Your Machine Should Not Make You Feel Stupid

At a recent DUX staff meeting, we spent some time talking about how to explain to laypeople (e.g., our moms) what it is we do in this department.  Someone offered this helpful metaphor: Ask them, “Do you ever use your computer or the Internet and feel stupid because you can’t understand how to do something—something you think should be easy to figure out?  Well,” she said, “DUX people make your machine or the website you interact with work better for you.  Your machine or a website should never make you feel stupid.”  I think that’s a smart way to look at web design and the user experience: Don’t forget you are not the user, that the tasks the user performs, while routine—perhaps even mundane to you—might truly be unfamiliar or confusing to the novice.  Therefore, design without assumptions.

When thinking about the user experience in web design, sometimes some of the simplest things slip our minds.  It’s always good to be reminded, those of us immersed in techy jargon and details, that we are probably not the target user of whatever it is we’re creating or trying to make better.  The target user might have little to no tech savvy, or might see the things on his/her computer screen in ways quite different from the average designer or usability tester.  Net Magazine, a really great tech magazine with lots of UX-related content, recently published a list of “10 UX Things We Remembered in 2012” for its year-end review.  Again, the entries on this list might seem like no-brainers, but they are easy to overlook the more one becomes assimilated to the back-end culture of web design.  I’ll let you read all ten for yourself, but I’ll highlight those entries that stood out to me most, made me utter a little “hmm” and nod my head in recognition.

#1: “You are not your customer.”  While the article is aimed primarily at commercial web design, most points are applicable to all design, including the sort of stuff we do in DUX (think: reconfiguring IUCAT and the IU Libraries website).  Authors Stuart Pill and Gavin Wye write: “It’s very easy to forget that your customers do not behave in the way that you would like them to . . . Even if you are working in a consultative role it’s easy to become accustomed to the way things are, and take for granted that people outside of your bubble will understand what you are trying to communicate.  Your customers have much less contact with your company and its products; therefore, they may need assistance with things that appear obvious to you.”

Which leads us to points two and three.  #2: “Navigating home.” Many users do not know how to navigate home, do not understand that clicking the site’s logo will typically take them to its home page; instead, they rely on their browser’s back button (assuming they landed first on the home page before moving on to specific content).  It’s strange to think of users not understanding what, to techie types at least, probably seems pretty obvious, but I can certainly see this in relation to IUCAT Classic, which doesn’t allow for a very user-friendly browser-button navigation experience.  One has to use the interface’s built-in navigation buttons or the “IUCAT Home” tab at the top of the page to get back home.  Thankfully, New IUCAT has remedied this, and it makes my heart happy to think there will be fewer confused and/or frustrated back-button clickers interacting with the catalog.

#3: “Country selection with a drop-down list.”  Here’s another supposedly obvious user task that really isn’t so easy.  The article explains: “We tested the checkout for a global retail site and found many users don’t use keyboard shortcuts to access drop-down lists.  Few people we observed knew that they could type a letter on their keyboard, use the arrow keys or hit enter to select the option.  Users still use their mouse to navigate and hence found long drop-down lists frustrating.”  Proposed, instead, is a “country selector,” wherein a user types into a traditional-looking search box the country he/she is looking for, and the box auto-completes with each letter she types.  From there, he/she can select from a much shorter, much more manageable list of countries.  However, to say, immediately, that this is the holy-grail alternative to the drop-down list is probably short-sighted, and defeats the purpose of point number one above.

Finally, #7: “The bar is still relatively low.”  “It’s easy, when you are surrounded by and immersed in the internet, to forget how hard some people find it to do things online,” caution Pill and Wye.  “The web is still a confusing place to some people.  Making tasks familiar by using established design patterns increases the chances of users completing these tasks, and so leaving your site with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.”  As a former teacher, Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” was de rigueur in my education courses.  Maslow counts physiological needs (e.g., food, water, sleep) as paramount to a student’s success—that is, one cannot fulfill higher-order needs, such as self-esteem, achievement, and creativity, without first meeting those basic needs.  I think we can apply the same thinking to users of websites—a user cannot use and appreciate fancy-schmancy interactive features if the supposedly small things aren’t working for him/her.

Author- Emily Stueven

Graduate Assistant in the Digital User Experience Department, IUB Libraries.