Matthew Ingram on Gmail Labs

Matthew Ingram is weighing in on Google’s new “Google Labs” service on their gMail application:

”Labs” allows users to try out all kinds of new features and then immediately let Gmail developers know what they think.

As a User Experience practitioner myself, one of the biggest misnomers I have to overcome personally and with those I work with is the idea that User Experience Design (UXD) must be approached by asking users what they say they want rather than by what users actually do.

Mr. Ingram disputes this idea, saying:

“Obviously, anyone who uses any Google app or service can send an email to a support address, check an online forum, use something like GetSatisfation, or check support groups or FAQs. But how many users give up before they do all of those things? That’s feedback a designer or developer could use — and eventually, they will probably get it… I don’t think Gmail Labs is that different — it’s just more feedback, faster.”

The above examples focus on what users want, rather than what they actually need. Think about it this way. Let’s say you put together a shopping list based on a dinner you might hypothetically serve. Without looking at a guest list, you might buy either too much or too little, and run the risk of serving things most of your friends wont eat.

If you call each potential guest and ask them what they’d like to eat, you’ll get a myriad of answers, and most will be based on whimsical desire of the moment rather than something that’ll work for everyone. Consensus in this case will only serve to satisfy the few and potentially annoy some guests as well.

But if you look at a guest list, understand what your guests actually eat, and then plan the meal, you’ll be closer to the mark. It’s the same with developing new features. Understanding the experience from the user’s perspective means observing the user and drawing conclusions from those observations.

Ultimately, Mr. Ingram seems to come round, stating:

“The lesson, in other words, is not to try and anticipate all the ways someone might want to use your service — see how they use it, and then focus on that.”

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