Recently, Skype redesigned it's IM client for Mac. Like many users, I was excited for the expected enhancements that usually come with new application releases.
And, like many Mac users, I was disappointed with what was actually delivered. (apoplectic might more appropriately describe my Mac brethren).
Blindly fanning the flames, instead of fixing the perceived issues, Skype decided to hold a contest to let someone else fix them.
For the last couple of weeks now, Skype-hate has run rampant all over the web. The user comments at the end of this blog post make for a nice overview.
Amidst the uproar, I wanted to chime in and point out what a great teaching tool this mess can be for user experience designers everywhere.
Lesson #1: Talk to your users (yes, I realize it's a frighteningly easy one).
I have no proof that Skype didn't talk to its users, but judging from the feedback, I'm guessing they didn't. Asking their users would have revealed some fairly simple needs:
Lesson #2: Don't fall in love with the prevailing form, then rip it off and use it in spite of function.
- Keep my IM application small
- Allow me to configure what I'm looking at
- Don't change a ton, I like it the way it is
Whether it was the gargantuan success of Apple, or designers looking for a new aesthetic in the Web 2.0 era, these days we're firmly entrenched in a world of big, glassy, bubbly icons, lots of white space and overall "friendly-feeling" applications (think Mint). This is not always a bad thing (think Mint), but the fact that it (arguably) works for Apple and Mint doesn't give it magical powers. Simply designing something with that look and feel doesn't automatically make it work well. As any good designer has heard repeatedly: form follows function. Overwhelmingly, Skype users feel the large icons are unnecessarily big and the white space is unnecessarily massive. This creates a bloated application that is more difficult to use. (Oh, and ripping off iTunes' Cover Flow so I can look at enormous close up pictures of my contact's blurry photos is not necessary).
Lesson #3: Small UI decisions can have a big impact.
This observation is telling, and maybe even a little scary. As user experience designers, we are always striving for innovation so great and wonderful that we envision our user's dancing for joy and sleeping with their applications under their pillow (or is that just me)? In doing so, it's a very fine line we walk between making a bunch of changes, some of which might be overkill, and leaving well enough alone. Decisions as seemingly small as Skype adding grouping to the left panel of contacts (and not allowing that panel to go away) changed many user's entire experience for the worse and turned them off to the entire release immediately.
It's true, as user experience designers, we have a lot of influence. Sometimes, maybe more than we may realize. Keeping some basic user experience tenets in mind might help us ensure we don't end up in Skype's shoes (oh, and not asking your users to fix your problems will help too).
I'm sure there are a lot more lessons to be had here. Let us know what you think.