What happens when we think about people instead of just users

May 26, 2019
Jon Ruby

Google image search is an amazing thing. Think about this for a second. Billions upon billions of searches and selections daily adding up to an absolutely enormous amount of data. All of that data is a pretty interesting indicator of how we as human beings connect images to words and concepts. The returned pictures are what the algorithm deems most relevant. I make no claims about the methodology or validity, I just think it gives us a weak signal about how we symbolically represent ideas. 

Here’s a fun one. Do a Google search for the term “customer service,” then click the Images tab. Does it strike you as odd that as a group, we all think that the universal representation of the term “customer service” is a person wearing a headset with a disconcertingly manic smile and often similarly angled tilt to their head? In a similar vein, is it weird that the word “grief” seems to have a near universal connection with nature scenes and strangely color corrected photography?

As someone who spends an awful lot of time thinking about how software should work, it was inevitable that I would have googled the term “user experience” on many occasions. Then I did an image search for just the word “user.” The results sent me down an unexpected rabbit hole. I scrolled through page after page of results and excluding the inevitable Dilbert cartoons, I found a convergence of drawn images of headshots. They came in a variety of colors and styles but they had one attribute overwhelmingly in common: none of them had faces. They all looked like pieces from a board game.

But what did that mean? I wasn’t entirely sure but I went back to my trusty image search engine and looked up terms like “people,” “human,” “individual” and “person.” Apart from a small but surprising number of disturbing pictures of Donald Trump on that last one, there was a lot of diversity. Groups of people smiling, frowning, and every other facial expression I could name (and some I couldn’t). Again, interesting but what did it mean apart from how distracting Internet searches can be?

After some thought, I would like to forward a hypothesis about what it means for our ubiquitously used term “User Experience” in software design:

Users have identifiable requirements and workflows which can be documented and designed for. People don’t.

A warehouse picker user has a defined path. They pick up a pick ticket, follow its directions to get items off shelves and then drop them off. A good software designer will take that user’s experience into account and count the number of taps or clicks they make to accomplish their tasks and then try to eliminate extraneous ones. They will use user interface principles to make the time spent hunting for the right button reduced and accidental tapping of the wrong one happen less often.

There are tons of informative articles on the topic, more than 149,000,000 results (in 0.48 seconds) if our most oft-used search tool is to be believed. But those articles don’t talk about what happens when that picker needs to make a pitstop in the restroom right in the middle of performing their task. They don’t consider what happens if they get a call from the school that their kid is sick or if their barcode scanner breaks down before they can finish what they are currently working on. From an interface perspective, we should be thinking about how to handle task interruption and mid-job reassignment. From a human perspective we should never forget that sh!t happens.

Don’t get me wrong, the work that has been done so far on encouraging software designers to think about experience rather than just interface is great. I just think there is an opportunity to take the next step as the current one has been explored ad nauseum now for a couple of years.

A great example of what happens when we think about “people” instead of just “users” is a product called the SawStop. Electric saws have been around for decades. In the US, estimates of emergency room visits related to their use are around 47,000 a year. Consequently, a whole host of products have been designed to help saw users avoid getting their bits into the saws. Warnings, safeties, colored stickers have all been implemented with little to no impact on the injury rate. Then a guy named Steve Gass comes along and says to forget about trying to stop people from sticking their body parts into the saw. Let’s make a saw that will just stop if they do. All kinds of interesting physics and engineering followed after that and you can get a brief overview in this awesome video where Steve actually sticks his hand into a saw spinning at 5,000 RPM (spoiler: he’s fine and there is no blood).

The thing that interests me most in this context however, is the surrender to human nature. Forget about being able to stop people from making mistakes or having accidents. Concentrate on handling the accidents that will occur.  Perfect example of designing for people instead of users. It is rational to assume that users will avoid doing anything that will hurt them if they are sufficiently made aware of it. It is human nature that some people will do stupid things that will get them hurt regardless of how much you warn them.

I would like to invite those out there who think about the nature of user experience to join me in thinking about people as more than just users. I think it will spur us to a whole new level on the topic. We may have exhausted the usefulness of “5 Key Principles for New UX Designers,” “3 Must Follow Design Principles for a Better User Experience,” or “7 UX Principles for Creating a Great Website.” I like numbered lists as much as the next person but it may be time to dig a little deeper.

If contemplating human nature leads us to discoveries like the SawStop, don’t we owe it to our users to start thinking of them as people too?

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