Making software for the "non-technical" person [draft]

The idea of “technical skill” comes up a lot when designing interfaces. It almost always present in personas. It’s a term batted around when product teams are deciding how complicated or simple they should make a feature.

Usability is access. How we implement an interface widget will either include or exclude some part of the population/market. When we say a product is easy to use, we really mean most people can use your product at all.

Theres are strong business and ethical reasons to make software more accessible to more folks whom we consider “non-technical”. The most germane and perhaps overlooked is there is more of them. 

Since “technical skill” is a dubiously ambiguous phrase, lets pair it with an equally unrigorous claim that “technical skill” is distributed normally across the population. I’m talking about that irresistible, pork-belly cut of statistics…

[sassy graph of technical skill bell curve]

In the B2B context, a company trying to buy software prefers it not depend on rare, expensive technical expertise. Training is expensive. Hiring within the fat part of the technical expertise bell curve is cheaper. 

Moving a product from more technical fields to less gives you access to a larger market. Making web development accessible to a designer, like Webflow does is valuable. Making a design tool that a marketing person can use is valuable. The ability to make a professional-level videos is valuable to a sales guy.

The formula is pretty simple, deliver some of the most valuable capabilities as the professional tool but disguised in the buyers category. Every domain/category has its own visual language and conventions that cue the customer as to who the tool is made for. So you’d ask a question like “How do you repackage the most valuable capapbilies of photoshop into a tool for Account Executives?” and you get new Product X.

Building for the non-technical is de-professionalization. The robots may take our jobs, but before they do, the guy who has has never de-duped his contacts will first. 

I suspect this is why there is some unconscious guild loyalty to our fellows in the technical class. Maybe that’s why engineers so naturally build technically demanding interfaces. And why I, as a *pinky-out* designer steer products towards that cold, expressionless, Deiter Rams aesthetic.

A more likely explanation is we can’t really prevent designing products for our own technical level. Even with the long-overdue ascendence of research and the surfacing of process with “design thinking” methods, software makers cannot totally prevent themselves from getting into the product. Like journalists and scientists, product teams aspire to objectivity but we should admit that most humans aren’t very good at being objective or empathetic.

This is of course strengthens the call for more people from underrepresented groups on software teams. We can’t outsource this task to research and becoming more empathetic, when we can instead build teams that will intrinsically bring more points of view into our software.