Distractions from user focus

In the industrial production process from idea to use, the consumer came last – almost as an after-thought. That is where the term “end-user” comes from. In the present era of smartphones and tablets and apps, an approach that focuses on the user, first and foremost, is uncontroversial.

I remember that 10 years ago the usefulness of user-centered design needed to be evangelized, even within high-tech companies and universities of technology. Apple, of course, played a big role in convincing people that user focus was a pretty good idea, given the huge success of the iPod (2001), iPhone (2007), and iPad (2010).

These days I never meet anyone who is arguing against a user-centered approach to app development. But the question remains whether app creators actually do what they believe is right. Are they using all the methods, tricks, and tools that are available?

Let me just say this; they seem to be distracted quite easily.

Not talking to users

I have experienced this situation many times. Someone is describing a new app and the person is very excitedly pitching how it will thrill their users. It always pains me to have to spoil the mood, but I really have to ask this question: “Have you talked to a potential user outside your direct social circle?” Usually the answer is no.

I can back this up with a statistic that goes beyond the merely anecdotal. Vision Mobile analyses the mobile industry and regularly surveys the developer community. One  of their findings really struck me: “only 24% of developers discusses with users” [Andreas Pappas,  Which apps make more money? 2013]. Just to spell it out for you; this means that 76% of developers do not talk to potential users of their apps. The good news is that development teams now routinely have interaction designers as members. So, if developers are not interacting with users, hopefully the designers are.

Team dynamics

Another distraction from a proper user-centered approach comes from within the team of app makers. In the messy development process some of the technical challenges invoke huge creativity among the developers. They come up with ingenious solutions. In my experience it is common that a technical solution actually introduces a novel problem for the user. I call this the “… and therefore we added a button” moment.

If there is no-one on the team familiar enough with the user context (and with enough power) to press for another solution, the proverbial button will become a permanent feature of the app.

Organizational pressures

In the case that the app creation team is embedded in a larger organisation, the distraction from the straight and narrow user-focused path can also come from outside the team. Let us get to the core of the issue without delay and discuss power. If someone from “higher-up” claims that the app needs feature X and nobody from the team challenges it, the app will become flawed.

If the right person is present in the meeting, she may explain why this goes against the natural behavior of the users in their habitual context of use. If pressed further, the best tactic is to state that the issue can not be resolved during the meeting since none of the future users of the app is present.

What to do?

Here is the general solution. Whoever you are that is involved in the creation of an app, you have to remind yourself regularly; this app is not about me. User-centered design and development simply means that you make software that does something useful for your users. This is easily stated but apparently hard to put into practice.

Relax. You do not have to reinvent the wheel. There is a multitude of methods, tools, and best practices available that will help you keep your focus on the user, in every phase of the project.

And remember, it turns out that user-centered apps generate more revenue.

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By Stijn Oomes

Vision Scientist | Software Engineer | Lecturer

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