Blended families and usability

Okay, so they don't normally go well together in a sentence. But stick with me. I'm in a blended family - two single parents with kids get together, they fall in love, and they get hitched. Two halves get beautifully blended together. Right?

Well, sometimes. In reality it can be more of a chunky family, with some parts wonderfully pureed, and other lumps stubbornly refusing to meet in the middle. There have been good days and bad days, and in thinking it over and trying to make things work, I (as a usability consultant) inevitably ended up applying my usability knowledge to the problem. And that's the subject of this blog entry - the top five usability rules that worked, when applied to blended families.

So, here they are:

1. Set the strategic direction When you design an interface or product, the golden rule is to set a strategic direction. You need to know what you want from it, where it's going, who it's going to satisfy. A new web service can't possibly satisfy everyone and it can't be all things to all people; so you need a strategy. You define where you want to be 12 months from now, how your product is going to work, how it is going to look.

The same thing is true of a blended family. You sit down (as a couple, not as a family) and you set a strategy for what you want. How your family is going to work, how it is going to look. In effect, you paint a picture of how things will look 12, 24 months from now. Once you know that you both agree on where you're going, you can get there without fighting about the goal - and you can measure how you're going along the way.

2. Communicate the design Interface communication is a core component of usability. A usable system communicates to the user, telling them what can be done, how it can be done and what shouldn't be done. In effect, it tells the user everything they should need to know to use it.

Again, this is true of a family. We sat down as a family and created a family charter - a rule book of how things would work. Different families grow up with different rules and expectations, and when you throw them together this can cause huge issues. So we worked it all out, documented it and printed it out. It means the family has a clear communication tool on what can be done, what can't be done, and what the consequences are.

3. Provide clear feedback Another usability rule is to provide clear feedback. You should tell the user where they are, where they came from, where they can go, and what is happening right now. If something goes wrong, the system should tell them why it went wrong, how to correct it and what their options are. This should be individual and unique to the user, not generic in nature.

In a blended family, this means communication one-on-one. We decided to hold regular feedback sessions with the children, to let them know where they stand and how they are going. They get feedback on what they're doing right, and anything they might be doing wrong. If they are doing something wrong, they are shown how they can correct that and what their options might be. Solutions are tailored to the child, and aren't generic in nature.

4. Poll the audience Whilst individual feedback and observation provides invaluable insight, you need to know what all of the user audience needs and how they feel in order to succeed. Successful products and sites poll their users regularly in various forms, or study their behaviours en mass (through analytics tools) to understand how they might need to change. It's often key that information taken from these sources changes the strategy overall; what you set out to do at the start is not always what everyone needs, and you have to be flexible.

With the family the same is true - what children won't say individually, they are often brave enough to tackle en Mass. We decided to hold regular tribal councils (as dumb as that sounds!) and to give everyone a chance to speak. This has almost always turned up tweaks and changes to the overall direction, and helps you to measure how close you're getting to success.

5. Test, test and test again Usability testing is a vital component of design. If you design and launch, then you're taking a huge risk. You're likely to face increased costs and effort in tweaking and changing later on, and at worst you can face total disaster if you completely missed the mark. You need to be able to test out ideas and design in a safe environment, without risking that complete failure. If it works, you keep it, if it fails there's no harm done.

Again, I found this to be true with families. As parents a blended family offers plenty of fertile ground for argument and issues to arise, particularly when it comes to treatment of the children. You have a tendency to want to avoid problems, so you keep quiet and hold on to your grudges until they boil over. That sensitivity makes it hard to raise big subjects without causing more conflict. It's the same as making major changes to a website without testing it first - if you throw the statement/idea out there and the audience hate it, it's kind of difficult to withdraw and undo the damage afterwards.

In our family we came up with the idea of the sandbox - basically a play area for ideas, a test bed. It's a simple idea that has proved extremely useful, basically a place where ideas and issues can be aired freely, without them being seen as 'going live'. If the idea floats then it can be brought into the family, if it doesn't then it can be dismantled before it even hits the stormy seas.

Testing can also be brought into family meetings/councils, again it's a safe test bed to trial the ideas on a wider basis without fully launching them.

Blended families are hard work, there's no doubt. They're also incredibly rewarding if you can make them work. I hope these points prove useful for someone out there..!