Yesterday, I spoke at the She Says SCAMP conference 2011. The theme was 'mashup', so I decided to speak about the mashup of my online and offline worlds, or lessons that I've learnt as I work in the digital industry that I also consider offline. 

I started with a quote by Austin Kleon, a writer and artist from Texas, and then spoke about how things like Facebook and our mobile gadgets are used by pretty much all of us because of how simple they are. 

I then went on to speak about the phrase 'Keep it Simple Stupid', which was first used by Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks. In the 1940’s and 50’s, Lockheed used to make spy planes for the US government. Johnson ran his unit with precision. At the heart of it was the philosophy that the aircraft they built had to be so simple that any engineer with a basic set of tools could repair it if they had to, if for example, the plane was shot down in the middle of a field. And I think that keeping things simple is a philosophy more of us should remember when we build digital things.

One service today which has taken this advice literally to heart is Instagram. People like it for various reasons: lots of people say that it makes them look like good photographers, one friend of mine said that it is like a visual diary of her friends and makes her feel closer to them when she is far away. And it is also extremely simple to use. Take a picture, apply a filter and share. Done. With Instagram, as the founder says, they knew that they had only 30 seconds to make an impact on users, because it is a mobile app. You can do a 100 things on the go and you do not want something that’s going to take ages to do.  One extra step could lose you your users. And they hit the jackpot – in less than 5 months, they hit 2 million users. That’s a lot.

Then of course there’s the iPad, which is now officially so simple to use that a school in the US has decided to get all their kindergarten students one. But it’s not just kids that seem to get it – grandparents are too.  As this research by the University of Reading indicates, the reason it’s such a great educational tool is that it is simple to use – it is designed to reflect the way real world physical objects work, which is a skill people already possess.

My next point was related to this, about how it is important to do stuff that feels right intuitively - in the digital world, for example, try to make stuff that bridges the gap between the physical and the digital. I mentioned Hollergram, and how though we designed it to be a physical messaging platform, people are finding their own uses for it. 

I then mentioned the importance of looking at your products through the eyes of the user. We built Skype in the Classroom, a service for teachers to connect with each other over Skype, on the assumption that what they wanted was a place to share lesson planning tools and resources. But as we continued talking to the teachers after we launched in beta, we realized that what they wanted was to be able to collaborate with teachers on specific projects. So we built that functionality – and once we were out of beta, we went from 4000 to 10,000 teachers in just 2 weeks. And we continue to focus on the people who matter the most – the teachers using the service. I think that’s an important thing to remember too: you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone 100% of the time – focus on those who matter to you.

Another great example of a service that does that is Songkick, a community for music lovers and gig goers. In fact, I’ve been on the other side of the fence here – as a member of the community, I’ve actually answered questions that Songkick have asked me about the service, as they worked to improve it. They also work using Agile software principles like Made by Many, which is all about building and learning, and then doing that again and again as you refine your offering in keeping with the growth in technology and the needs of your audience.

In both these examples, focusing on what the user wants can avoid a situation where you pay too much attention to fads, like mystery meat navigation, a term coined by a web designer called Vincent Flanders in 1998 to describe sites that may be visually appealing but are simultaneously confusing and inefficient – something you want to avoid.

And all the things I mentioned are in some way related to human factors engineering: or optimizing the relationship between technology and people, by applying what we know about people and how they behave, to our work, whether we’re designing a product, a campaign, or a service.

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I was gutted to have missed most of the day as I had to get back, but I was following the Twitter hashtag and every single talk seemed brilliant. I'm proud to have been a part of this conference, which aims to get more women into the digital industry. Thanks, She Says! 

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