Designing for the Power-User

Users generally want to be in control of the system that they’re using, but sometimes it’s alright to put on auto-pilot and let it do the work for you. With most systems, the more advanced the user, the more finite control they want. A professional photographer will use the manual mode on their camera as opposed to just setting it to auto-portrait to shoot a wedding. A race car driver will need a manual transmission to get the most out of the engine when they need it to count, and when it comes to software design, giving the user a lot of power can make your product feel and respond like a professional tool.

You may have heard of the term Power-User. A power-user is somebody who has a lot of experience using a specific system and is highly proficient in getting what they need out of it. Think of a photographer that knows exactly what each dial does on their camera. They don’t have to take their eye off their subject to find the right dial to change to get the photo they want.

Now think about your users and if they can do the same thing with your system or application. Are they able to stay focused on their goal and tweak and change things as needed along the way?

I’ve found that a lot of the reading out there on UX best practices focuses on the lower 95% of users (the not-so-skilled users), but if your system or application is used by professionals in their field, some users are going to get good at using it and will want it to perform like a professional tool.

So how do you design your system to be used by the tech elite?

Research Some Power Users

Find a power-user and ask them why and how they power-use. Talk to a skilled graphic designer and watch them use Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator. Take note of not only their knowledge of the profession, but also how Adobe has allowed them to work in the most efficient way possible.

You’ll find that those users are like the professional photographer aforementioned. They’re able to work towards their goal without a lot of effort spent changing tools, searching for settings, or fiddling with the system. They have a comprehensive knowledge of not only their field, but all of the tools in their tool box. 

Find the Power Work Flow

Use tools like user-testing and user interviews to find out what exactly it is that your power-users need to do, do well, do fast, and do over and over again. When you have that workflow set out, then you can start to tweak the UI for a frictionless workflow.

Give Fine-Grain Control

My previous blog post on the usability/functionality trade-off talks about ways to design a system with a balance between simplicity and control. Make sure that your system or application is simple enough for novice users to figure out, but in doing that, don’t take control away from your power-users.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Using a pointing device like a mouse or trackpad is slow for repetitive tasks. This is because there’s no muscle memory involved. You can’t easily repeat the same mouse movements and clicks as you can with a sequence of keys. This is the power of keyboard shortcuts.
Think of this in your system or application. What’s a common or important function that can be easily mapped to a key sequence?

When you’re coming up with keyboard shortcuts for your application, talk to your users and find out what other programs they use and try to use similar ones if possible. I use 3 different design programs on a regular basis, and remembering the different keyboard shortcuts for the same action in each program is an unwelcome challenge. To search for an element to add using Balsamiq, it’s the / key, whereas in UXPin it’s cmd+F. If I press / in UXPin it does nothing, but when I press cmd+F in Balsamiq it jumps into fullscreen mode in a new window.

Having inconsistent keyboard shortcuts are not really the fault of either of these programs. The forward-slash key is used in many programs to Search because that’s what it is in the widely distributed text editor, Vi (the OG of keyboard shortcuts). Try it out, if you have keyboard shortcuts turned on in Gmail, press forward-slash and it’ll focus the search bar at the top of your inbox. On the other hand, cmd+F is a common keyboard shortcut for Find. You can press cmd+F on this webpage to find and highlight any text you want.
I’m sure this was a challenge for the designers of each program to decide what shortcut they would use. Since Balsamiq is the older of the two programs, I would guess that it could’ve been better for UXPin to follow the keyboard shortcuts that were already in a popular mockup program like Balsamiq. However, this is only speculation and I can’t speak to the real reasons why either of those products chose these shortcuts.

Understand Context

Your application doesn’t exist in a bubble, your users (power or otherwise) likely use myriad of other programs. Their expectations are set by the last pleasant experience they had using another application. Understanding the design of other applications in your users’ ecosystem will be your key to good design.

Remember that autopilot isn’t for all users. Keep the power-users in mind and find ways to make your system feel and respond like a professional tool.

Photo by Laura Converse on Unsplash