Human-Centered Design

Like many college students, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Honestly, I still don’t have an answer for you. I spent five years at the University of Washington studying various topics and taking myriad classes in different subject matter. And I found a major that seemed to fit all the courses I found most interesting: Anthropology. What is anthropology? Anthropology is the study of humans. How did I end up working as a journalist? Well, journalists do the same thing: they study people.

Jeremy Gilbert, an assistant professor at Northwestern University with the Medill School of Journalism, spoke on the importance of considering not just the generic group of “readers” when considering story selection and presentation, but the specific individual who will be interacting with your product.

It is one thing to sit around and theorize on what “the reader” will want to see or how he or she will interact with it. It is quite another to actually observe a person interacting with a product and content with no prior knowledge on the behind-the-scenes production process.

Jeremy suggested a three-step process to eliminate our own biases and projections of our own agendas to get at what an individual person might want or need from a product. Before redesigning a newspaper or launching an iPhone app, a media product designer needs to understand the consumer and how a person will interact with the product.

First: Usability testing.
Before designing anything, it is most important to know the person for whom the product is intended. To do this, create a persona. Giving “the reader” a name, age, gender, food preference, etc., allows the designer to understand “the reader” from a more realistic and practical position. Do this by creating interviews and surveys. Don’t focus on the “average” person, focus on the extremes. When focus is placed on the extreme users, appealing to the wider audience will ensure a more applicable user interface. When finally taking a prototype to these real individuals, consider testing fewer people more times than more people fewer times. When people are able to interact with a product multiple times, they are able to get further into the system, revealing more problems. Otherwise, test subjects may only find an original problem that doesn’t allow them to get deeper to other levels of problems.

Second: Iterative prototyping.
After you develop an idea and study the consumer of that idea and compare it to the competitors, it’s crucial to continue to develop prototypes and test these immediately. Don’t let the process go too far without testing steps in between. When testing, consider how people are going to emotionally react to a testing situation and a prototype presentation. Think about trying out a new recipe. People are much more willing to suggest the sauce needs more salt if it’s still in the pan than if it’s on the plate in a final presentation. Before putting anything in digital form, consider using a pen and paper to sketch out ideas. Test subjects will be much more apt to offering suggestions if they feel it is an unfinished product. Continue testing and retesting. The interaction is the most important piece to consider when designing any product.

Third: Service blueprinting.
There are two main stages on which interaction occur. There is the observed or the “on stage” presentation, and then there is the unobserved or the “backstage” presentation. In our world, we have certain expectations of how things will work or what will happen next. When clicking on a button that says “click here” we expect something to happen. If it doesn’t, we are removed from the on-stage presentation and begin to consider the backstage presentation. Media product design is most successful when the presentation works in a way where the consumer is kept in a state of active interaction on the on-stage presentation level when things work the way they want or need them to.

These three tools are very important in creating a communication product — be it newspapers, iPhone aps, e-readers — between consumer and creator. Put the human side back into the equation to remove as few human errors in the end. And understand nothing is going to be perfect the first, second, third time around, so it’s important to keep revisiting the drawing board.

Click here to access Jeremy Gilbert’s presentation at SND Denver.