The secret to user-experience success is fostering trained introspection. Lessons from Apple, Google, and psychology

by phil on Saturday Mar 24, 2007 9:40 PM

User-experience is getting hot:

According to a recent Forrester Research Inc. study, 67% of the surveyed organizations are more focused on the end-user experience than they were two years earlier. (ComputerWorld: Improving end-user experience)

User-experience is basically user-psychology, and there are two distinct approaches: trained introspection or observing others. In this article, I'm more interested in trained introspection and how it has worked well for Apple and Google.

I remember reading a while back about some brothers in psychology who were really into the introspective method of psychology. Whereas most psychologists emphasized observing experiments on others, these brothers placed emphasis on a well-trained individual thinking through their own thought process and writing things down. I wikipedia'd "introspection" and discovered Wilhelm Wundt, so it may be him whom I'm thinking about.

"we learn little about our minds from casual, haphazard self-observation...It is essential that observations be made by trained observers under carefully specified conditions for the purpose of answering a well-defined question." (Principles of Physiological Psychology, translated by Edward Titchener, 1904)
Digging furthur, I found
According to Wundt's arrangement for introspection, the observer knew when to expect the introduction of the stimulus and was ready to observe the state of consciousness. He was, therefore, capable of isolating the mental processes of that moment. As for the second rule, the observer must be conscious of every nuance of that which is presented. Repetition, the third rule, allows for the uncovering of omissions and distortions of earlier trials. The fourth rule makes it possible to study the effect of variation, i.e., the effect of the change resulting from addition or subtraction of various aspects of stimulating conditions as shown in variations of the experience. This last rule takes us to his conception of an experiment. (Pioneers of Psycology [2001 Tour])

Promoters of introspective psychology received a lot of flak because of the oh-so-unscientific nature of their methods. On the other hand, they achieved some major appeal because the majority of people believe in personal covenants. The majority of people believe in God—not based on any evidence, but as a matter of faith.

Steve Jobs.

A rumor is that Apple is notorious for never doing focus tests. Whether or not that's true, there's definitely something about a maverick, messianic figure having a preternatural understanding of a product's marketability just by using it himself. Many many aesthetically-based products are created by one or two artistic geniuses judging a piece of work to be good solely by themselves. They think to themselves, "My tastes are deep and sophisticated enough that I can listen to this song and figure out whether millions of other people will listen to it as well."

On the one hand, this kind of thinking drives scientific and logic-minded people nuts. On the other hand, this is one of the main ways to succeed as an entrepreneur or an artist. The entrepreneur has a vision. He believes that since a certain product or service resonates with him, it will then resonate with everybody else.

Google and user-experience.

Google hires people with really good taste in web applications, and gives them freedom to make their own dream products. The end result gets applauded as a triumph in "user-experience," but really it's a triumph of letting someone focus on satisfying their own personal, critical experience to the max. The creator of Google Maps, in his 20% time, just worked toward satisfying his user needs with existing technology. When he was done, he came up with a product that satisfied many many people's needs.

One of the most insightful answers came in response to a question about why Google just didn't use Flash to execute Google Maps. Flash, after all, can do everything AJAX can and a lot more and it would have been easier to implement.

Taylor calmly answered that when a user right clicks on something in Flash they get the Adobe Flash menu. When a user right clicks on something that is AJAX they get the same menus that they are used to when using anything else in their browser. For Taylor and Google it is all about the user experience and delivering a user experience that is easy and simple for end users. (The AJAX World Belongs to Google)

This is something only a personal revelation could reveal.

And that's a fundamental difference between certain companies. One approach is methodological, whereby the marketing department looks at a product, focus tests it, and then hands that over to design, who then makes a prototype, which then gets focus tested until it ships. Other companies create an environment that incubates talent by giving smart people freedom to make products that they find brilliant themselves. As I recall, Apple has a Research to Development department, whereby the researchers work toward creative and unexplored ways of satisfying a need.

If a company wants to capitalize on the new demands for products that are high on user-experience, then all it takes is an introspective and open-mouthed critic to walk through a process. That's how I remember winning a web design contest once. I just kept using my site, and asking myself, "is this good?" until I felt fully satisfied.

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