Technology does not always equal progress.
Douglas Coupland, Life After God (1994)
Over the last fourteen years I've largely made my living by working on websites - a peculiar thing for someone involved mostly with the back end of websites or bit-twiddling. When it comes to making things look pretty, I wax my car and wash my clothing regularly. I've been known to administer proper personal hygiene and, if I get lucky, I might accidentally wear something stylish.
Recently on Facebook I complained that the scripts on Facebook were taking too long to run and that I constantly had to stop them. Another person recently complained about a website where, despite everything being functional, they found the process of shopping to be annoying. Today, one of my contacts dried out a bit and I was boggled that the eyedrop bottle's instructions were in no way legible to someone who... would need the eyedrops.
When it comes to user experience, no matter how much science (and fiction) you wish to throw around, it boils down to some simple things: (1) The context of the user, (2) the ease of obtaining an expected result (3) the thing to be used's ability to deal with (1) and (2).
It's really that simple.
The User Context
When I need eyedrops because I'm having trouble seeing, it should be apparent to anyone selling bottles of the product that the user's vision will be impaired - likely enough so to require the use of said eyedrops. That incident is what inspired this blog entry but it goes further than simply eyedrops. If you go to a website to purchase something, you may be on a budget and as such will be guarded - or you might want to do it quickly so that you can do other things like skip around smelling flowers. Hurried.
When I worked in the old Naval Hospital in Orlando, a user's context was never... happy. A crying child's mother that needs to be sutured. A cancer patient's wife having to read medicalese that passed muster with the legal team. Even in births, women are generally not in the best of moods and are unlikely to quote scripture - more likely they're willing to throw the book at someone. Understanding that people were generally displeased to be in an emergency room set a tone and some of us found ways to try improving the user's context. It's that way with just about everything.
Where many things fail, be it eyedrops or websites, literature on cancer or a brisk Doctor in an ER, is the understanding that people aren't typically at their best and that their experience matters.
To make matters even more interesting, those that clue in on this aspect of the user experience raise the bar and force an evolution in 'the thing to be used'.
The Ease of Obtaining An Expected Result
10 years ago, people didn't have expectations on purchasing things online other than expecting to have their information lost, their credit card number stolen and other things along those lines. Amazon.com and sites like it have forced an evolution in user expectations when they use such things. This is largely because such websites are intent on selling things - you can speak to a business person if you wish to get into gross details, but it boils down to selling things. As such, such websites want users to get the things that they want easily and quickly - much like brick and mortar stores have done and continue to do.
When people go to the hospital, they expect to become less ill. When an irked software developer buys a bottle of eyedrops, he wants to be able to get the right amount of drops into his eye so he can keep working and needs to know what the recommended use is. Facilitating the use is important, but more important is understanding that the 'thing to be used' in a competitive market is evolving to become easier to use. Amazon.com has raised expectations of their users when they use other sites. iPhone users expect a very high level of ease of use and are unlikely to shift to another brand even when another brand may have better service and features.
If you want happy users of any product, you have to understand that they are used to constantly being catered to. Even fast food restaraunts understand this though they may not realize that employees can only smile so much before appearing like creepy Disney employees. Smile. There are no creepy Disney Employees. Mickey said so.
'The Thing To Be Used'
If I wasn't afraid of losing the bottle of eyedrops I probably would have thrown it against something. We put up with - there's no better word - crappy things all the time and that can put us into a mood which makes even the best cooked meal taste bad. One really bad experience sours the next. The 'death from 1,000 papercuts' is also what can create a bad experience with a thing to be used where little irritants can cause someone to be in a less than pleasant mood when using your product and service. All too often in a world separated by hyperlinks we forget that and we forget that there is another human being on the other end of things that might be having a bad day. We all have one friend who, unwittingly, has a tendency to try to cheer us up by telling us that he or she is right about everything - not understanding that it is just another papercut in a day full of them.
The Unspoken Secret
There are relatively few people on the planet who enjoy being miserable though there are times when I would debate myself on that point. Generally speaking, people want... stuff that works, that is easy to use and that might even make their day better or at the very least not worse. That's common knowledge to anyone with their neurons firing in the right order.
What isn't common knowledge is this: It's a constant evolution.
Works better than others. Easier to use than others. Make their day better than others.
And no, not just your market.
Image at top courtesy Tom Magliery through this Creative Commons License.