Let’s innovate by being users

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my coworker about a health app her team was working on. She was certain that one screen had too much copy but when she used the prototype herself a funny thing happened: it felt really great. That screen with too much copy was actually the result of a test telling you all the things you didn’t know about your body. It was exciting and insightful so the length felt just right. The lesson: using something yourself — for real — is an easy and powerful way to validate (and innovate on) a product you’re working on.

Dogfooding in product is fairly commonplace. But it kind of falls short when it stops at catching bugs and validating how useful a product is. We can use that amassed empathy using a product to inform more significant design activities such as a big product redesign, a new nav/IA structure, interaction model, onboarding, or a new feature.

Ok, so what if it’s hard to be your user? Let’s say they’re a doctor using an app to treat a patient. That’s when you talk to real doctors and step into their shoes to understand how to use the app and, most importantly, why they take those actions. It’s like method acting; you try to take on the mentality of your user (based on the research you’ve done) so you can understand meaning behind the actions they take.

User interviews and user testing are super powerful, and par for the course when doing design research—but so should using the product yourself (or a prototype of it) for a meaningful amount of time. Doing so, you take in the pains, delights, and insights you heard from user interviews and experience them firsthand. This is not to say you should assume you can be a stand-in for the user; do user testing too! The difference though, is that you have the benefit of bringing the critical mindset of a designer. This is when magic happens. Features make sense because they solve your own problems, shortcomings are painfully clear, and you see opportunities that a user might not.

I was working on a community discussion product a while back. Up until that point, the design work was broken up into isolated design components, which led to some nice solutions for those discrete parts. The problem, though, was that the whole product experience never got considered. This is where being the user fit in. We hooked up a prototype and tried it, pretending to be a user reading posts in the community.

After a while we realized that we were spending a lot of time jumping in and out of different conversations, so we came up with an idea to change the interaction model to keep the conversation list always visible, similarly to a two pane email inbox. This introduced some exciting opportunities for animations that strengthened the user’s mental model of the app’s spaces, which helped usability. More importantly though, we created an interesting approach that deeply aligned with how we wanted to use the product — traversing different conversations quickly with less time spent switching views.

That’s the important part: by being the user you can actually be innovative. You synthesize the entire experience of using a product, and then instead of broadly (blindly?) exploring ideas in the hopes of finding innovation, you can use your experience with the product to guide you towards promising directions. You stop thinking about individual job stories or features and instead grasp the entirety of the product. Think about complex design problems like challenging a standard design paradigm, exploring a different interaction model, or introducing personality, emotion and delight. Good solutions to these problems hinge on thinking holistically and actually doing something to improve the product experience and deliver on user needs. Attempting to be innovative without understanding how a product is used leads to meaningless design that is flashy but shallow. Being the user helps you avoid that. You can create something new not for the sake of being unique, but to create a solution that is grounded in the user’s overall experience and change it for the better.