This was the mother of all usability tests. The air was blue. Expletives previously unknown to humankind rattled the one-way mirror. Strong men blanched and the observers ran for cover.

Fitting a new blade to a work knife should not be this hard — or this dangerous. But a 10-second task was becoming a 20-minute nightmare. Even the video instructions (yes, really) didn’t help. This couldn’t be right. What were the designers thinking? This was supposed to be the ‘new and improved’ version, for crying out loud!

For the test participant there was only one sensible thing left to do. In a final burst of pent-up frustration, he threw the offending work knife across the room. It split the air like an Exocet missile, ricocheted off the far wall and, with a resigned cry that sounded rather like ‘land-fill here I come’, landed with a thud in the trash can.

True story.

So much for user experience.

Questions that repeat in the night

For over 25 years I’ve worked with dozens of design teams in different parts of the USA and Europe, helping them develop and test a wide range of everyday consumer products. Although 25 years have passed, many new consumer products still create the same nagging questions at the back of my mind. These are the kind of questions ‘ordinary’ people ask when they are flummoxed by their microwave controls or when summoning up superhuman strength to get the lid off a marmalade jar.

Questions like:

  • Why do the simple and basic principles of good user experience design seem so alien to companies staffed by such capable, talented and intelligent people?
  • How can companies that have made good products for decades, now manage to turn out offerings that frustrate, catch people out, and make their customers feel incompetent?
  • Why does it take 4 button presses to turn on a TV?
  • Why do parents fit baby diapers on backwards?
  • Why are people confused by 29 of the 30 cycles on their washing machine?
  • Why do product upgrades and must-have new and improved features seem to make the user experience worse rather than better?
  • And why did a new work knife need video instructions to explain how to fit a new blade?

I started out in this field just before Don Norman published his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things. You only have to read as far as page 27 to know how to create perfectly usable products. So why haven’t designers and usability experts made better progress with everyday consumer products?

Why designers can’t see the user

Then I had an epiphany. It was something a designer said to me after the usability test of the work knife.

I asked him, “How do most people typically use your product?”

And he replied: “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know.” Suddenly, the chronic symptoms of dysfunctional design that I had observed over the years coalesced into a kind of ‘theory of everything’. I realized why it is that the usability of consumer products lags behind that of web sites and mobile phones.

It really comes down to something quite fundamental, and it’s this:

Designers can’t see the user. The customer is blocking the view.

In most consumer product companies the marketing team “owns” the product. The design team (in companies that have design teams, and it should be noted that many companies have no designers at all) is engaged by, takes direction from, and delivers to the marketing team.

It’s the marketing team that identifies the initial opportunity, commissions research, specifies requirements and features, supervises ideation, creates the design brief, tracks and steers design, determines the timeline, monitors the project from end-to-end, and manages the main budget.

The reason the marketing team pulls all of the strings is because they — and pretty much no one else in the company —have a direct line of sight to the customer.

Although usability teams and marketing teams both have an interest in knowing about end users, their objectives are quite different. Usability teams are interested in how people use a product. What key tasks do we need to support? What are the users’ unspoken needs? How can we make this product fit more easily into the lives of users?

In contrast, the objective of marketing teams is to sell more stuff. What influences the purchase decision? Where should we advertise? What values do we need to associate with the product to encourage people to buy it? Frankly, marketing teams don’t care if people find a product useful: their job is to shift the product. The more boxes shifted the better.

This is where the problem occurs. I said that the customer is blocking the view of the user. How can that be? Well, here’s the thing… For consumer product companies, the customer isn’t the typical everyday man or woman in the street. Instead, the key customer is a retail giant. In the USA this is typically a ‘Big Box’ retailer such as Walmart, Target, Sears, Best Buy and Home Depot, to name just a few.

You can’t underestimate the clout of the retailer. This player is all-powerful and can strongly influence a company’s design direction. But retailer needs are not user needs, and in this scenario no-one — not the marketing team, not the retailer and definitely not the design team — is looking at the product’s end user. Although both the marketing department and the retailer have a clear line of sight to the customer, their view is buyer-focused rather than user-focused.

Their understanding of the user is as a “consumer”. It is based on large-scale market research that taps into opinion or speculation. Anecdote, as someone once said, is not data. This kind of research is of no use at all to designers. Useful user feedback is gathered via product returns and complaints, but this critical source of information seldom reaches the design team in any systematic way.

In short, the retailer, aided and abetted by the marketing department, unwittingly blocks the design team’s view of the end user.

The 15 warning signs

I mentioned warning signs in the title of this article and now I need to deliver on my promise.

These are practices that I believe are dysfunctional, but that I’ve seen in almost every consumer product company I’ve worked with both as an internal and an external consultant.

They occur when the design team has no direct contact with the user and is unable to get answers to the three most important questions a designer can ask: Who is the user? What are they trying to do? Under what circumstances are they trying to do it?

  1. The product has become overly complex and feature-heavy and fails to reflect the fact that most everyday user tasks are fast and inherently simple.
  2. The designers don’t know the intended user audience or how the product will be used, but are expected to design a product that can be used by everyone.
  3. The design becomes focused on the product itself rather than on the experience of using the product.
  4. Because of the paucity of data, designers fall back on their own knowledge and personal experiences, which seldom reflect those of the target audience, and decision-making proceeds by dint of opinion and political argument.
  5. The designers create unique designs for the sake of unique designs, when a conventional, standardized approach might serve the user better.
  6. The development team has no way to prioritize design elements that matter to the user over those that don’t, often perseverating over issues that have little bearing on actual task completion.
  7. Usability — if considered at all — is falsely assumed to be an inherent characteristic of the product. Teams fail to acknowledge that it is an emergent property of users, goals and the context of use.
  8. In an attempt to think about usability, design teams display an over-reliance on textbook-derived checklists.
  9. A key source of design information is competitor products, rather than user needs — the assumption being that the competition must have got things right. Benchmark testing is often carried out at the expense of testing the product being designed.
  10. Because user input and feedback is missing, there is little or no design iteration or course correction, and opportunity for redesign is seldom built into the development timeline.
  11. Accessibility (designing so as not to exclude users who have disabilities) is overlooked.
  12. Designs (and sometimes even essential ergonomic parameters) are ‘validated’ by presenting them to people in focus groups (which are useless for understanding how people actually use a product).
  13. Customer validation is carried out very late, often after the manufacturing department has tooled up, thereby making design changes difficult and expensive.
  14. There is an over-reliance on explanatory labels and instructions to address problems found late in the design life cycle. The product can’t be changed but labels can be added.
  15. There is a lack of awareness of international standards pertaining to the ease of operation of everyday products, and to user-centered design.

Phew! I think you’ll agree, that’s quite a list. Any one of the above items should be reason for concern. So, what can be done to prevent these circumstances from occurring?

It’s clear that the design team and the marketing department need a way to communicate with each other about their intended target users. This communication channel is the discipline of user experience, and it’s a role that should be played at a strategic level by an experienced usability expert or team.

In a follow up article, I’ll present a new (and improved) role for usability teams that will show how they can work with marketing teams rather than work against them.

About the author

Philip Hodgson

Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.

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Phillip Hodgson Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in January 2019.

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