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Mad Aunts and Hedge Trimmers

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What is usability and usefulness and why it’s important to your website or app.

Remember Christmas? Wow, that’s nearly two months ago.

I want to tell you a story about what I got for Christmas last year. The main protagonists in this saga are myself and my mildly-eccentric aunt (who won’t be named).

Have you got an aunt like that? You do. Gawd’ bless ‘em all.

Now, my aunt often buys me things which from the outside look really good but actually, when it comes down to it, they’re not that good at all.

That’s not me being ungrateful. Well, it is actually. But I need a scapegoat for this story. 

So anyway, there was this Christmas present she bought me recently. 

I wanted to write about today as it might help answer a few questions that people ask about USABILITY and USER EXPERIENCE. Long, meaningless words I know. Stay with me.

So it’s Christmas Day 2019. There’s a huge wrapped present under the tree from my aunt with my name on it.  

Now, my aunt is in the room. She is watching me open this huge present. So is everyone else. There’s a lot of expectation in the room. A yuletide drama is set to unfold…

I tear open the wrapping to reveal a box with a picture of a hedge cutter on it. I scan the writing on the box and it’s more than that. It’s only a cordless, electric hedge cutter. It’s a well-known brand. It cost over £150. Aunt made a point of emphasizing that.

I open the box I take the hedge cutter out of the plastic wrapping. I undo all the packaging.

I pick this thing up and it looks amazing.

My aunt’s looking at me. I’m looking back at her – showing a grateful smile. But underneath it all, I’ve got a sinking feeling. 

I say ‘thanks very much – this is brilliant’. Aunt says, ‘let’s go plug it in and test it out’…’so we can double check that it all works’. Off we go out into the kitchen. I get nervous.

But, I’m into this. I have a quick look at the buttons, widgets and features, it’s got a QR code which links to a Youtube video. I play it and see how easily this thing works.

After a short battery charge, we switch it on and it’s quiet – it almost hums. The battery means there’s no electrical cord getting in the way. It’s lightweight and feels easy to handle.

Not only but also:

  • It’s got these cool Teardrop shaped blades that help cut the hedge leaves.
  • It’s got this protective thing at the front so if you hit a brick wall it doesn’t damage the blades. 
  • It’s got a little hanging bit at the back which means you can stash it in the shed.

The set of instructions inside the box are easy to follow so if there’s any problems or errors you know what to do.

There’s also some recommendations about how to maintain the blades to get the most out of them. All very usable  even my aunt reckons she could use it and she struggles with widgets and tech.

From a USABILITY point-of-view, It’s idiot-proof. 

But there’s a huge problem. And this is where it gets tricky.

Drumroll: I don’t have a hedge.

I’ve lived in my house for a long time. My dear aunt has visited many times. I’m not sure what hedge she’s seeing but it’s not the one that isn’t in my garden. Maybe next door? No, next door doesn’t have a hedge either.

But aunt ASSUMED that I need one. Without understanding what problems I do have in my garden – of which, there are many.

As we walk outside into the garden, my aunt slowly realises this problem. There is an awkward silence which is eventually broken by her saying:

‘I wonder if it can cut anything else?’ followed by ‘maybe those shrubs over there?’ and then ‘maybe you can do the lawn edges with it?’ 

Or, the one that really cracked me up ‘maybe you could grow a hedge?’ 

Well, yes I could, I could grow a hedge (wonder how long that takes?) But I’m kind of creating a problem to suit the solution I’ve been given. That feels futile.

And, is that really what a hedge trimmer has been designed for?

So that brings us onto the second thing that is an important part of the USER EXPERIENCE.

‘Is it USEFUL?’

And, in this sad case, with this brand-spanking-new, cordless hedge trimmer, the answer is ‘no’. 

It doesn’t matter how USABLE the hedge trimmer is, I just ain’t ever gonna’ need it. So it is not USEFUL to me.

From hedges to websites.

Alright, quite what mad aunts and hedge trimmers have to do with UX is tenuous at best. 

But I wanted a simple example to explain what is USABLE and USEFUL because if you want to improve your website or app. You’ll need to get to grips with these two things.

The good news is there’s lots of resources online to help you with USABILITY. Tonnes of science behind it. Lots of repeatable tests have been done to prove a theory. So you’re on the shoulders of giants with that one.

USABILITY TESTING is a science so if you want to improve usability on your website or app, you can probably handle that yourself.

But whether or not your website or app is USEFUL is another matter. 

The only way you’ll ever find out is by asking the people who might use it. 

You can do this with 1-2-1 customer interviews. Ideally get someone impartial to do this for you or else, your own bias will come into play. 

Try to ask the right people too. Avoid people who will only say nice things – like aunts, mums and dads. You want the bitty, knotty, constructive stuff from people who don’t really know or care for you or your feelings. Sorry!

Who are they?

They might be lapsed customers who’ve moved away from you for whatever reason. Maybe they’re customers who buy from someone else. Find out what problems that competitor solves for them.

Get obsessed about what problems they have. Focus on their issues; the things that rub them up the wrong way. The nagging doubts that keep them awake at night. Keep asking. Don’t be tempted to jump to the solutions just yet. There’s a time for that but it’s later.

Understanding all of those deep-seated problems will help you avoid getting into the situation I did with my hedge trimmer. 

The good news is that in the end, I persuaded my aunt to take the trimmer back and get a refund so all was not lost.

Written by
George Beverley

George Beverley

Director at Insightful UX.
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