User Experience Centered Design: Valuable and Desirable Product Design

Think back to when you last tried to set up your VCR to record an episode of your favorite T.V. show that you were going to miss. Or have you ever watched someone struggle just to get a video tape to play? And just how many VCR clocks are there around the world that proudly proclaims that the time is “12:00 am” in a testament to a battle lost in man versus machine?

The Nielsen Norman Group, who is world renowned for their work in usability, defines a user experience by stating “‘User experience’ encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next is simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company’s offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.” (Nielsen/Norman) A VCR provides a user experience that is far from the ideal world defined by the Nielsen Norman Group. Far from simple and a joy to use and own, programming and using a VCR is quite possibly the single worst user experience known to mankind. The Digital Web Magazine further clarifies this definition of a user experience by stating, “A positive user experience is an end-user’s successful and streamlined completion of a desired task.” (Goto)

In order to develop usable and desirable products a focus on the user and their experience must be priority one. User experience centered design aims to provide a comfortable, intuitive and consistent experience for users. Users shouldn’t have to think when using a product. Use of a product should easy and natural. Simple tasks should be able to be performed without frustration. Steve Krug put it succinctly when he offered the sentiment from a user’s perspective “Don’t Make Me Think!” (Krug)

The VCR is a prime example of product designed around engineering and technical specifications rather than a focus on a user’s experience. “There is a fundamental difference in how technologists and true designers approach making products. Technical people tend to start with technologies. We take teams of developers, build a technology, and then shoehorn a user interface and a user experience onto the framework dictated by the technology. This guarantees that the user experience will be a poor compromise. The product won’t be designed for use, it will be designed as a ship vehicle for a package of technologies. It’s a value proposition: We behave as if it’s more important for technologies to be shipped than for products to be used.” (Berkun)

So how would user-centered design have improved the user experience, the usability and desirability, of the VCR? Let’s examine the application of this design process, step-by-step, to the development of a VCR.

First, key to user experience design is the development of personas. A persona is defined as “…an artificial person, invented for the purpose of helping a designer understand the people who will be using their product.” (Norman) Personas allow you to step into a user’s shoes and view the experience from their eyes. Through the use of personas it is easy to identify key scenarios for product use. For instance in our example we’ll develop a persona we’ll call Sandy. Sandy is a teacher with very little free time, but she loves watching her favorite new series, “Gray’s Anatomy”. Unfortunately, Sandy has to grade papers on Sunday nights to return to students on Mondays, so she consistently misses “Gray’s Anatomy”. Here we have used a persona to identify a key scenario: setting up the product to tape a weekly show. Next you step into the user’s shoes to examine the way the user looks at this task. The way they think about it, and steps they take to successfully complete the task. Sandy can easily tell us that her show is on ABC on Sunday night. Ideally Sandy would like to pick the T.V. show out from a guide and just tell it to tape every week. Sounds simple enough, right? Well let’s examine Sandy’s step-by-step experience.

First she is met with that incessant blinking of the VCR clock that reads 12:00am, although it is currently 5:43pm according to her wristwatch. She struggles to navigate setup menu’s and using up and down arrows to enter the time and date. When she’s done she realizes two key problems: a.) Two minutes have passed. Now that the clock reads 5:43pm, it’s actually 5:45pm, and b.) If she doesn’t fix the time problem, the first two minutes of her show will be cut off each week. Here she stops to ponder out loud ‘if the cable guide and PBS know what time it is, why can’t it just tell my VCR?’ A few minutes later she has finished setting up the time and date on the VCR, and can finally move on to programming it to tape the series. Sandy finds the menu to setup a recording, and suddenly realizes that she doesn’t know what channel ABC is on. She has to switch over to TV mode again and checks out the cable guide figuring out that it’s on channel 4. Back to the VCR mode, navigating to the correct “setup recording” menu, and she enters channel 4. Next it wants to know the start and stop time. Sandy is pleased with herself at the moment because she had the foresight to make sure the time on the VCR was as close to accurate as she could get it. She knew that making a mistake there would cut off her show. However, that elation is short lived when she realizes since she never gets to watch it, she’s not sure if it’s a 9pm or 10pm that it starts. Again, she switches into TV mode to the cable guide, meanwhile losing the settings she had entered on the VCR, and locates the T.V. show on the guide. She now has collected the data required to set up her show: it starts at 10pm on Sunday nights on channel 4. Once again, Sandy returns to the VCR mode and this time is able to successfully complete her task, entering in the information she gathered from the cable guide. Lastly she tells the VCR to record weekly, rather than one instance. The VCR demands a video tape to record on, and crushed Sandy notes that she needs to make a trip to Target before Sunday so she can pick up some tapes. Finally, the VCR tells her that it must be turned off to record. She pauses to reflect how odd that seems, but let’s the thought go… She has better things to think about.

What a frustrating experience! No doubt through looking at the experience through our persona’s eyes, you, as a technical designer, are able to feel the pain of this user and note points where things don’t seem to be as simple as you thought they’d be. In the end of this scenario it’s also important to note that Sandy isn’t even setup to record her show on Sunday night. This requires a trip to the store for a video tape!

Applying the process of user centered design at this point highlights several pain points in this basic scenario of setting up a weekly recording. Notations are made where Sandy had to step outside of the product experience to be able to complete her task. She had to use her wristwatch to set the time, go into the cable TV channel guide to check the accurate time and chancel for her show, and drive to the store for video tapes.

Examining these steps with user centered design eyes encourages a redesign of the concept. Suddenly it becomes clear that the setting of the clock should be automatic, using existing resources and technology. Integration with the cable TV channel guide or a similar resource would build on the users existing knowledge and provide a handy interface into choosing a TV show or series to record. When thinking through Sandy’s experience it is possible to hypothesis further pain points in her further use of the product. For example when her video tape runs out in the middle of show, or when her show is moved to an earlier time for a special 2-hour episode and she misses the first hour because the recording doesn’t know how to adjust and has no concept of what show or series she is trying to record.

So what kind of a product have we now designed? This box knows how to set its clock by itself based on the local PBS channel or a channel guide resource. It uses an interface similar to the channel guide used on cable boxes where you can go choose a show and say record episode, or series. When you record the series it knows how to capture special 2-hour episodes, or skip the week when the presidential debate is on instead. Finally it records digitally just like that neat new answering machine you have does, which in itself adds handy new features like enabling the ability to start an episode with out rewinding and fast forwarding through a tape. In short, we’ve designed the user experience found in a TiVo.

Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple, highlighted the value of the understanding of user experience years before the term was coined. “To design something really well you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to thoroughly understand something — chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask a creative person how they did something, they may feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after awhile. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people have. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.” (Jobs)

In conclusion, there is a clear lack of user experience centered design in many products on the market, whether that is a VCR, or a flight on an airline. A conscious shift to this focus in the design process and a continued application to product development would produce valuable and appealing products that “are a joy to own, a joy to use” (Norman). Therefore, a product designer’s aim should be to further strive to better understand the human experience, their interactions and desires and translate them effectively into user experiences.

Works Cited List

“User Experience: Our Definition.” Nielsen Norman Group. 2005
30 May 2005

Goto, Kelly. “Brand Value and the User Experience.” Digital Web Magazine. July 14, 2004
31 May 2005

Norman, Donald A. “Ad-Hoc Personas & Empathetic Focus.” 16 Nov. 2004
31 May 2005

Krug, Steve. “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense to Web Usability” Advanced Common Sense. 2000
31 May 2005

Berkun, Scott. “Why Great Technologies Don’t Make Great Products” Human Factors. September/October 2000.
31 May 2005

Nussbaum, Bruce. “Getting Schooled in Innovation.” Business Week Online. 3 January 2005.
5 January 2005


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