I’m often dumbfounded by the really bad user experiences I encounter online and in apps from even the largest companies. From websites that aren’t mobile-friendly–they all have to be responsive to mobile devices, even if you have an app–to online forms that erase all your data if you make a single mistake. Which is what a form on the NBC website does. Most of this is not because the company doesn’t care about design. It’s because they think leaving the design to engineers will be good enough. It’s just not.
EI vs UI
I sometimes joke with my engineers that their software doesn’t have a User Interface (UI) it has an Engineers Interface (EI). An EI is what engineers build so they can test the application they’re building. A UI is what they build so that a user can use the application. They are two very different interfaces.
Imagine a Car Designed by Your Mechanic
Any physical product you buy has a designer, as well as an engineer. Imagine a car built by your local mechanic. It probably wouldn’t be a car you’d want to buy. What we love about cars is their sleek appearance, the leather seats, the iPhone integration with the sound system, the gorgeous dashboard that displays all the information we need to safely run the car. And a myriad other little details that car designers pay close attention to.
Of course, it also has to run – but that’s a given. That’s our baseline requirement. Simply running isn’t enough to make a customer want to buy the car.
The same goes for software, apps, and websites.
Black Screens and Text Lists
A website that merely functions, like those horrible green text on black screens from the 1980s just doesn’t fly today. I recently consulted with an engineer who had a side project he was working on. As he described it, it was a community calendar. But what he showed me was a smart search algorithm. He hadn’t developed any interface to speak of. Oh, there was a “front end” for inputting dates or search terms, but it was so unwieldy, so unfriendly, and so ugly, that nobody would use it.
His project was languishing, unused by the public, and he couldn’t figure out why.
We spent a lot of time talking about what users want from a community calendar. He was frankly skeptical that anyone cared about useability, information architecture, or visual design, until I pointed him to Eventbrite – his biggest competitor. His calendar launched years before Eventbrite’s. If nobody cared about useability, then everyone would be using his calendar instead.
Penny Wise but Dollar Foolish
When you let the engineers design the software, you’ll probably get a functioning engine. You’ll definitely get a ton of features. But what you won’t get is a product that your customers want to use. You’ll save the cost of a designer, but you’ll fail to produce a salable product. And what’s the point of that?