Understanding context when designing a product

Last week we had an offsite in Santa Cruz where we got to spend 2 days with colleagues in the product organization. Apart from bonding activities (I finally learned to build sand castles properly – no easy feat!), we got to hear from a great lineup of internal and external speakers, including Tim Browm, CEO of the legendary design firm IDEO. Among various topics he touched on, I particularly liked the way he thinks about user context when designing a product, which I’ve summarized in my own words and examples:

    • Take one step back – Whatever you are designing, always take one step back to understand the user’s context. If you’re designing a feature, what is the user doing with your product at the time? If you’re designing a product for a single user, what  else is happening when she is using your product? Similarly, if you’re designing for a group of users, why are they interacting and what else are they doing together? Understanding these context helps ensure what you designed truly adds value to the user. 
  • Understand expectation  – Every product has a learning curve. As much as Apple is famous for design simplicity, it still takes time for a new mac user to fully understand the UX paradigm and be productive. On the other hand, if the user is given time to repeat the same action over and over, chances are she would become proficient at her task even if the design is awful. So how do we know if the UX of a product is “good enough”? It highly depends on the user’s expectation. Users are likely to be much more tolerant if they believe what they are using is “new” and expect to spend time learning (think the first generation iphone). On the other hand, users will quickly lose patience if they believe your product should work similarly as something they’ve used before, but it doesn’t (e.g. the new Windows 8 design). These classifications may or may not be just (arguably Windows 8 is designed for a whole new set of touch devices and use cases), but figuring out how users perceive your product is crucial to understand how much they are willing to tolerate a learning curve. 

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