IEEE Internet Computing, September/October 2005:
The Internet experience

Jim Miller
Miramontes Computing
September 2005

IC's editor in chief, Bob Filman, recently asked me to join the magazine's stable of columnists and regularly provide a perspective on user experience issues. I'm happy to oblige. My column will appear in every other issue and will touch on aspects of user experience, usability, and user-centered design.

In previous issues, Filman and other columnists have done a great job of highlighting the importance of user experience issues, and I'll be reinforcing and elaborating on those themes throughout this series. Judging from the focus of past IC issues, I think the best assumption for me to make is that I'm a user experience guy talking to research and product development people whose expertise, by and large, is not in user experience. I hope that I can bring a view of the topic that's not only informative but also useful in dealing with problems you face each day.

Focus on the user

Virtually every technology product and service now takes for granted the importance of a good user experience. Despite this greater acceptance and the progress that's been made over the past few decades, designing and implementing a great user experience remains difficult. The challenge to focus on our users' needs is still real, and the problems we face in doing so are still daunting. But how do we go beyond the simple platitude of "focus on the user" and build our products and services in ways that lead to great experiences?

Support user tasks and goals

At the most basic level, focusing on user tasks and goals means that you understand how people think about a given problem, how they work on it, and - only then - how your particular technological offering could improve their situations. If done right, what users see on screen should correspond to what they're thinking about, and the actions offered through the interface should correspond to what they want to do.

Several issues make achieving this harder than it might sound. First, users don't often clearly communicate how they think about their work with enough objectivity and detail to support a system's design. In fact, getting this information from users is generally a task that takes real skill and expertise. Moreover, most applications, by necessity, operate at different levels of detail and, accordingly, involve different tasks. The users of a word processor might have the high-level goal of "writing a great paper," but achieving that goal means they'll need help in such lower-level tasks as collaborating with other authors, structuring and organizing ideas, fine-tuning the wording, and controlling the physical appearance. Different kinds of support are required for all levels of work, and users' needs will change throughout their use of the application - what's critical for one task could be irrelevant and distracting for another.

Understanding who your users are and what they need shares some similarities with marketing, but it's not the same: user experience professionals often serve as bridges between marketing and system engineering, managing the gaps between technology, people, and business. I'll have more to say about this complicated relationship in future columns.

Acknowledge the strengths and limitations of people and technologies

Having a strong user focus also means that your application keeps its users in charge of complex creative activities such as design, reasoning, problem solving, visual interpretation, prioritization, and interaction with other people, while supporting them with help in remembering details, building and managing the connections among those details, and doing things that are too complicated or too tedious for me to do by hand.  A good word processor doesn't try to write my paper for me, but it relieves me of the burden of dealing with fonts, spacing, margins, misspelled words, chapter and section numbers, and other such details.

Fit into the user's big picture

Wonderful though your technology might be, it's only a small part of the user's world. In reality, your work needs to fit carefully into a complex combination of other factors. There might be so much value in what you offer that the world will restructure itself around you, but remember that it took considerable time and effort for something as valuable as the Internet to find a successful place in people's lives.

So, to really meet your users' needs and ensure that they'll accept your work, you have to think about how it fits with several aspects outside the immediate focus of your work.

Business constraints. Can your users find a place for your technology in the way they currently do business, or are you asking them to change their business processes? If you're offering a Web service hosted on your servers, will your users accept the idea that their data will be outside their company's walls? Are you assuming that people with certain kinds of abilities will play specific roles when using the product, such as local administrators with nontrivial programming abilities? Do those people in fact exist, and can they successfully play those roles?

Social issues. Are people willing to let your technology into some particular part of their lives, or does your technology perform some task that they believe only humans should do? For example, will doctors accept a medical diagnosis system that tells them what's wrong with their patients? Will professors (or students!) accept the idea of paper-grading programs?

Performance. Better performance is always preferable to poor performance, but some technologies become practical only when a certain performance level can be achieved. Interactive spellchecking is great if the spellcheck process runs so fast that we don't notice it, but it would be awful if we had to wait while the application checked each word. The same holds true for accuracy: a 97-percent correct speech recognition mechanism sounds great until you realize that it means that three words in each 100-word paragraph will be wrong. Is 97 percent still good enough?

Security. What do your users have to understand about your product to use it safely and effectively in an increasingly hostile Internet?  Can they, through poor interface design, inadvertently do harm to themselves (giving hackers access to personal information) or others (letting their machine become an open mail proxy or a home for spambots)?

Accessibility. Does your product still work if its users have limited vision, physical dexterity, or memory? If simply being considerate of people with limited abilities isn't a good enough reason to think about these issues, remember that the longer each of us lives, the more likely that these issues will become personally relevant to us.

From design to fashion. The primary goal of good design is to create something that simply and effectively solves a problem. But it's clear that, independent of any functionality benefits that grow out of good design, some designs just look attractive or, well, cool. This aspect of design has always been important, but it's become even more significant as technology has continued to move into consumer markets. When you have to choose from among several products that all do the same thing - cell phones and MP3 players come to mind - design can play a critical, and even primary, role in determining which products stand out.

Design's cultural aspects. Does a particular design fit with its users' cultural standards of how screen designs and physical objects should look and function, and what they're used for? Obviously, cultures differ across countries and world regions, but it's just as important to think about the cultures that surround gender, economic level, age, work environment ("that color scheme just doesn't look professional"), and other similar factors. What works for some might not work for all.

User experience encompasses much more than traditional "user interface" issues, such as screen design and command structure. Rather, it's a broad collection of user-centric issues that cut through the full extent of a project. The devil is in the details, and many of those details lie in a project's user experience.

I hope to use this column to bring user experience perspectives to IC's mix of ideas. I'll point out new developments in the user experience world that are opening up new opportunities for research and projects, and I'll talk about technology problems that could be fixed by thinking more carefully about user experience.  I'll also talk about how good user experience processes can be built into the kinds of system development projects that many of you are involved in. The success our field has seen in the past few years has demonstrated the value of taking user experience seriously. But this success means that we now have to work hard to make user experience an everyday part of system development, so that projects are made better while staying on track, on time, and on budget.

In short, we've got a lot to talk about, and I'm looking forward to raising some issues with you folks, presenting my perspective on them, and seeing what you think. If you have thoughts about this column, ideas for future columns, or questions about the field of user experience, please jmiller@miramontes.comdrop me a note. I'm looking forward to getting to know you folks, trading ideas, and building a strong role for user experience in the IC world.

Jim Miller is principal of Miramontes Computing, a user-interaction design consultancy. His research interests include Web-based application design, Internet community development, consumer Internet appliances, intelligent interfaces, and usability evaluation methods. Miller received a PhD in psychology from UCLA. He is a member and past chair of SIGCHI, the ACM special interest group on human-computer interaction. Contact him at jmiller@miramontes.com.