Web App Masters: When Worlds Collide

by Luke Wroblewski March 23, 2010

In his opening presentation at the Web App Masters Tour in San Diego, CA Jared Spool outlined how design organizations can deliver the holistic experiences Web applications users increasingly expect.

  • It's no longer about the application -its about the experience. When done well, good design is invisible. To illustrate, you only think about the air conditioning when it is not working.
  • Web applications are at the intersection of user needs, business goals, and what the technology allows us to do. The design process is about compromise. We need to constantly make decisions that balance these objectives.
  • Jared’s team researched 60 different organizations that created good user experiences. They found that size, organizational structure, process, management, etc. did not determine what drove great product design.
  • Vision, Feedback, and Culture were the three elements that were consistently present in teams that delivered good experiences.
  • Vision: can everyone on the team describe the experience of using your product five years from now? What is the design you are working towards?
  • Feedback: in the last six weeks, have you spent at least two hours watching someone use your design or a competitor’s design? You need team members to have first-hand exposure to people using your product. Many teams don’t use the products they design.
  • Two hours gives you enough time to see the subtleties and nuances of how people use products. It has to be recently (last six weeks) or else it is forgotten. Once you start to see the same problems over and over again, you focus and fix them. The best organizations do this weekly.
  • You can gather feedback with usability testing, field studies, and first-hand persona development. But the key part is exposure. Try to increase hours and frequency. Don’t think in terms of number of participants –think in terms of exposure (hours and frequency).
  • Design agents to that impact experience: core team (makes the bulk of the decisions) and secondary agents (impact the total experience customers have).
  • Culture: in the last six weeks, have you rewarded someone for a major design failure? Every failure is an opportunity to learn. When you celebrate failure, you get to ask some questions –what did we learn about our users, ourselves, our product?
  • As the number of things people need to consider for Web applications has increased, the size of the teams has actually decreased.
  • The best organizations thought in terms of people’s skills not roles. They worked on building everyone’s skills by giving people opportunities to learn.
  • Curation and editing are key skills for Web application design. Need to be vigilant about removing what is not necessary. Curation is as much about what isn’t included as what is.
  • Designing for embraceable change: when people learn to use something, it’s hard to change existing behaviors.
  • The kitchen cabinet problem: people know what is in their kitchen cabinets. If we change where things are –people’s existing routines are disrupted.
  • User assistance can help people through change.