Helter-skelters are such a brilliantly simple concept that children need no assistance in understanding how to use them. Even dogs get them! They are an intuitive piece of hardware that bring pleasure to users with minimal effort and virtually no thought. This is important whenever you have a client for whom you have deliverables, be that software or otherwise. We don’t really want to think (‘Dont make me think’ is a fantastic book by Steve Krug, about web usability), we just want to instinctively know how to use or do something. Be that an app, website or a new vacuum cleaner, or building flat pack furniture, it’s in our nature to get stuck in on the premise that we should just understand what to do.
(Ironically, the term ‘helter-skelter’ is derived from an old adverb that means ‘in confused, disorderly haste’, which is the opposite of the point I’m trying to make!)
At some point as a child, you may have been asked to ‘describe something to an alien’ – an exercise that challenges you to create an understanding of something that someone has never seen or experienced before. Such a simple concept but one that teaches you that not everyone has the same knowledge, experience or perceptions as you. Now, I’m not saying we should think of our users as aliens, but it’s a useful concept to help you to step into someone else’s shoes and see things through their eyes, rather than your own. We must remember that we’re not building software for ourselves or even for our vision of our users, we must analyse and understand our users in their world and build software that helps them to facilitate the best approach to their work. Ask them to test it, review it, feedback and test it again.
Questions & planning
So, how would you describe a slide to an alien? How about a helter-skelter?! Our users will have knowledge of their domain and workplace so won’t be completely in the dark, but this should make it easier for them to understand the software we create and thus use it intuitively. We often find ourselves questioning user requirements, but this is often due to lack of domain knowledge - and it is this instinct that helps us to produce the right software, or even prompt others to question their own requirements and whether what they’ve said they want is actually what they need.
And I don't stop with software - I want all my work items to be intuitive. When I write a test plan, I may not be running those tests myself, and other people (developers, product owners and users) will see them. Therefore, I write them to be intuitive – I don’t just write ‘test this, test that’, I structure them in a way that makes the process clear, with expected results shown, so it can be executed intuitively. If I plan a meeting, I publish an agenda, pre-requisites and objectives to ensure everyone knows how to prepare, what to expect and whether it is relevant for them. Much like testing, we can apply the concept across the business and not limit it to software alone.
So, how do we make software intuitive? I couldn’t write this article without another 10-point checklist, so here goes…
1. The helter-skelter principle – make the user journey obvious, predictable and enjoyable!
2. Common ground – the most popular/successful things probably use similar formats and approaches. Don’t reinvent the wheel, just tailor it to your audience.
3. Nudge, nudge – subtle guidance through the user journey that makes users think they are navigating all by themselves!
4. Consistency – avoid confusion by maintaining similar functions and designs.
5. You are here – keep users updated as to where they are and where they can go and don’t make them guess, even if they are just waiting for something else to happen.
6. Try their shoes on - focus on the user in their world. Walking 100 miles in their shoes might be painful, but at least give it a try.
7. Instinct - use it! Your users should be able to take one look and know what to do, don’t make them think.
8. Flow - Make it feel like a natural progression that requires little thought so that users pleasantly float along the right path on a fluffy cloud. However...
9. Clear - Be clear, be concise. Don’t cloud the issue!
10. Simple - Back to where we started, simplicity is the key!