Why Users Can be Hard to Design For

Designing for users is hard work, even when you get a chance to talk to them. These are some of the reasons why.

To know the mind of others is one of the fundamental problems of being human. Much of our energy is spent trying to do so.

For web designers, knowing the mind of users is complicated by having very little interaction with them. It is possible, on some projects, to design and redesign web sites without ever talking to one user. However, it is more likely that web designers have some sort of communication with users, but it often comes in the form of email or by talking with an intermediary. The few lucky designers who do regular user testing on their sites know that even then it is often hard to understand the mind of the user.

Some reasons:

    Users real goals have little to do with the task they’re completing:

    Users go to web sites to do something, but it usually isn’t what they really want to do. It’s only a step toward completing their real goal, which is often much more central to their life. An example of this might be someone shopping for an Apple iPod. Their task is to buy an iPod, but their real goal might be to feel good. If they have an iPod wherever they want playing their style of music, then they’ll have accomplished their goal. Their visit to the web site is only one small, early step.

    Users don’t know what their problems are:

    Otherwise, they wouldn’t be problems. For example, if a user knew how a site’s search engine worked, they wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble using it. They would be able to enter search terms that work, and would always get good results. Web sites are like black boxes sometimes.

    So many symptoms obscuring the problem:

    We talked about this a lot at work when we were working on the Three Click Rule article. Users often interpret symptoms of the problem as the problem itself. In the case of the three click rule, users and designers talk about the frustration of not finding something within 3 clicks. Clicking is really only a symptom of the problem of not finding something. We found that users will gladly click as many times as they needed as long as they were confident they’d find what they wanted.

    Users often think in terms of what they have, not what they could have:

    This is where design comes in, and it points out why users shouldn’t necessarily design for themselves. Humans are efficiency machines, and try to eke every last efficiency out of their current activity rather than thinking about designing a whole new way of doing things. Not until a designer comes along with their innovative ideas will the user’s activity change.

    User’s don’t often say what they mean:

    Does anybody? That’s why we need to focus on the behavior of users and not what they say. Oh, they’ll say they don’t shop on price, and then you can prove they do by showing them the videotape.

Published: April 18th, 2004