Jared Spool is one of my heroes. I go hear him speak every time that I get a chance to and have often retold a number of his stories with various clients. One of the first times that I heard him speak was at the Software Development Conference in 2000.
Jared is a usability expert. That does not mean graphic designer. That means that his expertise is understanding the user and building an experience that is relevant and meaningful in the user’s context.
So what is a “User’s Context”? It’s all of the things that make up your user and how they work. What’s their education level (high school, college, doctorate)? How loud is the work environment (are they on a call center floor? are they in an office by themselves?)? How many and how big are the individual tasks that the user has to perform (is it clicking one button or filling in a 1000 question survey)? Are they wearing gloves while working (such as a mechanic)? Are they familiar with the application (such as an internal application) or are they new to the application (such as a publicly facing web site)? What’s the average tenure of an employee? All of these things and more make up the context for the user and dramatically change the needs of the user for a given application.
He talks about the process that his firm goes through where they start with “Users in the Mist”, all props to Dian Fossey. This involves sometimes 2 or more weeks of just observing the users at work in their natural environment. This gives him a good understanding of the users and how they work so that the software that he’s helping create will slide right into the way that they need to work without them having to spend time fighting to the tools. Sometimes, the result is actually not more software. I know that’s shocking but it’s true. One of these stories ended up solving the worker’s issue with plywood and Christmas tree lights. That’s cool.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for those that have graphic artist abilities because I’ve got none. However, you should not confuse that with usability. This point is very clearly demonstrated in his latest article on his blog – UIEtips: The $300 Million Button » UIE Brain Sparks. In this article, he talks about a fairly straight forward ecommerce site that was loosing millions a year and they couldn’t figure out why. They brought in Jared’s team who after a few weeks of usability testing with real users changed the working on the button for a $300 million dollar jump in profits the following year. The button was pretty enough, functional enough and so on but the user’s didn’t understand the ramifications of clicking the button. That’s an issue that they found through extensive usability testing.
Before you spend a lot of time and money building a beautiful skin to your application, make sure that you understand your users and that you’ve built the application in such a way that it works for them rather than them working for the application.