Developing apps for Grandma: Developer, know thy user

If you’ve heard anything about software development in the last five years, you’ve probably heard someone talk about “knowing your user” or “putting the user first”. The massive growth of Apple in the last decade has shone a massive spotlight on relentless user focus and has caused developers at companies large and small to re-think their priorities and put usability first. However, if knowing your user is so important, what do you do when you don’t know or have anything in common with your user?

Recently, we were approached and hired to develop an application for a group of users that fits that description perfectly: non-tech savvy grandmothers and grandfathers. The gist of the app is to make it easier for them to access a specific kind of content that they have on their computers easily and quickly on their smartphones. What makes this task so interesting is that it’s not about facilitating them to do something they can’t already do: a user with any amount of tech savvy could accomplish this task with relative ease. It’s about making it so somebody with almost NO knowledge of the technology they’re using can transfer and easily  access this content with getting overly frustrated.

This task is 100% about knowing your user and catering to their needs by making existing technology more useable. The problem is, I’m a developer, capable of not only using difficult applications, but creating them from scratch. I pride myself on being a mid-adopter who is in touch with his “how I open Word again?” roots, but going into the project I found myself wondering if I really could adequately put myself in the shoes of someone who thinks opening Safari just opens Google and that Firefox opens the Internet.

So I did the only thing I could do: I talked to my own grandmother, creator of the aforementioned “Safari=Google” theory. She told me about using her computer and what she hates about it, and it was eye opening. She hates the updates and the clutter. She only wants to send and receive email, check her bank account, and use Google and that’s it. If there were 3 icons on her screen: Email with just an in and out box, her bank account, and Google that would be perfect. So even though she CAN access those 3 things from any web browser that exists, that’s not really sufficient: it’s not easy enough and browsers are too cluttered with, well, the internet.

My eyes opened, I now undertake the task of making her vision of simplicity and ease of access a reality, at least for one type of content.  Wish me luck (I’m going to need it).

Simple is the goal, clutter is the enemy

When was the last time you used a mobile app and said “man, I’m glad there’s all this junk on my screen! This app does 100 things and it’s clear to me what they all are and how to access them!”

I’m confident this has never happened.

However, I bet you have opened a mobile app or two that has been so simple and intuitive upon first use that you actually felt refreshed using it. Maybe it was the picture stream on Instagram or the Newsfeed on Path.

Whatever it was, you were happy using it and happy to come back to use it again. The touch-based interface on mobile phones is a joy to use, we love to touch, drag, pinch, and expand things with our fingers. But how many times does clutter get in the way of that joy?

This happens because companies or clients sit around and say “wouldn’t it be cool if it did this, this, and this” instead of saying “wouldn’t it be cool if it were the cleanest, simplest, and most beautiful application ever devised?” If you’re thinking of building or thinking of having someone build a mobile application, fight every second of every day to make simpler the goal and clutter your enemy. Clutter wants to steal the joy of using your amazing, futuristic touch-based computer that sits you can keep in your pocket and you must fight it with the golden rule:

Simpler is better.