First impressions matter online. With the overwhelming amount of choice the Internet affords, designers have to be careful to not turn away users (read: potential customers) with inscrutable navigation or laggy load times. User experience design helps to reverse-engineer what design and programming features are the easiest for Internet users to digest, heading off future problems before they happen. As a result, developers and designers are always looking for newer, more effective ways to test their site for its user friendliness.
Enter developer and linguist Richard Littauer. Littauer is currently in Bali, traveling with a group called Hacker Paradise that brings groups of mobile programmers and designers on trips around the world. His site The User Is Drunk, which was created on a whim, advertises a bold, straightforward pitch: “I’ll get very drunk, and then review your website.” Appropriately, Littauer doesn’t remember coming up with the idea. “I suspect I was drunk at the time,” he says.
His FAQ clarifies that he is, indeed, completely serious. Originally charging $75 for his services, which also include a design brief and a video screencast outlining the UX problems, the demand became so great in the days after launching the site that the price now sits at $250.
At a glance, this service may seem like a terrible idea. Why would you pay some drunk guy to laugh at your website in a public video? But it’s probably the exact test case you want. Littauer’s perspective as an impartial, distracted user is a good replication of a new user’s perception–someone who might be coming to your site while doing five other things that are beyond your control as a designer.
“Being drunk means that I am less likely to deal with any issues I see on the site, more likely to misunderstand the point of the site as a whole, and more likely to do unpredictable things that you wouldn’t expect a normal user to do,” Littauer told Co.Design.
Things he might see as allowable while sober are much harder to take while sloshed. “I didn’t expect that I would be such a negative reviewer–I think it’s a lot easier for me to find issues as a drunk user, because my polite walls are down,” he says.
“The main problems I’ve been noticing so far are walls of text. I really don’t like text when I’m drunk,” he says. Instead of reading text-heavy explanations, he finds he’ll skip over them and try to figure out the website through experience, clicking every button to see what it does.
“Another thing I’ve noticed is people clearly targeting a certain audience, but not dealing with users who may not be in that audience,” he says. “They need explanation about the context for your website as well, or they’ll never be potential customers.”
But Littauer isn’t worried that his inebriation will influence people to make overly safe design choices. “I think we’re going to see, and already do see, a lot of sites conforming on a general style and way of designing for the most naive user,” he says. “But a ton of sites don’t bother with this at all, and continue to innovate and find new ways to bring people in.”
Littauer believes that the public nature of this project pushes him to make better reviews. “No one wants to listen to a boring drunk guy fail to review a site well,” he says. “They’re more likely to enjoy listening to an amusing drunk guy point out at least a couple of things they hadn’t noticed before.”
The irony at the heart of this project is that Littauer isn’t much of a drinker. “I actually don’t like being drunk all that much, and I hate hangovers and spending money more than I like drinking,” he says. Unfortunately for him, after the success of The User Is Drunk, it’s uncertain when he’ll be free of his boozy associations. Perhaps more uncertain is how long he can physically keep up.
“I’m planning on doing this project as long as it is interesting for me. I don’t know about after that,” Littauer says. “I don’t expect to do it long-term, if only because it will get repetitive and my liver will pay.”
But that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make in the name of better design.