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Harnessing the Power of Myth

by Jared M. Spool
on January 1, 1996

Every organization has its user myths: a set of beliefs about the users’ knowledge, experience and needs. Typical myths could be:

  • Users will learn about the drag & drop capability from training
  • Users know how to calculate the slope and intercept for a line
  • The user is the same person who installed the product

Myths Influence Design

In themselves, user myths aren’t inherently good or evil. The issue is that they are always present and they influence the design of the product.

For example, an assumption that the user was the same person who installed the product might lead to a decision to educate the user on product features during the installation process.

The Perils of User Myths

Problems can arise when a product is developed around subconscious, unsubstantiated, or conflicting user myths. Myths in this form often contribute to the “opinion wars” that form between members of the development team and can result in products that don’t meet users’ real needs.

Make Myths Explicit

The first step toward harnessing the power of user myths is simply to recognize what the current user myths are. This can be done simply and inexpensively. Here are some common ways to uncover your team’s myths:

Brainstorm. Ask people involved in development to describe their assumptions about users.

Look for evidence in the product itself. For example, if the product works like a spreadsheet, there may be an underlying myth that the users know spreadsheets.

Caveat: Don’t try to prove or disprove myths at this stage. If people have opposite impressions, simply record both versions of the myth.

Gather Evidence

Once you’ve collected some user myths, you can look for data to confirm or disprove them:

  • By usability testing
  • In conversations with users
  • Through surveys
  • From people who have direct contact with users (training, tech support)

Sometimes the evidence is contradictory—if users truly have conflicting needs, you might consider giving the user a choice or perhaps dividing up the product for different users, even into multiple separate products. (Intuit, the makers of Quicken, have done this for their products very successfully.)

Find Any Surprises?

If any user myth turns out to be false, review the current product design to see if it was influenced by this assumption. If so, change the design.

Build a Shared Vision

As you gather evidence, publicize what you’ve learned. This can be as simple as a bullet list you e-mail to co-workers, or as formal as a published user profile. Refining your “user myths” into a shared realistic vision of users and their work results in fewer arguments and a more usable product.

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.