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How to Become a UX Leader: Understanding the Psychology of Users

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UX is a lot more than checkboxes and radio buttons. UX is psychology applied to design. For so many reasons, it’s high time everyone else finds that out too, as Robert Hoekman explains in this chapter from Experience Required: How to become a UX leader regardless of your role.
This chapter is from the book
  • Knowing the Psychology
  • Applying the Psychology
  • Talking the Psychology

After any amount of time in the web industry, you’ll most certainly hear a coworker or a boss or a client refer to your users as “dumb.” They talk about how we have to “dumb down” our application interfaces, design for “the lowest common denominator,” and try to make our applications “idiot-proof.” Once in a great while, someone says to try “the mother test,” banking on the idea that if our mothers can use our applications, anyone can.

Designers say it themselves once in a while. The really terrible designers say it repeatedly.

“Well, you can only hold their hands so much.”

Thing is, it’s not true. Our mothers are not so stupid that we can effectively use them as the litmus test for online idiocy. Nor is anyone else. Nor is it a good idea to fall for the hype of stupid users.

A lot of designers have become convinced at various points in their careers that even the people they respect, love, and admire turn into complete morons the second they open a web browser. And designers forget that even the smartest people they know are often no smarter than anyone else when it comes to using technology.

There are so many things wrong with this.

First, it means the people around you have discounted the psychology involved in achieving great design. They’re all walking around without any sense whatsoever that human psychology is at the heart of every single decision a user makes, and that there is no avoiding it, and that recognizing and applying this psychology to design work is literally the single most important thing a company can do to get what it wants out of a product.

Second, it means you’ve done the same. You haven’t communicated this truth. Perhaps because you don’t know it. Perhaps because you didn’t know how communicating it could help you get ahead as a designer. Perhaps because you’re not communicating it well enough.

Third, it means the other stakeholders will never understand just how complicated and involved it is to design something truly fantastic.

Finally, when we as designers fail to know and apply and advocate this user psychology, we encourage the rest of the world to commoditize UX work. Ill pay you this much, and in return, Ill expect you to give me this many wireframes. Even when you’re great at it and have a stellar reputation, you are at high risk on any project that stakeholders unfamiliar to UX will look at you as, basically, a wireframe monkey.

But hey, unless we as designers understand this brutal truth, and apply it to everything we do, and preach it to every person involved, we probably won’t design anything great anyway.

The blame is ours. If stakeholders want to commoditize our work, they’ll have no reason not to. They’ll continue to see UX professionals as the people who make the wireframes and who have somehow convinced everyone that wireframes are a good idea. And this will continue to come back and kick us in the head. Rather than educate the world around us on the complexities of designing technology to benefit its users, we’ll spend our time fighting off bad ideas and complaining about how no one gets how hard it is to do it well.

Or we can turn it around.

I vote for that.

You need three elements to pull it off. You need to know the psychology, you need to apply it to your work, and you need to talk about it. A lot. Do these three and you’ll be in a much stronger position to lead as a UX professional.

Knowing the Psychology

First up, the psychology itself.

Here are some key things you should know about the people who use your websites and applications. Some may be obvious. Some may be surprising. Regardless, you should use this collection as a checklist to keep in mind as you design your next site. And the next one. And the one after that.

Use them to determine whether or not a feature should be added, a block of text written, or an error message shown. Use them to develop and maintain your sense of empathy toward the people on the other side of your computer screen. Use them to settle arguments and to remind those around you that they can, and should, take better care of their customers. Use them to remind yourself of the same.

Whatever you do, use them. (The points discussed here, by the way, hardly cover all the psychology you need to know about how people use technology. But it’s a few of the necessary starting points.)

They’re Smarter than You Think

I’ve been personally involved in hundreds of usability tests. The vast majority of the time participants have been a lot smarter than a lot of designers give them credit for. They’ve had college degrees. They’ve been professors. They’ve been small business owners. They’ve been the heads of marketing teams at large companies. Retired accountants. Teachers. All kinds of smart people doing all kinds of smart things.

They just don’t care about learning your system. It doesn’t matter to them. What matters to them is that other thing they do. The one they got a degree in. The one that pays their bills. The one they spend 40 hours a week doing before going home to their families and their lives and their problems.

It can be so easy to forget how little everyone outside the tech industry depends on personal tech the way we all do. These days, if you don’t have Facebook on your iPhone, you’re basically a pariah. But this way of thinking is a curse of the tech industry: We live in a bubble. We forget how easy it is to live without all this stuff. And it is easy. Humanity survived a mighty long time without it. We’re not going to become dependent on it overnight. Evolution doesn’t work that quickly. What we can’t usually get by without is some sort of way to make a living, to support families, to get to work, to make dinner. Unless technology makes itself necessary to all that, people can pretty well get by without it. Even when technology is vital to their work, they can often get by learning only the parts of it they need. So they do.

They Have Other Things to Do

Many startups seem to want to design the next major user destination. The next Facebook. One of the six sites or apps a person uses every day.

So few of them will do anything even close to that.

Even when a company is more pragmatic and aims to do something simply more engaging than all those sites that get a split-second of attention before users move on, a lot has to come together to make this happen. Contrary to what companies want to believe, the goal of most users is not to spend all their time on their website. It’s to get off their website.

The good ones know this. The good ones have it baked into the product.

Like Google.

If Google designed to keep you on its search site, no one would use it. All the other search engines would be faster and less intrusive.

In most cases, you should focus on how to make your site or app the least time intensive. The most convenient. The most worth using because it helps users move on with their lives rather than attempt to take them over.

They Have a “Doing Mode”

You know that thing everyone believes about users not being willing to read while using an app? There’s a reason for it. They’re not in reading mode. They’re in doing mode. We all have it. We get on a mission to complete a task, and we go blind to what could help us complete it.

Like instructive text next to a form field. That line that shows the format for how your phone number should be entered. We’ll blow past that and enter it however we want. (Of course, the form should be designed to accept any version, or to automatically convert our version into the version the form needs, but that’s the designer’s fault.)

Or like an ad at the top of the page. Even if it’s wildly interesting and perfectly relevant to something we need or want, we ignore it at all costs because it has nothing to do with what we’re trying to accomplish at the moment. This is partially why ad click-through rates are so dismal, and why marketers keep inventing new ways to interrupt you with an ad you’re still going to do your best to ignore, and why we all hate them for doing it.

Or like those little tips that appear when we’re trying to complete a task. They’re usually right there next to the thing we’re staring at, and we still can’t be bothered to notice them. (As a designer, this should tell you something: You’ll have to design something that doesn’t need an instructive tip.)

“Doing mode” has a massive benefit. It helps you ignore the distractions and obstacles keeping you from getting where you want to go. Imagine what driving would be like if you couldn’t ignore the distractions. Constantly scanning billboards, reading shop-front windows, glancing at the little poster-board signs spiked into the ground at intersections. You’d never make it home alive.

It’s not a flaw that people read less while in doing mode. It’s a survival skill.

There’s just one little downside: It means people will also often blow past your instructive text. Which means you can’t rely on it as a helpful design element and you’ll have to come up with a more self-teaching design.

They “Satisfice”

Another effect of having other things to do is getting through tasks just well enough.

Most people, most of the time, don’t need to become experts at a particular piece of software or website or app. They need only enough skill to complete the basic tasks they use it for. Even graphic designers, who use Photoshop heavily on a daily basis, often have no idea what all its features do, or even know they exist. When people do become legitimate, heavy-use, master-level experts, it’s often for a short time. It’s rare.

Most of the time, people need only enough to get by. So they learn only that much. They might even learn to do something the wrong way. It doesn’t matter as long as they can still get what they need done.

This is called satisficing. It’s a term promoted by Steve Krug, whose three versions of the seminal book on web usability Don’t Make Me Think (New Riders)—the first of which appeared way back in the ‘90s—is probably half the reason usability analysts exist and, in turn, a large part of why UX was able to turn into a profession. (We needed people to design stuff better in the first place.)

Satisficing is just what it sounds like. It’s a portmanteau of the words “satisfy” and “sacrifice.” And this, too, is a survival skill. There are not enough hours in the day, or a life, to become masters of all we touch. Most things, we just need to learn enough to get by.

They Don’t Use Your Software the Way You Intend Them To

It’s surprising when it happens. It’s educational. It’s illuminating. It’s curious. It’s maddening. It’s a big reason that websites and apps change over time into something no one expected.

No matter how much work you put into it, the first thing people do when you put out an app with any reasonable amount of complexity is start using it in a way you didn’t anticipate. Field labels get misinterpreted. Forms are misused. Someone needs the app to do something it doesn’t do, so they satisfice a hack.

Sometimes it’s a major drag. Sometimes it means users are doing something that could in fact be bad for the business. It means they’re not getting what they want out of it. You’re not getting what you want out of it. (This is why it’s so beneficial to do usability testing on an early version of a design. Anything nonstandard or new runs a high risk of user confusion if you don’t nail the details. Testing lets you do that.)

But then, sometimes it leads to an opportunity.

When early Twitter users wanted to reference another person, they preceded the other person’s username with the @ symbol. When they wanted to reference a particular subject that reached beyond their personal timelines, they used hashtags. Twitter hadn’t designed for either of these situations. Users just started doing what they wanted. Twitter followed by building in support for these two functions. Next thing you know, the whole world is talking to each other and discovering all sorts of topics they couldn’t possibly have tripped over previously.

The only sad thing about this is when designers take it personally. They think it’s because the users are dumb, or that the design has somehow failed. It’s neither.

Take it for what it is: a chance to see a design through someone else’s eye. To learn how other people interpret design elements when they don’t know what you know about web design. If you take it as that, you can find amazement in it.

I mean that. Few things are more fun than watching someone interpret your design differently than you intended. Because no matter what they do, you come out of it with a lesson you won’t forget. One that will make you a better designer.

The ultimate lesson to walk away with, watching this happen over and over again, is:

No matter the outcome, you made it happen.

When a user does the unexpected, it’s because you’ve somehow allowed for it in your design. You may have even encouraged it. You just don’t know how.

But this isn’t bad. It means the power is in your hands. Once you see the users’ unexpected behavior, you can look back at your design and make sense of it. Over time, this makes you better. It makes you able to predict a user’s response.

I talk about this more in Chapter 6.

They Rely on Patterns

Pattern recognition is a major asset as a human being. Being able to spot patterns and make sense of them helps us drive, work, learn, and much more. Even when we’re staring at something we’ve never seen before, we use patterns we learned earlier to assimilate them into our worldview. We make sense of new things by relating them to old things.

When people use technology, this happens a lot.

A lot.

Patterns help people learn how to work with a new app or site, how it might be set up, how long it might take. Buy a product on one department store website, and you know how most of the others work. The experiences are similar, if not nearly identical, on most commerce sites because the pattern works well for the situation and because it helps people form expectations and work through the process. If your business depends on selling products, the last thing you want users to face is a shopping task flow so completely different from any other one that they have to learn how to use your site before they can actually do anything with it. This setup carries from one site to the next because it gets the design out of the way and puts the user in a position to buy buy buy.

This is why design patterns and components (coded standards for a design element that always looks and behaves the same way) and interaction design frameworks are important. (Interaction design frameworks, as I mentioned in the previous chapter, are sets of patterns you combine to solve the larger and more rote aspects of website design, like an About Us section.)

The ability to spot and use patterns also sets the stage for the elements in a design that stand out. The important elements, like buttons that tell you how to Sign Up, or Send, or Save, or Publish. In a tremendous number of cases, the buttons that trigger these actions are displayed in a different color or shape or both than all the others.

When we can see patterns, we see what breaks those patterns.

A Million Things Are Competing for Their Attention

Right now, it’s a good bet that a whole bunch of things are competing for your attention. Just like they were earlier when you were trying to finish an important email at the same time three people were stopping by your desk at work to ask about five different projects.

All the more important for a design to have an impeccable sense of what the user wants to accomplish.

A clear, deliberate, one-step-a-time process in a task flow is vital. Forcing people to serialize (as in, the opposite of multitask) can be hugely beneficial to their productivity with your app. If you can avoid having them jump from one app to another and check something in their user profiles just to complete a task, you should. The more the user is able to move forward, the better. It increases the odds they’ll be able to finish a task without wandering off to do something else.

They See What’s There

This is a big one. Because it’s a straight-up communication issue, and communication is difficult. (Again, see Chapter 6, on communicating.)

Basically, there’s a big difference between what you think you’ve put onto a screen and what the user thinks you’ve put onto a screen. And between you and the user, only one of your two perceptions matters.

The effect is a communication gap. You meant this. The user thought you meant that—mostly because that is what you actually put on the screen.

It’s a classic problem. When you know a lot about the web and are designing for it, you bring a ton of information about it with you into the project. So you make some decisions along the way—not all of them, but certainly a few—that are based on your knowledge of the situation rather than the user’s knowledge.

It’s easy to do. It happens to everyone. You forget how little others know about what you take for granted by being involved in the design process. You know what that button does, and where that page sits in the site hierarchy, and what this element here means and does and why it exists. You were just explaining this to someone else on the team the other day.

Only the user doesn’t have any idea why this element exists or does what it does. And the user doesn’t have the benefit of having you stand over his shoulder to explain it.

You meant to write about how the sunset was a trail of fire and how the oranges and reds and purples all bled through every tree and became every reflection in every skyscraper in the jungle that is your urban hometown. What you actually wrote was, “It was amazing!”

You were supposed to design an interface that explained itself. One that told the user how it could make his day better by letting him check off this annoying chore and get it off his to-do list for a week. What you actually did was ask him to sign up without explaining the value.

You know what you meant. They see what you did. We all do it. It’s a normal human failing to have a hard time being objective about the quality of our work.

Don’t lose your mind over it. It’s how you learn. Just remember it next time:

Users see what’s actually there. Not what you think is there.

They Lie

This is one of the funniest things I know about people. Because it explains so much without explaining anything at all.

Generally, when you ask a person what she would say or do in a given situation, she’ll come up with an answer. She may start with, “I don’t know.” But give her a minute and you’ll get, “You know, I think I’d...”

People seem to know themselves pretty well while being asked hypothetical questions.

And yet when she’s actually in that situation, she’ll do something completely different.

It’s not because they want to lie to you. They just can’t help themselves. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to know how you’d actually act in a given situation, and few people have a great deal of that.

This is just one of the ways they lie. Here are a few others:

  • During a usability test, as I mentioned before, testers will rate a task as having been very easy after spending five minutes figuring it out.
  • In a survey, they’ll say they’d use something when they wouldn’t. (They just won’t know that until they get their hands on the new feature.)
  • In person, they’ll tell you they’re “web savvy,” and then fumble around the computer screen for minutes on end attempting to do things you take for granted every single day. They’ll type slowly. They’ll click a form field to start typing when it was already selected.
  • Then they’ll tell you they know how to fix the issues they’re having.

The list goes on and on. These are just a few that may be relevant to your design effort.

They Don’t Know What’s Possible

Very few tech users are also designers. Most of the time, the people who use your products have no idea what’s possible when it comes to improving them. When they get tripped up by a poor design decision, they come up with an equally poor Band-Aid for it—something that may appear to fix the problem, but which really just causes other problems. When they tell you how they’d like something to work, it’s usually according to their worldview—a fix that would make their problem slightly less annoying, but not one that fundamentally erases the problem’s causes.

This isn’t to say designers are better skilled than other people. It’s to say that designers tend to know more about what factors could completely change the game. When a designer looks at an app, it’s with a world of tech and design knowledge. When a user looks at an app, it’s with the appropriately narrow perspective of how they use it. Hence, they have a hard time articulating what they really need or want an application to do to solve a problem for them. They don’t know how to fix the problem—they just know they want it fixed. So they make suggestions.

Your job is to take them with a grain of salt. Read between the lines. See what’s really causing their issue.

If You Improve Their Lives, They’ll Love You

People shift to new technology or processes when those things obviously improve their lives. The “cost of switching” has to be indisputably worth the effort. If it’s not, there will be no voluntary switching. Sure, some people will hop along with changes just fine, but most people want to be shown how the new way is better. How it justifies the effort of changing the way they complete tasks now. But most often, updates to an app or a website are just mandatory revisions users all have to adapt to. If those updates had never come, hardly anyone would’ve noticed.

If you address a real problem, however, or produce a real benefit that doesn’t already exist, and you can demonstrate it, your users will love you. They’ll feel included in the process. They’ll feel respected. They’ll enjoy your new approach to the problem.

As long as you prove you’re making their lives better.

In the best of cases, the benefit demonstrates itself. It’s obvious how the new design changes the experience for the better. In some cases, users need a good review of the changes by someone else to persuade them, or a short video on your website, or an email newsletter explaining the change.

If the benefit isn’t really a benefit, no one will care what your rationale was; they’ll just want to go back to the way things were. You might even find yourself actively defending your decisions.

They Come With Questions

Anytime users come across a new web app—not a content site, like a news site, but a task-based web application—they come with a series of questions that need to be answered right away. If these questions aren’t answered, there’s a solid chance they’ll take off. This is because of the very human need to get oriented.

They start by glancing around the page to see what’s there. They’ll see the logo, the navigation, whatever’s biggest on the page. They’ll try to make sense of what the app does. Its purpose. Its promise. You can address this right away with some sort of value proposition statement that answers the question.

“We make planning your day as easy as saying Hello.”

That explains the app’s major purpose. It also begins to answer the user’s second question: How does it help me?

To answer that one further, you can show a few key benefits of the app, such as a small graphic that illustrates how the user can speak into his or her phone to create a task, edit it, and mark it complete.

Next, the user wants to know how hard this app is to set up and learn. When an app is terrible, after all, no one wants to spend much time figuring that out. You can address this through a small series of graphics that show a short sign-up form, a stick figure speaking into a smartphone, and a completed to-do list, each with a few words explaining how easy it all is. For example:

“Install the app and sign up in less than 30 seconds.”

“Teach it your voice (5 minutes).”

“Get going!”

When all the benefits start to look appetizing, the user wants to know how much it costs. If you have tiers or subscription pricing, or anything else that needs some qualifying, you can throw this on a Pricing page. If it’s a quick and easy answer, you can put it right there next to the value proposition.

“Just $2.99 per month.”

Then all you have to do is show them how to get started.

“Sign up now.”

They come with questions. Your job is to deliver answers that turn them into customers. You just have to consider what questions they might ask.

Again, more on this in Chapter 6.

They Blame Themselves for Mistakes When They Should Blame You

There is an acceptable user experience. One everyone involved in the project would be all right calling a success. It’s the one where a lack of complaints means everything is dandy. It happens when users are capable enough of getting through the app. Most of the time, anyway. Where adoption and usage rates are decent enough.

It happens when loads of opportunities to improve a design still exist, but no one knows this because users aren’t complaining.

It’s the kind of experience that turns ugly only when you pay close attention—when you watch people use your site or app and hear what they say out loud. Because that’s when you find out why they’re not complaining.

When designers have problems with an interface, they blame its designers. When people have problems, they blame themselves. They think they’re not smart enough to use the app. They say they didn’t get enough sleep to understand it. They say it’s too advanced for them.

Is this a good user experience? No. It’s a bad user experience hidden by the fact that everyone having it is blaming the wrong person.

A lack of complaints doesn’t mean there aren’t any. It means you may not be hearing them.

Their “Experience” Is Based on Far More than Your Website

No matter how thorough you are in researching and designing a product, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to do something that will change a person’s life. You probably won’t even improve a person’s day.

UX is the net sum of all the interactions and impressions and feelings a person has with a website, digital product, or service. Their impressions of your design are affected by a lot more than just your design. They’re affected by the company’s reputation, if they know what it is. They’re affected by what other people have said about the company or product, whether negative, positive, or undecided. They’re affected by what it looks like, and how they’ve felt in the past about other things that looked similar to it. They’re affected by how they feel that day and how open they are to this new product at the moment they encounter it. They’re affected by how well they can learn it, what they might get out of it, how frustrated they’ve been by other products that have failed to do what they promised. You name it; it has an effect on a user’s experience.

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