Go Ask Grandma: How To Design For “Normals”

Editor’s Note : This guest post is written by Nir Eyal (nireyal) and Katy Fike, PhD (innovate50). Katy is a gerontologist and partner at Innovate50 while Nir is a founder of two startups and blogs about technology and behavior design at nirandfar.com .

As web watchers, entrepreneurs, and investors search for the next big thing, they’d be wise to focus on innovations that can be easily adopted by technology novices. A recent string of companies, including Groupon and Pinterest, have found success outside the early-adopter digerati by building products simple enough to be used by just about anyone.

Designing with tech novices in mind can mean the difference between staying niche and going mainstream. Here are three principles for designing software for people Silicon Valley too often disparagingly calls “normals.”

1. What’s it for?

Don’t tell them “how it works” or “what it is” and certainly don’t tell them how wonderful your company is. Just tell them in big, uncluttered, blatantly obvious terms what your service is for. Novice users need to know when your service would be useful in their lives.

Take a look at Twitter’s homepage for new users. It says simply, “Welcome to Twitter. Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” Same story at Facebook. “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” Brilliant! Now the tech novice knows, in no uncertain terms, when and why these sites would be useful. Twitter is for knowing what’s happening and Facebook is for connecting and sharing.

2. Where Do I Push?

We know what you’re thinking. “Sure, Facebook and Twitter can use one-sentence taglines because new users come to their sites having heard all about them already.” Well yes, but that’s the point. Most people today hear about sites from someone else. Your job is to help them fulfill the expectations they have for your service as quickly, and convincingly, as possible.

But how do you help new users fall in love with your site? Take them on a romantic walk. Software should provide a guided path, like a pleasant stroll, where users enjoy the experience of learning what the service can do for them. Too many companies dump new users on the site after registration, expecting them to fend for themselves and figure out what to do next. Instead, think of your new users as dating your site and guide them through a graceful, intuitive, and delightful get-to-know-you process. For technology novices, learning to initiate, navigate, and personalize the experience is particularly important. Novices also appreciate a tolerance for error; actions should not feel risky or permanent, but rather fluid and easy to undo if necessary.

For example, when Twitter’s exemplary on-boarding teaches new users how to use the service, it also asks about their interests and immediately uses this information to curate and personalize the experience. During the process, irrelevant functionality is disabled so that the user is guided by just a handful of clearly labeled potential actions.

3. Solo But Not Alone

Too often sites ask users to log-in with their Facebook credentials before earning their trust. Doing so may disaffect novice and experienced users alike. Many novice web users have novice web friends and may not have many contacts online. Others would like to connect with new people outside of Facebook or gasp prefer not have a Facebook account at all. On the other end of the spectrum, members of the tech-savvy crowd are shying away from using the Facebook log-in for third party sites, as they become increasingly wary of yet another app threatening to spam their friends. In both use cases, when a site forces users to create an account or log-in with Facebook before they are sure they want to use the service, it risks losing them for good.

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t give users the option of logging in with Facebook eventually — we’re just advocating for making them fall in love with you first. Websites should be valuable and engaging to new users before they sign up for an account and even if none of their friends have joined. For example, Pinterest allows unregistered users to browse freely before creating an account. Users are asked to log-in with Facebook only after they decide they want in. And even after they join they can start re-pinning, liking, and commenting right away, with or without their friends joining the service.

Go Ask Grandma

Certainly, having a particular user in mind is key to designing products to fit their specific needs. However, even if your target user is not a web novice, ensuring that your site is usable by even the least experienced visitor will pay off. Everyone appreciates an intuitive interface, one that anticipates the user’s next step. To take a product into the mainstream, it must be simple. It must cater to people who don’t care what the technology can do, just that it can get their job done.

This is where large, yet untapped, opportunities still lay waiting for entrepreneurs who can build simple solutions to overly complex problems. A good relationship with Grandma and Grandpa might help, too.

Nir Eyal founded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and today is an advisor, consultant, and investor in several Bay Area companies. His last company, AdNectar, received venture funding from Kleiner Perkins and was acquired in 2011. Nir serves as a mentor at several incubators including 500 Startups, Founders Institute, and the Thiel Fellowship and is a contributing writer for TechCrunch and Forbes. Nir blogs about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at www.NirAndFar.com

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