Two UX Threesomes

3_magic_numberThose of us raised on Schoolhouse Rock know that three is a magic number… and design practitioners love to encompass their given universes in a three parts, as a Venn diagram, a set of concentric circles, or another form. Here are two frameworks that I like and have been trying to reconcile.

First, David Travis is a web UX and usability guru whose work I’ve been following as I bring what I’ve done in design research to the UX world in San Francisco, where tech these days is almost synonymous with mobile apps. Travis sees UX as lying at the intersection of users, goals, and environment, his usability trinity.

usability_trinity

He has a great example, but I’ll let you take his Udemy course to walk through it.

Here’s an example I made up. What’s the best mirror:

  • a folding compact,
  • a full-length framed mirror,
  • a rectangle of reflective metal,
  • or large sheets of mirrored glass?

Obviously, you can’t judge unless you know who it’s for, what they want to do with it, and in what context. Here are four possible users:

  • a backpacker trying to keep gear as light as possible,
  • a fashion-conscious teenager at home,
  • a subway builder equipping restrooms for extreme behaviors, or
  • a restaurant owner trying to make the room look bigger.

Each of those descriptions contains a specific user, a goal that they have for their mirror, and the environment that they’ll be using it in. Knowing that, you could design (or choose) a much better mirror for them. 

Second, one of my long-time mentors in design research, Michael Barry, organizes his needfinding research on a different trinity: use, usability, and meaning. For any given need identified in research, use is the function of the solution that can satisfy the need. Usability is how easy the solution is to use, based on the user’s abilities and context of use. And then meaning. Well, meaning is what Barry calls the emotional resonance of the solution, which determines whether or not the user will actually use this product or feature to satisfy the given need.

meaning_use_usability

Cultural and individual meaning is what most often gets ignored in new product design, and it is a significant reason for some really big failures. One example is Eventbrite. A few years ago, Eventbrite identified its users need to invite people to weddings, so they created a wedding feature. The use arose from a valid need. The interface was simple and usable. And nobody wanted to use it. Why? Because for users, Eventbrite meant quick and easy scheduling for work-related events or casual social events. It wasn’t appropriate for a once- (or twice-) in-a-lifetime event where invited guests should feel the formality and joyous enormity of the occasion. In fact, the feature was shockingly inappropriate. (Note: Both cultural meaning of online invitations and Eventbrite’s approach may have changed since then, so it’s possible that weddings are a successful feature for the company now.)

Travis’s framework is a Venn diagram requiring you to account for all three simultaneously to create a successful user experience. Barry’s framework, however, is a hierarchy. Meaning is the deciding factor for the set of uses, and usability falls out of that. 

How do these two frameworks work together? I’ve thought about it a great deal. At first glance, you might think that the usability trinity is a subset of the needfinding trinity, defining the usability attribute. On closer look, that doesn’t really work. David Travis uses the term usability in a much bigger sense than Michael Barry does. My conclusion is that Travis is framing the user, while Barry is framing the solution. I loosely associate the frameworks this way:

Travis Model –>

Barry Model

User –>

Meaning

Goal –>

Use

Environment –>

Usability

It doesn’t map 100%. For instance, if one of Travis’s users has a dexterity issue, he might group that attribute under user, while it might go under usability in Barry’s model. The key for me is to think when each framework might come in handy in my world. 

Travis’s model is practical when defining the user types to share with the team after the basic strategy and direction are defined. Use it as a concrete benchmark to design and test against, and to make decisions along the way. Use it for creating usability metrics: how fast? how satisfying? how effective in achieving the goal? 

Barry’s framework is extremely useful when deciding the early vision: how do we decide what products and feature sets to prototype and test in the first place? Use Barry’s model to create the vision.

In BOTH cases, however, remember that everything is always changing. Your problem space continually changes, and your understanding of the space changes. Keep researching and updating your models.

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