User Centric Design Yields (Not So?) Obvious Features

Jan Miksovsky has an ephiphanitic (is that a word?) post about an almost universally overlooked common user feature – the ability to change the name of an open file from within your application. His site is ‘flow|state’ and always a good read.

This is a great argument in support of having the best people you can find invest in understanding the usability of your application. Focusing on use cases at the synthesis stage of defining a new product can make or break your application. An application lives or dies by its ability to allow users to achieve the goals that drive the creation of (or purchase of) the software. Simply having the capability to achieve the ROI of a product is important. It even should have veto-power at prioritization time. If the product doesn’t have the capability to accomplish the goals (realized through use cases), then it won’t present the return on investment that was promised.

Unfortunately, many software products, especially enterprise products, consider this absolute-minimum to be the “check-off criteria” for a successful project. The examples Jan points out are considered software successes because they enable the users to achieve their high level (and most valuable) goals. But they don’t engender passion.

Great designs yield passion. Passion yields loyalty. Great designs can differentiate a commodity software product. Differentiation yields a market premium (dominant market share, price differential, etc). There are the pop-culture canonical examples, like the ipod and the mac. I think Apple gets it.

There are far too many applications that don’t inspire. They meet the minimum bar. My newsreader, for example – good use of system resources, provides a classic 3-pane viewer, organizes feeds hierarchically in folders. Meets the low-bar. But adding a new feed can only be described as tedious. And there isn’t an archive of past posts (wouldn’t it be great to archive feeds and search them later, without having to bloat the “current data” interface). Do that stuff, and you’ll have people who won’t hesitate to do your marketing for you.

We have a skunk works project going here at Tyner Blain (it’s too early to even call it stealth yet – still exploring the technology), and I hope we create passionate users. I know we’ll have the ability to rename files within the application.

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