Humans and Computers

What do you get when you put 750 nerds in a room with free beer on tap? Humans interacting not with, but about computers.

These are the top three things I took with me from this year’s Mensch und Computer (Human and Computer) conference in Munich — from talks and from the tables.

1. Prototypes are great for testing change, too.

Companies and organizations are like trees. When they’re young, they’re easy to dig up and transplant. The older they get, the deeper their roots grow, the harder they are to move.

They are social entities that build up a culture over time that has deep-rooted norms and values.

In order to make any sort of sizable change, you can’t just come in swinging around a chainsaw without doing some serious damage. You have to watch and listen closely to how it sways and understand what kind of obstacles the tree — er, organization — grew around.

Sometimes trees are propped up with some sort of support and start to grow crookedly. Similarly, established processes may no longer be efficient or certain technologies might become outdated. Maintaining the norm can inhibit growth.

Credits: Props go out to Bill Scott, Sr. Director of UI Engineering at PayPal.

2. Designing for a good experience depends upon the user's needs.

Needs can fall into these categories:

  • competency
  • popularity
  • connectedness/belonging
  • safety/security
  • meaningfulness
  • autonomy
  • stimulation

Say you're designing a navigation app to help travelers visiting a city for the first time. To fulfill users' primary concern for safety, it might warn users before they get into a rough part of town.

And if you focus on satisfying user's dominant need for connectedness or belonging, the app might show you where your friends have been.

Good design fulfill specific needs. Great designs fulfill all of them.

Credits: Thanks to Sarah Diefenbach, Dr. Dipl. Psychology at Folkwang University of the Arts.

3. "There's not enough time/money" is no excuse not to test.

Unless you're releasing early to a select group of users to elicit their feedback, launching a product without doing user testing is like putting all your eggs in one basket. You risk ending up eating a big fat omelette.

It's understandable when there's not enough budget or time for weeks of recruiting dozens of paid participants, building a solid prototype, renting or building a testing lab and then testing for days on end and writing up a tome of a report.

But let's face it: not even the best designer in the world can get into the minds of real users. You gotta get out there and make sure your ideas work.

So when you hear the words "we don't have enough time/money to test", just remember that it's all the more important to get your design right. After all, your reputation is on the line.

First, lower your expectations for testing. You're not out to prove that dark matter exists. You just want to bring clarity to your tunnel vision.

All you need to validate your work is:

  • something to test. Paper prototypes or wireframes will work.
  • someone to test it. If you can't recruit someone or ask someone on the street, stick your prototype in front of a colleague who doesn't know the project, a friend or your mother.
  • most importantly: open eyes, open ears, and an open mind. Don't take feedback personally. The outsider's perspective on your work makes it all the better.

Credits: Oliver Gerstheimer, Managing Director at chilli mind.