Designing the Optimal User Experience:

The Role of Applied Experimental Psychology in

Interactive Product Development

byBalazs Schreil for Smart Bits Magazine

Buzzwords and trends come and go; half-hearted attempts at gaining user devotion withimage and glitz usually fail. The latest buzzwords in the "multimedia" industry have become "the user experience." It seems as though lately, every one in the industry is trying to create a product that offers the optimal user experience. My newest boss (who shall remain nameless), V. P. of Marketing, wants to create the ultimate user experience. It's not that he understands the underlying principles or the importance of it all; but since the user experience has become the latest buzzword, he just has to have it.

When he initially arrived, I asked him what he thinks about Usability. His answer: "I have run Usability Studies in the past," after which he promptly invited me to a Marketing Focus Group which was run by an outside contractor who was hired to design a product that offers the ultimate experience to the user. I looked at the contractor's web site, right on the front page, it said: "creating unique user experiences," (I started to wonder if creating uniquely bad user experiences is possible, I guess it is, but why would any one want to do so?). I attended the focus group, and came away with the realization that the contractor (who should not remain nameless) had no idea about user-centered system design principles, the foundation for creating products that afford the optimal user experience.

By now, you have either turned the page, being a know-it-all Marketing Virtuoso; or you have started to wonder: "applied experimental psychology, user-centered system design principles, usability, afford the optimal user experience," sounds kinda complicated just for a friggin' software application, video game, or "web presence" doesn't it?

Well it depends, if your production budget is even close to a million dollars, I (or some one like me with a formal background in Applied Experimental Psychology>Human Factors>Human-Computer Interaction) could save you a great deal of time, frustration, and money. Remember the CD-rom market, why did it crash? Well, maybe, just maybe, the users were not satisfied with the experience of using CD-roms. Sure, there were a few decent ones out there, but a majority of them sucked, really bad. Neat graphics, snazzy code, and lack of proper information architecture all add up to hours of potential boredom (that is if the user does not quit the application after the first five minutes). Once the user gets a bad after-taste in his mouth, it's really hard to go back. First impressions are crucial anywhere, especially here.

If you want to create a product that affords that optimal user experience, than consider involving a psychologist, who has formal training in Human-Computer Interaction, during the initial stages of system conceptualization. Give him room, let him do his thing, and allow his guidance to shape the production process.

Getting the psychologist (Usability Specialist) early into the production process, at the system conceptualization phase, is crucial. Prominent system features tend to be set in stone during initial brain storming sessions. At this point, the psychologist should make sure that all potential user needs are properly addressed through a trade-off/task analysis, and that these needs are transferred into system features/user interface elements. Unfortunately, this is where most design attempts fail. When all user needs/wants are not identified, the design that is derived may look cool, but it may not enable the user to accomplish all of the things that it could, if the system was properly designed. Once screen real estate has been occupied, it is almost impossible to properly add an interface element onto the system, even if a Usability Specialist is called in during post-production to test system usability.

Once all user needs and subsequent system features are identified, the psychologist should be allowed to create a storyboard and/or functional prototype of the product. Do not leave this up to graphic artists, programmers, or others who may call themselves information architects (but who do not have formal training in Applied Experimental Psychology). They will inevitably, with best intentions at heart, screw it up! You can bet on this, the odds are much better than anywhere in Vegas. Human-Computer Interaction is a fairly new discipline, it is a combination of art and science. Proper design requires the involvement of some one who not only has formal training in Applied Experimental Psychology, but who is also talented enough to transfer the information gathered through the interviews and observations of potential users (which should accompany initial brainstorming) into design specifications.

Once storyboards (it is possible to test usability with rough sketches) or semi-functional prototypes have been developed, they should be Usability Tested. The psychologist should develop a formal testing methodology and observe/interview participants as they attempt to complete realistic tasks using the system. If tasks do not apply, as in purely entertainment applications, then focus should be placed on determining what user behaviours and thoughts are elicited as the user progresses through the adaptive story line. At this point, testing results should transfer into redesign decisions to perfect the user interface of the product. Interestingly enough, all this should happen before any finished graphics, code, or audio have been created. As a result of his involvement, the psychologist should deliver a prototype (storyboards are inadequate as they only represent the first steps of the prototyping process) along with design documentation that entails a flowcharting of all possible interactions. After which, you may feel free to use the psychologist as a producer, or creative director to guide the interdisciplinary team through the production process, so that all relevant design decisions which have been so far resolved, are also properly implemented.

"This does not apply to the project on which I am working," you say. It actually does. Grant it, software applications can differ and vary along many spectra; but human information processing (unless brain or nervous system damage is considered), determined by our biological make-up, does not. Even if you are creating a purely entertainment application, there still are relationships between characters and the context in which they exist. The manner in which these relationships are structured (within the interactive story line) determine how the user experiences and is effected by the product.

Oh yeah, just as not every programmer, graphic artist, or musician is great, neither is every psychologist worth his weight in platinum. But the good ones, the really good ones, they really are.

In closure, I am starting to wonder: "when will the industry move on, and when it does, will the user experience, once again, become an insignificant factor during production?"