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Anticipating User Needs: Creating Software for Humans

For the longest time as a UX researcher, I’ve been perplexed at how not even close most software is when you start to test it with real people. Even seemingly “best practice,” nice and simple designs. Teams talk about, collaborate and pow-wow for great experiences, but when when things are actually put it in front of a person — it’s a totally different story, and the planned experience begins to unravel as unexpected use cases come to light.

Certainly, when I meet face-to-face or remotely with participants, they are all capable humans who have navigated complex challenges in life, have rich experiences and creative thoughts. The human brain is amazing, so why is there such a gap in software? How can an individual who provides for children and has a mortgage miss that the button’s clearly disabled? I’ve observed even very technically savvy people make errors that seem obvious.

This gap exists in what humans are good at, how we communicate versus how machines actually work and respond to us.

Humans navigate the world using touch, facial expressions, sight, sound, gestures, smell and taste. Even today, we mainly get information through talking with other people. Many people don’t scour interfaces for clues when they need help. They seek out a family member or coworker and ask.

A common critique of mobile technology is that people ignore the person they’re with and that this has a negative impact on relationships. Looking away from someone when they are speaking is interpreted as disinterest.

How Do People Actually Communicate?

That homo sapiens possess superior communication and information processing skills underlies our entire society and existence — reading the information in this very blog post is evidence of advanced human communication.

Humans are social learners. We share information by talking, but also with many other cues. Body language, hand gestures, amount of eye contact, facial expressions, volume and tone in our voices can send various messages. We also learn by trying things and watching others do something and seeing the results.

Written language is not as natural to us as speaking. It takes a lot of intentional effort to learn to read and write (years), whereas we will learn to speak our local language(s) without any additional formal education.

Human vision for reading uses a very small part of the back of the retina, but in user interfaces we often assume users can read and evaluate everything in their peripheral clearly. (Image via Hans-Werner34)

Humans also use a very small part of their field of vision to read, known as the fovea on the back of the retina. Outside of that small magnifying glass of focus, letters look very blurry to us — creating problems when humans use interfaces with a lot going on or require noticing items that are far apart.

What About Accomplishing Tasks?

When testing a design, UX researchers are often most interested in task analysis: can the user confidently get from A to B. Tasks have two parts: motivation, does the user actually want to do it and friction, is it hard to do. Usability tests usually spend very little time assessing what people actually want to do on an interface on their own since task scenarios are written and directed to users.

It’s tempting to put a big check mark on the project if something is technically usable, but human motivation often does not fit into a series of neat checkboxes. Sometimes people are unpredictable, have misconceptions about the software, or simply no interest in using it. For this reason, I recommend starting with contextual inquiry (watching people in their natural environment) and analytics to better understand real world motivation and using usability testing for understanding friction.

The challenge from a humans-doing-things perspective is not only if it’s easy, but that many people don’t always do things in logical, sequential paths. Software should be designed with the flexibility that the user will click, tap or do something that the project team may not expect.

Most software and interfaces use a list of predetermined paths. If the user unknowingly leaves the path, things get weird.

Does Not Compute

Software most commonly uses pass / fail logic and loops (for, while and if statements). The interface presents info to the user, but technology can’t gauge the user’s reaction, confusion or skill level in regards to what it has presented. It can shoot them a few errors afterwards at best.

The challenge for building software is that the computer is not smart enough to know when the user is going off the rails without planning. That’s where anticipatory design comes in.

Isn’t it interesting that most companies still have customer service representatives to help people use their website or app? And that the person will talk through each screen with the person, and even demonstrate through screen sharing how to do it? It speaks volumes that reading a large screen of information is not how people naturally make decisions, but talking to someone back and forth and watching them do it are very familiar, even to people who are not technical at all. Great product teams and UX practitioners watch real people and engage customer service reps when available rather than making assumptions about how people will use something.

In the future, when someone uses technology, artificial intelligence could seek to understand the user’s questions and familiarity and even customize a dynamic user experience for them and utilize more of these human-communication-based cues, such as live communication.

First: Where Does Your Audience Differ?

In order to create dynamic experiences, you have to understand where one user may excel and where another might get stuck. Most products have to accommodate a variety of technical levels, but few do this well. During persona development, see if you can add some contextual shadowing sessions to see your users in the scenarios you’re designing for, then:

  1. Create a workflow for your power user to quickly make their selections
  2. Create a workflow for a user who doesn’t understand the subject matter well and can’t input the information without assistance, or doesn’t understand why / if they would need to enter it

Next: Where Can Business & Design Do the Work for Them?

Once your use cases are thought through and documented, think about shortcuts and how information could be reduced to create a more dynamic experience:

  1. If you provide one piece of information, consider what other information could be drawn from it and pre-filled
  2. If a use case doesn’t have an option for item X, this scenario information should not be presented
  3. Users should only make decisions when there’s an impact; don’t make people think or do duplicate data entry (when they shouldn’t have to)

True Equal Access

You can’t talk about software for humans without accessibility.

Current technology mainly relies on the human vision with occasional audio cues, but most software and web experiences don’t include audio at all. “Touch” and “gestures” are a bit of a misnomer in our biological context, because many touch devices’ apps are still relying on visuals (it’s a flat, non tactile piece of glass) and gesture interactions are learned for each device, not a natural part of human society.

Almost all interface content is designed primarily for seeing, hearing and non-learning impaired people, and unfortunately in many circles complying with the ADA (American Disabilities Act) on the business side is more about avoiding lawsuits than truly creating equal access. I hope in the future, interpretive technology can be used to unlock full communication and access and break down barriers.

Some early wearable prototypes have been made to attempt to translate American Sign Language (ASL), but since the language uses facial expressions, body language and even depth of sign to convey meaning, sign-to-speech is tricky.

There are apps now that can translate languages, which has in its early forms been a pretty terrible experience, but in the future could better pick up on context, cultural and idioms and work in real time. Perhaps artificial intelligence and better design could even fill in more gaps in face-to-face human communication.

Technologists, Be Mindful

The more I research and have conversations about this topic, the more it feels like holding up a mirror. Artificial intelligence and futuristic software will carry over their designer’s assumptions and ideas — both good and bad. As facilitators of human-computer interactions, we can never forget the human users of software. The intent of technology should be to increase quality of life. When it’s used to leave people behind or replace them, or made without accessibility, the consequences can be disastrous.

Technologists: continually self educate, think like anthropologists and create accessible.

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About The Author

UX Strategist

Sarah is a UX Strategist in Cardinal's Charlotte office. As a user experience designer and analytics creative, she strives to make good and useful things for the digital space.