Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Importance of Predictability in Design

If you watch a few user tests, there’s an excellent chance that, at some point, the user will point at some element of the product and ask, “What does this do?” If I’m moderating the test, it is almost guaranteed that I will respond with “What would you expect it to do?”

I’m not trying to be difficult when I ask that question. I’m trying to learn the user’s expectations, because this is an important thing to understand when evaluating the usability of a product.

In my many years of watching and running usability tests, I’ve noticed a pattern of behavior for users encountering a new screen:
  1. Scan quickly
  2. Click the first call to action that seems remotely relevant to the task at hand
  3. Declare the product confusing if that call to action doesn’t do what they expect
  4. Leave
There are three very simple things that you can do right now to improve this experience in your product.

Calls to Action Should Be Explicit

Users should always know, or at least have a good idea of, what will happen if they click on a call to action. One way to do that is to make the copy or icon associated with the call to action really obvious and descriptive while still keeping it concise enough that people have a chance of reading it.

Recently, a company was testing landing pages. There were two pages, and the ONLY difference between the two was the copy on a button. One said “Login” and the other said “Login with Facebook.” Both buttons popped open the Facebook Connect dialog asking them to enter their Facebook information.

The percentage of people who clicked on the button was not statistically different. However, nearly twice as many people who clicked on the “Login with Facebook” button actually completed the step and ended up logging in.

Why is that? Because they weren’t surprised by the Facebook dialog. The people who simply expected to log in to the site were thrown by suddenly being asked to enter their Facebook credentials. The other group understood what was about to be asked of them, and they continued on.

Ironically, some people who might have been happy to login in with Facebook most likely didn’t want to click the plain Login button at all, since they didn’t want to create a whole new account or weren’t sure they could log in if they didn’t already have an account.

Things That Look the Same Should Act the Same

Have a More Info link in a couple of places in your product? Make sure that every time somebody clicks it, the same thing happens. If it’s an inline popup with some help text in one place, make sure it isn’t a link to a different screen in another place.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Can Something Be Too Easy?

I spend a huge amount of my time trying to make things easier to use. Most of the time, the problem with products isn’t the idea, it’s that the people who are meant to use them just get horribly confused.

If you’d asked me last year, I would have said there’s no way to make something too easy.

However, I’ve recently seen a couple of examples that reminded me that there are some surprising dangers to simplification.

It Can Piss Off Certain Users

I’ve worked with companies who have a small but passionate group of power users who are deeply involved with the product and the community. The products that gather this particular sort of following tend to have a lot of user generated content.

Now, when you first start out, your tools for users may be…well, a polite word would be “rough.” A better way of putting it would probably be “pieces of crap.” And yet, if your offering is compelling enough, you will end up with a group of people who care deeply enough to put up with all of your bugs and failings and complicated interfaces, and they will create something awesome in spite of all that.

Of course, they will bitch and whine about how hard they have it, but when you actually take steps to make your product too easy to use – for example, if noobs can all of a sudden use templates to create something that used to take power users hours or days – the early adopters who put all that time into your product will scream. By making it possible for anybody to recreate their hard work, you’ve devalued their contribution.

This is especially true in companies where users can make money or gain points from user generated content. You see, your early adopters want all those hours they put into learning the tools to be worth something. They still want to be the highest ranked on the leaderboard and to make the most cash from selling their products.

What do you do about it? Honestly? This is a great problem to have. It means that you’ve taken something that’s been proven to be fun to do and made it accessible to a whole lot more people. The most important thing is to try to get your community onboard with the changes before they happen so that you reduce the outcry.

You also want to make sure that the old guard still feels valued and useful. For example, enlist their help in creating templates. Get their feedback on adding power user features to the new tools. Give them credit for creating content without using the tools.