Step One: Listen to Users

When I meet with clients to discuss building a new Web application, the first question I ask is always the same: “What’s the process?” The question is usually met with some blank stares and completely stops the conversation, just as it’s meant to. Then I pose the follow-up: “I mean, what’s the process end users need to go through to meet their goals?” This sets us on a course of user-centric design, and it helps us create a better application.

application process illustration
photo credit: Matthew Hodgson

Too often developers make the mistake of designing an application to a client’s specifications. Or worse, to specifications that seem to come from the application itself. For example, if you’re designing a calendar application, you might be tempted to look at other calendar applications and build out various capabilities based on your analysis, whether your client requested those capabilities or not. Sure, it’s often fun to show off some coding prowess, and that slick, AJAXY interface that slides from week to week is certainly a feast for the eyes, but what about the elderly population using your application? What about people accessing it from libraries where that bit of JavaScript might bog down an aging machine? Suddenly you have an application that’s unusable. Way to go, hotshot.

Designing an application based on client need is a little better, though often not much. Like all of us, the client will probably ask we design the application to make their lives as easy as possible. It’s natural. We’re all expected to do more with less these days, and if your Web application can be their office’s key to more and better work, why wouldn’t they ask for it? The problem comes when clients ask users to jump through extra hoops. It might make the clients’ jobs easier, but it wreaks havoc on the end users’ experience.

And that’s why I always ask about process.

When a client can accurately tell me a users’ story, it shows two things. First, it shows an intimate understanding of their clients. If they can’t give me that, then it’s clear they don’t know their own users. That means we have to back up a step and do some more research. However, if they can tell me their users’ stories, then we’re on the right track. Also, telling someone else’s story is like standing in their shoes. It puts a person in a different frame of mind. And once the client and I have shared that story, then we’re each focused solely on the users’ needs. And for any Web application, the users’ needs are the best ones to build towards.