Why we focus on our concerns instead of on users’ needs


Why is it that many systems – software applications, company policies, operational processes – are hard to use?

Take websites for example. How many company websites are structured in an easy to use, logical manner?

If we ask any company’s marketing team, they will probably say that their website is structured, laid out and easy to follow.

For them, that is.

This is an example of a principle called Conways’s law, which says that Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

In other words, the way in which we structure ourselves influences the systems we create.

For example, if we have two factories, one making bread and the other making jam, we are likely to advertise ourselves as having two product lines, the bread line and the jam line.

We’re unlikely to combine them and pitch ourselves to customers as the jam sandwich line – even though they might actually be looking for a sandwich rather than a collection of components.

This is a natural way for an organisation to behave – after all the way they look at themselves seems natural and normal – so why not show themselves to the world in that way?

Except to a user with little experience, it’s hard to work out what companies do, so they will pick the one that makes it easiest for them to understand.

The problem gets worse as we try and create bigger and bigger systems.

For example, a large software application that tries to do everything will find itself bogged down as it grows, constrained by previous decisions and choices about architecture and design.

One solution to this problem is to limit the size of teams – use multi-skilled individuals in small teams that have end-to-end responsibility for a product.

This is the principle behind work cells in lean manufacturing.

These teams tend to produce work that has clean edges and plays nicely with other teams.

Small teams are also fast – they can get together, come up with a plan, develop a product, test it and get feedback, and iterate and improve in the time it takes for a large organisation to do the paperwork needed to get permission to start.

Although, the size of teams is not a solution by itself – it simply produces systems that may be smaller, simpler and work more independently, and so be easier to scale.

The point is that our default approach when trying to design anything is to focus on what we think a user needs.

But, that thinking focuses on us – not on the user – who might actually approach the situation from a completely different point of view.

Perhaps that’s why some of the most useful tools have been developed by people who made them for their own use – they knew exactly what they wanted from the start.

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