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BIG THINKER
“Your apps can’t just be functional; ensure they’re fun to use and help users get stuff done.”
Harper Reed, social media pioneer and former CTO of Obama for America
The importance of creating a great user experience
Image: Robin Mellor
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The importance of creating a great user experience

November 2013
As CTO of the Obama for America re-election campaign in 2012, Harper Reed led a team tasked with building over 200 apps and tools in just 18 months for a highly diverse audience of four million users. In the same way the consumerization of IT has challenged CIOs everywhere, one of Reed’s main goals was to ensure the resulting software was both highly functional and compelling.

In the US, there are 210 million people who are eligible to vote, which means that, in the Obama for America 2012 campaign, roughly 100 million people or so could potentially use our software. That’s quite a user population, but we didn’t know who those people were. They may have been poor, rich, black, Hispanic, white; every color and type of person possible.

A couple of things flowed from that. First, when your audience is everyone, it means that the organization building the software will be better and more innovative if it is also representative of everyone. That is why having diversity on your team is really important. And that’s why diversity of your user experience is really important, too. You can’t just hire white dudes with red beards and use them to test the software. They need to reflect the users.

We also invested aggressively in the user experience because we knew that we weren’t going to get it right. We did a lot of testing and research, and had lots of conversations with our users to see how they were really using some of our 200 apps. And we needed to make sure that wasn’t just with people who were familiar with the Internet. It meant talking to someone in a field office in Arizona, say, about their experience with our software. And sometimes that wasn’t fun. Sometimes you heard things that were helpful but that you didn’t want to hear, like “your software sucks.”

You then have to figure out how that input matches with your quantitative feedback, the metrics, the actual usage? And sometimes you start to realize that they link in a very clear way. And in the campaign, we were aggressively focused on making sure that people were empowered with solutions the problems they were trying to solve.

“With 4 million internal users, we needed to make sure our tools didn’t suck.”

So that approach to the user experience helped us go from functional software to usable software, and that’s a huge difference. A lot of people can build software that’s functional — it works but everyone hates using it. 

That’s something that’s often seen with in-house tools; they can be brilliant, but hard to use. But it doesn't have to be this way. At Obama for America, we had up to four million people who were internal to our organization and we needed to make sure that our internal tools didn’t suck, that they were fun to use and that users felt they were getting stuff done. So we invested and spent a lot of time in the user experience, even for our internal tools.
First published
November 2013
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About: Harper Reed
Social media pioneer Harper Reed, 35, led IT for Obama for America 2012, orchestrating the most sophisticated application of technology ever in a political campaign. He is now CEO of m-commerce start-up Lunar Technology.
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