Last week I attended Giles Colborne’s talk on ‘Advanced Simplicity’, hosted by the EBI Interfaces Forum at the EBI, Hinxton. What struck me in particular in his talk was the clear parallel between what he refers to as ‘mainstreamers‘ and ‘experts‘ and the ‘biologists‘ and ‘informaticians‘ that use bioinformatics services at the EBI. People doing wet lab experiments, maybe spending 10-20% of their time at the computer, and dry programmers with 100% of the time on the computer.
The way things break down into two categories sounds simple, but the huge challenge comes when one has to come up with designs for online services that must suit both audiences simultaneously. One way to do this, Giles suggests, is to hide more complex functionalities, so its only the experts that discover them; he used a hidden sliding panel on a remote control as an example of this in practice. On the flipside then, it means that the major routes into the most frequently accessed services should be made even easier, so the mainstreamers can’t help but find them.
One way to tackle this problem is to make sure we design for – and test solutions with – individuals from both worlds. Applying realistic scenarios in usability testing can help hugely to understand whether you have achieved the right balance. I also involve both audiences in initial user research and workshops to make sure the requirements for each are understood.
From my experience, designing for the generalist is harder and more important, because they are much more liable to give up and lose hope of finding what they want. The investment in energy to find what they are after is greater, because they don’t come there very often. In contrast, the expert always seems to find a way to get what they want, whether the route to it is clear or not.
Overall, I find it reassuring that people like Giles have struggled, and continue to struggle, with this careful balancing act. I look forward to reading more from Giles on how I can improve UX for both of these important segments of our audience.