Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Myth of the Genius Designer

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has posted a new Alertbox article called The Myth of the Genius Designer. He makes the case that even the best designer is not a replacement for sound user testing of a Web-based product. (Or other product designs, for that matter.)

It's an argument well worth considering while you're putting together your own plans, whether you're working on a new piece of software, or a user guide or an event plan. Putting the end user's needs firmly in control of the process will benefit everyone, as Neilson points out:
The real question is not whether you should use a good designer, but whether using a good designer eliminates the need for a good usability person. It doesn't.

It's wrong to rely solely on a "genius designer" for several reasons:
* You must run your project with the team you actually have, not the team you wish you had. In most companies, you won't find one of the world's top 100 interaction designers waiting around to work on your project.

* Design is an inexact science; even if you have a superb designer, not all of his or her ideas will be equally great. It's only prudent to reduce risk and subject design ideas to a reality check by user testing them with actual customers. (Remember, new ideas can be tested at low cost through techniques like paper prototypes.)

* How do designers get to be good in the first place? By learning which of their ideas work and which don't. This feedback requires empirical data, which usability testing provides.

* Even the best designers produce successful products only if their designs solve the right problems. A wonderful interface to the wrong features will fail. And how can designers find out what customers need? Through user research.

* Nobody's perfect. Even a very good design can be improved when you follow an iterative process of continuous quality improvements. For each step of the design, you should conduct a usability evaluation (testing or guideline review), and use the resulting insights as the step-climbing metric to drive your user experience to the next level of quality.

Several decades' experience with quality assurance says that the best results come from following a systematic quality process, including reality checks every step of the way, rather than simply hoping that you got it right.

If you aren't familiar with Nielsen's usability work, I recommend you visit his website to find out more. He's a guy who really practices what he preaches. For an example, read this explanation of why his site has almost no graphics.

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