UI and product management: designing for people who aren’t us

This week I read Tracy Chou’s observations on helping a woman get public transport directions from Google Maps in London. She described some of the challenges the woman faced in using an app that is one of the most popular on mobile and essential to visitors and tourists. From her observation, Ms Chou pointed out three interesting differences in how she and this woman use Maps:

  1. Understanding “common” usage conventions. These were crystal clear to Ms Chou and confounding to the woman she helped. This is true for both interactions and icons. Per Ms Chou: “I switched it to public transit directions by tapping on the walking man icon, but I also realized how completely non-intuitive it is to have to do that.” Another example is understanding when it is necessary to scroll down for more information.
  2. Knowing bits of information that weren’t presented in the app that the woman didn’t, such as “Google Maps has a lot of issues with UK addresses; apparently the key is to strip the addresses down to the postal codes which are uniquely identifying.” I did not know this, either. Also knowing that input can be case insensitive to save time.
  3. Physical limitations such as entering information on “tiny” windows with a “tiny” keyboard (everything is relative.) “She struggled a few times to delete the street address from the search input field because the box was too small and she couldn’t get the cursor in.”

Ms Chou’s final observation struck a chord with me: “As creators of technology, we still aren’t doing a good job serving people who aren’t us” where “us” usually means “young, mostly male, mostly White and Asian, tech-savvy urban professionals with disposable incomes and the latest shiniest devices and apps, with a strong geographic bias to SF / Bay Area and maybe NYC.”

It is very easy, perhaps too easy, to get feedback from our peers. But our peers, being our peers, think in ways similar to us, enjoy the same apps, and have a similar set of experiences that they take from app to app, from interaction to interaction. In fact, ask someone near you, who works with you, what they think are “common user actions” on mobile and then ask someone way outside that circle what they think. That swipe you thought everyone would understand somehow is not clear to everyone.  In so many cases, our circle of peers is limited in experiences and isn’t diverse enough to provide the feedback we truly need.

Now you see it, now you don't: the case of the disappearing phone app.

Now you see it, now you don’t: the case of the disappearing phone app.

Here’s just one experience I had recently that is similar to Ms Chou’s. My mother-in-law was setting up her new Android phone. For her, the most important feature of the phone is making calls. Everything else, including email, is secondary. As she was learning about her phone, she accidentally held, dragged and dropped the phone app and merged it into a folder with the Hangouts app, both on her bottom row of static app icons. For her, in an instant, the phone app “disappeared.” She had no idea how to reverse the disappearance, which she did not even realize she had caused. The phone was, at that moment, useless to her until she got support from a (younger) family member. One accidental, unnoticed action resulted in rendering the entire phone useless. Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We need to do a better job at serving people who aren’t us.


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