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5 Things to Know About Users

by Jared M. Spool
on December 2, 2002

"Know Your Users" is the mantra of any good designer. Yet, what should you actually know about your users?

Over the years, we’ve studied the usability of hundreds of product and web
site designs. We’ve seen designs that were incredibly effective for users and
designs that fell tremendously short. One emerging pattern in our ongoing research
is that design teams that know a lot about their users are more likely to produce
user experiences that are usable, effective, and pleasing.

In a recent usability test, we had the chance to observe a user, Leslie, visit Citibank’s
web site
. Leslie had done business with the bank for years, through her
existing checking, savings, and credit card accounts. It was the first bank
account her parents set her up with and she’d been a loyal Citibank customer
ever since.

Leslie had recently come into a large sum of money, due to the unfortunate
death of her ailing grandmother. Her grandmother was an important role model
to Leslie. Leslie really wanted to take her inheritance and invest it for the
future, just like her grandmother had done. However, she didn’t know how to

Because of Leslie’s loyalty to Citibank, who had always taken care of her
money, she decided to turn to their web site for advice on investing. On the home page (figure 1), she was first tempted to go to the "Investing
and Markets" link at the very top-center, but then the "Learn about
a financial topic" pulldown caught her eye.

(Figure 1 – Citibank Homepage)

Since she’d never really had enough money to invest before, she really was
looking to learn about what all of her options were. She was thrilled that
the pulldown contained an entry labeled ‘Investing’.

Before Leslie clicked on that entry, we asked her about what she thought the
site would give her. She told us that she was looking for a good introduction
to investing, outlining what all of her options were for putting this money
away for the future.

Leslie had all sorts of questions: Should she use the money to buy a house?
Or invest in the market, since prices were so low? Or maybe she should do a
little of both? Are there other ways to invest money that would work to better
advantage? She was excited and anxious, feeling like a whole new world was
opening up in front of her.

Until she clicked. The site presented Leslie with a page that didn’t contain any answers
to her questions. Nor did any of the links seem to have anything to do with
her issues. While the site promised that she would learn about investing, there
was little she could learn from the content on this page.

(Figure 2 – Citibank Investing page)

It wasn’t that the page was blank. It contained all sorts of information.
It just wasn’t matching why Leslie had come to the site. With just two clicks,
Leslie — a life-long, dedicated Citibank customer — decided to go elsewhere
to invest her money.

Leslie’s experience is far too common. Citibank probably knows more about
Leslie than any other institution on the planet. They know how old she is,
where she was born, what languages she speaks, how much money she has, where
she spends it, who her employer is, where she lives, what her hobbies are,
and where she vacations. Yet, the design team didn’t have the required information
to make Leslie’s experience a successful one.

Was Leslie an outlier? Was she outside who Citibank was designing for? Possibly.
We haven’t talked with the team at Citibank, so we can’t say for sure.

It’s very possible that they’ve decided to go after more experienced investors,
leaving folks like Leslie to seek other sources, even if they have been life-long
Citibank customers. That being said, does proclaim on the homepage
that they are the ‘one-stop solution for all your financial needs’. Sounds
to us like they intend to help people just like Leslie with exactly these types
of questions.

Leslie large inheritance is a somewhat unusual circumstance. Is it really
possible to design for her strange situation? Is it practical? Absolutely.

While it’s rare that someone inherits a large amount of money without an investment
plan, it’s not unusual for people to start thinking about investing. Many sites
have no trouble helping new investors. (figure 3) and (figure
4) both have excellent retirement planners that would help Leslie (and many
others like her) answer these questions. The Motley
(figure 5) provides a great 13-step intro, along with a getting started

(Figure 3 – Fidelity Investing page)

(Figure 4 – TD Waterhouse Investing page)

(Figure 5 – Motley Fool Investing page)

Even Citibank’s competitor, Wells Fargo,
will email Leslie an excellent tutorial on investing basics — answering every
one of her questions.

(Figure 6 – Wells Fargo Investing page)

So, why did Citibank’s design team fail to answer Leslie’s questions with
the site? It wasn’t because they didn’t know how to design a quality web site
— the site is very nicely put together. And it wasn’t because these types
of questions are hard to answer — other sites do a more than adequate job.

The problem is that team didn’t know anything about Leslie. They needed to
know why Leslie was coming to the site (her ‘intentions’). They also needed
to know that she’d just come upon a huge sum of money (her ‘context’). The
team also needed to know what Leslie knew about investing (her ‘knowledge’),
what she was capable of doing herself (her ‘skills’), and the nature of the
financial management she’d done in the past (her ‘experience’).

The user’s intentions, context, knowledge, skills, and experience are the
essential things that every designer needs to know. Without this, the team
is going to design something that seems useful, but they’ll never know if it
actually helps the user. The result is exactly what we see with Citibank’s
design — a lot of content, but not the right content.

Unfortunately, these five things are beyond what normal market research can
tell us. Market research can tell us age groups, income levels, geographic
regions, even purchase behavior. But it can’t tell us the key things we need
to know.

Intentions are key, because they tell us what the user is trying to accomplish.
They dictate the tasks on the site. A high school senior who is shopping around
for the right college has different intentions than the student who is ready
to apply for early admission. Both of these intentions dictate different design

Context is also important. Someone who is faced with putting their first PowerPoint
presentation together will interact with the application’s features differently
if the presentation slides are due in 3 weeks than if they need to ready for
a board meeting this afternoon. For example, they’d be less likely to explore
all of the application’s chart customization capabilities when rushed and therefore
need the defaults to be acceptable for important meetings. They wouldn’t play
with a how-to tutorial or try lots of ambiguous menu options, just to see what
they do.

Knowledge, skills, and experience are also critical. The user’s knowledge
dictates the terminology and concepts that they are familiar with. Someone
with a medical background will know the difference between hypoglycemia and
hyperglycemia. However, a parent of a newly diagnosed child with diabetes might
confuse these two life threatening (and very different) conditions.
Designers might choose terms like "Low Blood Sugar" and "High
Blood Sugar" if they understand the user’s existing knowledge.

The user’s skillset also dictates design decisions. When designing an intranet
procurement process, the designers would create different screens for those
materials procured by seasoned buyers, who have been doing purchasing for decades,
than for the occasional employee who needs a new computer or office supply.

Finally, the user’s experience is a design factor. An experienced business
traveler would know to avoid certain airports at certain times of the year,
like Chicago’s O’Hare in the winter, because of likely weather delays. A clever
reservation system might recommend an alternate hub, such as Charlotte or Dallas,
which doesn’t run into the same problems.

These five attributes are critical to quality experience design. So, how would
the team at Citibank find out what they need to know?

The problem can be broken into two pieces: information gathering and analysis.
There are many techniques for information gathering, from informal interviews
and discussions to more formal ethnographic techniques such as Contextual Inquiry,
made famous by Karen Holtzblatt and Hugh Beyer of InContext

For analysis, we’re very fond of Persona development techniques, popularized
by Alan
, and of the mental model and gap analysis process practiced by the
folks at Adaptive

Techniques like contextual inquiry, persona development, and mental model
analysis can make or break a team’s design efforts. Without these, much effort
can go into the development of the user experience, only to have it fail for
the user because the team failed to know what they needed.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.