Usability is more than a checklist

Some designers treat usability as a series of checklists, assuming usability is no more than including the right elements. Usability isn’t that cut and dry. It’s true that using conventions will improve usability, but there are bigger factors at play. Design is usable when it’s created with an understanding of how users think. Usability isn’t a series of conventions but rather a form of psychology.

In the beginning websites were anything but usable. They were chock full of busy, repeating backgrounds, illegible typefaces, excessive animation, and unlabeled “mystery meat” navigation (aids that had an unknown purpose until clicked on or hovered over with a mouse). User needs were rarely, if ever, considered during the “design” process. In all fairness, most “designers” were not designers by trade at all, so they didn’t know any better. The web was too new and there were no best practices.

Since then the Web has grown up. Everyone is a little wiser and much more experienced. Clients are conscious of blatant usability sins and rarely demand their implementation; designers acknowledge the importance of usability and work to implement its principles. While websites have become more usable, the average technical experience of user has become less experienced. Accessing the Internet used to require purchasing and installing a modem, then finding and registering with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for an online connection. This prevented novices from ever getting online. Now, Internet access is so prevalent it requires little technical knowledge. With a less experienced audience, it’s no longer enough to just avoid common usability mistakes; to be successful, you must craft completely intuitive designs.

It’s hard to qualify what makes a website intuitive; it seems as if they “just make sense.” Pinpointing exactly what makes a site intuitive is difficult because there is no single cause. Individual elements of design work together as a whole and usability is a combination of those elements. To add to this challenge, the combined elements which contribute to a usable site differ based on context. Usability checklists don’t work because as context changes, what you should, or should not, “check off” changes accordingly.

So what exactly is intuitive design? Intuitive is defined as “perception or truth or fact independent of any reasoning process” (Random House College Dictionary). In the context of our discussion here, intuitive design produces websites that are effortless and don’t require thought in their use.

The key to intuitive design is preventing the need for conscious reasoning. The more a user has to think, the less successful the site will be. This may sound both unreasonable and unrealistic, but it’s the reality of today’s Web. Given this reality, the challenge for designers becomes clear: how do we go about constructing a website that requires little thought to use?

The Fickle User

In the previous posts we’ve discussed that users have little patience, giving you a few minutes (sometimes seconds) of their attention before moving on to other things. In addition, they don’t want to think. This sounds pretty unreasonable and it begs the question, should the user be more patient or the designer more accommodating? Usability is a designer’s responsibility, not the user’s. To expect otherwise means ignoring human nature and the cost-benefit principle.

The Cost-Benefit Principle

Usability is characterized by the cost-benefit principle, a human tendency to expend energy based on expected gain. Simply put, people are only willing to spend energy when the outcome seems greater than the effort required. Applied to the web, if the effort required to use a site is greater than the perceived benefit, users simply give up.

People behave based on the cost benefit principle. This principle states people only spend energy when the benefit of doing so outweighs the cost. To keep users on your site, you must ensure costs are minimal and benefits are high.

The cost-benefit principle hinges on the idea that exploring a website is mentally taxing. Browsing requires decisions, information recall, pattern recognition, and some level of concentration. Each process requires mental energy in it’s own way. Luckily you can influence how much energy is required and seek to minimize it and make the process fun. Decision-making has the largest impact on this energy flow and is typically the best place to start.

The Decision Making Process

Surfing the web is essentially a series of decisions: which site to visit, which link to click on, what to search for, and what to read. Decisions create high cognitive load. Even trivial ones require some energy. Navigating a single website could involve hundreds of small decisions. The amount of effort required for each is important and could produce different favorable or unfavorable results. Five easy decisions or five moderate ones could make or break the difference between conversion and abandonment.

The decision-making process is more complicated than you might think. It’s helpful to break it down into seven distinct phases. Each step has potential for stalling. On the web, the intention step (2) is a particularly common stumbling point. Users have a goal and intention but can’t identify (3) what action will accomplish their goal.

Small decisions in excess will become exhausting. These trivial decisions are overlooked because they happen in a seemingly effortless split second. But a lot can happen in that split second. Every decision, regardless of gravity, is actually a seven-step process consisting of:

  1. Goal
  2. Intention
  3. Identification
  4. Execution
  5. Perception
  6. Interpretation
  7. Evaluation

Let’s walk through the process in more detail.

Decisions are made to address a need. If a situation becomes undesirable you’ll develop an intention of doing something about it. At this point you have to identify what event or action is available to achieve your goal, such as turning on a light, which in turn is achieved by flipping the light switch. Ideally, this would turn on a light (as you intended), but it could be burnt out, dim, or the wrong switch. To validate your action you must interpret and evaluate the environment. If there is enough light to read, the decision was successful.

Dynamic websites are notorious for increasing decision-making effort at both the interpretation and evaluation phases. If it isn’t clear what (if anything) has changed after a given action, more energy is expelled in attempting to figure it out. This phenomenon is known as the “gulf of execution,” and is the amount of effort required to evaluate if an action has achieved the expected result.

Many years ago I made this mistake. My original design for this e-commerce website placed a dynamically updated shopping cart in the lower left portion of the layout (2). Users clicking “add to cart” towards the top of the page (1) often missed the shopping cart auto updating because it was outside of their focus. I eventually moved the cart closer to the “add to cart” buttons ensuring it was in focus when clicked.

The cost benefit principle affects decision making in an unfortunate way. The cost of analyzing all links on a page is greater than the benefit of a “best guess.” Most users click on the first option that catches their attention and backtrack if it doesn’t bring them closer to their goal. It takes less energy to browse sites using trial-and-error than by carefully planned decisions.

A well-designed site has clearly labeled navigation. It might sound obvious, but labels should describe exactly what the user is looking for. When words used for labels match the words in a user’s head, the decision-making process is obvious–no thought or guesswork is required.

Don’t count on users knowing your interpretation of a label’s meaning. Learning, even on a small scale is difficult and as discussed in in previous posts. Users tend to avoid it whenever possible.

Recognition vs. recall

Like decisions, learning increases cognitive load. It takes time, patience, and repetition–resources many distracted users lack. If your site has habitual users, they learn how to use the site through repeat visits. That information is then recalled when they return. Users expecting to frequent a site will attempt to learn it because the benefit outweighs the energy required.

If you don’t have habitual users (most sites), the benefit of learning is not worth the energy investment. It takes less energy to recognize familiar situations, paths, and actions.

This is the principle of recognition over recall, which describes users as having greater capacity to recognize similar situations over storing and recalling them. The principle further stipulates that when navigating with recognition users make decisions based on what feels familiar, not what feels correct. This is why unconventional design techniques or fickle changes lead to confused users. The site is no longer familiar.

Sites designed to focus primarily on new visitors should use conventions and patterns that users will recognize. This creates a familiar feeling, even during a first visit. A basic example is the “home” button. Even on a new site users don’t need to physically click it to recognize where it will take them.

Unfortunately there is a limit to how recognizable you can make a design. Some concepts, pathways, and information must be memorized for the user to be successful. Making a design memorable is not an easy task. Memorable design is possible, but you must understand depth of processing to do so effectively.

Depth of processing

Cognitive psychologists Fergus I.M. Crack and Robert S. Lockhart discovered the theory of depth of processing in 1972. The principle states a person’s ability to recall information is determined by how hard they initially focused on it. Longer and more intense focus improves recall accordingly.

Depth of processing sounds contradictory. On one hand, it implies you can make a site more memorable by making the user think. On the other hand, a previous post describes how users don’t really want to think.

Users may avoid thinking in finding what they are looking for, but are willing to focus when the right content is discovered. The first step to memorable design is providing rich content. A user looking for payroll advice may use minimal focus to find a relevant whitepaper, but they’ll use focus to read and understand it.

When rich content isn’t an option, use pictures to stimulate deeper focus. Explaining concepts through pictures are retained at a higher rate than through words. This is a technique called the “Picture superiority effect,” originally discovered by psychology professor Allan Urho Paivio (Paivio 1971, 1986).

A final consideration is the affect of familiarity on memory. Familiar concepts are recalled at a higher frequency. Similar concepts are stored in the brain with connections to other related concepts—this is called semantic network theory. Making these connections increases cognitive analysis and stimulates deeper levels of processing. It sounds counter intuitive, but the use of familiar concepts and visuals can increase memory function.

What all this means

Creating usable design is challenging. As noted, you must somehow make an interface that doesn’t need to be learned, doesn’t need to be memorized, yet still makes decisions obvious and familiar. As daunting as it might sound it’s not difficult once you get inside the user’s head — a topic we’ll discuss in a later post.