Twitter, Tweetdeck and simplicityPosted March 2nd, 2009 by David Hamill
The usability of a website is relative to the audience that it was designed for. A website that is designed well for its primary audience will not necessarily provide a great user experience for everyone that tries to use it.
It’s important to identify your target user if you’re going to make a site that works well for the right people.
Let’s start with a definition
There are many definitions of usability flying around. I like the one the International Standards Organisation (ISO) uses here:
The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.
Notice how it mentions “specified users”. It doesn’t say, “anyone who decides to use”. Of course in a perfect world you’d always design things that worked equally well for everyone. But this is impossible. In most cases, some users have to be sacrificed for others.
Take Google Analytics for example. I’ve been trying in vain to show my mum how to look at the usage statistics on her website (about 4 visits a month if you’re interested). She can’t work it out. This doesn’t mean Google Analytics is unusable. It’s just that my mum isn’t the target user.
Google Analytics was designed for webmasters measuring activity on their website. These people are the target users, not my mum.
Where to focus
I regularly use Twitter and recently read a comment on the subject that got me thinking. Someone was talking about an update of Tweetdeck (a Twitter application). He said that focusing on new features instead of simplicity was a classic mistake in usability. In general he is right. People often focus on features when they need to try to keep things simple. However in this case I disagree with him, I think the features were added to meet the needs of target users.
It is a classic usability mistake to add unnecessary features. But it’s also a mistake to assume that everyone wants simplicity. New features are not always unnecessary.
My argument is that you shouldn’t focus on simplicity or features. You should focus on your target user and give them as much or as little as they need.
The simplicity of Twitter
The web interface for Twitter is very simple. So people who have just signed up, can get started straight away. As they get used to Twitter, some of them will have needs that the interface struggles to meet. These people are the target users of Tweetdeck.
Tweetdeck’s target users
Lot’s of people will have problems when they first use Tweetdeck, in part this is because it has some usability problems. But it’s also because it wasn’t actually designed for them. It was designed for people who want to manage a lot of Twitter activity on a single interface. These people need more features than Twitter offers. Adding features is necessary because the application does not yet do everything the target user wants it to.
I’ve added a screen grab from Tweetdeck below. It’s sort of like a financial trader’s dealing screen, only for conversation instead of market information.
A simple feature-free interface would not meet the needs of the people Tweetdeck was designed for. So a feature rich and subsequently complex is provided. This will mean that some people will struggle with it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not usable.
Some users want features
The Google Analytics and Tweetdeck examples are instances where providing features is more advisable than creating an interface that even my mum could use. But in most cases, it would be fair to say that considering the context of use allows you to strip features rather than add them.
If for example, people visit your site once a year, those personalisation options on the homepage you like so much, are probably unnecessary.
A quick explanation of personas
Developing design personas (or personae) is a great way to make design decisions . Personas are based on data gathered from user research. This research helps you answer the following questions:
- who are your users?
- what goals can your site help them achieve?
- what are their attitudes toward technology, your company etc?
- what is their current behaviour (in relation to your website’s offering)?
The information gained from this research is developed into a handful of personas. These personas are user archetypes that allow you to understand your real users, instead of talking about the ‘average user’. In order to focus the design, you choose a primary persona. This persona is more important to your design than all of the others.
Prioritising your primary persona will help you:
- focus your design
- prevent feature creep
- prevent over simplicity
- settle design conflicts between user types
- settle internal design debates
A product designed just for me
A while back, I bought a new washing machine, and I love it. It’s an Indesit Moon. The image below shows its control panel.
Can you see why I love it? I have used every one of these 5 buttons and never felt the need for a 6th button to exist. It is designed perfectly for me. You could simplify this interface by removing a button. But then it would be lacking a feature I need. Adding a feature would make it more complex than it needs to be.
I am the target user of this product. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the Indesit offices, they had a cardboard cut-out of me, they call ‘Lazy Dave’ and bring to design meetings.
Prioritising your primary persona not only helps you make design decisions. Like the Indesit Moon, you can create designs that some people will love, rather than lots of people think are OK.
Make your site as simple as it needs to be
Rather than making your design featureless and ultra simple, instead make it as simple as it needs to be. Understand the context in which your website will be used and who you are designing for and you’ll know how simple you can make it.
Sometimes, but not often, this might mean lots of features.
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