Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Simple is a Feature Too

Last week we ran a round of usability tests on Newsforwhatyoudo.com. Random folks in a coffee shop were invited to try out the app for the first time in exchange for a $10 coffee gift card. They were given a few common tasks to complete, but no other direction. We sat next to them watching what they did. When you see normal humans (i.e. people who don't live and breath social media and web development) use your app its like opening a door into another universe. A universe where all those bells, whistles, and knobs you wanted for your own usage becomes a source of confusion. Steve Krug, author of Don't Make Me Think! describes a typical user viewing a web page as "driving by a billboard at 60 mph". Its an apt description of how users used our application.

The impact on our roadmap was interesting. Some features are just going away. Others are being combined, automated, or put under an "advanced" tab to reduce visual distraction. The two most important things people wanted were simplicity and social features. Simple doesn't imply an absence of function - in many cases it will require more functionality to make the complex simple. When reading the news, users don't want to use an application, they want to read the news and interact with their colleagues and friends. A successful application is one that is nearly invisible, while bringing content and social interaction to the fore.

The experience reinforced the need to regularly look at the UI and say "What can we remove, combine, or automate or hide?" Maybe once every 4 sprints, plan a "simplicity" sprint where the only objective is simplifying the user experience. Testing regularly with users helps, but ultimately the drive towards ease of use must come from the developers themselves. Facebook provides a good example for this process. On one hand Facebook and its thousands of third party developers have added mountains of new functionality. At the same time they're constantly simplifying the experience to make sure that the site doesn't become the next MySpace. Considering the UI experience, there's no better model than Google, which reduces the infinite complexity of the Internet down to one list of links given a few keywords.

On the social front we're planning Facebook integration and a new take on the collaborative reading experience. I think the best feature idea in our brainstorming exercise came from pushing hard on simplicity and social interaction as goals. What if we really examined every assumption about what a feed reader is and assumed the user only cared about content and social interaction? Could we design an highly relevant news experience if the user did nothing but read content and interact with their friends?

Yes we can.

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