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Don’t count yourself out just yet

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, these are not things that only our users do. They are things we all do. We all employ little shortcuts in our daily lives, and we all use them much to our advantage. They keep us from having to know too much, do too much, or sleep too little. Furthermore, we all make mistakes, and we all change our minds, and we all fail to see the obvious.

But, as you can see, in the face of the very exacting requirements of a web site—which can’t interpret your actions and adjust its own behavior to work with them— these human behaviors turn us into idiots. And if we, as designers, insist on designing for the perfect user—the one who always does exactly what we believe he should and will do—we’ll continue to enable our users to be, well, stupid.

In fact, when our users do something stupid in a web application, it’s usually because we enabled them, or even encouraged them, to do so. We enable them to add an out-of-stock item to their shopping carts. We stick ugly error messages in their faces when they do something wrong, but refuse to tell them how to fix it. We offer them options that turn out to be invalid.

So, you see, Stupid User Syndrome is not some natural phenomenon that suddenly afflicts our users when they crack open our web applications for the first (or hundredth) time. In truth, it’s something we have, as designer and developers.

Stupid User Syndrome is what happens when we assume that our users are stupid. We’ll continue having stupid users as long as we continue believing it’s their fault. Once we recognize that our designs don’t support our users’ natural, and very real, human behaviors, we can start creating designs that do.

We may never achieve designs with a high level of usability for every last person that uses them, but armed with some insight into human psychology, we can certainly come a lot closer.

Robert Hoekman, Jr., is the founder of Miskeeto, a product development and Web design consultancy focused on socially-conscious projects that improve the world. He is also the author of Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design and Designing the Moment: Web Interface Design Concepts in Action.

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