Creating Power Users

Ask any interaction designer or information architect about the importance of simplicity and their eyes will light up. Anyone who designs front-ends knows full well that its success is measured by how effectively an application’s functionality is communicated. The more complex the system, the greater the challenge to somehow mask that complexity and deliver a usable, simple interface. Applications only feel powerful when we’re able to achieve that marriage: deliver compelling capabilities in as simple a way as possible.

Thankfully, simplicity is well ingrained in today’s Web 2.0 mindset. You’ll often stumble on applications with very simple forms, more dynamic experiences and highly focused functionality. Often accented with big fonts and friendly, primary colors, Web 2.0 is in many ways a statement against cluttered design. A minimalist sensibility pervades Web 2.0 – and that’s a good thing.

As Web 2.0 continues to expand and as needs grow, the goal of driving towards simplicity is going to be challenged. A heavyweight CRM tool can only be dumbed down so much, for example. So the challenges to deliver better experiences is going to really be tested as we’re confronted with more complex, involved software.

Beyond the challenges ahead, there seems to be a casualty of all this simplicity: the power user. Yes, power users are a niche population, but they are invaluable to the maturation and evolution of products. They’re a critical feedback loop. They’re also great advocates. Very often, they’ll take the time (often excitedly) to pitch, convince and even train others on a system they’re loyal to.

By putting the user at the center of the design universe, we inadvertently fall into a sort of trap. Eventually, we want our users to graduate, but so long as we try to please them and, dare I say, “baby” them, the tougher it’s going to be to take them to the next level of proficiency, skill and ideally, expertise.

Google is a great example of this. They’ve done a fantastic job of delivering enormous power through a deceptively simple experience: the non-descript search box. Inadvertently, they’ve created a loyal user base that is, in effect, spoiled. As Google tries to introduce more services and content, they’re forced to continue to meet that standard. It won’t be easy.

Can we design systems that are both simple (thus not alienating casual users) and yet somehow establish a breeding ground that can create new power users? Better yet, can we entice casual users so much so that they want to invest the time and effort to dig for more levers and switches? Or even better yet, can we slyly introduce more complex capabilities into the “simple” experience such that we’re breeding power users without them even knowing it? Can we train up users through the experience itself?

The moral of the story for me as an experience designer is to somehow bake learning and expertise-building into the experience. Rather than just have a new button show up one day that leads to a whole other cluster of functionality sitting elsewhere, we should try to blend these additional capabilities into the way they currently think about and do things. It isn’t easy, but the result is a more seasoned, empowered user that finds it worthwhile to keep learning and growing their knowledge of a product. I believe that can happen without creating a cluttered, unfocused experience. As designers, we just have to shoot for it.

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