I want to share something I learned that was shocking to me. It happened just a few weeks ago, as people started using AmpedSense and giving me feedback: my side project is not intuitive.
It came to me in the form of an email:
Wha?! What do you mean you don’t know how – my software is perfect and intuitive and everyone should be able to use it on their first try. Why can’t you figure it out, it’s easy! Am I going to have to teach you how to use it?!
It came as a surprise to me that someone was having difficulty figuring out how my software works. But once another person reported they had trouble too, I realized something: my software is not perfect.
But MY software is perfect
Yes, your software IS perfect – to you! But you’ve been developing it for months. You know exactly what each mouse move, button press, and click does. You know this not only because you programmed it, but because you also thought of the UI yourself.
I’d like to think that my user interfaces are intuitive, never needing instructions (as they should be), but I’m also a developer. I’m a math-oriented, black-and-white logical, non-emotional person, and not many people are like me. Which means my UI sucks.
If it were up to us developers all UI’s would be formed with lists, organized in tables, in a fixed-width font. They’d be super functional. And they’d be ugly as hell.
Good news is there are several solutions to creating software that’s usable by people other than ourselves:
- Have someone else design it
- Create detailed tutorials
- Create instructional videos
Have someone else design it
Did you know there are people out there called Human Computer Interaction (HCI) Specialists? They’re whole job is focused on making sure humans can interact with computers is an intuitive, seamless fashion. In other words, they make software easy to use by suggesting great user interfaces.
I’m not going to suggest a specialist.
While they may do great in large, formal software projects, you’re on a tight budget. We need something more accessible, and cheaper.
I’m not going to suggest a specific person to look over your proposed UI, I’m just going to suggest that at least someone else does. Maybe it’s your friend, your spouse, or even your mom. Could be a coworker with lots of computer experience, or a newb that’s never used a computer before. I don’t care. I just care that someone other than yourself looks at your software and gives you feedback.
If you don’t want to bug your friends, there are great services that allow people to give you candid feedback about your software. A paid solution is User Testing, which charges $39 for each review. You write up some steps and questions for a stranger, and you get a video of them attempting to use it. A free solution is Concept Feedback. You don’t get videos, instead just answers to a few questions, but it is free as long as you return the favor and provide input on other projects. I’ve used both of these services before and they’re highly recommended by me.
Create detailed tutorials
At a minimum, there should be a few help articles to help people along the way if they get stuck. I suggest a “Getting Started”, a “Troubleshooting”, and a “FAQ” to start. After you’ve created those, keep track of every support email you receive. Answer the email, and then create an article with your response so other people can see it in the future. You should never have to answer the same question twice – people hopefully will be able to search for your solution and never email you to begin with. Or if they still email you, just point them to the article.
Be sure to provide screenshots of your software in your tutorials. And use a super basic image program (I use MS Paint!) to draw arrows or circles around the buttons/lists/etc that you’re talking about.
Here’s an example of a tutorial page I created for AmpedSense:
Create instructional videos
Unfortunately, creating detailed tutorials isn’t enough. Those how-to articles can be lengthy and boring – and people don’t like to read. People instead like to watch (think of all the people you know that would rather watch a movie than read a book).
Bewarned before you start to create a video: professional videos are really expensive (a few thousand dollars), and cheap videos look like crap. It’s tough finding the balance between affordability and appearance.
Here’s an example of a video I made for AmpedSense:
UPDATE – Read about how I made the video above, for less than $50.
I feel like an ass
I’m going to be honest with you. Remember that email I showed you at the beginning where someone couldn’t figure out how to use my software? My first gut-reaction to it was this: “Really? You must be dumb.”
In reality, I was the dumb one. How self-centered am I thinking that everyone thinks the same way I do, and if they don’t they’re an idiot? Luckily I somehow managed to calm my lizard brain and realize not everyone’s the same as me, and that’s okay. Not everyone is going to understand my software immediately, and I accept that.
Have you ever had an experience where people didn’t understand how to use your side project? What happened?