Build for the Novice, Enable the Expert

Build for the Novice, Enable the Expert

I’ve been working on B2B solutions for a very long time (dating almost all the way back to the turn of the millennia), and in that time I’ve come to realize that far too many applications try to be everything to everyone, and as a result really wind up serving nobody at all.  You can see this in many product designs that try to capture all of the possible things that you could do at a given point in time, rather than leading you through a logical path, or showing you the most likely things that you may want to do.  As much heat as I give the “ribbon” change that Microsoft introduced in Office a few (many) years back — conceptually, it was the right thing.  It focuses you on the specific things that you need to do in some contextual space, without requiring you to remember which specific menu item someone decided to hide that option under.  While the rollout was challenging, in my opinion, the approach really encapsulates a concept that I like to call “build for the novice, enable the expert”.

Building for the Novice Focuses on MVP

One of the benefits of trying to focus on serving your novice users first is that it really makes you think about the goals of the user as they flow through your product.  At each stage, you have to carefully examine the options that you’re presenting, the manner in which they’re presented, and align them to specific needs or goals of the user, whom you should assume knows little or nothing about the system itself.  Putting yourself in this headspace almost necessitates a very true MVP approach — novice users need things to be obvious, clear, uncluttered, and most of all simple.  We need people to be able to go from point A to point B to point C and complete their goals with as little friction as possible.  And every single extraneous option is friction — they make a user consider each option before making their decision, which increases cognitive load and diminishes their pool of attention.  If we think back to one of the best product MVPs that I think has ever been launched — Dropbox — it’s clear that they were focused on building for a novice user; the installer creates a folder, and everything in the folder is synced automatically to the cloud, available to any device connected to the system.  That’s the level of simplicity that we want for our novice users — it should be obvious, uncomplicated, and easy for them to know what they need to do.

Enabling the Expert Delights Your Users

The thing is, if all you do is create for the novice, you’re going to piss a lot of people off.  Even Dropbox ran into this early on, as more expert users wanted greater control over their files; they wanted to share their files with others; they wanted more interface and security options.  The novice users honestly couldn’t care about these things, though — so they didn’t make it into the initial MVP.  But they did make it into the product over time.  When we think of all the twists and turns that a user could go through in our system flow, we need to understand the edge cases, the side cases, the twists and turns that our expert users are going to want to take.  And we need to enable these choices, paths, and options in a way that doesn’t needlessly clutter the novice user’s experience.  To return to the Office ribbon example — the ribbon replaced the menus, but it didn’t replace the keyboard shortcuts that experts like myself had learned by heart.  So if you want to insert a picture from a file in Word, to this day you can either find the Insert ribbon, look for the Image option, click it, then choose a file…or you can just hit Alt-I,P,F and you’re there.  They maintained the expert user interface while putting a more useful and approachable veneer over the underlying capabilities.  We can use other UI and UX “tricks” to achieve the same goals — the most common being attaching an “advanced” option that can be expanded or collapsed based on whether the user wants more or fewer granular options on whatever it is they’re doing.  But keep in mind that we still need these options to be well-designed, accessible, clear, and usable — don’t think that enabling an expert means skimping on user experience — we need to ensure that the experience overall delights both experts and novices.

Balancing the Two is Hard — But Worth It!

This may seem like an awful lot of work, to essentially create multiple paths through your product, depending on what a user wants to do and how many options they may want or need.  And, to be honest, it is a lot of work, which is why most B2B systems and even some B2C platforms fail miserably at this.  They just don’t want to put the time and energy required into making their systems more easy to use by a novice, but enabled for power users and experts to bend to their will.  Don’t be this person, though — the rewards of balancing out the needs of the novice with the interests of the expert far outweigh the work that will need to be done up-front to understand and assess how to best serve your users.  And in the end, isn’t that what user-centered design is supposed to be all about?

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