Great User Interface and Asking Questions – What Does An Elephant Look Like in the Dark?

Author by Damon Sanchez

What is your favorite color?  What mobile devices do you use? When buying something online do you log in before or after adding an item to the cart?

The questions above are the classical tip of an iceberg when conducting a usability survey; like an iceberg most of the details are below the surface.

The reason for the volume of detailed questions is because at the core of UI is the Scientific Method.  Ask a question, make a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, analyze your data, and formulate an answer.

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Knowing this methodology is great because it paints a roadmap of how to formulate a series of questions.

But what are the best questions to use without asking too many or too little? In most cases you can boil the evaluation of User Interface Design down into 4 core workshop questions:

The questions phrased for a discovery workshop for an existing interface:

  1. Were you able to find what you were looking for?
  2. How long did it take you to accomplish your task or tasks and was this longer than expected?
  3. If you could make the tool better what would you do?
  4. Would you recommend the tool to someone else?

The questions rephrased for a discovery workshop for a new interface:

  1. How would you find something in this new interface?
  2. How long would you like to use this new interface to accomplish a specific task?
  3. If this interface did one thing really well, what would you like it to do for you?
  4. What would be something to complain about if the interface didn’t have it?
click to download these questions

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There are obviously way more questions you could ask someone but generally if your data rocks these questions and answers you’ve succeeding in creating something harmonious.

There is an Old Buddhist Story that goes something like

“3 lords are asked by a King to determine what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body in the dark. The best description and most accurate description will prove the lords wisdom to rule a greater share of land.  The first lord who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch;”

The lords begin to argue about each other’s descriptions at which point the King expresses to them that they are all right.

The story exemplifies the conundrum of User Interface Design and asking questions. By the King asking the participants to examine the whole elephant he has more complete data but each piece of data seemingly doesn’t fit together.  If each lord’s task was to examine the trunk of the elephant the data would be very much the same.

Notice that by asking the lords to describe the entire elephant or asking a granular question about the trunk in the end is irrelevant as long as there is verification of each users fulfilled needs.

Circling back to the core UI workshop questions notice that in the core questions there is an assumption of feeling.  We are not outwardly asking the user about their feelings, but structuring the questions in a way we could ascertain what was or what could be a positive experience by fulfilling their needs.

Fulfilling a user’s needs is a fundamental driver in UI it is also at the heart of UX or User Experience. The art of giving a user their expected interface builds trust and attention which sets the stage for open dialog to carry on a visual conversation about your Brand.

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In my next Blog article I’m going to talk about User Experience and distilling the core questions to ask when conducting a User Experience Survey.