Before I started using Contextual Design techniques, I always had a nagging feeling that something was missing when I designed. I wasn’t exactly sure what – I read usability studies and kept up with the latest trends – but something was still missing. I felt as though I was trying to find my way through unfamiliar streets. And not only was I without a roadmap, but I didn’t even know that roadmaps existed. What I now know is that customer data and an understanding of customer work practice was the information I needed.

Intuition only gives you one piece of the puzzle

I used to design using the same methods as many designers. Without any understanding of the customer’s work practice, we would try to imagine how the website would be used. So if we were creating a continuing education website for doctors, we’d try to imagine what we thought doctors wanted on the website. We used common sense and some second hand information about doctors. And if we were good designers we made some good guesses about what they wanted. But, in the end, all we were doing was guessing. All we were doing was making it up.

I always felt like I wanted more information, but since I didn’t know what that missing information was, I didn’t know where to look for it. So I would do what everyone else was doing– I would do something that worked with my last design or I’d ask other designers what they thought. When the site was released to the public, had no idea what they would think about it– maybe they would love it, maybe they would hate it, or maybe they wouldn’t even care about it. We wouldn’t learn if the site was a success until the customers were actually using it.

Focus on the user, not fads

Right now a lot of designers think that to be successful they have to use Flash, and that if you don’t know how to use Flash you’re not with it. In reality, it doesn’t matter if you know how to use Flash, or whatever the current big fad is. All that really matters is to understand the users’ wants, needs and work practice, because then you can use any tool. I’m not saying that Flash is a terrible tool or that it promotes sloppy web design. The real problems arise when designers focus too much on the tool instead of the purpose. When designers think, “since Flash can do this cool thing, then that’s what I’ll do”, what they should really be thinking is, “I’m designing a website for this type of person who needs to do these things”. By using customer data, designers can create something truly useful for the people who will actually use it.

Usability information is too broad

I wanted more information available than I could find in usability sites and books. I couldn’t find the right level of information that would really help me design the right thing. For example, the latest study might show that “people” don’t scroll web pages or that “people” can only scan and understand 7 (+) or (-) 2 items. But those rules are completely divorced from the customer’s real work practice. The customers concerns are likely to be completely different from a task that was assigned to a ‘subject’ being tested in a usability lab. Also, the information gathered about the task hides information about any other methods a person might have used to achieve the same intent.

In the real world there are always exceptions to every usability rule. For example, one frequently cited rule is that people can only scan and understand 7 (+) or (-) 2 bits of information. This is probably true in a scientific or clinical setting, but if a person’s job involves scanning lots of complex information all the time, they can certainly handle more than 9 bits of information at one time, because they are very familiar with that information. So, knowing how much information my users can handle is the data I want, because that’s what will make my design successful.

Only the user knows for sure

Too often, our clients didn’t gather requirements and needs from the people that were going to use the product. Instead, they told us what they thought the customers wanted. And without customer data, this (and our common sense) was all we had to design from. If my ideas didn’t match the other designers’ ideas or the client’s ideas, then I would have to try to argue my point of view. I would try to talk about my experience, what had worked in the past, or what I thought the customer wanted, but that was not what usually won the argument. The design direction that was adopted was usually that of the person who yelled the loudest or pushed the hardest for “their” idea.

We were all arguing the wrong points, though. We shouldn’t have been arguing about what we wanted, we should have been arguing about what the customer wanted. When customer data is used to drive the design, you can use that data to make real design decisions instead of arguing about who has the better idea. When the voice of the customer becomes the central, important voice, not only do we spend less time arguing but we make better decisions and create better products.

Customer data sets the direction

It was not until I started using CD that I finally realized what had been missing, what that roadmap was. It was customer data gathered from real users, which showed how they did real work. It was a map of their work practice. It allowed me to say, “I know how these users work” and “Yes, I know they want this feature.” I still design using my intuition and experience, but I’ve stopped gambling. The customer data amplifies my intuition and experience, allowing me to design with real intent.

What I’ve learned is that letting real customer data drive my design is like finding a map that shows me the way to those places I’ve always wanted to go-but could never find. Now I can’t imagine how I ever got by without it.