Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Art of the UX Steal

I’ve been building interfaces for a very long time, and I can tell you that the number of times I’ve had to solve a completely new and unusual user problem is remarkably small. This isn’t surprising. The vast majority of products we build incorporate a lot of familiar elements.

For example, think about the number of products you use that include one or more of the following: login, purchasing, comments, rating systems, order history, inventory management, or user generated content.

Do you expect that every single login experience gets redesigned completely from scratch in a vacuum? Of course not! It would be annoying if they were, since each new version would almost certainly differ just enough to make things confusing. Having design standards for things like logging in makes a lot of sense for both users and designers.

However, this tendency to fall back on patterns, or just to copy whatever Apple/Amazon/Facebook is doing, can cause some problems, especially for startups. There are a few big reasons why you shouldn’t just adopt another company’s solution without serious consideration.

They May Not Want Exactly What You Want

Companies have hidden agendas. But their agenda is not always your agenda, which means that their optimal design is not your optimal design. And if you think that they’re always optimizing for the best user experience, you’ve lost your damn mind.

Want an example? Ok! Have you ever purchased an item and been opted in to receiving email deals from the company’s partner sites? As a user, who likes that? Who thinks that’s a great user experience? Exactly.

Then why do companies do it? They do it because they have made the business (not UX) decision that they make more money by opting people into partner deals than they lose by slightly annoying their customers. That’s a totally reasonable calculation for them to do.

Now, let’s say your biz dev person comes to you and says he wants to add that feature to your checkout process because he has a partner lined up who is willing to pay for the privilege of getting your users’ email addresses. He says it will be ok to add the feature because other big companies are doing it, so it must make money.

But you have no idea how much money they’re getting for making their UX worse. You have no idea of the number of users they may be losing with this practice. And even if you did know their numbers, you can’t decide whether this feature is the right business decision for you until you know what those numbers are going to be for your product.

In an ideal world we could always just choose whatever made the best possible user experience, but realistically, we make these kinds of business/UX tradeoffs all the time. They’re inevitable. Just make sure that you’re making them based on realistic estimates for your product and not on the theory that it’s right because a bigger company is doing it.

They Don’t Do Exactly What You Do

By my count, Amazon has sold at least one of pretty much everything in the world. Ok, I’m just extrapolating from my purchase habits, but you know what I mean.

Not only do they sell products directly, they also allow other companies and individuals to sell through their marketplace. They also sell a lot of different versions of the same product. This makes their product pages pretty complicated.

Does your product do all of those things? If you work for a startup, I certainly hope not, since many of Amazon’s features were added over the course of more than a decade.

If your product doesn’t have all those features, then you might want to do all sorts of things differently than Amazon does. For example, your product pages could be significantly simpler, right? They could emphasize entirely different things or have clearer Calls to Action or more social proof because they don’t need to account for all of Amazon’s different features.

Whether or not you even have product pages, the point is that no other company is doing exactly what you’re doing (or if they are, you have an entirely different problem), so their optimal UX is, by necessity, going to be different from yours.

They Can Get Away with It

If Dante were writing today, the 9th circle of Hell would have involved trying to sign into multiple Google accounts at once. True story.

A friend of mine decided to make me angry the other day, so he showed me a Google docs screen where the Save button was so cleverly hidden it took him several minutes to locate it. This was on a screen that had maybe four elements, and he’s a very senior software engineer, so this probably wasn’t user error. I find the usability on certain Google products almost sadistically poor.

But I put up with it because Google provides me with incredible value for free that I can’t get anywhere else even by paying for it.

I don’t use things like Google docs for their UX. In fact, I use them in spite of large portions of their UX. And if your UX borrows from Google through some misguided notion that just because Google does it, it must be right, I will quit your product in a freaking heartbeat and bad mouth it to all my friends.

The moral of this story isn’t just “don’t steal UX from Google,” although that’s not bad advice. The moral is that very few companies succeed in spite of their UX, and if you happen to steal UX from them, you’re doing it wrong.

On a side note, you know what had a fabulous UX? The original Google product - the one where there was just a single search box, two buttons, and a hugely successful algorithm for finding great results. Unsurprisingly, that’s the UX that got us all hooked in the first place.

The Right Way to Steal

Now that the horror stories are out of the way, you still shouldn’t be coming up with every design element from scratch.

Not only is it ok to steal a basic login process from another product (although not Google), it’s almost certainly the best possible thing you could do. Having a non-standard way for users to log in to your product is just needlessly confusing.

One product I use on a regular basis used to put their Log In button on the top left of their home page instead of the top right. Just this little change meant that several times I had a hard time remembering how to get into the product, and wasted several seconds searching for the button. I probably wasn’t the only one to complain, since they fixed it relatively quickly.

Logging in isn’t the only thing to standardize. Any time you have a simple activity that users do regularly in lots of other products, you should at least check to see whether there is a standard and consider adopting it.

Of course, you can always choose not to do things the way everybody else is doing them, but you should have a very strong reason for changing things, and you should definitely a/b test your change against the standard design pattern.

Trust But Verify

Most importantly, when you are planning on stealing - or “adopting a standard” as we’re now going to euphemistically call it - it’s still important to test it.

I like to do quick qualitative tests to observe some people actually using the standard. In fact, often I’ll test the standard on competitors’ products before implementing it, rather than implementing it and then finding out that it’s crap. Then, I’ll test again once it’s implemented in my product.

In general, the more companies who are doing things identically the less likely it is to be confusing. But it’s still necessary to make sure that the design works in the context of the rest of your product.

Like the post? Follow me on Twitter!