KenAndEllenWedding01_cropped My wife and I attended an outdoor wedding yesterday at the Blue Horse Farm in the beautiful Catskills mountains of upstate New York. The beautiful ceremony and reception was set amidst the backdrop of sunny fields, ready-to-pick arugula, a big old barn, grazing horses, and a baby calf named "Johnny".

You never know who you will meet at a wedding and you never know what you may learn from them. Among the distinguished guests attending the wedding I had the pleasure of meeting were Martin Johnson, a freelance Jazz music reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, and  France (yes, like the country), a graphic designer for Lord & Taylor.  France has to design appealing promotional graphics that result in sell through and Martin has to craft his music reviews to make his readers hear without hearing. To be successful, both Martin and France have to be extraordinarily in-tune with their audience.

Application Developers Also Need To Be Extraordinarily In-Tune With End-Users

My upcoming research on Best Practices In User Experience Design (expected publication August 2009) reveals, among other things, that application developers rely far too heavily on asking end-users or stakeholders what their "requirements" are when designing applications. The best application developers also have a six sense that I call design imagination that helps them fill in the holes left by inarticulate end-users, unknowing business stakeholders, and the evolving business context. Both Martin and France support the design imagination sentiment:

  • France taps into the culture of her customers. France has her own sense of fashion, but she has to set that aside when designing promotional graphics. Instead she needs to get inside the head of her target customer and design something that will make them buy more couture. That means looking at sales data but, it also means tapping into the culture of her customers. Similarly, application development professionals, need to understand that they are not designing applications for themselves. Listening to end-user requirements though is only part of the equation because they often do not know exactly what they need or are often not able to articulate it. Exceptional application developers must have a "design imagination" to fill in the blanks.
  • Martin writes for his brother and sister. To insure that his writing is compelling to the right audience, Martin writes his reviews to his brother and sister. He says they are representative of his target audience. Likewise, applications development professionals should walk in the shoes of end-users to deeply understand them and design for them.

Design Imagination Is Under Attack

Application development shops that adopt Agile methods should be very careful that rapid fire iteration doesn't kill design imagination. If developers relegate themselves to coders who are corrected every two weeks by stakeholders the resulting application may miss the mark of creating a great user experience. The problem: 1) stakeholders are not often not the end-users, 2) developers become more code focused.

Worse, Waterfall methods usually rely only on upfront requirements gathering from dispassionate business analysts that are often far removed from the trenches. The result: Nothing is left to the imagination.

A balanced approach is needed if application development professionals are to create great user experiences. Please read my upcoming research on Best Practices In User Experience Design next month for more in this.


Mike Gualtieri

Senior Analyst