User Centred Design for Startups

Technology is increasingly integrated with our everyday lives. Whether keeping in touch with friends, listening to music, buying train tickets, looking for a job, or paying our bills – it is almost inevitable that a computerized device, often connected to the internet, is involved in the process. 

But not all interfaces are equal. We’ve all had experiences as consumers that leave us shaking our heads in disbelief, frustration or confusion. Common examples include programming the VCR, dealing with automated call centres, or trying to work out what to do next on some websites.

Today I’m interviewing Natalie Webb, an expert in usability and user-centred design. She brings a unique perspective to the topic, with qualifications in psychology and human computer interaction, broad business nous, and deep usability skills.  After working with specialist firm Amberlight in the UK, she now runs her own consultancy called Matau. 

Q. Natalie, you specialise in usability and user-centred design.  How would you describe what this means?

It is about designing products and systems that are centred around peoples’ needs and behaviour. The opposite is making people bend around the demands of a technology or system.

Q. What sort of business impact does user-centred design have?  Can it make a big difference to the chance of a new venture succeeding?

User centred design minimises risk; you understand requirements, create and evaluate solutions at an early stage of development. It is very expensive to alter a developed product, and you are usually much more limited in what you can change.

User centred design also helps innovation; once you know what needs and problems exist you can be creative in how to address these. Designing an easy to use, pleasurable and useful product or service will always help a new venture succeed.

Q.  Is usability more of an art or a science? What techniques and approaches do you typically apply when working with clients?

The question on whether user experience is an art or science is vigorously debated! I believe it can be both, which reflects its diverse roots.  You can conduct experimental studies as you do in psychology, do qualitative field research as done in social sciences, or be design focused when creating solutions.  I believe a lot of commercial HCI is a craft which reflects the expertise of the practitioner in gathering, analysing and designing.

Typical approaches used in HCI include going into the field to observe and interview people to understand requirements. Testing of prototypes, from paper sketches to almost the real thing, is very common. This helps to find out what interaction and flows are working. Testing live products and systems is often done to see what the current problems are.

Q. You’ve said before that good design is often about saying no, about not trying to be everything to everyone. What do you mean by this?

Good design needs clarity of focus – what is the design problem? What is the context of use? Who are the intended users? An overall vision for a design will help guard against ‘feature-itis’. Different stakeholders will want to add their little bit in under the assumption that more is generally better. However this way lies clutter and confusion of purpose. It is better to design a brilliant service for 10% then a pretty bad service for all.

Below are two examples of home pages for mobile phone service providers in the UK. To me the T-mobile site is much simpler to understand and navigate as a customer. The Orange site is half-portal half-mobile phone company. It is much more confusing to navigate through and understand what it is for. Flash animation is distracting too. I question if the Orange site is trying to do too many things and has avoided some decisions on what the home page is not going to do.

Q. Any advice for entrepreneurs out there when it comes to usability?

Usability doesn’t have to be a major commitment of time and effort. It is better to get some feedback than none at all. You don’t need expensive tools: go interview and watch some customers as they work and play. Invite feedback. Show some sketches and storyboards of some ideas to a few end users.  People are always fascinating and often surprising. There will always be things you don’t anticipate and it is better to know early then when it’s too painful to change!