A person uses a piece of software, a Web site, or any other product — “virtual” or “real” — to achieve a goal. The design of interaction with these products can either help or form obstacles that interfere with the realization of that goal. A product is easier to use when its interaction is designed to meet the needs of its intended audience. Product designers who consider those needs produce far more effective interaction solutions than those who base their designs on aesthetics or business needs alone.
But how does one go about “considering” user needs and then come up with a design solution that works? Oscar Wilde famously said: The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple. Pure and Simple design is similarly rarely pure and never simple to develop.
I my class, Cognitive tools for Product Designers, we explore what users bring to usability. We all arrive at the scene with different baggage — our experiences, education, perception, memory, and so on are unique to each of us. No two individuals interpret an experience in exactly the same way. While this sounds daunting, we shouldn’t give up on design all together. We all have some things in common. To examine differences and commonalities, we need to examine how people think. Cognitive science and psychology provide some answers.
In particular, in class, we focus on design as a problem solving approach. Users’ experiences, education, perception, memory, and skills are just a set of variables that make up part of the design problem. Business constrains, material science, environmental conditions, and so on are other variables. As product designers, we want to come up with a best possible solution to the design problem.
But this is just one side of the coin. The other is thinking of users as solving problems. Again, users’ experiences, education, perception, memory, and skills are what they bring into a problem solving situation: How do I turn on this light? Which TV is a bargain? How do I make an entree on my iCalendar? The environment and the product provides users is contextual clue — just the right information at the right moment to make the right decision and bring the user closer to his goal. Good interaction design makes this easy and reduces the number of errors that users make with the product; bad or indifferent design places most of the burden of problem solving on the user.
Interaction-Design.org did a nice job on their newest chapter of product design textbook: Chapter 11, the Philosophy of Interaction. We have a special early preview of the materials.
My favorite part is the video of Don Norman explaining the action cycle. What Dr. Norman is demonstrating is problem solving in action. This video is below, but more materials are available on the Interaction-Design.org.