After 8 months of research and interviews, writing more than 20 drafts and receiving tons support from my wife and my family, I presented my point-of-view on one of the toughest challenges that experience designers face today.
The experience and the dialogs that I started with the audience made all the hard work worth while.
A recent discussion in the client project touched upon an often debated topic – What is the value of user testing?
On the surface, the value of user testing is obvious. It invites representatives of people who will use a design to provide unbiased feedback to a proposed solution. It reduces the possibility of unrealistic expectations on users (e.g. User would put this around his neck every morning) and weeds out usability problems that designer may overlook. On the flip side, it’s often argued that companies over-rely on usability testing and defer design decisions to a limited number of randomly chosen people. Lab settings and paper prototypes do not provide enough context, or even the right context, for the user to realistically judge the experience of use. A lot of designers operate under the mentality that ‘some testing is better than no testing’, while others believe in this age of constant drive for disruptive innovation and the common practice of having a digital service in a prolonged beta phase, user testing is a waste of time. Users simply don’t know what they want until you show the design to them in its full glory as a working solution. All these arguments lead me to believe that user research, which user testing is part of, is ill-presentated in companies. Companies trapped in such kind of debate miss the value of usability testing because they mis-understand the broader role of user research in the design. This needs to be fixed.
The typical design process is divided into 4 phases – Discover, Define, Design and Deliver. These step repeat multiple times during a project, sometimes in this logical sequence, sometimes not. In a user-centered design process, understanding of the user’s needs is included in every step. User testing is most appropriate during the Design phases.
During the Design phase, user testing provides grounded evidence to improve details of the design. However, there is merit to the claim that users don’t know what they want but they know very well how to judge what is in front of them. For that reasons, designer should provide test materials that are well thought out, so the users can judge the quality of each design in their details. Sometimes it is OK to test an incomplete design, but request users to provide over-arching feedback on an incomplete design is not (e.g. Will you find this solution pleasurable to use on a daily basis?). Incomplete design in, incomplete user input out. With that said, it is important to recognize that results that stem disruptive innovations rarely come put of user testing. That is because by the time the process reaches the Design phase, designers and stakeholders have already defined the problem space of the project. Expecting users to react to a prototype and articulate an unmet need that will lead to a brand new service is just wishful thinking. In the rare cases where profound user input is captured, it will most likely documented as a footnote in the report, under ‘Further Considerations’. Most user-supported evidence for disruptive innovation result from design research during the Discover phase, when the problem space is still fuzzy, or after the Delivery phase when unexpected patterns are found in user’s operations with the solution through analytics, support calls and review comments.
Contrary to common believe, designers by themselves don’t hold the solution to most complex design problems that we are tasked to solve today. Understanding the design problem with the help of user’s input offer a much higher rate of success. User testing is not the only tool, nor it is always the right tool, to incorporate user input. To realize the value of user research, designers, especially design leaders, must education companies to use the right user research tool at the right time.
I remember the day when I got my first watch. It was the diver’s watch that my father handed down to me when I was 6. It was a symbol of independence and an instant grant of bragging rights to my friends. Fast forward 16 years, I saved money that I earned from an internship to buy a semi-expensive dress watch. I loved that watch and wore it every day through my university years.
Fast forward another 14 years to today, my watches sit inside my wardrobe for weeks without being touched. That is the same for most people. While the spirit of reading time is still alive and well, it has long left the metal and plastic shells on our wrist and into our mobile phones.
In late 2007, the CEO of Amazon announced the first Kindle to the world. It was hailed as the ‘iPod of reading’ and it would change the way we read books. The world bought the idea. Two and a half years and 3 updates later, the Kindles became the standard of e-Book readers. Other booksellers and device manufacturers followed suit and offered similar hardware and service. With the Amazon’s model taking the lead, eBook readers were on their way to make history.
But that road took a turn on Jan 2010, when Apple announced the iPad and iBooks. Unlike all eBook readers, the iPad is a generic device. It is built for all types of online contents from webpages to apps, games, videos, podcasts, music and books. The iPad ignited debates on the fate of the Kindles and e-Book readers alike. During the past 5 months, more and more evidences are showing that the future of e-Books readers are turning dim.
First were the price drops. Within the past month, three major eBook reader manufacturers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony) all dropped the prices of their products. The price of a Kindle dropped by 27%. The just released version of the Nook is 25% cheaper, and it comes with wifi and free wifi access in Barnes and Noble stores. The prices of those 3 eBook readers co-incidentally rest just under half the price of an iPad. In my opinion, those prices are still too expensive for eBook readers to remain attractive. In fact, I think the right price of eBook readers is 0.
Vast majority of people want to read books, not to own and maintain another electronic device. The value of being able to download books over-the-air and carry library of books along have now been marginalized by all the other features and possibilities offered by the iPad. All eBook readers on the market can only reliably compete with the iPad on readability of the display and weight, but those advantages will loose strength or simply overlooked by consumers as the iPad product line improves.
Some have argued that eBook readers, being dedicated devices, offer better reading experiences because they allow users to escape emails and other online distractions. That is a weak argument because people today are comfortable with multi-tasking. The explosive growth in smart phones attests that people are looking for devices that will allow them to do more and carry less. For those who really want un-interrupted reading, the off-switch to data connection on the iPad is only two clicks away. On the flip side of that argument, paying half the price of an iPad and get less than 20% of the feature simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Last but not least, the business model behind eBook readers is, and should be about selling books. The common denomination of feature that makes up all of eBook readers on the market today suggest that the hardware is already on the path to commoditization. I predict that before the next version of the iPad is released, manufacturers whose main business is in bookselling will either converge toward iPad to de-risk themselves all together, or give away eBook reader hardware for free and let volume of eBook sales support that channel. Other eBook reader manufacturers that solely profit from hardware will need to take the second option in order to stay in the business.
This tectonic shift under eBook readers is nothing but typical. Convergence of devices, contents and services is the counter-force that pushes back upon the endless gush of new offerings (and their variants) that appear on the market every week. Behind these convergences is the mind of consumers, who vote for the best solution to satisfy their practical and emotional needs every time. It is those needs behind that businesses should seek, not the questions that their offerings can help answer.