A happy user is a happy customer

Understanding human to computer interactions is a crucial step for insuring users are happy using your product.  As technology advances, it tends to get more complicated as a result.  The user experience should not.  Complications in interfaces and user experience often stem from privacy regulations, connection to multiple third party networks, a result of software that tries to give user options, or by overwhelming the user with features.  While valid problems, they can all be solved through innovative UI.

Some of the best and most used products on the market feature a very simple on boarding process for the user and keep the user engaged with limited options.  Can you get a user to get your product in 5 steps or less?  Can you get them to find the value of your product in those steps?  What about keeping the discovery process simple for the user as they continue to explore your product?

A problem becoming increasing more common is ensuring your product is compliant with various privacy laws or 3rd party privacy policies.  These policies can require you to put your user through various steps, that may complicate onboarding or make the user wonder whether they want to give information.  These are often options that will make the user want to back out of your product.  While you shouldn’t try to hide these interactions and making the user aware of their options, you should work towards minimizing the impact it will have on your users.  As an example, rather than making a user choose all their privacy options at the start, limit their profile and provide very simple options to change their settings once they’ve progressed through the product.  The advanced user may want to go beyond those simple options, but most users will be happy with opens like “Open”, “Limited” and “Restricted”. Another example is the sign up process.  Your product may require a lot of information from a user, but you may be able to get a user started with just a name and email, ask more information as they progress through your product.  Some products try to encourage more sharing more information with progress bars or rewards.  The sign up and profile completion process could be sped up through the connection of social networks like Facebook, use it whenever you can.  Don’t make users enter information they don’t want to enter or may have already entered elsewhere.

The onboarding process will often determine whether the user will stick around and come back after they leave.  Of course this experience for a game would be different than the experience you would design for a utility tool.  Generally the user should understand the basic mechanics and should understand their goal within a few steps.  Beyond those first few steps, you may want to allow them to explore your product freely.  You want to create metrics and track user progress throughout the onboard process.  This is often referred to as the New User Funnel.  While tempted to vouch for my own product, Lightning, there are plenty of products including it that can help you track user onboarding.  Based on your results you may want to tweak that process until you get a reasonable conversation ratio.  You should never expect to convert 100% of your users and I’ve often seen good products convert 30% of their users.  The conversation ratio also depends on how easy you’ve made your funnel.

Once the user is given more freedom within your product, you don’t necessarily want them running around without purpose.  If your product is complex, they will likely get lost, frustrated and will likely leave.  Games employ quests, which often help the user learn more about the game while making their own decisions.  Gamification is used to engage the user and rewarding them for their actions.  If you have professional product, users will need help understand features, whether with suggestions, guides or tutorials.  These are examples of making recommendations to users and teaching those users how to use certain functions in your product.  The recommendations as often as possible should reflect the experience the user should have while using your product.  If you have a news site and want to encourage commenting on articles, you will want to guide the user towards posting their first comment.

Complex products will want to keep the features on the surface to a minimum.  Your product could have 30 features, but what are the 3-5 features your users really need?  Make sure they know and love those features.  Once you know they love those features and have been using them to the extent that you want them to use them, give them options to reveal new features or to start unlocking some of these new features.  Games are doing this through the leveling up process, revealing more complicated features and modifiers in later levels.  Utility products may do this by having you interact with the core features at first and allowing you to enable or turn on their other features with simple reminders.  Some of these products will have what they call “basic” and “advanced” panels that will show you limited feature set or all features.  Sometimes overwhelming the user isn’t necessary, they may be content with your core / basic features.  But overwhelming can also make them feel little in a world that looks far more complicated than it should.

We can’t excuse complicated products for being complicated either.  Lightning in its first iterations was a complicated product to use.  Creating an item could take you as many as 30 steps and duplicating that item as many as 50 steps.  We’ve given excuses like “We have very modular software and you need to create your metrics, reports and other data separately”.  As a user that is not a valid excuse. In fact we shouldn’t ever be excusing complicated software because of software complexities.  What we did instead was see where our users had issues and what steps were often performed.  We then created a highly flexible system for making content creation easier by creating templates once and applying those templates to any newly created items.  Item creation now required 2 steps and item duplication now required 1 step.

In complicated products you will want to add shortcuts and other features that will make it easier for the user to perform repeated or similar actions.  This could mean keeping track of the actions users perform and automatically making those actions appear at the top.  Additionally you should whenever possible ask the user if they want this action to run automatically.  For example, WordPress when I type out these blogs suggests tags and categories that may apply to this blog.  While I could type them out and find what I need, the 30 seconds I save feel like an eternity.

I’ve been working to educate myself on user experience over the past few months.  I’ve been taking a through Stanford’s online system.  The course, which I highly recommend, is called Human to Computer Interaction (HCI).  This course teaches how to work through different iterations of UI, how to gather feedback, and how to give user delight when using your product. I started this too late and haven’t been able to keep up with a rather crazy past few months.  I’ve been watching a lot of the online classes and working on the assignments, which I unfortunately cannot submit as they are past due, but it’s been very helpful.  I plan on taking this course again in January to work towards the certificate.  If you don’t already know, Stanford offers a range of free courses.  Passing the course will earn you certificates.

As you work on making your product delightful to use.  Keep the user in mind and be critical about yourself.  Sometimes you may not be the best test candidate, since you are the primary designer and the primary user.  But keeping an objective view on your product will help you through the decisions.  Remember to always take feedback from your users, even if those users are coworkers or staff.  You can’t always please everyone, but you can often weed out the good comments from the bad ones.  In many cases, you are also able to objectively find the culprits of bad design through data, including new user funnels and engagement metrics.

Like any product, it will go through various iterations of new features and iterations of design.  Never assume that a new release is good and always be ready to update the design as feedback starts coming through.  Feel free to add some feedback in the comments or let me know whether you will be joining me in taking the HCI class next semester.