Over the years, I have read probably hundreds of usability tips and tricks. They all seem to give generally decent advice that are all blanket statements about usability. Such things as “Use a sans-serif” or “Make sure to minimize scrolling” are common among these lists.
I am not here to tell you these are wrong, but relying on general usability guidelines without context, understanding, or goals can be a horrible pitfall when designing. Usability is not about the shortest route between two points. It’s also not about being so simple it’s insulting. Usability should be about comfort, enjoyability, familiarity, and positive recall.
Simplicity is not the solution
Simple is actually an extremely subjective concept. For instance, Windows file management is simple to me. On the other hand for my parents, it is quite daunting. The main idea is that we must realize as designers that we are inherently experts at using interfaces. This means that our concept of what is simple can be horribly out of sync with our audiences. The result of this is that when we try to make our interfaces simple we either overcompensate and make the design insulting or we overestimate what elements are obvious.
The common user is not dumb. Instead, they are generally just more ignorant of technology than designers or techies. For example, my father is a builder. He can look at any house or structure and immediately point out problems, weak points, and issues. However, he constantly has questions and problems with Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft Word.
This doesn’t mean that the programs need to be mind-numbingly stripped down or that he needs giant buttons to complete tasks. I know this, because on a car website, he is blazing through it: saving and e-mailing pictures, bookmarking and so on. The common user just has a different context. The faster we can address the confusing or unfamiliar elements and make them feel good about using our interface the more successful we will be.
Expectations are paramount
Expectations frame our whole experience. In most cases, you do not have the ability to effect your user’s expectations. The best thing a designer can do is be aware of what the user is expecting and be prepared for it. It’s not just about making something that is easy to understand. When your expectations are challenged you become insecure and begin trying to reconcile the differences.
Sometimes when something is simple but challenges our expectations it is still confusing. I know that sounds ridiculous.
Let me tell you about a common situation at my office:
The phone rings, I pick it up and say in a clear voice, “Good Morning. This is Anthem Design Group. How may I help you?”. There is a pause on the other end before the person responds, “Ummm…Yeah. Is this Napa Auto Parts?”.
My response to the phone call was simple and clear. However, the very fact that the user expectation was different than what they got was uncomfortable and confusing to them and they continued moving forward in the expectation even though they were told it was wrong.
What does this mean for usability designers? Our goal should not be to make something simple or clean, those approaches will come later. We should first make sure to help our users form the right expectations, be comfortable with the results, and become familiar with the process.
The “New Room” Effect
When considering comfort as a goal, we must understand what makes comfort happen and what challenges it. When a user is not comfortable, he is confused, scared, and hesitant.
The main focus of interfaces should not be avoid all confusion, because that’s not practical. Its too easy to confuse a user. It is much better focus on how to handle confusion or hesitation. Consider this situation. When you walk into a room or building in which you have never been, you will be initially confused.
Why? Naturally, you must become familiar with the new information before you can interact with it. I like to call this the “New Room” effect. Your main focus as a designer should be to anticipate this stage of analysis and confusion and then dispel it quickly by creating familiar cues, anticipated guides, and goal oriented design.
Anticipate and React
Usability is about expectations and breeding familiarity. While the methods for breaking down expectations and handling them are basically limitless I will show you a few general concepts that can be leveraged to address the “New Room” effect in web and application design.
Start with value
When a user opens a website, starts using a product, or is generally introduced to something new, their mind will immediately ask some analytical questions to help organize what they are seeing. The questions I am referring to generally fall along these lines:
- What can I do here?
- Why is this valuable to me?
- Why is this worth my time?
- Is this valuable enough to spend more time?
People’s minds relate to most everything based on how they can benefit from it. This is often a complex process in the mind to determine the pros and cons of a situation. Make the first step easy for your user. Answer the questions immediately of what can they do and how they can do it.
The best way to do this is with a clear and strong statement of value.
In the example above, 37 Signals immediately addresses the value of Highrise when I rollover the icon. Not only does the value statement communicate the overall benefits and value of the product as it relates to me, but it also places focus on the goal rather than the function. It certainly does not ignore the functions, which are addressed in the statement below it. Focusing on goals is an excellent way to get people more comfortable and able to relate to the product or service.
Focus on goals
Most users look at interfaces with a goal-oriented attitude. In other words, they want to complete a specific task or achieve a specific result. A small percentage of users actually explore or try elements to find out what they do. For instance, users will not look for an “Enter Shipping and Account Information” button. They want a “Buy Now” button.
Actions and interface elements should always focus on achieving a goal for a user. “Start Now” or “ Order Now” are miles more effective than “Click Here”.
Most designers have heard of the “300 Million Dollar Button” in which a major e-commerce site increased revenue by changing “Register” to “Continue”. You can read the article by usability expert, Jared Spool here (The $300 Million Dollar Button). This may sound like a story about commitment but its actually about goals.
Most users were there to buy something. Registering for an account was an obstacle in the way to achieving their goal. In reality the process of buying the product was no simpler, no shorter, and no faster than if the user was registering. It was about the expectation and the related goal.
In the example above, there are a few calls to action and they all have a goal in mind. “Learn More + Buy Now” tells me what the goal of that action is, as does “Get our latest news”. It may seem obvious but many site designs become more concerned with what they think is important about their product or service and not about what the user’s goals to listen are.
Too many choices is a time-tested and sure-fire way to lose users. Why? Users like choices but not so many that they are overwhelmed or confused. A study conducted by Iyengar and Lepper on choice found that while a large number of choices may initially be more appealing it actually hampers the subsequent motivation to follow through on a purchase or choice1. In terms of the “New Room” effect, complex choice structures and too many options are daunting. Users can only manage a limited amount of information at once. By optimizing the choices they need to make you can alleviate potential confusion.
Apple is a classic example of optimized choices. Apple offers tons of products but we don’t need to be told that on one page, and we don’t want to. Many times, users love the idea of choice, but when it comes down to it, tons and tons of options are just too much to process. As the Iyengar and Lepper study concluded, a limited selection of choices gives people the choice they want but enough that they can manage and analyze the choices without being overwhelmed with an extensive array of options. Further, not only were people more likely to make a choice but they reported greater satisfaction with the choices they made. How’s that for a win-win situation?
Don’t be afraid to scroll
For some reason it is popular to believe that scrolling is the worst thing you can do in user interfaces. The web is a scrolling medium. Users expect to scroll and are perfectly fine doing it. This is especially true if you give the user clues that tell them that more information is below the browser fold. Never cram information close together or remove information to avoid a scrolling page. It is more important to have good visual structures that are easy to follow.
In many cases, usability designers will add more unnecessary levels of depth or additional pages for the user to avoid scrolling. Information on a scrolling page may be temporarily hidden, but there is a big advantage to scrolling. Reloading a page or loading in new content is likely to break the user’s train of thought. Scrolling will not create the mental break that a new page will.
That knowledge is an important tool. I have actually had a number of designers tell me that user being comfortable with scrolling is a new trend, and its not safe to assume that they are okay with it. It’s not a trend. Case in point, Let’s see what AOL usability designer Milissa Tarquini said in 2007, Blasting the Myth of Fold.
A convention is defined as a rule, method, or practice established by usage. Look at that! Usage is right in the definition. When conventions are established, it usually means that it is an effective solution to a problem. For instance, it is a convention in the northern hemisphere to show North on the top of a map. If I designed a map with South on the top, it would initially confuse users because I would be breaking their expectation and throwing any perceived notions out the window.
The web is no different. There are conventions that exist because people use these methods to complete tasks. It is certainly not unheard of to break conventions but as a usability designer we have to be concerned with making our interface easy to use and familiar. A common convention on the web is that hyperlinks are highlighted by an underline. The more web savvy of us may be able to figure out that a bold statement or an italics word is a hyperlink. But remember: we are not our audience.
Be aware of conventions and use the expectations they create to your advantage. This concept is the same for language. Users are not comfortable when they cannot understand system terms or technical language. Make sure you are sticking to conventional terminology that users are likely to be familiar with.
Keep users informed
One of the worst things for usability is surprises. Remember, that expectations are always a force to be managed when a user is using an interface. If an element has the potential for error or will do something you know the user can not anticipate, make sure they are informed of what is going on. The most common example of negative surprises is a hyperlink that opens a PDF without informing the user. Many users do not like PDFs for various reasons or are unfamiliar with the file format, therefore have a PDF opened on their computer causes confusion and discomfort.
The same thing is true for errors and system reactions. If your system might do something like ask for a confirmed password, run a credit card, or possibly throw an error; make sure the user is made aware immediately what has happened. “There has been an error” will not cut it. Generic messages keep users in the dark and quickly destroy their confidence and comfort with your site or application. Use specific error messages and always provide a potential solution to the problem.
For example, “Your credit card has been declined. Please check your information carefully or enter a different card.” Let’s take a look at the example of a Facebook error and how the designer might have handled this situation better :
This error is already not good news, so I am primed to be uncomfortable. Next, I am not told the specific term that caused the rights to be blocked, only linked to a list of terms which is by definition a generic approach. Further, I am not provided with a way to fix the situation or other things I can do while my rights are blocked. This leaves me uncomfortable and unhappy. Which is not how you want to leave a user.
I challenge you to not just take the few points I have mentioned as a list of usability guidelines. When working with a UI design consider your decisions and approaches from this perspective. Don’t think about making a simple design, a clean design, a grid design or whatever potential trick that may offer better usability. Instead, stop and think,” How can I make my user more comfortable and quickly familiar with my design, and minimize confusion?” I promise you that simple and clean design will be born from this approach.
If you are interested in some useful and empirical research on usability and user-experience, see the articles below:
Vol. 54, No. 2 (Apr., 1990)
Published by: American Marketing Association
Published by: Nielsen Norman Group
Reference: 1. Iyengar, S.S., & Lepper M.R., (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.