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How Building a User Interface Can Put the “User” First

I heard a talk last night by Glen Lipka of Marketo, a start-up whose software automatically organizes marketing tasks like lead gen, email, lead nurturing, and combines well with Salesforce. Glen is Marketo’s Director of User Experience and Product Management. What impressed me wasn’t his product — he really didn’t talk about it — but what he said about creating stronger user interfaces.

For instance, he mentioned that he follows the “Halloween Principle” in everything he designs. Imagine it’s October 31, you’re at your home computer, and the doorbell rings. After giving candy to kids, you come back to your computer — now where was I? A good user interface helps you remember, for we’re always being interrupted, be it because we’re going in and out of meetings, we’re IMing, or just generally multitasking in general.

He said he always tries to think like the user, knowing that most of us don’t always like to follow one path. He cited the example of how many ways there are to print a document, from Command P to finding “Print” in the pull-down menu to right-clicking on a mouse. Too many engineers like to find the preferred way only. A good product manager tries to anticipate the many ways one might want to go, and build it into the specs from the beginning.

I particularly liked two examples of managing upward. He mentioned Avinash Kaushik’s reference to the “HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion,” or “HIPPO.” While Avinash’s post is beautifully written, Glen summed it up by saying that it comes down to figuring out what’s important to the HIPPO and driving your responses so they make the right decisions. Bring the voice of the customer to your arguments to help shape the HIPPO’s opinion. But don’t ever fall in love with your own work, as the HIPPO has the final say.

The other example I liked is that users don’t rely on sales people the way they once did. Glen cited Microsoft’s visionary, Ray Ozzie, who says customers now surf to “research, try and buy,” and often never interact with a sales person. To Glen, that means the user experience better be right.

Finally, and this is something I’ve always incorporated in my own business experience, Glen reminded everyone to “have a sense of humor.” Humor can deflect a lot of heat. In all, a good talk.