Today more than ever: the lost chapter of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Computers and their software participate in every aspect of the precious and delicate relationship between the company and the customer. The typical customer first learns about your product from an email advertisement or a computerized mailing. He visits your website to find out more about it. He buys it from your online store, and you ship it to him by FedEx, where he uses software to track it on his PC. Once delivered, even if your product isn’t 100% software, it very likely has some silicon intelligence inside it. When your customer can’t figure out how to work it, he calls your company on the telephone (which is itself a computer). The first thing he hears is the stilted and artificial voice of your automated call distribution system, instructing him "for technical assistance, press one now." Finally, the software puts him in contact with a real human, only for him to find that this person-trained by software-is merely echoing instructions from a problem report database software program running on his computer!

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Innovating for humans

Innovation is an obsession and a watchword throughout the software industry, and it’s been widely adopted as a core business goal. But from the consumer’s perspective, innovation is only valuable if it solves a problem or provides a new benefit. It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but any product that innovates without adding human value will eventually be displaced by one that gives power and pleasure to those who use it.

Before starting to innovate, it is important to reflect on how different flavors of innovation are perceived by the people who will eventually use a product and what risks and opportunities are associated with each. Then comes the hard part: figuring out what the right innovations are and how to implement them.

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Beating the checkout blues

Your online store is a good example of the breed. You’ve got good products at good prices, the site navigation is straightforward, the product information is rich, appropriate, and easy to find, and everyone likes the clean, uncluttered visual design of the site. So why do more than half of your customers abandon their full shopping carts?

Depending on which research report you read, roughly 25% to 75% of online shoppers abandon their shopping carts before consummating the deal. Despite the disparity in numbers, all the research firms agree on one thing: that’s way too many.

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So you want to be an interaction designer

We get a lot of email from students and usability professionals asking how one goes about becoming an interaction designer, and what background one needs to get into the field. What are good interaction design programs? What real-world skills and experience are required? What, exactly, do interaction designers do on a day-to-day basis?

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What we can learn from the fender stratocaster

I must admit I’m not terribly impressed by the quality of today’s software—my benchmark for good product design isn’t defined by the output of Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or other respected software companies. Those companies produce some good work, of course, but the software industry, though no longer in its infancy, still seems to be working through its gawky adolescent stage. So, when I think about high quality products, I think of BMW automobiles, Eames furniture, and the Fender Stratocaster guitar.

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Perfecting your personas

A persona is a user archetype you can use to help guide decisions about product features, navigation, interactions, and even visual design. By designing for the archetype—whose goals and behavior patterns are well understood—you can satisfy the broader group of people represented by that archetype. In most cases, personas are synthesized from a series of ethnographic interviews with real people, then captured in 1-2 page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life. For each product, or sometimes for each set of tools within a product, there is a small set of personas, one of whom is the primary focus for the design.

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Putting people together to create new products

When companies plan out a new product (or service, or business process) they often think of the effort as the coordination of two teams solving different problems. Engineering addresses the question "what can you make?" Marketing addresses the question "what can you sell?"

You could engineer a combined toaster and cell phone, but you could never sell it. Marketing would tell you that you have a product no customer would buy. Likewise, you might successfully market a car that runs on tapwater, but the impossibility of building one makes it a meaningless product idea. Smart organizations know that they need to combine the insights from both marketing and engineering to find products that they can both make and sell.

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Making use of user research

Designing or redesigning a product often feels like a risky proposition, especially in today’s business climate. Those responsible for defining the product offering and marketing want reliable, measurable data to define success both incrementally and overall.

Hard data helps us make choices about where to spend resources, but placing a product under the microscope every step of the way can also introduce as many opportunities for error as it avoids. By focusing on how a product performs in the lab without broader knowledge of the user’s environment and goals, measurement alone may be misleading. To get the most value and meaning out of user feedback it is important to choose the appropriate method for conducting and analyzing user research.

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Navigating isn’t fun

The artless Websites created during the Web’s infancy were of necessity built only with simple HTML tags, and were forced to divide up their functionality and content into a maze (a web?) of separate pages. This made a navigation scheme an unavoidable component of any Website design, and of course, a clear, visually arresting navigation scheme was better than an obscure or hidden one. But many Web designers have incorrectly deduced from this that users want navigation schemes. Actually, they’d be happy if there were no navigation at all.

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Always have a backup plan

I’ve been thinking about how things can go wrong lately.

At Cooper, we have a design principle that suggests that designers should "hide the ejector seat levers," meaning: make sure users can’t inadvertently cause their software to fail. By the same token, we also encourage designers to "make errors impossible" by designing software that anticipates the actions of its users.

Nevertheless, things will go wrong. By anticipating failures, and designing backup plans like those described below, you can minimize the impact of unexpected problems on the user.

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