UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 558 September 21, 2010

Excerpt From the New Book "Simple and Usable"

cover of Simple and UsableThis is an excerpt from my new book, Simple and Usable, released this month by Peachpit Press. UX Magazine is also running a giveaway for five copies of the book. If you'd like to purchase the book, visit the book's page on peachpit.com where it's available with free shipping with registration.

 

Three types of user

When it comes to simplicity, you can divide users into three types.

Experts are happy to explore your product or service and to push the limits of what it can do. They want never-before-seen technology that is customized for them. Even if they're new to a product, they have an expert attitude. In other word, they'll spend time finding out how it works and exploring new features. If you're making a mobile phone, these are the people who want to be able to browse through the mobile phone's file system and tweak everything. It turns out there are relatively few of these people.

I call the next group willing adopters. They probably use some similar products or services. They're tempted to use something more sophisticated, but they're not comfortable playing with something entirely new— they need to be given easy ways to adopt new features. For instance, they might be interested in a more sophisticated phone, but only if they can transfer their precious contacts easily. There are fewer of these people than you'd imagine and their tolerance for learning is pretty low.

The vast majority of people are mainstreamers. They don't use technology for its own sake; they use it to get a job done. They tend to learn a few key features and never add to their repertoire. These are the people who say, "I just want my mobile phone to work." Most people fall into this group.

It's tempting to think that after a while people graduate from one group to another. But that hardly ever happens. Even after years of using a product, people tend to stay in the same group.

For example, take any large group of people who've been using Microsoft Excel for five years. You'll find some people who've explored settings and options, some who've got a few specialist features set up to do what they like, and others who just use it for adding up columns of figures.

It has more to do with their underlying attitude toward technology than the amount of time they spend using a product or service.

It's tempting to design for the first two groups—they're easier to please. But experiences that feel simple are designed for the mainstreamers.

Diagram of types of users
Expert users are a minority. In 2009, complex cameras like SLRs comprised only 9 percent of the digital camera market (source: CIPA).

Why you should ignore your expert customers

Most companies spend too much time listening to their expert customers—the ones who spend the most time using their products or services—because they're easy to talk to. Expert customers are enthusiasts, they're vocal and opinionated about how to improve what's on offer.

But experts aren't typical customers and their judgement is often skewed. They don't experience the problems that mainstream customers have.

And they want things that mainstream customers don't care about.

Here's what one responder on Slashdot (a blog run by experts and enthusiasts) had to say when the iPod was announced: "No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame."

Another commenter wrote: "I don't see many sales in the future of iPod."

Commenters on another enthusiast blog, MacRumors, also wanted more: "I still can't believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player?"

Apple's expert customers wanted a flying car. Apple's mainstream customers just wanted an MP3 player that worked.

I see this again an again: a small group of customers make noisy, persistent demands for new features that are too complicated for typical users.

You'll find it hard to convince your stakeholders (who are insiders, and therefore, experts) that the customers who are also experts (just like them) are not the ones you should listen to. After all, your best customers spend a lot of time and money per head; they 'get' what you do, and they speak your languages; they they're so reasonable—if you ask them to upgrade to the latest version, they do it without hesitating.

But if you listen to them first, you'll create products that are too complex for mainstream customers to use.

As of January 2010, Apple had sold 240,000,000 iPods and no flying cars.

So if your stakeholders are trying to create a mass-markey product by listening to their expert customers, remind them of this story. Sometimes, it's best to ignore your expert customers.

Absurd flying car
Experts often want features that would horrify mainstreamers.

 

Simple and Usable was released this month by Peachpit Press. UX Magazine is also running a giveaway for five copies of the book. If you'd like to purchase the book, visit the book's page on peachpit.com where it's available with free shipping with registration.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Giles has been working in usability and user-centred design since 1991. He formed cxpartners in 2004, focusing on creating outstanding user experiences and measurable changes to projects and products. Giles is a former President of the UK Usability Professionals’ Association and now sits on their Global Advisory Committee and international Conference Committee. Giles is a highly-rated speaker at events around the world, and has also published the book Simple and Usable (Peachpit Press, 2010). Follow him on Twitter @gilescolborne.

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Comments

15
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Thank's for this nice Article

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Thanks for the comments chaps. Here are some thoughts:

Aaron T
Totally agree about The Flip. The history (or mythology) behind The Flip's origin is fascinating and worth seeking out.

Paul
I've no hard figures for the percentage of experts and mainstreamers across different sectors. The only time I've seen experts in the majority is in specialist software used in a work setting.

Alex
The book is now shipping from Amazon and other bookstores in the UK - with some great reviews, too, I'm proud to say.

Rob Winter
I agree. One is an expert in some spheres and a mainstreamer in others.

Dylan
Thanks for catching!

Brendan
It's true that the common path for products is to move from expert audiences to mainstream. I don't think the demands of mainstreamers necessarily change over time. Mainstreamers would always have said: 'yes, if I could have my entire music collection in my pocket, that would be cool'. Or 'if I had a hand held device that was a phone, an information browser and a video player that would be great'. Those ideas have been turning up in movies for decades. My camera phone had more capability than the original iPhone. The difference was, as you point out, making it 'work' for mainstreamers.

John
Eh?

Davide
You're right, by 'experts' I mean 'experts in your software or gadget' not 'domain experts'.

Certainly you can learn from your expert audience. But if you're making a mass market product, then you have to focus on the mainstream needs (as Brendan indicated in his comments). I agree that really great designer knows when to ignore experts. But I think that was my point, too.

As for developing tools with broad usage AND expert features... that's another chapter in the book. :-)

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Wow how much confusion!

First, the "experts" you are describing - at least in this article - aren't "experts" but enthusiast, or early adopters, or nerds. An expert doesn't necessarily want to "spend time finding out how it works". They just want to do what they have in mind. It's like saying that the best photographers love losing time with Photoshop to get their ideas there. Wrong. They want to use a tool that doesn't get in the way without losing expressive power. That's *very* different from saying that that want to fiddle with technology.
But here probably I'm just disagreeing strongly with the choice of the term "expert", that's a bit too broad!

Also, I think that you *should* talk with the experts. They use and ask usually for cutting edge features, detailed functions, etc. But that doesn't mean that you have to do exactly what they say! A good designer listens from everyone (experts and mainstream) but design for simplicity, that doesn't have anything to do, per se, with experts or mainstream.
In this way you are going to develop tools with advanced features AND broad usage.

Take the Apple example you are making: the feature the experts request are just that, features. But Apple understood the *reason* behind those requests, the behaviours, the motivations driving expert users. Not the detailed features.
That's exactly why "experts" were saying that the iPad wouldn't have worked: they looked just at the features list. But they still were right, when you got back to their - expert - needs. That's exactly the kind of insight that the designer is paid for... not avoiding the experts opinion! ;)

20
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Wow, what a copy of cross the chasim.

Seriously? Someone published that?

16
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I think Brendan raises an important point here. Any significant movement (in politics, music, technology, fashion fad) is led by a small group of users who love it, and spread it.

They are the ones that get this thing into the mainstream. I recently came across a blog post that might be on topic here: http://danzambonini.com/a-case-study-of-designed-by-developers-stack-overflow/

This small group are enthusiastic enough about it to spend their time writing comments criticising the re-design to make it easier. They are the ones who 'belong' to the group that started using it and hence are most passionate.

P.S: This is my first comment on uxmag, maybe the 'More information about formatting options' link could open in a new window instead of redirecting to a new page?

16
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One topic that isn't covered by this article is that technologies used by the first two groups often end up in the hands of the mainstreamers over time.

The central example used here is the iPod. If you took that product back to the year 1998 and showed it to a mainstream audience - saying to them, "this is an MP3 player that works" - you'd have been met with nothing but blank stares. Mainstream audiences at that point didn't know what MP3 players were, and hardly expected to ever own one.

It's the same with smartphones. Prior to 2006 these were of no interest to mainstream audiences, who just wanted "phones that worked". But the definition of "worked" changed and today's mainstream audiences expect the ability to install third-party apps, periodic OS updates, extensive configuration options, etc.

None of these points detract from the basic point of the article, but they do point to a question that it doesn't address, namely - what is this dynamic that changes the demands of the mainstreamers over time?

16
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Great article! But please proof-read:

"In other word,"

"they they're so reasonable"

"mass-markey"

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15

Agree with the general principle but disagree with this line:

"It has more to do with their underlying attitude toward technology than the amount of time they spend using a product or service."

I would consider myself an expert user of some products, willing adopter of others & a mainstreamer elsewhere. The reasoning would be more accurately described as how much time I have spent using the product or service and my level of affinity for it.

The case in point, Excel, is a product I have used occasionally over the last ten years. I have no use for more than its basic functions so have not bothered to explore further - with this product I'll always be a mainstreamer.

Regarding mobile phones I would say I am an expert with the iPhone as I spend much of my time designing iPhone apps & know the device & UI inside out. Looking at Android, well, I know it's a very similar UI & could become more familiar with it should use an Android phone more often, but I don't. I'm not even willing to adopt the technology.

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Any ideas when this book will be available in the UK? I can see it on Amazon, but no release date...

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Usable-Mobile-Interaction-Design/dp/0321703545/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1285143350&sr=8-1

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This is a great article. Thank you. I'm particularly interested to learn more about the percentage of users that make up the expert and willing adopter groups; and whether these groups tend to differ in size across market segments.

I can imagine that products and applications designed for consumers would be largely similar, but would one expect that products designed for business and enterprise have different demographics? Are there any studies to support this thesis? How does the MP3 user profile differ to say Corporate Accounting software?

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One of the best executors of this strategy is Flip, who make video cameras. They are simple, have no adapters, only a couple of buttons and you can learn how to use it in 2 minutes. They are now one of the market leaders. Simple, easy, with small learning curve. Works for me.