The field of user experience is riddled with problems, and I say this as a UX professional with a decade of experience. While I value and champion user experience as an essential part of product development, I also acknowledge there are significant failings in the field.
In this post I cover five of the most common problems, or ‘myths’, that perpetuate within UX work and can harm products.
Myth 1: All research is good
Research is the most important aspect of UX work. Without it, how can we truly understand the problems we are trying to solve?
Research is an essential part of my process and I value research data highly. However, bad research gives bad data.
It is easy to fall into the bad data trap by sourcing your participants outside of your audience groups.
What, no Starbucks?
Grabbing random people and offering them a coffee to have a look at your idea/prototype/website is not a solid way to gather evidence for your product decisions. Unless you are building a coffee shop of course, in which case, fair play.
The pressure the poor volunteer is under in a situation like this is terrible, and there is the risk they will tell you whatever they think you want to hear so you’ll go away.
Your product has a specific set of audience groups: it’s highly unlikely a random person fits your audience profile. People are not one-size-fits-all resources of data: they have specific, unique perspectives and experiences and your resources are too scarce to waste on randomness.
Real data from your target audience is worth planning and investing in. It doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does need to be planned. Creating a screener is the first step to finding the right participants, and these can be made from simple online surveys. Skype interviews can be useful as they don’t limit your participants to the regulars at your local Starbucks. Online gift cards make suitable incentives.
Research data should always be compared to other evidence. ‘Triangulation’ is the process of comparing and contrasting research data from a variety of sources: a diary study, analytics data and usability tests, for example. By comparing the data together you can challenge your assumptions and form a much deeper understanding of the problems your audience has, and where the opportunities are. Be cautious of investing too much in one set of research results.
Ego and bias
You have to be very honest with yourself and your team about what can influence research results. Egos are powerful and can easily affect research participants’ behaviour. Your interpretation of the research data can be significantly changed by cognitive bias. Always challenge yourself to seek other interpretations of the results in case you are collecting false positives, or just plain bad information.
If you speak to the wrong people, listen to the wrong details and fail to correlate your results, you’re dealing with bad data and it won’t help you make good product decisions.
Myth 2: Users know what they need
Human beings are terrible at predicting their future behaviour.
Think about how you feel after Christmas as the new year approaches… bloated and tired, you vow to lose weight and get fit. This lasts hours, days or a few weeks before you lapse back into your old ways. We have the best intentions. But it is no guarantee it will happen.
We want to know if a user will use our product in the future, but we must accept this is a question they can’t answer with a guarantee.
Previous behaviour is a much better indication of future actions. Asking “When did you last do this?” or “How often have you done this?” instead of “Would you do this in the future?” will give you much more relevant, and practical information.
A fairly common example of this in action can be seen when users ask to see more products before they can make a decision about which to buy. This is often a complete red herring!
Too much choice paralyses people and makes decision-making painful, time consuming and ineffective. Designing an interface to accommodate lots of choice based on this feedback is risky as it can impact users very negatively. They need to find the right product for them, not every product that exists.
Participants can only express subjective views of their experiences. We have the job of forming an objective view of what would help them complete their tasks.
Myth 3: If Amazon does it, we can do it
Copying a major retailer’s approach or functionality may seem like a great idea when you are desperately trying to make your product work better, but it’s an illusion.
Your audiences are totally different for a start, and they’re completing tasks in different contexts. How a user buys an ebook in one situation is entirely different to when they book a trombone lesson in another.
At its very best, copycat design can give you a short term fix when you’re prototyping a new product from scratch as it can help you explore a variety of options to test. But, if you’re copying functionality within a seasoned product, you’ve got to look at what you’ll truly gain from it. You’re not going to give your users a true solution to their problem, so you won’t be getting a competitor advantage.
I’ll have fries with that
A great example of this is the proliferation of the mobile hamburger menu. Studies have shown it performs poorly as users don’t engage with it as much as other navigation patterns. However, it continues to be used more and more across the web. Designers keep copying the pattern, assuming it works because other people do it. It’s madness!
Base your design decisions on evidence, test them and iterate. You’ll produce something far more effective for your audience.
Myth 4: UX work is a phase in a project
Get it over and done with and then we’re off!
This approach implies there is a right and wrong answer to the problem you’re designing a solution for. There isn’t. There is no perfect solution. Working iteratively will get you closer to a good solution, and that requires repeated investigation.
User involvement should be sought regularly throughout the product development lifecycle. Catching problems early and often will save you time and money, and will help you improve your key performance indicators.
I’ve encountered teams who avoid getting user involvement once they have begun development as they’re worried what they will learn in case they have to stop and adjust their direction. It is silly to stay on a train going in the wrong direction. It’s much better to get off and get on one going to the right destination, and the sooner the better.
Failure is a success
Learn to love finding failures in your ideas and celebrate them: each one you catch saves you effort pursuing it further — effort you can direct in a better way.
Having a strong vision about the goal for your product will help your team adapt to changes along the way: everything you do is about achieving this goal. It’s not about completing tasks on time or ticking things off a calendar.
Myth 5: UX ‘experts’ can design without evidence
If anyone, regardless of their experience, is designing a solution without evidence they are doing guesswork and it should be called just that: guesswork.
A seasoned UX person will bring lots of valuable knowledge and experience to support the design process, but they also bring bias and baggage that influences their work.
If you don’t want your UX person to design for imagined users, or audiences they have worked with on other projects in the past, you need to give them access to your specific audience groups. Plus, the more evidence your UX person has the better they will be at anticipating issues and understanding the complexity within your product.
Be wary of any UX person that does not ask, complain and demand to have access to users or research data.
Just like in any profession, there are some really poor UX practitioners out there. Post-it note fetishism, a lack of real experience and our relative ‘rarity’ in the recruitment market can lead to some unfortunate results within teams.
When UX is done well, it can generate amazing results. When its done badly, it can derail projects and cause products to fail. Getting the UX bit right for your product is therefore essential.
I would love to hear any other UX myths you may have come across (there must be at least fifty more). Please share them in the comments and we can have a cathartic cry together.