Humans first

Take a moment, if you would, to watch this video from start to finish.  Even if you hated Steve Jobs, think Apple is a tool of the devil or believe that I am in some way a shameless Apple fanboy (I may be, perhaps I drank the wrong kind of KoolAid, the ’80s are a very blurry time for me so it’s quite possible).

Steve Jobs in later years and less grainy appearances seemed, to me, to have perfected a kind of Barnum and Bailey flim flam this-way-works approach to his presentations.  This might have been due to his illness which god only knows must have been gruesome to deal with for anyone let alone a CEO.  It might also have been due to believing his own legend, which I doubt much more than I believe.  Or it could be as things got more modern and media-friendly as they have his words were chosen more carefully to avoid legal pitfalls and hordes of bloggers and rumor sites analyzing every nuance of words he’d chosen to use so they could pick out some perceived hidden meaning or tidbit to feed publisher’s egos and advertising click-thrus.

But this video shows him at an unscripted best.  With a questioner who points a barbed question at him, prodding it with the angst of someone who perceives, perhaps rightly, that Apple has dumped on their project and livelihood.  Jobs jokes a little as the questioner begins realizing that this is not some gushing “everything is cool and godlike” sycophancy but is a gush of blood from a raw and wounded collaterally-damaged developer.

It’s how he, Steve, responds that impresses me the most.  Take away those (likely true) tales of him shouting at inadequate employees.  Brush away the man who agonized over pixels in icons when others would have felt it was Someone Else’s Problem.  He pauses for a loooong time, gathering his thoughts.  It doesn’t seem like a guarded answer.  It seems to me like a genuine response, an attempt at explaining his position and why he thought that the actions he’d taken were the right ones at the time.  Yes it’s wrapped in a little fluff but in there is the most important thing I try to remember as a designer and software developer…

It all begins with the user experience.

Don’t coo over technologies for the sake of technology – solve a problem, make the solution the best it can be, make it do exactly what it needs to do and no more.  Then work downwards into the how to do it.

So many websites, programs, applications, books and even tutorials miss this.  The question to always ask is “what is the user trying to do?”

There are so many examples I am sure all of us can think of where the user’s requirements are not met.  Where technology is used and wielded like a war hammer instead of a fine art pen stroke.  My personal example of this – things that do not help me as the user and fail, therefore, to fulfill their purpose is The Microsoft Partner Website. This is possibly the worst example I know of over-complication, terrible user ‘experience’ and unwieldy to the point of being useless.

Generally there are many many login pages on the Microsoft site that flip backwards and forwards, some ask me for credentials I have already supplied, some pass them over automatically only to pass me back to the calling page to then redisplay the wrong page for the link I clicked on.  It is, in short, terrible.  It has many many dead or incorrect links.  Sections that I have been emailed by Microsoft and told I must fill out are either non-existent when I click on the email link to get there or do not match the requirements they have told me I must complete or – after many levels of clicking and hunting between terminologies that change even though they refer to the same thing – finally tell me that I’ve already completed the requirement they’ve told me I need and hadn’t got.

It’s not good enough for a company that are trying to remain relevant in an age where mobile is the first place people start and the last place Microsoft can be found, if at all.  I’d love to be invited to participate in a Microsoft user experience team so I can juggle this horrible dire website around and shake it until all the crappy bits fall off.  I don’t care how big the organization is – the website is a failure for me and I am sure I’m not the only one to think this.

Instead of sticking with “we’re doing something important so it better be complicated” design paradigm perhaps Microsoft could look again and say “how can we make this as elegant as possible to use”?  My bank has, for obvious reasons, many levels of complexity required in order for them to safeguard my money.  The login process requires no less than two passwords one of which picks random characters in a multi-level challenge and response scheme.  It takes me 10 seconds to login and I’m reasonably convinced it’s secure (although nothing is guaranteed in the online world of worms and trojans).  Once logged in it’s *obvious* what to do.  I don’t need reams of help and then options to select are multi-level but easy to get to grips with immediately.  Each customer is likely served variations of the banking site depending on what sort of accounts they have and what other options have been applied to their relationship with the bank.  Furthermore, they are not a software development company – as Microsoft clearly are – but a bank, the most staid and rule-filled of all organisations on earth.

How come the bank can do it and Microsoft can’t?  It defies an answer really.  Perhaps MS should watch Steve Job’s answer in the video and think, again, “are we fulfilling the customer’s requirements?”

Either that, or pack up and go home.

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