy stuff, this is what expert users are gonna using all the time, and these people think varied differently from others, they want speed above everything, every one speed. Sure, but an expert user, it is this existential need, it’s gotta be fast, it can’t get in my way, it’s gotta help me do my stuff every day, sometimes that stuff is time.
So I need to see more and more and more and more and more, and I need to be able to identify information easily, ’cause I use this all day and please don’t talk to me about your crazy white space problems. These are expert users, they care about efficiency, ruthless efficiency, anything that they touch or interact with that doesn’t help them be remarkably productive is heated with a burning passion of a thousand sons. That is who these people are.
When you think about the things that they have to use every day, you’re thinking about stuff like data greens, and this is a very simple yet very open data grid that an expert user and might have a problem with.
And the problem they have with this grid is… My goodness, this is really interesting, it looks like I can do all sorts of stuff with this and maybe that left column is frozen and all this great stuff on the top I could see when I scroll ’cause that’s sticky and Frozen, but you could have fit like double the stuff in here. That’s the first thing that someone would say, And that strikes us as UX people as really tough to swallow, and it’s rough, because we’re trying to make things easy to see at a class, we’re trying to let them breathe, trying to make them easy. And so an expert user would say, Hey, this is really nice what you’re doing here, but can I get more on the screen, could you compact this a little bit so… Sure, we could do it a little bit and like, yeah. How about a little more? And you constantly hear them say this, can we fit more and more and more and more and more, because I am all about seeing things quickly and scrolling takes me time and just weird crazy things like this. So the interface is that these folks are using their super complex…
They have specific language, they actually want acronyms and they want Jardin because they know jargon and the no acronyms and they speak them every day, they want things to be compact, that want them to be dense, they want to be narrow test.
Yet, they wanna be able to do a zillion things with an interface, analyzing data today, I’m looking at it differently, tomorrow, I’ve gotta have conversations and compare things, who knows what I’m doing with this interface, but in a narrow it, it might just add your name into TurboTax and next… Well, add your address. It’s not like that’s what the FISA typical type of interface could end up looking kind of like for expert users, they’re gonna like certain things about this, they’re gonna like how dense your data grid is, especially… Of course, if they have to look at data and compare it all day long, in this case, they might look at this chart and say, I sure hope I can collapse that. Yeah, you can… Because they wanna see more and more and more and more data. Especially if data is pivotal to them and pivotal to their job, you’ll even notice this grid, which we’re gonna come back to you in a minute, has a specific type of design principles that allow for speed of understanding of data, so we basically have a problem… And I know we don’t have much time today, but I wanna explore briefly the nature of the problem, if you get that, then you’re gonna…
Next time you deal with these interfaces, you’ll feel better, ’cause we basically have a counter-intuitive problem, we all wanna make things open and fresh and simple, and we have these users coming back at us if you’ve experienced them, you know, they want to do everything it seems like we’ve been trained not to do.
So when we show them this, they basically vomit all over it and get angry, if you show them something like this, which is sort of a stereotypical example of something a designer by trade, they would simply call this clunky, odd, weird, unhelpful… On and on and on and on and on. Wasted space was a space is all you here. And they’re not wrong. Based on the things they do every day. So if we think about it abstractly, just think about a lovely creative stars, if we have nice spatial expansion here, it looks kind of wonderful, and we’re trained to think, this is a good idea, and honestly, it is… It does look pretty good. If I show an expert user this, they’ll probably tell me This is okay, but you know what, I really want more stars that will be their first come. So that means what we’re doing as designers and as UX professionals is we’re sort of doing this give and take and inciting about every pixel of space, and the only way to get that right is to spend a lot of time with these users and do a lot of trial runs with them and push the interface as far as we can…
And we’ll get to that in a minute too. So a real issue we have as UX professionals, and I’m sure this is the case. If you’ve dealt with this, you show up to redesign some complex lie, or you think about all of this complex UI that you have to deal with all the time, and traditionally, it has been created by development teams without the benefit sometimes of designers at all. So UX people, this is still changing, there are still stuff out there that’s a real problem, and sometimes what happens is on a development team, the most interested developers, design savvy developer who cares about UI, we’ll try something and they’ll just throw everything at an interface thinking by beautifying it, they’ve made it easy to use, but they are typically making things super complex, a compact and awful, and you think that would be right, but of course, it’s also not, right, because where we came from was this client server era where everything is crunched together and compact and not thrown in with any real sense of purpose or clarity, and you got that or you develop… It has with do these out-of-the-box solutions that are in there, just abysmal, awful and stuff like this, I assure you is in place today, is being used not long ago, and development teams are throwing us out there, they know a couple of things.
They got a nice data grid where you got a lot of stuff, but of course everything else is wrong, so on one side, we wanna look at this and open it up and do it right, but in so doing, we can’t lose the basics that expert users need this is a real thing, and I don’t know what to tell you. This stuff’s out there, and when we have our reactions to it, we know how to fix this, but if we forget what our users think, which even we can do… I’ve been in the business for a while and I could still catch myself not truly listening. So it’s something we have to do all the time. Or two problems are simple, our approaches are not suited for the things that expert users needs really aren’t, but the development-led approaches that are historically out there are visible. So what do we do? We find ourselves all the time going into an engagement as an external player, trying to kick-start a better design approach or help people hire UX professionals and teach them how to build a UX organization. All of that is important and necessary, but the main thing we do is help them get to a place where their users are super efficient and productive, their absolute highest value, and in this case, this is a sampling of a real-ish interface Frankenstein to protect the innocent. And what we have here is the ability to have the things that expert users typically want, Chrome is drastically, drastically reduced defect in many cases, this chrome, by that I mean header and left column are to be still… We have interaction areas that could be hidden or moved, we’re hiding complexity until it’s needed were a call… We’re making neutral interfaces that use color very, very specifically for call out of fast data retrieval. Thus, the chart… In a perfect world, the user might default to this massive grid, the grid, they have to look at all day, the grid from which they have to glean data, the grid from which they provoke conversations from all their colleagues, they might have a couple of screens with this density in it. But you come as no surprise that these users also really, really like spreadsheets, like a lot… I can love with them a narrative if they could, but getting to this step, really just listening more to what an expert needs, and it meant we had to step back and away from our notions of what design principles should be, so I assure you this interface has been tested rigorously, and it works for these users.
And so at the end of the day, that’s all that mattered.
So when we think about understanding these folks, and if you encounter them is probably not new to you, but you will counter them someday, is
There our rules for you actually still apply… We have violated any UX rules for these folks, just because they want something more compact, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means how we compact it down matters how we allow for columnar and row-based scanning to still work even when something is dense like they need it to be…
We’re still listening to users and testing with them and observing them, and when you do that was expert users, after they yell at you a lot, you’ll get a sense of what you really need to do for them, so it’s still completely user-bases, it just doesn’t feel right, the first time you do it.
So for us, an expert users, there’s lots and lots and lots of testing and observations, the only way you get to the right interface with these folks, and it could be difficult to get there, but you can… So lots of iterations. It’s a narration, and you’ll probably work be working with internal dev teams, which can be challenging in these situations, that’s a whole other talk. But for now, I do wanna leave you with a couple of things, and there are couple of good books you can read about dealing with density of presentation, dashboards or really complex in… That just needs a lot of stuff. The next time expert power users save you by what I really want you to replicate is a spreadsheet for me, and instead of picking yourself up off the floor after you fade, you could say we were a…
I can do this. They are just telling me that they need complexity, knowing that let’s step forward, these books help you get there, because they really dive deep into the nature of presenting dense data, which I think is the key for getting this all right. But more than that, the key is to believe and listen to your users above your ingrained sense of standards, above your sense of writing historical interface wrongs, which we constantly have to do, and recognizing that in some cases, there are users who truly need things that we typically would not make… And because of that, once you have that realization deep down, you know you can make this happen.
And that is my introduction to expert users, I hope you get some questions about this because I constantly have questions about this… I’m constantly learning.