Good Old Fashioned Humans


“When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” You may have heard this phrase at some point. I want to say it was my grandpa who first told it to me, because frankly it just seems like some wicked grandpa wisdom. In UX, we strive not to make assumptions about our users. But what about when we don’t even realize we’re doing it? 

I remember when I first became aware of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon taking effect on me. I had just learned the word “verbatim”, and suddenly my ears picked up on the term multiple times in the same week. Wild. "Did everyone just learn this word," I wondered. Why have I never heard it before? And what am I going to do with all the extra time I'll save from not having to write out "word for word" from here on out?

Our brain holds a prejudice towards patterns. We’re fantastic at recognizing them and when a word or a name is repeated, our brain promotes that information because those two instances make up the beginning of a sequence. Our brain thrives on thought patterns. And while patterns make up great design, they can also lead us to make assumptions and decisions subconsciously. 

Out of all of the types of user testing that exist, usability testing in person is by and large my favorite. Maybe users will struggle through a workflow you were really digging. Maybe they’ll confirm a concern you already had. But the best stuff, is the totally raw unexpected how-in-the-hell-did-I-miss-that moments, those moments when you realize you made a completely subconscious assumption about your users without even realizing. It’s humbling, yet gratifying. You catch it, you learn, and you iterate. Design gold. 

Last week, we set out to Michigan State to test out my mobile work with some good old fashioned humans. The majority of the test went smashingly, as users cruised through most of the steps and picked up on iOS conventions. It’s a great feeling to help confirm you’re on the right track. Leave it to college kids to know how to use their mobile apps. And then, it happened. At first it was just a user or two. They’d select a tool, and then tap on the screen, waiting…waiting. It was a totally normal reaction, a perfectly acceptable thought. Using tools like Snagit or even Illustrator for that matter on a daily basis had left me so accustomed to the idea of drawing out a shape, or a line, or an arrow. I didn’t even have to think about it. But they weren’t me. They had their own experiences, their own tools, their own memories. Once they had successfully drawn a shape, it became immediately clear how to manipulate it and draw the next one. But I had failed them. I first needed to make sure to get them to that step.

The solution? Use both methods, a tap or a hold-and-drag approach. It not only helped in the discoverability for new users, it actually improved the workflow for everyone. Maybe sometimes, hell, often times I don’t care about the exact length of an arrow, but just that it points to something specific. By tapping, you’d now get an arrow head at that exact spot. We’d be smart about it, place the arrow at a lovely 45 degree angle or move it to avoid other shapes you’d already drawn. But most importantly, it was more efficient and more learnable. Would we have thought to add in that functionality eventually? Potentially. But two hours at my local college library had left me with an abundance of knowledge, knowledge I simply couldn't acquire by myself. 

Without any on-boarding or handholding at this stage, you get to see where users naturally get hung up, and how they organically and impulsively explore. You recognize where they get bored or frustrated or excited. Your user story changes and grows. Chances are, you probably aren’t going to think to onboard someone on a topic you assumed they already knew. So take a risk, get your work out there, and evolve. 

Samantha NovakComment