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.

Accessibility: Putting Yourself in the User’s Place

I once worked at a building where, oddly, the handicapped parking spaces were not in the row closest to the building, but rather in a long strip perpendicular to the building (simplified picture below). The row closest to the building was partly visitor parking spaces, and partly open spaces.


As an employee I didn’t give it much thought, and frankly, I was happy on the rare occasions that I got one of the coveted spots close to the door.

That was, until the day my father and I attended a Saturday seminar at the building. My father is in his 80s and walks with a cane. Getting around is slow and physically taxing for him. He had his handicap placard, and we looked for a handicap parking place. But there were no close places, and in fact some of the non-handicap places, although not close, were still actually closer than some handicap spaces!

Seeing the experience through my father’s eyes put a whole new spin on it.

I tried to imagine the reasoning of the people who designed the parking lot. Did they justify their choices because handicap spaces near a building’s entrance are often empty? Did they think the handicap places were “close enough”? One thing was clear to me: I doubt they had ever accompanied a handicapped person as they tried to find a close parking place on a busy day.

I came away with some much needed-reminders:

  1. Test designs with differently-abled users, and strive for win-win design.
  2. Frequency of use is not synonymous with importance. Even if my father only needed that parking place for a few hours on a Saturday morning, that need was very important for him.
  3. We can’t excuse ourselves in failing to address accessibility.
  4. Shortcuts and assumptions compromise user experience.There’s no substitute for understanding one’s users, and that understanding means putting ourselves in their place.

Beyond Fad to Functionality: Hop Off the Carousel

Someone at work asked a group of colleagues to check out a new beta web site. The home page featured one of those trendy, large carousels that took up about half the space “above-the-fold” on my large monitor.

“Looks great!” a couple of people quickly commented. And the image on the carousel was lovely. But I found myself wondering if anyone had thought about how the carousel affected user experience, rather than how pretty the picture was.

Then another colleague raised the same concern. As the discussion went forward, a number of issues surfaced from our own experience:

  • Interference with user goals. When users visit a site, they usually go for a specific purpose. Chances are good that the carousel content will have nothing to do with that purpose, so the carousel can make it harder for users to accomplish their goals.
  • Interference with communication. In addition, carousels typically take up a large chunk of screen real estate. In doing so, they push other content below the fold or even off the screen, making it harder for users to find information they need.
  • Quick obsolescence. Carousels have a short shelf-life. Once users cycle through the images (if they have the patience for it) the carousel becomes old news.
  • User tune-out. More likely, users don’t cycle through the images. So there’s a good chance they won’t see content the site owner thinks they will see.

That got me thinking—these carousels seem to be everywhere. So was I missing something? Or was this another example of a trend being adopted because it “looks cool” and “everyone’s doing it” without considering its impact on usability?

I did a little digging and found this telling post on It turns out that extensive usability tests concluded pretty much the same thing: carousels are ineffective. As one UX advocate, Lee Duddell, humorously noted:

Carousels are effective at being able to tell people in Marketing/Senior Management that their latest idea is now on the Home Page.

They are next to useless for users and often “skipped” because they look like advertisements. Hence they are a good technique for getting useless information on a Home Page (see first sentence of this post).

In summary, use them to put content that users will ignore on your Home Page. Or, if you prefer, don’t use them. Ever.

‘Nuff said.

“You can observe a lot just by watching”

As Yogi Berra famously commented, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Obvious? Sure. Easily ignored? That too, unless we make it a point to observe.

To illustrate with three of my favorite user experience examples:

Example 1

For the past few months, I’ve been enjoying an online course in Human-Computer Interaction offered by Coursera and taught by Stanford Associate Professor Scott Klemmer. In one session, he talked about Expedia’s experience with a problematic web page design. Their web analytics showed that a significant portion of users would click the Buy Now button, obviously intending to make a purchase, but then wouldn’t go through with it.

They were puzzled until they focused on the user experience. A confusing design led users to put their bank information in the wrong field—and then, of course, the transaction failed. Once the problem was fixed, Expedia calculated that they realized an additional $12 million in profit that year.

Example 2

With identify theft prevalent in cyberspace, password security is getting a lot of attention. You’ve probably been to sites that measure the strength of your password as you’re setting up a new account. You’d think that would be motivating to most people… but Associate Professor Anthony Vance of BYU conducted research that showed it wasn’t; in fact, it had no more effect on password strength than static text.

So what does motivate users to create stronger passwords? Paying attention to user behavior revealed this interesting insight: the most effective motivator was an interactive interface that evaluates the password and shows roughly how long it would take a hacker to crack. (The research is described here. Professor Vance’s findings were presented at an IT conference I attended and to my knowledge haven’t been published online.)

Example 3

Paul Howe and his colleagues came up with what they thought was a really cool idea: allow people making online purchases to tell their friends via social media. So they created a realistic mockup and did user testing. Were they ever glad they did: most of their users hated it. So after minimal time and expenditure they abandoned the idea.

Several of their competitors had the same idea, which they apparently developed without actually testing with users. Some months and a boatload of money later, they also conceded that it wasn’t such a good idea after all. Paul determined that their user testing probably saved them 9 months of work and around $2 million.

In each of these examples, paying attention to users revealed behavior that was surprising to the designers, and which they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Yogi Berra was right—you can observe a lot just by watching! The trick is actually doing it.