On March 22, 2016, I spoke at TEDxYDL in Ypsilanti, Michigan. This is the video of my talk. The script that I basically used is below.
Look at this door. How do you use it? You push it. What if you didn’t read the sign, or can’t read it? The design suggests that you should pull it.
And there’s this guy. It’s a microwave. Do you know how to get it to heat up a plate of leftovers? Well, it doesn’t work like any other microwave you’ve ever used. No microwave works like any other microwave you’ve used.
And websites can be pretty bad, too. This site does a pretty good job nowadays, but 16 years ago, they had a bit of a problem finding a place to stick all those tabs at the top.
There’s a lot of stuff in this world that’s hard to use. Websites. Computer software. Hospital bills. All those remote controls you’ve got lying around. These things that are hard to use make you feel like a fool. If you only take away one thing from the next few minutes, it’s this: It’s not you. It’s the design. These things should have been designed better
My job is to try to make things like doors, microwaves, and websites easier for people to use.
Nowadays, my job title is “user experience architect.” And the work I do is called “user experience design.”
Let’s unpack those terms.
The user experience is the sum of all of the actions people take and feelings they have when they’re using something. This could be a website, or a computer program, or a phone, a car, a can opener, a building. Anything. The user experience is made up of every part of using that product: the words, buttons, colors, the box something came in, the customer support hotline. Everything.
Now, user experience design is based on going out and seeing how people actually use websites or whatever your product is, or how they’re going about their lives without your product, and then using that information to design or redesign a user experience that meets their needs. It puts humans at the center of design.
Let’s look at an example. I was working on a page where people would read journal articles when they were doing some kind of research. We brought regular people into a lab to test this page and find out how easy it was for them to use, and we interviewed people about how they do research, and a pattern emerged: the most important action people want to take on this page is to download a PDF copy of the article. How do you do it on this page?
Of course, if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it eventually, but if you’re not used to this website, you have to look around for it. The link is small and mixed in with other stuff. That’s why, when we had the chance to rebuild the page, we streamlined it. We made the things people wanted to do bigger, and tucked away the stuff they didn’t use somewhere else so they wouldn’t get in the way. And, of course, after the redesign people found it easier to find that download PDF button.
Designing stuff based on human capabilities isn’t just a matter of making sure you don’t get annoyed by doors and websites, though. It can be a matter of life or death.
In Stockholm a few years ago, they tried something different from other cities to make their roads safer – they started with the assumption that people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes. And that it’s the designers that are responsible for designing a road system that prevents people from dying.
For example, intersections with traffic lights have a lot of dangerous, high speed accidents when people run red lights. In Stockholm, they took dangerous intersections and replaced them with roundabouts, forcing people to slow down and pay attention. Rather than just hoping that everyone would see the traffic light, they changed the way the road worked so you couldn’t have the high speed accident.
They committed themselves to designing a city based on human needs and abilities – and it worked! Stockholm has the safest roads of any major city in the world, and are a model for other cities.
Designing to meet human needs and abilities also means designing things to accommodate a range of disabilities. When we design products and the physical world around us, we can’t leave people out, so we have to make sure our designs are universally accessible.
Let’s take blindness, as an example. There are people that use the Internet just by listening to it. That means a page like this kind of sounds like this
When it’s read out loud to you. To design for people who can’t see, you have to make sure your website makes sense to people that can only hear it.
People that really specialize in the accessibility part of user experience design gain a deep understanding of the technology and design techniques that support people with a range of different disabilities—not just blindness.
Taking this approach to design isn’t just good for people. It’s good for business. A study by Forrester indicates that “the top 10 companies leading in customer experience outperformed the S&P index with close to triple the returns” and “every dollar invested in UX brings 100 dollars in return.”
In the end, the most important thing for you to remember from this talk is that:
It’s not you, it’s the design.
Technology, services, organizations, and society should be designed to meet human needs and capabilities, whether those people are young, old, using something for the first time, distracted, or have disabilities.
When you’re having trouble using a website or a microwave or reading your hospital bill, it’s not your fault. The people that made those things should have done a better job. Design matters. And so as we shape the world with the technology and the society that we build, it is imperative to put humans at the center of the design.