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 engrained 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 inadvertantly 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. Inadvertantly, 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.

5 Comments Creating Power Users

  1. Diana

    Eloquent and well said. An interface that encourages users to learn from playing around, and avoids the frustration wall that leads them away from further experimenting is a worthy goal. We all want to breed power users, and reality is that few users have time or resources for extensive training or [God forbid] documentation review.
    One more thing: We should all rise up against crappy interfaces. For example, when it takes me an hour or more to book a simple business trip or record my electronic timesheet, I’m highly non-productive. If corporations would only quantify time lost in the seriously bad interfaces they force on their users, they might take steps to improve UI design and promote more productive workers.

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  2. Rich Ziade

    You raise a great point Diana. All too often, decision makers are preoccupied with delivering features or putting out fires to stop and consider the implications of a cumbersome interface.
    Bad interfaces slow things down, cause mistakes to occur and often require training from others. That’s real time and money.

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  3. Jeremy

    I second your point Diane! I work for a company when budgets are tight, like most B2B corporatations, our projects UI implementation is the first thing to go. Its crazy because these are the companies that stand to benefit the most from their vendors, suppliers, or internal solid, well-thought out user interface. The people I work with don’t neccesarily have the web savvy mentality or power user foresight to anticipate the problems a crappy interface might impose or eventually impose. They deal with it as if its just part of the daily routine in working with computers – and you can’t really blame them since its possible its only an empirical result of their early experience interacting with DOS and the command line.

    Regardless, think of all the needless suffering and hours of translating bad UI metaphors or worse – spending 30 minutes filling out an electronic application only to find out after hitting submit that my session expired or the intranet airline application isn’t set up to take my VISA card – think of the all the positive financial implications and job satisfaction rates if people were more productive because of better UI experience. Beyond the obligatory user poll and or focus group, I wish there was a way to better quantify, peoples thresholds for what makes them feel like their having a good user experience and what their tolerance levels are for the bad ones. Precise metrics that glaringly show business justification that UI should be taken just as seriously as an applications security measures and its back-end functionality.

    Good post Rich. I like what our man Albert Einstein had to say about simplicity –

    Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.

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