in General Coding

Napoleon, usability pioneer

At a very fundamental level, user experience is about communication—between the user and the system, between content and objective. And with new sites constantly popping out of the woodwork, user experience is more and more becoming a one-shot deal. You either communicate and deliver what the user was looking for the first time around or they’re off to the next site (which they almost inevitably came across via Google or maybe Yahoo!, which means they were taken directly to the page related to this search and not to the site’s homepage, which maybe provides a nice overview of the site—if your design doesn’t assume that users will jump directly to lower level pages without ever seeing your homepage, you are not designing for The Web That Google Made…) You’ve probably got something like 30 seconds to make your content/objective connection. That means your message needs to be crystal clear to the lowest common denominator user. Of course, it won’t be for every user, but the hope is that it will be for a sufficiently high percentage of users. Now, let’s imagine that you had to get your message through to all your users every time, and that not getting that message through could mean life or death. Ok, I plead guilty to suddenly switching gears to talking about a mission-critical system, but I’ve always found that UX design for the web has so much that it can learn from systems in which there is no room for mistakes. For all the praise given to people like Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, it’s easy to forget that just because the term ‘usability’ only has been around for, what, a couple decades, user-friendly design has been around for about as long as there has been a need for stuff to be user-friendly, which brings us to emperor and part-time usability pioneer Napoleon Bonaparte.

The emperor needed to get his war strategy missives out to his troops not only fast but reliably, meaning that he needed to ensure that the message he sent—as he understood it—was also the message that was received. Not an easy task back in the day before instant messaging and email, when delivering a message might take days or weeks. If the message was not fully understood by it’s recipient, well, there just wouldn’t be any time to send back a follow-up question. You’ve got your orders and you better know what they mean. So Napoleon came up with a nothing-less-than-brilliant solution to his mission-critical message problem. Knowing the officers receiving his missives might be farm boys brought up quickly through the ranks and of, well, let’s say, questionable intellect (at least when it comes to war strategy.) Regardless, he simply had no idea who the recipient of his message might be (not much unlike sending messages through the Web) and therefore had to assume the worst. So, what better solution than do a bit of message prototyping before sending out it out, yes? Armed with his usability instincts, Napoleon went out among his troops and grabbed the most dense farm boy soldier he could find, promoted him to Lieutenant on the spot and made him part of his personal guard. Then, whenever he needed to send a message to his troops, the emperor would have it written up, presented to his Lieutenant, whom he would then ask to explain the message back to him in his own words. If Lieutenant Knucklehead could understand and explain it back to him, he figured that even the most dense of his officers out in the field would be able to get it. Last time I checked (except for that whole Russian winter thing), Napoleon’s usability testing model worked out pretty well. Aside from the obviously elitist aspects of this approach, there is still much to be learned from the Napoleon School of Usability Testing. His was the ultra-efficient shotgun model of usability testing, in which you test and iterate with one edge case user. It’s simple and it’s fast. On a certain level, it’s not so much about ensuring the user-friendliness of your content, but rather just getting a perspective that is as diametrically opposed to your own as possible, to react to something that may make complete sense to you. And that is really at the core of what we’re doing when presenting concepts to users—using them as a vehicle for stepping outside our own thinking, and into the messily subjective realm of usability testing, helping us to see flaws in our design that we maybe simply were not capable of seeing.