A note to designers: You don’t own the design

9 Dec 2017

Image: baranq/Shutterstock

UX expert Gareth Dunlop introduces what he calls the reverse George Bush design effect: misoverestimating the user.

“We know this solution is more usable based on the feedback the usability tests provide us with, but it’s just a bit boring,” was the heartbreaking feedback the agency received from their client. “There’s no way our users wouldn’t know what that interface control means.”

You might think that the arrogance of speaking on behalf of users without ever having met one – or, worse still, ignoring user feedback if it doesn’t suit – represents a luxuriant hubris for the tiny minority of organisations so successful and with such desirable products that their users will take what they are given. However, this author’s experience suggests that this outlook is more prevalent than it should be, based on what we know about the close relationship between how organisations treat their customers online and commercial success.

The inestimable Jakob Nielsen states that the single most expensive lesson digitally untransformed companies have to learn is how different their users are to them.

I am a long way from reaching the heady heights of global authority enjoyed by Nielsen, but I have been involved in digital for two decades, made a living from design for 15 years and have earned my keep from UX exclusively for six. With every passing day, I am increasingly convinced that Nielsen is completely correct.

Designer or user?

Let’s contrast the world of most digital designers with the world of their users. To understand the world of the user, let’s turn to the statistics.

Between 2011 and 2015, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) collected data from 33 industrialised countries. The data included tests from more than 215,000 people with at least 5,000 people tested in each county. Published in 2016, the report aimed to test the computer skills of people aged 16 to 65, by asking them to complete 14 tasks of increasing levels of difficulty.

Its findings are summarised below.

  • 14pc of adults tested could only complete a level 1 task, such as deleting an email message.
  • A further 29pc of adults tested could complete a level 2 task, such as finding an email from a specific contact.
  • A further 26pc of adults tested could complete a level 3 task, such as finding a specific document in an email from a specific contact.
  • 5pc of adults could be deemed expert-level computer users.
  • Critically, about 25pc of users were deemed unable to use a computer at all, with the general difficulty of software and usability challenges cited as a key reason.

And none of this even starts to consider the more than 10pc of most OECD populations that have a physical or other impairment, which negatively affects their ability to use computers.

‘Many of us old-timers in the digital industry have been around enough corners to have seen too many designs that designers have designed for designers’

When it comes to designers, in 20-plus years in the industry, I have yet to meet one who doesn’t fall into the 5pc expert-level category. When we interpret, ‘There’s no way our users wouldn’t know what that interface control means’ through this lens, what it really means is that the designers’ friends and colleagues in the cosy 5pc know what the interface control means. It casts the spotlight on the sad truth that ‘Our users would never’ usually means ‘I would never’ or ‘My colleagues would never’ and, frankly, that’s not good enough.

Culturally, challenging this malignant mindset was high on the agenda of the GDS team in the UK a decade ago when it started the Gov.uk project. Understanding the users it was serving was at the heart of everything it did and continues to do. A recent report it published said that every 100 times a public service is accessed in the UK, 77.9 of those times it is accessed online.

People are no longer posting letters, filling in forms, going to post offices or spending hours on the phone. Users across levels 1, 2 and 3 and into expert are feeling confident and empowered because GDS recognises that that everyone in its organisation serves the user.

Many of us old-timers in the digital industry have been around enough corners to have seen too many designs that designers have designed for designers. And it’s difficult to think of a more condemning description of a design.

Designers, you don’t own the design. It’s not for you. It’s not for your colleagues. It’s not for your boss. It’s not for awards judges. It’s for the people who are the reason you have a job – your users, across all levels of ability and disability, relying on the quality of your work to solve real problems in the real world.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing and customer journey planning, web accessibility, and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, Tourism NI, PSNI, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile. 

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.