A guy walks into a bar and tells the bartender he is all excited. Apparently, he has just met a talking horse. He goes on and on about how impressed he was that the horse could talk.

After a few minutes of listening, the bartender asks, “What did the horse say?”

The guy immediately exclaims, “The miracle is that the horse could talk! Who cares what it says?”

Is Your Web Site a Talking Horse?

Anytime somebody does something new with technology—something nobody else has ever done before—that technology goes through a “talking horse” stage.

How can you tell whether your site (or part of it) is a talking horse?

Is everyone focusing on just getting the site or one of its features to work? Is it the only place people can go to accomplish their goals? Does making it easy to use seem like a low priority? If so, you just might have a talking horse on your hands (ouch!).

It's important to realize that this is a common situation. More importantly, though, it's critical for the design team to recognize that they are in the talking-horse stage.

Talking Horses Are Everywhere

We see talking horses all the time. It's common, for example, to find them on intranets.

Imagine that your intranet has a sales application that every salesperson must access to get work done. The salespeople can't go anywhere else to get the same information.

Designers can give the users whatever interface they like—the salespeople can't get away. What's more amazing is that very often users don't even care if the interface of a talking horse is horrible. They are so thrilled to have access to the unique functionality or content that they will put up with almost anything.

eBay's Talking Horse

This was certainly the case with eBay's Seller Form for many years. The form was so difficult to use that only one out of every four attempts to post a new product actually succeeded. Yet, sellers rarely complained.

In the early days, eBay focused on making the buying process as simple as possible. Since the buyers had many choices of outlets where they could get the same products, eBay had to make sure that the buying process was not an obstacle to purchasing.

However, eBay didn't have the same philosophy for the sellers. As eBay's buyer base grew quickly, every seller wanted access to those customers. They tolerated the seller form, with its exceptionally difficult-to-use interface, because they had no other choice.

Because the successful sellers were making a lot of money, they didn't complain. Instead, they spent hours mastering the Seller Form and saw the rewards of their efforts. They tolerated the idiosyncratic and awkward process because they knew they'd make big bucks when they finally got it to work.

The Priorities of the Talking Horse

Talking horses are important because they demand a unique set of priorities.

Since the user's tolerance for frustration is higher, making the design generically easy-to-use has little immediate benefit. However, there are some things that smart designers can do to ensure that the horse talks.

For most design teams, the top three priorities are often these:

  1. Focusing on Necessary Features

  2. Reducing Support Costs

  3. Looking for additional Opportunities

Priority 1: Focusing on Necessary Features

What makes talking-horse designs succeed is that they get out the door. Any design requires certain functions to be useful. Working on those functions is the priority.

For any project, there will always be features that would be “nice to have,” yet the users do not require them. Since, by definition, a talking horse has no competitors, these nice-to-have functions can wait until future releases, when they will be necessary to compete. Delaying these optional features allows the team to dedicate its precious resources to the necessary features.

The problem comes when the team can't tell which functions the users require and which they don't. When this happens, the priority becomes understanding the users' tasks so that the team can clearly identify the required features.

This is when an investment in identifying and researching the users' tasks can really pay off.

What are the users trying to accomplish? How do they know when they've accomplished it? What steps do they currently use to accomplish the same thing without your design?

Although there are many ways to answer these questions, techniques such as site visits and customer interviews can provide the team with valuable, detailed answers. Talking to and observing a handful of key customers usually resolves issues and quickly solidifies the list of required features.

Priority 2: Reducing Support Costs

Keeping support costs at a minimum is certainly a priority. Support is always an additional cost. Whether users are calling the help desk, a customer care center or just asking each other, there is an associated productivity cost.

Although users of a talking horse will work hard through difficult designs, they will eat up resources in the process. Anything that designers can do to reduce the demand on these resources will have a direct effect on the bottom line.

The first step toward identifying potential support problems is to gain a clear understanding of the users' tasks. Again, site visits and interviews will help identify those key tasks.

Once the team knows the users' tasks, they can look for places where support problems can appear. Unfortunately, inexpensive techniques such as design inspections or heuristic evaluations rarely identify these issues accurately. Teams are better off conducting rigorous, task-based usability testing. Testing is a better approach to help identify where problems will originate.

Of course, if you've already deployed the design and it is in use, talking with the support team is critical. We've spent many hours “jacking-in” to support calls and find them completely enlightening. Many teams find it invaluable to regularly listen in on calls.

Once deployed, many teams find that a continual-improvement program that focuses on eliminating the top 10 reasons people contact support can have dramatically positive effects on their overall quality efforts.

Priority 3: Looking for Additional Opportunities

What makes the talking horse important is that the users are locked in. They don't have a choice to go elsewhere.

However, this doesn't last forever. If your idea is good and your features are valuable, someone will try to compete with you. At that point, you're no longer the only choice—and everything changes.

While this change is inevitable, there are often features that a team can implement to postpone competition. For many teams, identifying these features is another important priority.

Teams will need to research new ways in which users can accomplish their goals. The only effective way we know for collecting this type of information is to spend time with the users and watch them throughout their day.

Spending significant time with users—watching their entire workday—is often extremely enlightening. Finding 6-12 users and spending a day or two with each gives teams many new insights into features and services that will continue to lock the users into using the talking horse.

Keeping the Horse Talking

Even though users will tolerate the design flaws of a talking horse, there are still important things that designers should do to ensure that the design is as good as it can be.

Understanding that you confront different priorities when you have a talking horse is essential to survival.

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Jared M. Spool is a leading expert in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term "usability" was ever associated with computers. He is the Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering (www.uie.com), the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world.