There's no such thing as a bad user

Attempting to open a push door through pulling must be one of the most frustrating human experiences of our time. We’ve all been there - happily going along our journey, only to be stopped in our tracks. There comes the familiar moment of brief embarrassment and frustration before we exit through the door the ‘correct’ way.

What does this have to do with web design? The answer is, undoubtedly, everything.

In 1988 Donald Norman, world renowned UX expert, wrote his book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, where he examines the design of everyday things from the perspective of user-centric design. If you’ve never read it I would seriously recommend it.

If a person pushes a pull door, who is ‘at fault’ here? The user? No, says Norman, the design (and therefore, the designer) of the door is at fault. The design of the door should clearly indicate whether it is push or pull without the user having to think - it should just work. These types of faulty doors are now commonly referred to as ‘Norman Doors’.

Can’t figure out where to find the contact information for your bank? Not sure how you’re supposed to change your password? Donald Norman is here to tell you that it’s not your fault. You are not a bad user, because, despite what many web designers might tell themselves - there is no such thing as a bad user.

To try and fix the problem of a Norman door it’s common to stick up either a ‘push’ or ‘pull’ sign to direct users on how to correctly use the door. These are ‘affordances’  - indicators that direct users on how to correctly interact with the object, product or, in this case, website.

Of course, affordances should and can be significantly more eloquent and subtle than a big sign. Good user centric design should effortlessly guide the user through their journey without them even realising they are being guided. Take a body of text that contains links - a common affordance is to highlight these links in different colours (without this, how would you know where the links are, unless you accidently hovered over them?). The logo in the corner of the screen taking the user back to the homepage - this is a great example of a pattern affordance. These rely on common user experiences that can be easily replicated to guide the user - such as the  icon of a basket representing the ‘virtual’ basket  in an e-commerce website, or an envelope representing our emails. These affordances use metaphorical patterns that we as users are used to and therefor see as conventions - as a result confusion is successfully avoided.

There is a problem, however, with the norman door example and it’s application to web design. When pushing on a pull door, will the user turn away and go find another door? Probably not. Their frustration will be temporary and quickly forgotten. A frustrated user of an online store is not so forgiving. If said user can’t figure out how to add that item to their online basket they will undoubtedly leave and go somewhere else.

Is this a bad user? Should they have taken more time? Did they miss the carefully laid affordances in the user journey? A bad user or not - who cares? Whilst you’re busy defending the design, those so called ‘bad users’ are taking their time (and money) elsewhere.

Labeling users who use your site ‘incorrectly’ as ‘bad users’ fosters a culture that facilitates design and technology choices that put your internal bias and process at the centre - which is the ultimate UX sin for which your organisation will inevitably pay the price.

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