What if the buyer is not the user?

February 11, 2009


Human centered design teaches you to optimise like crazy for the user of your product, but is there a situation where this leads to a design which puts off the person paying the bill?

I spotted this review of one of Dyson’s high tech and rather stylish hoovers. Is this user happy that some of his/her clients have paid a considerable amount more to acquire one?

“I´m out in the field, hoovering for my disabled clients in their own homes, amongst other duties a carer has to do. Everytime I know there is whatever type of Dyson in the household, I simply bring my own hoover along. I mean, a 12GBP one from Tesco, made in China. Oh yeah, you don´t need a NASA training to use such a thing. It´s got two buttons. The ON/OFF one and the other that coils the cord in a flick of a second (unheard of, Mr.Dyson?). I mean, not cutting and “eating” it by the front. And guess what? I can lift the whole thing with my little finger, put it inside a small backpack and catch a crowded bus with it, if I wanted to. See, hoovering itself is annoying enough so I don´t really see the point in battling a StarTrek ship to make it easier on you! Or is using Dyson suppose to be Fun? Well, it CERTAINLY is not the quality of the job it leaves behind, that would make me buy it. In fact, I have never came accross a less effective hoover. So the only reason for Mr. Dyson still not going out of bussiness I can think of is that people buy his products because ITS SAID TO BE GOOD and all other marketing and status tricks, but in the end it´s their au-pairs, cleaning ladies and people like myself that have to put up with about 8times as much of job then SIMPLE HOOVERING.”

From PocketLint

This review raises a very important question: should you compromise your design if it will get it into the hands of more users?

Who are you designing for?

The best place to look for examples of this problem is enterprise software.

One of my favourite applications by far is Tableau. I use it every day and am stunned by how simple it is to create clear visualisations of large datasets. It’s blazingly fast to use and defaults to an elegant visual style which puts the data first – check out the nicely put together product tour here. It makes it easy to create dashboards like this:


Its main competitor is Crystal Excelsius, which sadly makes it easy to create awful dashboards like this:


This is not a post about data visualisation, but in a nutshell the problem with Crystal Xcelsius is that it focuses far too much on the cosmetic aspects which add nothing (and often detract from) the data behind the dashboard. I will let Jorge Cameos and Stephen Few explain its problems in more detail (both of these blogs are mandatory reading for anyone dealing with large amounts of data, incidentally).

The question is this: how many of Tableau’s sales have been taken by Crystal Xcelsius because of its fancy effects? 

Another example in the same area is the difference between Excel 2003 and Excel 2007 charting.  Check here, here and here for some closer looks at the problems; here’s one simple illustration.

This is Excel 2003:


Excel 2007. Notice how some of the most important options have been moved from radio buttons (1 click) to dropdowns (2 clicks) and how its most important sections (e.g. scale and patterns) have been partially lumped together to leave more room for irrelevant 3D and formatting effects. 


Who is Microsoft trying to appeal to?

There is a clear disconnect between the needs of the user, who would likely benefit from simpler chart creation and the buyer, who may be swayed by the additional features (“What harm could they do?”). On top of this, the user of the software is not the ultimate user; that place goes to the person trying to make sense of the final chart.

A few thoughts:

  • How can you make sure you are designing for the right person? Sometimes the ultimate user is not who you think they are.
  • This conflict between user and buyer does not necessarily mean two people or departments. It is within us all.
  • Can you tell whether you are selling to the user or the buyer? Perhaps you can show different aspects of your design to each.

What other examples of this are there?


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