It’s the User Stupid: What Bill Clinton Teaches Us about User Experience

A previous post about the Study of Human Behavior opened with this powerful quote from a customer: “This is stupid!” Over the past 15 years, we’ve heard many variations on this explosive comment. Happily, most have not involved foul language.

The terms people choose to express frustration matter far less than their exasperation. This is truly one of those situations that meets the “If I had a dollar every time someone said…” standard.

Any seasoned user experience professional will gladly share similar stories while likely agreeing with the title of this post: “It’s the User Stupid.”

The challenge lies in persuading clients that end-users matter. This is not to say that internal concerns should be ignored. Budget and personnel limitations are real, especially in what some are calling the new, post-crash economy.

The goal, as always, is to help clients look beyond quarterly budgets and artificial deadlines (we must roll out on August 1st) by showing them how to account for user needs early in the design and development process.

A common barrier to putting the user first is our old friend the confirmation bias. This bias refers to the tendency to seek information that supports what we already believe to be true. This bias was evident in a web application we tested a few years ago. In this case a test refers to a usability test.*

To their credit, the clients devoted substantial budget to conducting usability testing with their target customers in several markets. They attended sessions and expressed great interest in customers’ comments and reactions. They sincerely wanted to improve the application.

The usability tests ran smoothly until marketing and usability collided. Test participants consistently pointed to a cumbersome feature that they did not like and would not use. When we conveyed this finding, the client replied: “We absolutely will not change that feature. It’s essential to the app!” Essential to whom? Clearly, the participants who represented the target audience did not think so. The clients’ reaction was a classic case of confirmation bias. Rather than accept disconfirming evidence, they chose to ignore it in order to retain a feature they had already decided was important.

In this particular scenario, the client observed the test sessions through a one-way mirror and would later review the videotaped sessions. The fact that first-hand observation did not dissuade the client demonstrates how the confirmation bias can compromise our judgment.

While the outcome in this particular case did not favor the end user, observation and videos are often persuasive. On another project, we encountered a particularly recalcitrant developer who believed his code and design were nearly perfect. Rather than argue, we invited him to observe two usability test sessions back-to-back. He accepted the invitation and was flabbergasted when both participants struggled to find information and complete basic tasks. In short order, he agreed to follow our recommendations based on the results of several test sessions.

While not foolproof, inviting clients, stakeholders, and developers to observe a usability test can go a long way toward avoiding bad design and feature creep. Remember, it’s the user stupid.



*Usability Test—Prospective customers who would typically use the site or application sit in front of a computer with a moderator. The moderator asks the participant to use the site or application to complete specific tasks but does not show the participant how to complete the task. The purpose of a usability test is to assess the ease or difficulty of using the site or applicatoin by observing the participant’s behavior and asking a few questions.

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