You have skills, everybody else doesn’t.

One of the more difficult parts of a usability designer’s job is empathy. The ability to think like the user, feel what the user is feeling, and be able to predict what your user will do, then reflect that in the interface and experience.

If you’re a software designer, you’ll realize that this gets ever more difficult after you read this study from OECD and learn that some of your users have such basic computer skills that they don’t–and may never–know what a hamburger menu is, among many other seemingly basic tasks relating to software. This study states that across 33 rich countries, only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities.

This reinforces one of the most basic rules of usability design: know your user.

In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of people in the tech industry that have a hard time understanding this concept. That some users may not understand such basic tasks such as the reply all function in an email client, as the study suggests.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you fall into the top 5% in terms of computer literacy and problem solving abilities. Take that into account if you’re designing something that’s for the other 95% of people.

proficiency in problem solving in technology-rich environments among adults
Proficiency in problem solving in technology-rich environments among adults – taken from page 55 of the linked report.

You can see examples of this if you ever read the blog Clients From Hell, where designers, developers, and other professionals submit horror stories from clients. But they’re not all horror stories, sometimes they’re stories that illustrate the concept that we’re not all in the top 5%. Like this submission:

Client: How can I save the photos?

Me: Just drag them onto your desktop.

Client: Okay, and where would I find my desktop?

I often see aesthetically good designs at the expense of usability. Sure, flat buttons look nice, but are your users going to know that it’s a clickable button? The affordance of a button in your UI may seem like a very obvious thing to you, but keep in mind that not only did you design this UI, but you’re likely much more skilled than your users. A little affordance goes a long way.

Use all the tools and methods available to you to ensure that when you do ship your product, that your users are going to be able to successfully use the interface to achieve their goals. Tools like User Interviews, Personas, and User Testing are great ways to find out more about your users.

User Interviews
Go talk to some actual users, find out where they’re at in terms of their technical ability. How comfortable are they using different pieces of software. Are they familiar with they type of product you’re building? Will this be a new experience for them?

Personas
When you have even a little bit of information on some of your users, you can start building a Personas. Be sure to include their education level, their comfort with using tech, and how much they use similar products. It’s important to share this information with your team so they too can understand who they’re building the product for. If your main user base is not very good with technology, highlight that in the persona.

User testing
Some would say that the most important piece is to test your designs. I would agree, but even more important than that is to test your design with a suitable sample set, i.e., a good representation of your end users. If you test your design on the tech elite, but your users are everybody else, it’s not going to do well in the real world.