#StopDoingThis UX, common sense, and thinking about your avatar


UX, or user experience, has become a new, sexy discipline in the last few years.

But in fact it’s been a problem ever since we started making technology that was more complicated than a hammer.

When we write software, or do anything complicated, we start with a specification. All this is is a list of things that are required. So creating the thing, whether it’s a house or some software should be simple, right?


One of the things that’s always missing from these discussions, every time, is who you’re building stuff for.

UX, and indeed the advertising industry, call this your avatar. It isn’t you, it’s the person whose needs you’re trying to fill.

So when you start solving the problem you solve it for the person using it.

A couple of examples of don’t do this

1 Perfect model, unusable system

Back in the distant mists of time, when the world was young, I used to develop systems using a data modelling tool. This tool let you create a picture of how your customer’s data fitted together and was even clever enough to generate a working application to manage this data. This is years before the web, by the way.

If you were using one of these generated applications you would often find yourself having to write a lot of things down and go round in circles a lot.


Say you were entering some information that needed a category adding to it – say some kind of stock – and you hadn’t created that stock item. There was no way to open up a separate screen and quickly add the category in.

So you’d have to write down all of the stuff you’d just entered, come out of that screen, go into the categories screen, pick which category and subcategory and any other stuff you needed to create it, create it, then go back to what you were really trying to do, type everything back in, and select the category you just created, assuming you’d done it right.


So the model of the customer’s data was correct, the system as built was complete, but it was very hard to use. Very hard. Also, imagine if you weren’t authorised to create a new category in our application. You’d have to phone somebody, wait for them to create it, and then start again so that the form you were using loaded up the new data.


In the days when software was more expensive than people this was barely acceptable, and fundamentally lazy. I worked on many systems that were technically complete, but weren’t built for people to use them. It used to drive me crazy because I always see systems as something that takes the load off humans, that remember things they might forget, and make mistakes unlikely. Systems being the person and the computer or whatever, not just the computer on its own.

The avatar

In this case the avatar is the clerical operator just trying to do their job and enter data. They get paid to get data into the system, not deal with some pedantic crap you thought up because you were covering every single option.

2 Met the requirement, but didn’t understand it

In the last project I was working on an external contractor built a system so that different businesses could meet with each other at a conference to do deals.

Of course, you need to see if you’re there when someone you would like to meet is. This is the requirement.

So, the developers built this amazing pop up that covered all 20 odd days of the conference with time slots in check boxes. It pops up in front of you like a whale breaching and must have a box filled in. There was no way to fill in all the other stuff and come back to it, either.


Thing is, say I’m the CEO of a light engineering company. I’ve decided to come to the part of the conference about maritime business for a few days. I’m on the web site, I can’t fill in my details until I’ve selected at least one of the check boxes popping up in front of me and taking up a whole page. Unless I really really want to I will just say nah and not bother.

The CEO probably knows the days she will be there, and be happy to meet anyone on one of those days if it means big bucks. But if you scare her away, what happens then?

Or say I pick a day at random because I want to get registered, meaning to come back when I have my diary with me, and then I forget.

The avatar

The avatar is a busy exec who’s coming to catch up with her industry sector and make a few contacts. She may have blocked the days out in her diary but not know the details. One minute sitting in her shoes would tell you that the only thing you needed to ask is what days are you available? Also if two folks can’t meet because they won’t be there at the same time the introduction can still be made – this needs to be crystal clear.

So what should we do?

Ask some focusing questions:

  • Who is my avatar, will they put up with a little hassle for decent rewards?
  • How busy is my avatar? Can I get away with pushing them a bit?
  • Will my avatar have the information I insist on to hand when I ask for it? Can I ask for it later?
  • If I’m selling something that’s free, how do I keep their interest?
  • Am I overloading people who aren’t technical, people who aren’t what I am?

Above all, just look at complex requirements and things having to go out and back in again to do simple stuff. Could you be bothered with it unless forced to by your job? Why do that to people?

There are geniuses at UX who can take things and make them amazing. Even a little thought can get things friendlier and easier and it isn’t hard. You are not your customer. Walk in their shoes.

P.S. Hammers. I have a friend who is a tool nut. You should see his collection of hammers. Even hammers have a UX. Ask yourself: what kind of a nail?

Tagged with: