I’m a UX Designer and I hate user tests, there I said it.
Let’s start off with a story from my personal life. My girlfriend is an average Internet user. Whenever I have the chance I like to study her behaviour, as she is using her laptop, her tablet, or her phone. For most of the time she is using a less-than-optimal solution to any given problem. Furthermore, she is perfectly content with her solution, and shuns any attempts from me to better her experience. The same goes for friends, co-workers and parents.
For example, when I see her watching her favourite show on a streaming website, she is watching it in 480p resolution and in a small player window. When I take her laptop, change the resolution to HD and put it in fullscreen mode, she does not thank me but rather tell me to mind my own business and then change back to a small window.
Now, let’s take a moment to state the fact that there is always a right (better) way to do things and a wrong way, when it comes to technology (or for any other field for that matter). Watching a show in HD on fullscreen is the best way, and watching it in 480p in a small window is the worst way. Personal preference does not matter, there is always a right and a wrong, one optimal solution to any problem. It doesn’t matter what the user thinks, because that doesn’t change the fact that one solution is the best possible. And in between there is a grayscale. This statement goes for every single thing that you can do on a computer, a laptop and a phone. No discussion. Granted, the best solution today will probably not be the best solution tomorrow, but that’s sort of irrelevant.
So in the example above, the user is clearly wrong. My girlfriend does not want the best solution possible, even after I show it to her. So it’s not ignorance (mostly) but rather it’s a mix of pride and habit. But I don’t care, I keep changing the resolution and switching to fullscreen mode because I want the best experience for her (and also I have a slight touch of Asberger syndrome). And what I notice is, after the third time, or maybe the fifth, than I walk by my girlfriends screen she is watching her show in fullscreen at HD resolution.
And that is the job of designers; to force, persuade or swoon users into doing the best possible solution, or choosing the best experience.
Now back to why I hate user tests. I’m not going to bore you with Henry Ford quotes about faster horses or things like that but it’s my firm belief that if you release a new product, or a re-design of an old site, the worst possible feedback you can get is that the users love it. If that is the case then you either have a young tech-savvy customer based mostly made up of other designers (I’m looking at you, start-ups), or your product does not solve the problem with the best possible solution available. You have dumbed it down to please your users. That is not right, then you are not doing your job.
Clients love to make new sites that behave almost the same as the previous site. It doesn’t matter if everyone agrees that the last website was one of the worst sites on the planet. I once worked with an online bank, and they love to hide behind user test results to argue for making their new site exactly the same as the last site. Their worst nightmare is to release a new (better) online bank and then have a ton of customers call them, angry because they don’t know how to use it anymore. They have learned a bad behaviour, and unfortunately it’s very hard to un-learn something. So the user test gives us results that make the product not better, but worse.
Here is how people work: we learn how to do a thing once, and then we never want to re-learn that thing ever again. Here is how the digital world work: we build upon what users have learned so that they don’t have to re-learn something again. You know, we don’t want to re-invent the wheel, hehe. But this whole sentiment is wrong! First, if you have to learn how to use a product, or a service, that product sucks. The UX designer in charge of that product should not only be fired but stripped of his/her title and never be able to work in the industry again. No, we don’t want to re-invent the wheel, we want to invent hover boards and space ships and cool things like that. Fuck the wheel!
Second, your target user should not be existing users. It should be new users. And when I say new, I mean really new. Like new born new. If someone who has never used a laptop before, can solve the problem in the most efficient way using your website, then your product is the best one, and you should be really proud of yourself. The iPad is great because babies can use it. An average user have grown up using Word (or worse: Excel) they have learned to sort photos in folder structures, they double-click on things (or worse: right-click). They are scarred for life, and is not a good test subject. When I think about it, user tests on new borns, or people who have lived in the woods all their lives (raised by wolves hopefully) could actually be something that would yield great results.
Thirdly, usability is dead. After Apple released their first iPhone that whole field is redundant. Everyone knows what usability is, and nothing is not user friendly anymore, at least not in the digital field. To release a new web service that is not user friendly in 2014, you either have hired a print ad agency or you live in Japan. It just doesn’t happen. But a lot of people confuse usability with recognising how things work. If the average user is presented with two solutions: one that is truly easy to use or one that solves the problem in a similar way like the product they are already using, they will undoubtedly choose the latter. You do know that one of the main reasons that people don’t switch to Mac is that Excel on Mac is not as good (do you realise how insane that is!) or that one of the main reasons for buying a Mac, is not because it’s OS have better UX but rather that the laptops looks better, or that everyone else has one. The user is always wrong, never listen to them.
People who work with designing web products or experiences, should know what the best solution is. They should test themselves and find out how to solve a problem the most efficient way, that is what design is all about. And if we know that, then why test it on users? Because they wouldn’t be able to say what the best solution is, if their life depended on it. Instead, what we should do is to execute the best solution and then figure out ways on how we can change behaviour, so that users will learn to appreciate the best possible solution. Right?
Our work as designers is to change behaviours. That’s before coming up with the best solution to a problem, and before making an experience as beautiful as possible. Way before.
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