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It’s not your fault if you’re not a ‘computer person’. Why design matters.

Nick Jenkins

Nick Jenkins

Nick is Head of Data Science at Evolve and is a master of new research technologies including text analytics and AI.

Everyone has experienced frustration while using computers. You have an important task to do and it can feel like the computer is getting in the way of allowing you to get it done. Sometimes it can be so bad that we experience a computer crash, data loss, or some other problem where we can’t recover and don’t know what to do to resolve it. After experiencing enough of these problems some people may give up on technology all together and claim that they’re not ‘computer people’. This is completely understandable and not the users fault.

If it’s not the user to blame, then who is? It takes a lot of people to mess up computer software. There are engineers, project managers, designers, each with their own well-intentioned efforts. The problem is that there is an important stakeholder missing – the user! Arguably the most important ingredient in creating great software is user centric design. That means speaking with real users at every stage of the development process. This could take the form of simple discussions on requirements, providing feedback on paper prototypes, testing higher fidelity prototypes, and constantly seeking feedback and including users in the project.

User centric design is a core philosophy of ‘user interface / user experience’ design and the field of ‘Human computer interaction’ more generally. I recently took a breadth course in this topic as part of my masters degree. As per Professor Joyner’s instructions, there is now a permanent addition to my laptop; a sticker reading ‘I am not my user!’. This reminds me to constantly seek feedback and understand who we are designing for. For fellow market researchers, this idea should sound very familiar. We are tasked with intimately understanding market and consumer behaviour, which we can only do by listening. With technology becoming an ever increasing and important part of the market research industry, we need to approach technology design with this philosophy in mind.

All this being said, computer software has come a long way since early days of truly awful software. Apple products and particularly the iPhone has created a new standard for great design. For internal communication at Evolve, we use Skype. It’s a shame to see how this software has actually been made worse in the past few years. I undertook a review of the design issues in the latest version of Skype and have proposed an improved interface for video calling. The following section will discuss some of the user research, considerations, and proposed changes.

Good design starts with understanding the user. We conducted desk research using n=640 online user reviews of Skype, and saw a massive and statistically significant drop in satisfaction with the software of 4.3 stars to 1.3 stars over the period of 2011-2012 to 2017-2018. From text comments the primary issues were accounts issues, user interface, and navigation problems. Further to this we conducted surveys to examine why the interface was poor. Armed with this information, we set out to perform a redesign. For reference, the latest Skype interface for video chat looks like the following.

Skype

The interface has unfortunately mistaken simplicity and lack of clutter for usability. Key functionality such as screen sharing, chat and seeing who is online is obscured and not easily discovered by users.

Have a look at the interface and think about how many buttons might result in a menu popup. We counted 5 different menu icons, placed in disparate and unstructured portions of the screen.

skype icons

An important principle of user design is to recognise what is happening in the environment when a user is using the software. Using Google Maps while driving has a much higher cognitive load than when relaxing on the couch. We should think about the Skype user rushing to organise a meeting with local and remote colleagues, juggling a coffee. Let’s help them out! We can do this by transferring some of their cognitive load onto the system itself. Labels, good grouping, and using well-trodden consistent design principles provide a big benefit for users.

Contrast the above the design with the following proposed redesign.

Skype Redesign
Skype Redesign 2

What do you think? Would you feel more comfortable managing your meetings with this software? Has Skype lost the plot? What software frustrates you?

At Evolve Research, we take user centric design seriously. We believe it is a core part of our offering which has seen clients come back time and again for help designing online dashboard and technology solutions. Please speak with us to see how we can help you combine insightful research with usable technology.

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