The following is a guest post from Simon Staines, Head of Technology for Client Facing IT at Arcadis.
A few weeks ago, I was taking a new team member through one of our solutions, giving him some context for his particular project. All was going well until he asked a difficult question:
“What’s this page for?”
I quickly replied with an articulate and well-crafted response:
We ran through the elements of the page, looking at each element. This consisted of four distinct sections, three of which were simple infused Logi reports. Each seemed sensible, serving a particular purpose.
However, when they were brought together they formed a confusing story. The page had lost its purpose over time, evolving into something designed by committee, confusing to a new user, and probably to those who see it regularly.
We started looking at each element on the page, discussing its purpose and goal. This went better, I was back on safer ground. We discussed enhancing the layout by clarifying the sections on the page, guiding the user to the section appropriate to them at that time. Phew.
As we began looking at the capacity element, a simple tabular report detailing the available supply chain capacity each week and how much was allocated, he landed his sucker punch:
“Why did you choose that format?”
Luckily, I was now warmed up, not likely to fluff the response:
The real reason was, “it seemed fine when we scribbled on the whiteboard with our client.” We’d then failed to engage our brains and think more deeply. Like everyone else, we’re so busy with mountains of work, we struggle to make time for even these simple thoughts. This was a good time – what would “better” look like? But first, we needed to answer the initial question – what was this report for? Could we articulate that in a simple sentence? What did the user need from it?
“The report should show the available and allocated capacity for a four week period, so that the user can choose when to book their slot and access other sites going live at the same time.”
There – that wasn’t so hard. Did the current report achieve this?
The current report was functional. Functional and dull. It did achieve this brief, but didn’t make it easy for the user, and it certainly wasn’t engaging:
So we generated a couple of quick paper mock-ups of what it could be. Choosing a week with spare capacity needed to be easier. The total capacity was irrelevant for most users – they just need to know if there’s any still available. Reading numbers at a glance is hard – spotting colours and shapes is better. Finally, the report needed more appeal, drawing the user in to spot the pertinent information quickly and helping them make their choice. Here’s what came from a few minutes’ work:
I’ll leave you to decide which is better.
So what did I learn from all of this? Largely it is to embrace my inner child and ask those awkward questions more often:
- What is this for? Get the clarity of purpose for your report. If you can’t summarise this in a simple sentence, including what the user will do with the information, should the report exist?
- Why is it like that? Why have you chosen that layout? Habit? Design by committee? Have you challenged your own initial thoughts enough?
- Who can help me? Put aside your pride and ask someone else to comment. We all tend to become too close to our projects, making assumptions that are wrong. Find someone with some distance and ask for critical comments.
You might just be surprised that the simple questions sometimes yield the most complex answers.