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Arrogance as the Enemy of User Experience Design

March 3, 2014

A cautionary tale about how one dude wasted his company’s time and money because he thought he was so smart. Hint: it’s me.

With user-centered design, you have to check your ego at the door. An arrogant attitude can kill a great interface. This frequently happens when one person sees himself or herself as the “average user” and believes his or her opinion represents most people. That’s because we all tend to design things we like, and it’s hard to see other perspectives. This is a story about my own arrogance, the size of my screen, and what I learned from my first major UX blunder. Cinematic soundtrack optional.

Early in my career, I led design at a medium-sized company that provided electronic payment services to the trucking industry. Our company had a terminal-based system for customers to manage their accounts. It was expensive and clunky, so we decided to move to a web application. It was a big deal. The web version would be cheap and simple to use by comparison. In fact, the old system was so terrible that anything would be an improvement. It’d be pretty hard to screw this up, I thought.

One of the first things we decided on was the resolution. At the time, a lot of people had 800×600 screens, designers had 1024×768, but some people were still stuck with 640×480. I made the decision that we would design for 800×600 because ‘most people should have an 800×600 screen by now’. It seemed like a reasonable choice: it wasn’t as large as my own screen, but it wasn’t the smallest either. A sort of middle ground.

I'm pretty sure this is the display I had when this story took place.Another designer suggested we go with 640 since we were dealing with small trucking companies who were unlikely to have new machines. But my arrogance got in the way. This was my web app! No one was going to prevent me from designing what I thought was best. I even remember joking, “If anyone still has a 640 screen, they don’t deserve to use it”, but there was more truth to my attitude than I’d like to admit. And so, we designed the entire app for 800 pixels. Can you see where this is going?

We released the app with a lot of internal fanfare. We didn’t do any usability testing. In fact, we didn’t really change the overall experience at all. We just took the terminal app field-for-field and put it into an HTML form. But anyway, the app was released and we could all pat each other on the back.

Later, during a follow up call, the salesperson was enthusiastic. It was so much better than the old system (high fives!), but it had really been a hassle for customers to scroll ‘sideways’ to see all of the fields. He didn’t even suggest it was a flaw with the design. As is common in usability testing, users tend to blame themselves. “If only our customers had better computers,” he thought. But it was a major design flaw that adversely affected the productivity of pretty much every user. And so we went back to redesigning the app for a 640 pixel screen.

This took place during a time when user-centered design was brand new to web designers, but I still see situations like this today. Well-meaning individuals are so invested in their work, they make decisions at the expense of their users. My mistake cost our company real time and money, not to mention the hassle and credibility from our clients. Not every design decision will cost you tangible amounts of money but letting your arrogance get in the way has real consequences even if you don’t realize it.

So what lessons did I take away from this experience?

1. Don’t ever speak for the user.

Just because I have an iPhone does not mean I represent everyone.

2. Learn about the user first.

Some simple need finding could have revealed a common screen size. I had no excuse. We had the phone numbers for every customer and they would have gladly helped us.

3. Test the design before you start development.

Had I realized my mistake sooner, it would have saved everyone time.

4. Test in a native environment.

Often, I test designs on my own screen or device but that’s a mistake. In this case, doing testing on my own machine would not have revealed the problem.

5. Listen to other people.

That’s not to say everyone else is always right, but quickly dismissing my peer was a terrible way to manage the project.

It’s incredibly hard to not allow your own emotion and experience to influence design decisions. Despite learning from my own mistakes, I still find it a daily practice to check my ego at the door. There is no magic pill. It takes conscious effort, reminders from the team, and practice. But the end result is a better app and a better user experience. Hopefully you can learn from my mistake and make better apps regardless of the size of your screen.

This post also appears on GiantUX