UX for Brains: Let’s Be Honest, People Suck

Part one of a series explaining what psychologists can teach UX designers about their users.

I really love psychology and learning about what makes people tick. I even debated psychology as a possible career but settled for a minor in order to focus on my design obsession full time. Post graduation, I thought I‘d left that psychologist’s hat behind me. But like many recent grads, I was wrong. Now, as a user experience designer, I bring these foundations into my work constantly. If you're a designer or work in the web, what I'm about to share are some basic ways to leverage psychology in your work.

Understand Psychology To Understand People

Using a psychological perspective to approach design problems isn’t meant to side-step UX practices, but actually, enhance them. I think of it as adding dimension to your practices and teams, by allowing you to see out of two eyes, instead of just one.

As a designer in this ever-evolving technical world, it is essential to have a core understanding of the fundamentals of human perception, cognition, and behavior, especially as they apply to how humans use websites. Utilize psychology as part of your own design practice to better tap into your users. There are volumes out there—not in the design section—full of timeless explanations of what motivates people, what their needs are, how they complete tasks, and how they think...or, you know, don’t. And as Donald Norman—the cognitive psychologist who originally coined the term UX—puts it in his must-read design bible, Design for Everyday Things:

The one thing I can predict with certainty is that the principles of human psychology remain the same, which means that the design principles here, based on psychology, on the nature of human cognition, emotion, action, and interaction with the world, will remain unchanged.

Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition

People Aren't Always The Users We Dream Of

Ok, I admit, I have an underlying reason for pushing you all to learn about people through psychology. There is one observation that I have made in particular that I would hope for more designers to discover for themselves. And no matter how I try to sugarcoat it, or back it up with study findings, everyone thinks I’m a bummer when I share it. Simply, there are some things about human bodies, minds, and habits that kind of suck. Look at some of my examples, then decide for yourself how much credit we should give our users.

Before I jump into the quantitative statistics, let me ease into the fun with a qualitative persona. This is a culmination of users I’ve tested, all rolled up into my grandmother. I pray she never finds this article.

Elderly Eleanor is a persona example. She is 82, in Madison, ME, retired, with a high school education. Eleanor says "I don't even know what that is, but don't worry about it."

Think of this persona while you work, and consider how she might struggle with an interaction.

Elderly Eleanor is an older woman and mother of eight, who first experienced computers in the DOS era. Eleanor wrote technology off early after making some irreversible mistakes. And the poor dear had no Google, Siri, or user-centric customer support teams to help, so she gave up until her family forcibly gifted technology back into her life. Now, she has a PC and an iPad. She uses them to look at weather predictions (Maine gets quite a bit of snow) and to stay connected with her family through social media. But she doesn’t really understand how it works, and often points her camera way above her head during Skype calls. She marvels when a family member buys something online. But if they try to explain it, she will cut them off to say that it’s beyond her.

I know that Eleanor is not our standard user. But keep her in mind as you design your next experience, as the ultimate usability test. WWED?

technology adoption cycle, showing the early and late majority increasing after the small amount of innovators and early adopters

The Technology Adoption Cycle shows us how rare our innovators and early adopters are.

While Eleanor’s aversion to technology is not the norm, it’s not too far off; in fact, an aversion to technology is mainstream, as we can see in a standard technology adoption lifecycle. This trend can be easy to overlook when we are the innovators building the technology, but the adventurous innovators and adopters are rare. The rest of humanity is not nearly so fearless and will wait a long time before trying something new.

And They’re Needy

Not only do people interact with our experiences in less than ideal ways—more on that to follow—but they also have less than ideal expectations. People need a lot and expect even more. If you need a refresher on the hierarchy of needs, check out Abraham Maslow’s pyramid: the gist is that people seek to meet their most basic needs first, like food and safety. As soon as these are met, instead of feeling satisfaction, now they need the next thing, and the next, in an endless and frustrating adaptation cycle known as the hedonic treadmill.

I like this Smashing Magazine spin-off pyramid for a design hierarchy of needs. It follows the same bottom-up process, but with functionality at the bottom and creativity at the top. This means that people need a working product well before they need a beautiful one, so our priorities as a design team should follow this hierarchy. Another interesting observation here is the modest value provided by each of these levels. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? So much of our hard work to launch a working product is taken for granted.

The Kano model was developed in the 80’s but is still a classic. Note the trends of basic needs (must-haves), performance needs (wants), and latent needs (delighters). First of all, the must-haves are completely below the threshold of satisfaction, so it’s not enough to meet users’ basic needs. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the bare minimum that an app lets them sign up, keeps their information saved but private, doesn’t crash, and on and on and on. Wants can go either way, and some people will appreciate these extra thoughtful features and interactions. Users will delight at thoughtful experiences that meet their higher emotional and intellectual needs, but this can be a tall order. Since these latent needs are the ones users struggle most to articulate. I quote and re-quote Henry Ford on this, the manufacturer of the first automobiles: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Humans Miss A LOT Of Goings-On

One of the hardest steps when people interact with something you’ve made is the first one: getting users to discover your hard work. I really like information architect Steve Krug’s way of describing the situation:

We’re thinking “great literature”... the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour”.

Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think

So much for that thoughtfully-crafted experience. As you’ll see, humans have tons of mechanisms built in to protect them from actually caring about stuff. Let’s start with our eyes.

Diagram of the eye, including a small number of cone receptor cells in the center of the back of the eye, and a larger set of rod cells filling the rest of the back of the eye.

Our cone cells produce a small, precise foveal area, while our rod cells fill in the rest with our blurry peripheral vision.

In the center of our eyeballs, our cone receptor cells capture light with quality and focus. The rod cells around the rest of the back of the eye are lazier, and can’t distinguish things like color or shape all that well (but they shine when it comes to night vision). The cones have a lot of heavy lifting to do, but sadly, they only create an area of focused vision no bigger than your thumbnail, known as your foveal area. The rest of the world (and your website) is getting seen in our blurry peripheral vision, but we don’t notice because our eyes—and foveal areas— are constantly moving to fill in the gaps. Not too surprising that a lot of things get overlooked.

The next step requires keeping our attention, which is borderline goldfish status. As I’m sure you know, humans are overwhelmed with a firehose of information. We divide our attention between many distractions, and as a result, have a hard time focusing on anything. It doesn’t take long to lose focus: almost half of users give up if a page takes three or more seconds to load. Our attention spans are just minutes long—how many minutes exactly is debatable because it’s getting shorter all the time. These minutes are broken up by distractions too, so you can really only expect about eight focused seconds of unbroken attention to a task at a time. Eight!

And it’s way easier for a user to get distracted while using your product at home, online, alone (as compared to supervised or incentivized test subjects). Even though it’s fiction, I think this Portlandia bit does a nice job of telling the story. Point being, take that aspect of your usability tests with a grain of salt. For example—this one always cracks me up—think about the last time you went into a retail store, got a cart, filled it up with stuff, and then got bored and left that cart in an aisle and walked out. Hopefully, you can’t, because who does that? And yet online cart abandonment is 67 percent!

With all the distractions we are already faced with, users are averse to anything that could be mistaken for a distraction. We have to seriously commit ourselves to getting from point A (our desk chairs) to point B (purchasing those picture frames from Target’s online store), so any pop-ups are probably going to get killed immediately. Even that helpful overlay with 15% off brushed silver frames gets the X because we’d made the snap judgment to terminate it before reading and comprehending any value. While I get that we’re all busy, I would argue that this behavior goes deeper than that. Often designers come up with unique, novel interactions that require learning unique, branded terminology, and I usually end up hating it. Because I don’t want to learn some crazy new mobile gesture if I came to your app to achieve a goal that wasn’t entertainment. Again, A to B.

Results from participants asked to draw the Apple logo, with few resembling the logo.

UCLA psychologists asked 85 undergrads to draw the Apple logo from memory, and only one got it right. From Gizmodo.

Going back to the example: let’s say you’re giving your full focus to the picture frame hunt, because you are going to get that Christmas shopping done early this year, gosh darn it. Even when you think you’re giving something your full attention, your brain is doing you a solid and ignoring most of the thing. People learn as little as they can and instead rely on salient cues to get by. A recent study discussed on Gizmodo leveraged a popular brand to illustrate this concept: when participants were asked to draw the Apple logo from memory, most of them weren’t even close. At least they’re all apples?

Heatmaps provide an even more relevant example, showing us how humans skim down the left side of a web page in an F-shaped pattern, without processing everything. Note how people are getting accustomed to ads and tuning them out. But you’ve probably heard of banner blindness; the exciting twist is that this has mutated so that people ignore anything that even looks like an ad. Like, say, carousels: turns out hero image carousels generate the same blindness and consequently waste a lot of important space. So please don’t use them!

There is another wrinkle to this content discovery hurdle, which usability consultant Jakob Nielsen sums up succinctly in his Nielsen Norman Group article:

“How users read on the web: they don’t”.

Jakob Nielsen

Humans are wired for language, but specifically for speaking it, and not for reading it. Evolution hasn’t had nearly enough time to catch up to the Gutenberg press, and so we skim. Users at most have the time to read around 20% of the words on a web page during an average visit. And even if we do read something, we will probably forget it, because, spoiler alert, our memories are garbage.

Even More Minefields

This infographic outlines a high-level process of human interaction: discovery, thought, and action.

There are tons of pitfalls that users can struggle with over the different steps of human interactions: discovery, thinking, and acting/decision-making.

The section above outlined the pitfalls of discovery, which is just the first step in human interactions. There are tons of other problems that arise in the steps that follow: thinking, interacting, and decision-making. I will spare you the novel and give you the highlights: people come from different backgrounds, cultures, and places, and often misinterpret the message; they create and reinforce incorrect mental models of the world; they’re irrational, often making emotionally-biased or too-quick snap decisions instead of thoughtful judgments; they make all kinds of mistakes, from motor malfunctions and slips to memory biases and full-on gaps.

Now What?

To be clear, I’m not telling you all of this so you feel bad, and then try to correct your own behavior. I’m telling you so you can accept these limitations, expect them from your users, and adapt as a designer. There is hope. In my next article, I will outline suggestions for enhancing usability and reducing friction around some of these struggles. But I want to touch on the biggest challenge in the meantime, so you can start adapting your design practices: stop designing experiences for us, for the “interactive 1%”. Before, I asked you to think about how much credit you give users. I think often the truth is that we give our users far too much credit. Maybe we assume people will do the right thing, or that they’ll understand if they just take time to read through the page and figure it out. I don’t think this is doing our users any favors. We’ve seen that they can’t be expected to process something the same way that we do, and they won't keep trying for more than a few seconds.

It’s easy to misjudge intricate interaction patterns as common sense because we are extremely familiar with them. Even basic interactions can be difficult to understand for “pedestrians”—this was a term an old design professor used to describe any non-designer. The biggest mistake designers make, in my humble opinion, is leaning too heavily on design trends without checking for visual communication basics. Designers are taking the signifiers out of interactions more and more, in the name of the aesthetic value, but at the cost of hurting usability and adding unnecessary confusion. I know flat design is sexy and everything, but make sure your buttons actually look like clickable buttons before—and after—you ship.

Do your due diligence and make sure you aren’t alienating anyone before jumping into design. Do some user research to understand your users’ needs as best you can, prioritize those needs, then start with the basics. Conduct usability tests to understand how users try to meet those needs, making sure your designs serve the user's purpose and fade into the background.

Finally, remember that it’s a mistake to assume that our users’ needs and expectations will be much like our own, and simply design for ourselves. Psychology offers us valuable insights towards what users actually need, and a little effort toward understanding our users can go a long way towards creating more successful designs.

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