Why usable design matters, and what we can do about it

User Point of View? Yes, But…

An earlier post talked about the importance of designers understanding the user’s point of view. There is a caveat, however, illustrated in a quote often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” While users’ needs are real and important, the truth is that we as users often aren’t able to articulate what we want. Beyond that, we may not know what’s possible, so we don’t know what to ask for. Finally, we may ask for things we think we want, only to find out we really don’t.

I use a web site that includes a custom directory of people I interact with on the site. The directory is a single page listing all names, and until recently, names were listed in the order in which they were added. Over time, my directory has grown to be quite lengthy (over 400 names) and finding a particular individual could be a hassle.

Other users apparently had the same concerns, because on the support forums more than one user requested the ability to sort the directory by the various columns on the page: name, date added, etc.

The site owners acted on the feedback and put new sort functionality in place—only to have users give negative feedback about it! After using it for a short time, I realized why: sorting really wasn’t that helpful for finding people in my list. What I should have asked for was filtering: the ability to type in a name, for example, and have only matches show up. But I didn’t realize that when I gave my initial feedback, and apparently neither did other users nor the site owners.

Jakob Nielsen summed it up well in his ironically-titled Alertbox article on this topic: “First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users.” His article includes these “basic rules of usability”:

  • Watch what people actually do.
  • Do not believe what people say they do.
  • Definitely don’t believe what people predict they may do in the future.

Following these “rules” gives designers more more accurate feedback so we can meet our users’ actual needs rather than what they say they need, which may not be the case at all.

One Comment

  • Posted 30 September 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I see this sometimes when you see people unwilling to adapt to changes just because they are different.

    I remember a time when a customer was updating from a manual, paper-based form to an online submission tool. The customer kept insisting that they wanted the online submission process to mimic the paper form. When pressed for a reason, they said, “because that is the way it is on the paper form.” The question I then asked was, “do you know why it was that way on the paper form?” Who knows if the original decision was made because of a lack of physical space on the page, or simply if it was what the then-designer thought “looked good.”

    What they needed to do was take a step back and ask “what is the best process now?” It doesn’t matter what decision a designer made for a paper form several years ago. Let’s make the best decision for the business process and end user TODAY, based on how we do business now.

    Last week there was a news article about how libraries are moving towards digital content. So many people posted in the comments about how electronic books will never supplant physical books because of the nostalgia factor of a physical book. I think that is hogwash (to use a modern, technical term). Yes, there will likely always be a market for physical books. But it won’t be too many years before we see most people consuming most of their content digitally. Just like there is still a market for horses after all these years of automobiles. But you’ll always see some people push back against change just because it is different, without ever thinking through to see any of the benefits that come from change.