After any amount of time in the design industry, you’ll most certainly hear someone refer to users as "dumb." People talk about having to "dumb down" interfaces, design for "the lowest common denominator," and try to make applications "idiot-proof."
Designers say it themselves once in a while. The really terrible designers say it repeatedly.
"Well, you can only hold their hands so much."
This sort of thinking discounts a key component of good design: human psychology. Understanding some basics of user behavior, then applying them to design, is one of the most important things a company can do. Here are 14 things you should know about the people who use your websites and applications.
1. They’re Smarter Than You Think
They just don’t care about learning your system. It doesn’t matter to them.
It can be so easy to forget how little everyone outside the tech industry depends on personal tech the way we all do. Unless technology makes itself necessary to people's lives, they can pretty well get by without it. Even when technology is vital to their work, they can often get by learning only the parts of it they need. So they do.
2. They Have Other Things To Do
The goal of most users is not to spend all their time on a website. It’s to get off a website.
The good designers know this—and they bake it into their products.
If Google were designed to keep users on its search site, they wouldn't use it. Other search engines would be faster and less intrusive.
In most cases, you should focus on how to make your site or app the least time-intensive. The most convenient. The most worth using because it helps users move on with their lives rather than attempt to take them over.
3. They Have a "Doing Mode"
You know that thing everyone believes about users not being willing to read while using an app? There’s a reason for it.
They’re not in reading mode. They’re in doing mode. We all have it. We get on a mission to complete a task, and we go blind to what could help us complete it.
"Doing mode" has a massive benefit. It helps users ignore the distractions and obstacles that keep them from getting where they want to go. Imagine what driving would be like if you couldn’t ignore the distractions. Constantly scanning billboards, reading shop-front windows, glancing at the little poster-board signs spiked into the ground at intersections. You’d never make it home alive. It’s not a flaw that people read less while in doing mode. It’s a survival skill.
4. They "Satisfice"
Most of the time, people need only enough to get by. So they learn only that much. They might even learn to do something the wrong way. It doesn’t matter as long as they can still get what they need.
This is called satisficing. It’s a term promoted by Steve Krug in his seminal book on web usability Don’t Make Me Think.
Satisficing is just what it sounds like (a portmanteau of the words "satisfy" and "sacrifice"). And this, too, is a survival skill. There are not enough hours in the day, or in life, to become masters of all we touch.
Most things, we just need to learn enough to get by.
5. They Don’t Use Your Software The Way You Intended
No matter how much work you put into it, the first thing people do when you put out an app with any reasonable amount of complexity is they start using it in a way you didn’t anticipate.
Sometimes it’s a major drag. But then, sometimes it leads to an opportunity.
When early Twitter users wanted to reference another person, they preceded the other person’s username with the @ symbol. When they wanted to reference a particular subject that reached beyond their personal timelines, they used hashtags. Twitter hadn’t designed for either of these situations. Users just started doing what they wanted. Twitter followed by building in support for these two functions. Next thing you know, the whole world is talking to each other and discovering all sorts of topics they couldn’t possibly have tripped over previously.
Take it for what it is: a chance to see a design through someone else’s eye. To learn how other people interpret design elements when they don’t know what you know about web design.
6. They Rely On Patterns
Patterns help people learn how to work with a new app or site, how it might be set up, and how long it might take.
Buy a product on one department store website, and you know how most of the others work. The experiences are similar, if not nearly identical, on most ecommerce sites because the pattern works well for the use case and because it helps people form expectations.
The ability to spot and use patterns also sets the stage for the elements in a design that stand out. The important elements, like buttons that tell you how to sign up, or send, or save, or publish. In a tremendous number of cases, the buttons that trigger these actions are displayed in a different color or shape (or both) compared with all the others.
When we can see patterns, we see what breaks those patterns.
7. A Million Things Are Competing For Their Attention
Right now, as you read this article, you probably have a whole bunch of other things competing for your attention. All the more reason for a design has to have an impeccable sense of what the user wants to accomplish.
A clear, deliberate, one-step-at-a-time process in a task flow is vital. Forcing people to serialize (instead of multitask) can help them be more productive in your app. The more the user is able to move forward, the better. It increases the odds he or she will be able to finish a task without wandering off to do something else.
8. They See What’s There
There’s a big difference between what you think you’ve put onto a screen and what the user thinks you’ve put onto a screen. And between you and the user, only one of your two perceptions matters.
The effect is a communication gap. You meant this. The user thought you meant that—mostly because that is what you actually put on the screen.
It’s a classic problem. When you know a lot about the web and are designing for it, you bring a ton of information about it with you into the project. Only the user doesn’t have any idea why this element exists or does what it does. And the user doesn’t have the benefit of having you stand over his shoulder to explain it.
Users see what’s actually there. Not what you think is there.
9. They Lie
People seem to know themselves pretty well when being asked hypothetical questions. And yet when they’re actually in a situation, they’ll do something completely different.
It’s not because they want to lie to you. They just can’t help themselves. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to know how you’d actually act in a given situation, and few people have a great deal of that.
This is just one of the ways they lie. Here are a few others:
- During a usability test, testers will rate a task as having been very easy after spending five minutes figuring it out.
- In a survey, they’ll say they’d use something when they wouldn’t. (They just won’t know that until they get their hands on the new feature.)
- In person, they’ll tell you they’re "web savvy," and then fumble around the computer screen for minutes on end attempting to do things you take for granted every single day.
The list goes on. These are just a few that may be relevant to your design effort.
10. They Don’t Know What’s Possible
Very few tech users are also designers. When they tell you how they’d like something to work, it’s usually according to their worldview—a fix that would make their problem slightly less annoying, but not one that fundamentally erases the problem’s causes.
When users look at an app, they are doing so with the appropriately narrow perspective of how they use it. So they have a hard time articulating what they really need or want an application to do to solve a problem for them. They don’t know how to fix the problem—they just know they want it fixed. So they make suggestions.
Your job is to take them with a grain of salt. Read between the lines. See what’s really causing their issue.
11. If You Improve Their Lives, They’ll Love You
People shift to new technology or processes when those things obviously improve their lives. The "cost of switching" has to be indisputably worth the effort. If it’s not, there will be no voluntary switching.
Most people want to be shown how the new way is better. If you solve a real problem, and you can demonstrate how to do it, your users will love you.
In the best of cases, the solution is self-evident. In some cases, however, users need a review of the solution, an email newsletter explaining it, or a short video on your website.
If the solution isn’t really a solution, no one will care what your rationale was; they’ll just want to go back to the way things were. You might even find yourself actively defending your decisions.
12. They Come With Questions
Anytime users come across a new web app, they come with a series of questions that need to be answered right away. If these questions aren’t answered, there’s a solid chance they’ll take off. This is because of the very human need to get oriented.
They start by trying to make sense of what the app does. You can address this right away with some sort of value proposition statement that answers the question.
"We make planning your day as easy as saying Hello."
That explains the app’s major purpose. It also begins to answer the user’s second question: How does it help me?
Next, the user wants to know how hard this app is to set up and learn. You can address this through a small series of graphics that show a short sign-up form, a stick figure speaking into a smartphone, and a completed to-do list, each with a few words explaining how easy it all is.
When all the benefits start to look appetizing, the user wants to know how much the product costs. If you have tiers or subscription pricing, or anything else that needs some qualifying, you can throw this on a pricing page. If it’s a quick and easy answer, you can put it right there next to the value proposition.
Then all you have to do is show them how to get started.
They come with questions. Your job is to deliver answers that turn them into customers. You just have to consider what questions they might ask.
13. They Blame Themselves for Mistakes When It’s Your Fault
When designers have problems with an interface, they blame its designers. When people have problems, they blame themselves.
They think they’re not smart enough to use the app. They say they didn’t get enough sleep to understand it. They say it’s too advanced for them.
Is this a good user experience? No. It’s a bad user experience hidden by the fact that everyone having it is blaming the wrong person.
A lack of complaints doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It means you may not be hearing them.
14. Their User "Experience" Is Based On Far More Than Your Website
UX is the net sum of all the interactions and impressions and feelings a person has with a website, digital product, or service.
Their impressions of your design are affected by a lot more than just your design. They’re affected by the company’s reputation, if they know what it is. They’re affected by what other people have said about the company or product, whether negative, positive, or undecided. They’re affected by what it looks like, and how they’ve felt in the past about other things that looked similar to it. They’re affected by how they feel that day and how open they are to this new product at the moment they encounter it. They’re affected by how well they can learn it, what they might get out of it, how frustrated they’ve been by other products that have failed to do what they promised.
You name it; it has an impact on a user’s experience.
This article was adapted with permission from Experience Required.