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Designing the Obvious, Part 3: Understanding Real Users to Solve Real Problems

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If you're writing software or building web sites without a user in mind, you're just throwing away your effort. Robert Hoekman, Jr. explains the urgent need to understand exactly who the target user is, what she hopes to accomplish, and what you can do for her - long before you start committing keystrokes to code.
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The second article in this series talked about how to uncover—at a high level—what it is you need to build and why. But the planning game is far from over. Up to this point, you’ve discovered the purpose the product is meant to serve, and who might use it. Now it’s time to get into the fine details of what features the product will need, so it stands a chance at actually serving its purpose.

This process usually starts with a fairly obvious question: "What will users actually want this application to do?" Of course, if you’re talking about an information-based site, the question is more like "What will users actually want this site to offer?" But we’re going to focus on software for now.

Answering this question is a little trickier. Asking a user what your software needs to do is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. The fact is, in most cases, users don’t actually know what they want. And it’s somewhat silly of us to expect any different. After all, we’re the ones with the knowledge of what’s technically feasible. The users probably aren’t designers and probably have no idea what’s possible or how to explain it. So why bother researching users at all?

Why You Should Research Users

One of the best reasons to talk with people who represent the target audience for your product is that it helps to reduce arguments about what should and shouldn’t go into the product. Engineers, product managers, marketers, and CEOs can sit in fancy conference rooms debating these things all they want, but odds are that none of them really know what’s important to the people actually doing the job your software is meant to support. If you’re an AJAX guru with a brand new degree from Look, Mom! I Built a Web Site University, you aren’t going to have any idea what Cheerful Molly from Sales needs to do to convert Joe’s Pitchfork Store into a loyal customer. Only Molly can tell you that.

Need more reasons to research users? Here’s a short list:

  1. You’re not Cheerful Molly from Sales.
  2. You’re not Cheerful Molly from Sales.
  3. You’re not Cheerful Molly from Sales.

Get the point?

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