What users really care about

In his introduction to a very interesting user research case study on the MailChimp blog, Gregg Bernstein writes:

Here at MailChimp, we’re realists—as much as we love email and all the things you can do with it, we understand that building a campaign is a task, not a life event. You want to get in, get done, and get on with things. Duly noted.

The post goes on to explain how they managed to shave an average of 32 seconds off a core email campaign creation task at MailChimp. But it’s that opening sentence I’d like to dwell on for a bit.

I wish more companies understood this crucial point. As designers and product managers we obsess over every detail of our product, but it most likely makes up a minuscule part of our users’ days. Unless you work for Facebook or Twitter users don’t wake up wondering what new features you’ve released, how your conversion rate has changed over time, or what awards you’ve won. They care about getting a task done, and they care about nothing getting in their way — they care about getting on with their lives.

Yesterday The Onion published an article that is such a spot-on commentary on how we’re mostly ignoring this reality. From Internet Users Demand Less Interactivity:

Tired of being bombarded with constant requests to share content on social media, bestow ratings, leave comments, and generally “join in on the discussion,” the nation’s Internet users demanded substantially less interactivity this week.

Speaking with reporters, web users expressed a near unanimous desire to visit a website and simply look at it, for once, without having every aspect of the user interface tailored to a set of demographic information culled from their previous browsing history.

Exactly. We’re in an environment where too often products and functionality are shaped by who we are and what’s technically possible, not by what user needs call for. XKCD called us on it years ago, but we’re just not listening:

University website

The solution to this problem is to get out into the world and understand how our products and services fit into the lives of our users. How we can help them accomplish their tasks more effectively. Mark Hurst summed this up well in his post What is a career in user experience really about?:

Good user research isn’t a matter of learning the steps of some trendy methods, as though one were just following a cookbook. Instead, good UX work requires a genuine interest in observing, listening to, and learning from other people: primarily the customers themselves, but also the organization that owns the product. That observation, and that listening, must stem from a genuine human interest in people.

We can all do with a shot of humility about our products. We might think what we’re making is a gift to humankind that deserves proper respect — and we absolutely should be proud of our work. But a bit of human empathy will show us that most users have only a passing fly-by relationship with our products. That’s ok though. Understanding how our products fit into people’s lives realistically will help us to improve that fit and (hopefully) become indispensable to them. That’s our job as User Experience Designers.