Designing for expert users

Get to know your target audience
August 7, 2023
4 min read

Understanding your target audience is a well-known prerequisite for creating a user interface that meets their needs. The level of user proficiency inevitably impacts your target audience’s needs and ingrained habits. Discussions around designing for novice and intermediate users are common; however, not all users fall into these categories. At our studio, we strive to develop designs tailored for all users, including experts responsible for operating complex systems.

Enhancing the Interface Efficiency

Let’s clarify, who are these experts? In our context, they encompass professional drivers, seasoned pilots, and individuals proficient in operating control systems across diverse machines. Simply put, these individuals possess an innate understanding of their tasks, effortlessly navigating through complexities without thinking about the basics twice.

"..they’re able to get to the depth of expertise in their particular area is because they’ve automated a lot of the pre-steps before it, so they can put their cognitive effort, their brainpower, towards that most difficult end of the scale.”

Katie Swindler

UX Strategist
(for UX podcast)

When considering the differences between novices and experts, one notable distinction is the speed at which they interact with the interface. Designing for experts entails incorporating shortcuts and optimizing the system’s efficiency to enable streamlined task completion and eliminate unnecessary steps. Furthermore, experts often demand a greater degree of control and personalization options to align the interface with their individual preferences.

As proficient users dispose of thorough knowledge of the fundamental processes of the system, their actions become automatic to a significant degree. Therefore walkthroughs, overly graphical elements, and learning tools become redundant in their routine. However, it is crucial to consider the cognitive load imposed by interfaces that overwhelm users with excessive information. Striking the right balance in interface design, and providing essential information without overwhelming the user, is crucial in maintaining optimal usability and safety for expert users.

Designing for expert users, Julie Søgaard

Exploring Automatic User Interactions

As a result of repetitive use and extensive understanding of basic principles and patterns, experts acquire a certain intuition and automatization of essential processes. If these automatized processes are interrupted, it can cause problems, as the person has to suddenly focus on something that used to have only low priority. For instance, research by Wung and Su (2013) has identified that experienced golf players tend to perform worse when focusing on the basic technique, as they are not used to doing so.

A number of studies discuss cognitive autonomous actions and their connection with muscle memory. Schneider and Shiffrin (1977) identified that skilled touch-typists experienced a high level of automatization during writing. As a result, they typed a few more keystrokes when interrupted before processing the state change. Other research has shown that expert users move their mouse to the next button’s location before the screen loads.

Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Gabriele Wulf a & Jiang Su
Supporting Novice to Expert Transitions in User Interfaces, Cockburn et al.

Adapting Design Changes

Based on the principles discussed above, expert users might be quite sensitive to minor UX design updates. For novice or intermediate users, a gradual approach to redesign works best, allowing them to adapt to changes more subtly. However, this approach may not be the most suitable solution for experts, as they heavily rely on the familiar placement of elements. Introducing gradual changes can increase the likelihood of misclicks and errors for expert users.

An incremental modification of the interface structure can therefore disrupt expert users, leading to repetitive errors rooted in their automated responses. Consequently, creating a completely new design, which users can learn from scratch, might prove more beneficial. By doing so, users are less likely to confuse recent changes with deeply ingrained habits from the previous version, minimizing confusion and enhancing their overall experience.

Designing for Stress, Katie Swindler

Tailored Solution

Acknowledging expert users’ advanced knowledge, skills, and expectations is crucial in crafting interfaces that optimize their efficiency and productivity. At Kontrolka, we not only specialize in creating designs for novice and intermediate users but also extend our expertise to designing Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) for specialized machines and vehicles that operate in highly particular situations. Read more about how we engage the stakeholders in the process here.

By leveraging this understanding, we develop functional designs tailored to expert users, ensuring their unique needs are met while prioritizing their safety and well-being. We aim to empower expert users with user interfaces that facilitate their work and enhance their overall experience in their specialized domains.

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