Ask a UXpert: What’s One Thing Your Users Have Taught You?

by Sheena Lyonnais

posted on 03-15-2017

Usability testing, user research and web analytics are some of the tools you can use to intentionally learn more about your users, but sometimes users will teach you things when you’re least expecting it. They may challenge your perception of who they are and how they behave, or flat out refuse to put on your persona’s clothes. Users are people, and people don’t always do what’s expected of them.

We asked a few UX experts to share a lesson their users taught them that not only lifted the veil on who their users actually are, but also helped them to become better, more understanding designers. Here’s what they had to say.

Don’t assume what works in one context will work in another.

Over the course of my career as a user experience designer, I’ve relied a lot on well-vetted, consistently applied, and highly usable design patterns. After all, no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to form fields or tabs; we know what works thanks to years of usability study on the web. But context really matters, and never has that been so apparent as when I’ve presented drivers with in-car infotainment designs using the same ol’ patterns that are mainstays on the Internet.

Users who are masters at navigating the technology on their phones don’t respond to some patterns the same way when their attention is focused on preventing two tons of metal from careening off the road. Watching seemingly successful designs crash and burn in usability testing has helped me to understand that when designing for a new context, it’s necessary to test even the most assured of assumptions about what patterns work best for users.

~ Emily Mahood Bowman, Senior User Experience Designer, General Motors

You will never be the user. Observe and empathize, but never think you truly understand them.

I had to tear up a persona when I discovered the support team teaching a core user about the “back” button on a browser. They never knew it was there. Our primary users were very, very savvy about their domain and their organization, but I’d assumed they used the computer exactly the way I did.

I’ve learned that no matter how I’d tried to “walk in the shoes” of my users, I’m a white male upper middle class American from Oklahoma. My users aren’t. They’re women, people of color, people with disabilities, non-Americans, rich and poor. If I forget that, I’m not empathizing. I think I am, but I’m filling in my own assumptions.

We can create personas, run contextual inquiries, and get all the feedback we can, but when we treat personas as a mask to be worn, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re empathizing. We’re not. Under the mask we’re still carrying our baggage—our experiences, our biases, our societal and economic privileges.

Observation becomes empathy when we use our design research to confront our own biases and assumptions about who we are, not just our biases and assumptions about who our users are.

~ Dylan Wilbanks, Director of UX at Integris

Design for the emotion behind the user’s behaviour.

We all have been guilty at one point or another of saying “I plan to go to the gym Monday through Saturday this week!” (Time to revisit those New Year’s resolutions huh!) But for one reason or another we only end up making it to the gym 2-3 times during the week (if that!).

During one project, I was surprised to learn that while I was capturing user behaviors separately from their attitudes, I wasn’t capturing the NEW attitude that drove the user to behave differently from their logical and rational attitudes. By digging deeper, my user, on his own, clearly revealed his logic-based attitude versus his emotional-based attitude. THIS WAS THE MOJO that helped our team design for the emotional-based attitude that drove the user’s behavior! In essence, by going beyond designing for the user’s behavior, we create not just a functional, but a delightful user experience!

~ Sofia M. Khan, Design Studio Consultant and UX Instructor, General Assembly

Henry Ford asked the wrong question.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s perhaps the most oft-quoted mythical justification for innovation in design being a solitary, individual exercise in big idea creation changing the world. My experience working with users has taught me quite the opposite to be true.

Experience working with users has taught me that Mr. Ford simply asked the wrong question and that not asking the right questions shows a lack of understanding. Asking what users want versus what they need is a fundamentally flawed approach. Researching the behaviors of users – taking the collaborative time and care necessary to empathize—often illustrates that what users say they want versus what their behaviors exhibit they need are often diametrically opposed.

It is the responsibility of designers to empathize with and understand users – their motivations, their frustrations, their fears and inspirations – in an attempt to collaboratively solve needs. Addressing what users need versus what they want creates sustainable design not subject to shifts in individual or collective tastes of the moment. I have learned that creating superior user experiences is paramount and that experience is a product of emotion, not technology. Technologies and products can be commoditized, experiences cannot.

~ Scott Forshay, Senior Strategist, Mobility and Emerging Technologies, IBM

Your user’s shoes don’t always fit your designer feet.

I worked on a couple projects a few years ago solving problems for college students, including Clustur, an event discovery app. There are tons of services out there that help people find nearby events, but since college students live a very different lifestyle than other people, Clustur had to be different because of the unique goals for this specific user.

These people are going through things you couldn’t even imagine and that will really impact how they will use your product. You want to get your work in the eyes of your users early on in the development cycle. Don’t wait until whatever you’re working on is 100% complete because you could potentially be working on a solution that’s been going down the wrong path all along.

Everyone has their own, unique life. You can make assumptions based on research and demographics, but at the end of the day, you aren’t living your users’ lives. Empathy is a great skill to have as a designer. To imagine yourself in their shoes brings you that much closer to them.

~ Andre Tacuyan, User Experience Designer, Playground Global

What’s one thing your users have taught you? Share your lessons with us in the comments below.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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