All kinds of things on a Web page can make us stop and think unnecessarily. Take names, for example. Typical culprits are cute or clever names, marketing-induced names, company-specific names, and unfamiliar technical names.
For instance, suppose a friend tells me that XYZ Corp is looking to hire someone with my exact qualifications, so I head off to their Web site. As I scan the page for something to click, the name they’ve chosen for their job listings section makes a difference.
Note that these things are always on a continuum somewhere between “Obvious to everybody” and “Truly obscure,” and there are always tradeoffs involved.
For instance, “Jobs” may sound too undignified for XYZ Corp, or they may be locked into “Job-o-Rama” because of some complicated internal politics or because that’s what it’s always been called in their company newsletter.¹ My main point is that the tradeoffs should usually be skewed further in the direction of “Obvious” than we think.
Another needless source of question marks over people’s heads is links and buttons that aren’t obviously clickable. As a user, I should never have to devote a millisecond of thought to whether things are clickable—or not.
You may be thinking, “Well, it really doesn’t matter that much. If you click or tap it and nothing happens, what’s the big deal?”
The point is that every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, especially if it’s something we do all the time like deciding what to click on.
And as a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. They enjoy puzzles in their place—when they want to be entertained or diverted or challenged—but not when they’re trying to find out what time their dry cleaner closes. The fact that the people who built the site didn’t care enough to make things obvious—and easy—can erode our confidence in the site and the organization behind it.
Another example from a common task: booking a flight.
Granted, most of this “mental chatter” takes place in a fraction of a second, but you can see that it’s a pretty noisy process, with a lot of question marks. And then there’s a puzzling error at the end.
Another site just takes what I type and gives me choices that make sense, so it’s hard to go wrong.
No question marks. No mental chatter. And no errors.
I could list dozens of things that users shouldn’t spend their time thinking about, like
- Where am I?
- Where should I begin?
- Where did they put _____?
- What are the most important things on this page?
- Why did they call it that?
- Is that an ad or part of the site?
But the last thing you need is another checklist to add to your stack of design checklists. The most important thing you can do is to understand the basic principle of eliminating question marks. When you do, you’ll begin to notice all the things that make you think in the sites and apps you use. And eventually you’ll learn to recognize and avoid them in the things you’re building.
1. There’s almost always a plausible rationale—and a good, if misguided, intention—behind every usability flaw.