One of the foundations of User Experience design process is to identify your audience and what they want to do on your site. If you make it easy for them to do those things (we call them “Goals”), you’ll have an experience that works well. Of course, this is all very high-level but if you can’t get that right, you’re doing something wrong.
We all think we know users well. After all, they’re people - just like us. In reality however, unless you stop to analyse what people are doing and try to identify the whys, you won’t be able to make effective design decisions and that is what UX design is all about.
There’s a large, lovely park beside Continuum HQ. We often walk across it to get lunch in Fairview or just get some oxygen flowing to our hyper-active brains. For the last few weeks, they’ve closed the main path through Fairview Park. Whatever they’re building, it requires putting a fence across the main path and redirecting pedestrians a few metres to the left in order to circumnavigate the building works. Simple enough. Only somehow, they’ve done something wrong.
Now, let’s just analyse the situation here: we’ve got a set of users who are used to travelling this path. It’s the only route to where they’re going and they can still see their destination - their Goal - straight ahead. The users are simply trying to reach their goal. As they approach it, they can see the building works, they can put the situation together without any real cognitive effort. They know they’ll have to go around.
Now, when the users get closer to the obstruction, they see that there’s a set of plastic mats fixed into the ground as a temporary path. They can also see that this temporary path is accessible by turning at right angles to their trajectory. Right angles are weird. Ironically, they feel wrong. Humans take slightly curved routes. We’re just built that way.
So what do the users do? They leave the main path well before that right-angled turn and they cut across the grass to the temporary path. Does it bother anyone that this is ruining a stretch of grass? Not really. Does it irk some Web Designers that they’re going to get mud on their shoes before a big Client Meeting? No, of course not, who told you that?
Now, let’s cut the labored metaphors. What we’re looking at here is natural human revolt. We see the system that’s designed for us and instantly (or indeed, over time) tweek it to work better for our uses. In web design, this is what we might call progressive improvement. At the start, we design our websites, apps and software to function perfectly for people. Then we test it with real people and tweek our assumptions and solutions to allow for what real people actually do. Then we put it live.
Later, some days, weeks or months down the line, we take a look at how our users are actually using our site. We might find that they’re doing something totally differently to how we expected when we deployed the site. We analyse analytics, we conduct user-tests and we investigate how others have approached similar problems.
Whether they mean to or not, the pedestrians in Fairview Park are giving feedback - literally voting with their feet - and showing the path they wish to walk. In response, a poor designer may simply erect a bigger sign-post like, “DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS!” or “DETOUR, ENTER HERE” and will have wasted everyone’s time. A good designer listens to this feedback, observes and reasons why this is happening. Then they respond - not just meeting the users half-way but often with a solution that goes even further.
We don’t design in a vacuum. We can’t lay out our own rules and expect everyone to follow. We need to observe our fellow humans, see what they’re doing and design for how they use them. A user knows their goal and is looking for a way to get there. It’s our job to help them. Make their lives easier, work with them and not against them.
So whether you want to or not, listen to what your users are telling you through the way they use your website. In the long run, they’ll thank you for it.