Sat 10 Mar
An audio recording of my talk at Carson Systems’s Future of Web Apps conference has been posted online, so those interested in what I had to say but who couldn’t make it to the conference can now have a listen.
For myself, I’m pretty sure I’ll never plop it onto my iPod, as I hate hearing recordings of my voice. This probably runs counter to my interest in continually improving as a public speaker; it would do me some good to sit down and hear all my gaffes, my stuttering and my aimless diction. But I already subject myself to plenty of discomforts in the name of self-improvement, so this is one I’m just going to forgo for the time being.
I don’t mean to discourage you from listening to it, though. Several people told me my performance was ‘not all that bad’ and ‘definitely less painful than watching the slaughter of kittens.’ Go hear for yourself!
On a less disingenuously self-deprecating note, I wanted to share here a visual illustration of one of the things I mentioned in my talk. The idea is that, as interaction designers, we of course don’t want to offend any segment of the user base. But if you’re going to offend anyone, it should be experts and not beginners or intermediates.
When discussing features on design and development teams, I have occasionally heard the sentiment that, “We don’t want to remove that feature, because power users really need that.”
My take is often that, no they actually don’t, and the reason is that a product that’s been designed to beautifully map to the needs of a beginner or intermediate is very likely to delight an expert, too.
It’s become a cliché to cite the iPod for this, but it’s true that that device is a beginner- and intermediate-focused product that experts nevertheless find completely engaging. I would also cite Nintendo’s Wii gaming system, which is so well geared towards those with negligible gaming skills that even I bought one. And outside of the hardware world, there’s the case of Google’s minimalistic home page, 37signals’ Basecamp, and more recently, Twitter, which has virtually no affordances aimed at experts.
On the other hand, products designed to map closely to the needs of experts are often turn-offs to beginners and intermediates. Users who come across features that reveal not just the complexity but also the specificity that experts need often quickly decide, “This isn’t for me.” Rarely will a beginner find herself delighted as to how well a product has been designed to map to a skillset she doesn’t yet have.
It’s not just this emotional reaction that leads me to favor those with less experience over those with more. It’s this chart, taken from Alan Cooper’s immensely helpful book, “About Face 2.0,” which shows the distribution of users across expertise levels — as in, where are the most users?
When I saw this, it inspire me to doodle a similar visualization that shows how feature usage is distributed across the spectrum of users’ expertise levels. That is, who uses the most features in a given product? By and large, beginners and intermediates use relatively few, and experts often come close to using the full complement of a product’s features.
If you lay the two graphs on top of one another, you get a not particularly scientific but fairly instructive idea of where the sweet spot lies.
That purple overlap area is where I’d say that the majority of design and development effort should be focused: on features that will be used primarily by beginners and intermediates, and not so much on experts. You’ll notice that as a distribution of features, this visualization still tends to skew to the right edge of the expertise axis; a greater number of features will always benefit those with more experience, it’s true, but the fall-off point is key. In my experience, it’s not necessary to continue to climb that curve of feature quantity all the way to the far top, right. Just design and build the features that most people need.