John Knight is a User Experience Manager within one of the largest UE teams in the industry with offices in Germany, UK and China with over ten years experience in UE.
John is also Communications Chair for the BCS Interaction Group (which publishes UsabilityNews.com), Editor of Interfaces magazine and a Design Research Society Council Member.
We met up to talk about how simplicity and ethnographic research can help foster designs that are innovative and appealing.
(The views and opinions expressed in this interview are strictly those of the author, who is acting in a personal capacity and not commenting on behalf of any attributed organisations including his employer.)
Complex user experiences
Giles Colborne: What’s your role at Vodafone?
John Knight: I work across a number of projects doing some design work, quality assurance and evangelising user needs to internal stakeholders. Covering design and implementation in a company with such a global reach means you get to handle a wide variety of projects with a really diverse team – which is great.
GC: Do you think that mobile, with it’s small screens, is a more limited environment for a designer?
JK: No – it’s richer- it sounds back to front but it’s true. Web is about how you maximise use of screen space. But mobile is multi-modal – you’re combining sound, haptics [tactile feedback such as vibrations], what’s happening on screen and the feel of the device itself.
The interaction is also more complex, it’s more of a journey than stand up and use. With PCs, the mouse and keyboard feel pretty much the same and the interaction has become more standard and its more static with a fixed screen and input devices. But with mobile its very different, you have a huge variety of devices and they don’t all work the same.
Plus, a user journey might start out on a PC, then move to mobile, then pops out the back end as a response. So user journeys are often more complex and thus richer.
GC: What kind of experiences work well in the unpredictable environments that mobile users find themselves in?
JK: I think that things that are successful tend to be, as Gerhard Fischer puts it, ‘under-designed’ or as I put it products have latency. What I mean is that good design does not try to fulfill every possible function and hardwire experiences. Instead, you leave space for users to bring in other things, and to combine them – The iPhone is a case in point, its sparse and simple and following from the previous point the context of use is critical to the experience.
Simplicity and ‘under-designing’
GC: Design teams are always under pressure to add features. How do you design latency into the UE?
JK: As UE practitioners we try to think of ourselves as giving people tools, rather than defining their entire experience. I like to promote the idea that the more open-ended and the more connected a product or service is, then the more successful it can be. But it’s harder to predict where that success will come from. This is the space where a lot of innovation and interesting design problems are – designing sociability as Jenny Preece puts it.
A good example of that is online communities like Twitter or Facebook. These sites often don’t do much more than support user’s conversations, they are the props upon which people adapt and use. It’s the actual interactions and the customisation that makes those experiences so successful and often the technology and the UI in themselves are nothing new.
GC: Would you say these tools are innovative?
JK: I think innovation often comes from users or more correctly usage. This is where interesting and unforeseen things happen – where people adopt and shape technology beyond instrumentalism. There’s nothing innovative about communication technologies per se – innovation is in how people use them. I think the trend in consumer products and services is to create tools that are simple and connected so that users improvise and mash them up rather than big, fixed systems with discrete interaction models – again this is well known and core to Web 2.0.
Say a user is taking a picture and suddenly she realises that she can blog it like Nokia does. She had one goal – a picture for herself – but the options have led her in a different direction, to something new and pleasing. That’s magic and, thankfully, while a lot usability issues have been fixed there is still space for a little magic.
GC: How do you know you’re designing the right tools?
JK: Perhaps having spent too much time designing or with designers I have moved away from the fixed model of a UCD process. Sure, we need tools and methods but in reality the interesting stuff is from hunches and what I call forensic design and research; you involve users when you cannot be certain or you have a trade off or you have no ideas but design, creating something new is the focus. I don’t think that’s a new idea – but it’s more established in product design or fashion design.
Being involved in product design has made me think beyond use and instead think about consumption and design for engagement. You need more than an hour in a lab to discover how people use it in their day to day lives and this is a much more complex design problem and the meanings, value and utility of possessions in consumption is unpredictable
GC: Do you mean because ethnographic research is so unpredictable?
JK: Yes, but I’ve found I’m not so interested in proving things as I was in the past.
If you’re interested in innovation then you don’t have to prove that X is better than Y. You’re looking for pointers and new directions that can move designs.
GC: How do you make sure you get those pointers?
JK: I can never remember who started this idea but I certainly believe it: If you want to observe innovation you have to watch people at the fringes, whereas traditional market research and even UCD means you’re asked to look at people in the mainstream, to get the widest coverage. Being at the fringes doesn’t mean they have to be young and trendy. You must be using technology in a different way – even if you’re getting it wrong.
GC: At cxpartners we get some of our best ideas come from watching people fail or miss the point in ethnographic studies.
JK: You could ask three people at the extremes on advice on design directions. They’re not representative, but they’re invaluable because they help you gain insights that you can productise. What matters is the outcome not the metrics – well for innovation or ideation anyway.
GC: Your approach seems to be focused on the high ground – what are people trying to do, rather than where should a button go.
JK: One of the things I’ve learned is that we often think too much about designing interfaces. If you design an interface, there is a tendency to put too much in, you think about the buttons and the visual layout, even the use case (if they are tied to an interface) can lead you to overburden the UE. The interface is the end point and we should not forget that. The experience – all the technical functions and the interactions are what you really want to design – users do not see that and it’s the hardest but most valuable thing we can design as UE practitioners.
People often think that innovation is a matter of luck or genius. But John’s point is that by watching people in unusual or extreme situations you uncover new needs or ways of looking at problems that lead to innovations. And that through simplicity (‘under designing’ the user interface) you can make innovative ideas accessible to the mainstream.
For companies looking to stand out in a crowded market, ethnographic research insights and great user interface design can deliver powerful differentiators.