Why giving users a choice in UX research can be a bad idea

In my last post I wrote about “choice blindness”, the principle, supported by research, that people can be blind to their own choices.

In designing solutions through user research, presenting users with multiple variations of a feature, and asking them to choose their favourite, tends to be unreliable.

In UX, an iterative approach is thought to be better. Start with a proposition based on evidence from users (or a proposal for testing from the business), build something testable (a paper prototype, wireframe, etc), and trial it through usability testing with real users, in context. Identify the aspects that work, remove or change those that don’t. Iterate, and test again.

Watching users use a system and making iterations based on observation and evidence tends to yield best results.

Presenting users with choices is often the wrong way to go.

As ever, it’s the Simpsons that puts it best…

Sainsbury’s, don’t make me think

Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” was the first book I read on usability, back in 2010.

The central tenet – don’t make users think – concisely encapsulates UX.

‘Thinking’ is a barrier to users completing their tasks quickly.

Today, my local Sainsbury’s shop made me think. After I finished scanning my items at a self-service checkout and paying by card, I was confronted by the following screen.

UX at Sainsbury's: stop and think

UX at a Sainsbury’s self-service checkout: I was made to stop and think

My instinct was that something had gone wrong. Perhaps I’d entered my PIN incorrectly, or my card had been declined.

As it transpired, there was nothing amiss. I was free to remove my card, take my shopping and head home to cook some curry.

I had assumed (and I’m guessing I’m not the only one) that the big red encircled exclamation mark indicated an error. Put ‘error icon’ into Google images and you’ll get a bunch of red circles and a fair few exclamation marks.

By breaking convention, the screen had made me think, unnecessarily.

Alternative approach - better UX?

Alternative approach – a clearer indication of success

An alternative for Sainsbury’s would be to ensure the screen adheres to basic and long-established conventions about successful interactions. Specifically, the colour green and a big tick.

Wording that more clearly indicates system status – by specifying explicitly that payment has been successful – would be good, too.

Otherwise (I’ll add, just for balance), the often-maligned self-service experience was excellent.

Good UX is like a good football referee – you shouldn’t notice it’s there. Making users unnecessarily stop and think about their interactions slows them down, which can cause frustration and dissatisfaction.

The less we make users think, the better their experience.

Household heuristics – why a flashing light is good UX

Instinctively, we all want software and products that just work. Confusion, frustration and general faffing about are signs of bad user experience. We feel joyful about things that are simple or intuitive, but when we’re stopped us in our tracks by poor design, things get ugly – fast.

We all intuitively have a sense of user experience, and we’ll all have encountered usability issues – positive or negative – countless times in our lives, without necessarily ascribing them to this thing called “UX”.

A long-standing and well known list of usability guidelines is Jakob Nielsen’s “10 usability heuristics for user interface design“. Around in its current for since 1995, it goes to show just how universal are the basic principles of good usability and how they persist through upheavals in technology.

Nielsen’s background is in software and his heuristics were developed with digital user interfaces in mind. However, most of them apply equally to physical products.
For example, item one:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

For my birthday a few weeks ago my wife – perhaps concerned at my increasingly scruff-bag appearance – bought me a beard trimmer.

A already had a beard trimmer but it was getting on a bit. I was glad to upgrade to the latest in trimming technology.

There were features of my old trimmer that I now realise I took for granted: a flashing orange light when the battery was running low; a flashing green light when the battery was charging; and a steady green light when the battery was charged.

Not so in Trimmer: The Sequel. The instructions said to charge before use, but there was no indication of whether it was doing so. A light, a vibration, a beep: anything would have done. My instinct was that I’d made a mistake, but no: it all checked out, and the next morning it had charged. And when the battery runs down, I won’t know until the trimming stops: hopefully not leaving me with demi-trimmed facial hair.

Feedback – expressed by Nielsen as “visibility of system status” – is something so basic and so ubiquitous that we take it for granted, and we miss it when it’s not there. I’m frustrated at the designers of the beard trimmer: did this issue not come up in their meetings? Did they do any user testing? Had they ever read Nielsen’s heuristics? These things aren’t minor; they have a big impact on our relationship with a product.

Looking around a house, interface feedback is everywhere. From the battery indicator on our phones, to the standby light on the telly, to the LED display on a modern electric oven, to the light on the kettle, to the beep after a completed dishwasher cycle, to the vibration of a linked set of baby monitors.

Do all your household appliances provide the best possible feedback? Had you even thought about it? Like most of us, I only tend to notice these things when they’re absent.

Software or product designers would do well to read over those ten ever-so-simple, 30-year-old heuristics from Nielsen now and again. That’s not to say they can never be broken (rules are there to be broken), and they’re no substitute for user testing or a shortcut to success. But life – and my new beard trimmer – would be that little bit more satisfying if they were followed more often.