UX & The Weight of Expectation

I’ve been thinking increasingly about the importance of user expectations in planing an effective user experience.

The greatest asset we have in going to meet the challenge of the user’s mental model is simply knowing it exists in the first place. A huge part of user research concerns itself with the needs of the user, but it’s important not to let this spill over into a hapless quest for what the user wants.

Don’t Give Me What I Want

User requirements are one of the basic tenets of user experience design. We know however that if the user got everything they wanted then we would almost certainly have a very messy interface to contend with, one overflowing with superfluous functionality and options. In short, what the user wants is often at odds with that they truly need.

This points to a very particular approach to user research.

In my own experience when the opportunity exists to talk to users in person the line of questioning should monitor the distinction between wants and needs very carefully. When talking through a particular system with a user group, the type of question I try to avoid is “what do you want to see on this page?”.

Love Me, Love My User

A quick aside here – people are amazing. Watching them in action on a website or an application is possibly the single greatest education a UI designer can have. They won’t always do what you expect them to do or what you want them to do. They will however do what they feel they need to do in order to achieve a goal. And that, of course, can be endlessly frustrating for designers.

In research as in life, framing a question can be as important as the question itself.

An open question such as “what would you like to see on this page?” (as a crude example) will garner very different responses from “what would you expect to see on the next page?”. The former can lead to some serous flights of fancy, where the entire web as we know it has to be re-engineered to match the heady goals set for what the site has to provide. Expectations are so much more important than perceived need.

Let Me Down Easy

When engaging with stakeholders, the same types of enquiry can help to keep a sense of promise to a minimum. “What do you want…” infers a degree of promise about what will be delivered. So much of stakeholder engagement is about inclusivity, giving people a platform to make contributions to a process that values their input. To over-promise in these situations is to mislead participants as to what will be done with their feedback. “What do you expect?” carries with it less of an overt sense of promise, and more one of discussion.

What’s New, Pussycat?

And what, you may ask, of innovation? If we only deliver in line with expectations, how does anything new enter the mix? Clearly, delivering “to expectations” is a lowly objective for any project. However, delivering what users expect is an imperative. The point is that we are not constantly seeking to reimagine the web. The time for reinventing conventions is gone. Lord knows we saw enough “innovative” – some might say wacky – attempts at elements such as navigation systems pre-2002. We have been left with a web that, generally speaking, conforms. And there is no shame in that. Most of our consumer products do the same; even the iPod delivered innovation in a very familiar package, building on the form factor that products such as the Walkman had created. Everyday innovation almost always arrives in tandem with the familiar. And delivering based on expectations does not preclude the element of delight.


Users do not like the unanticipated, but they will react positively to a system that simplifies a task. Strive for innovation of course, but be careful how you define it. And make no mistake – managing expectations is possibly the single biggest task faced by UX practitioners. As techniques such as responsive design gain traction, the issue of expectations grows ever more complex. In user research, assume nothing… and expect the unexpected.

Adapting to responsive

Responsive web design has reached the grand old age of two and remains the single most important shift in design and development for the web since the advent of CSS.

Broken record

I have written previously about the dangers of dogmatic approaches, emphasising that we should move in the direction of responsive design increasingly and methodically. RWD is not however a be-all-and-end-all. It is not a magic bullet for multi-device deployment. Responsive images remain a challenge, advertising doesn’t sit well with a fluid layout and, regardless of how simple the approach is pitched as, the creation of a credible responsive solution takes significantly greater time than a single-resolution site.

Here comes the future

And yet it should remain the goal. We are clearly impelled to move to responsive as an industry standard. Some of the loftier commentary recommending multiple versions of websites appears frighteningly blinkered in its naivety. We are headed only one way in the medium to long term.

One foot in front of the other

However an all or nothing stance on RWD is an equally retrograde move. Speaking as a (ahem) “seasoned” designer, shifting to an adaptive approach has been an essential stepping stone in understanding RWD as a whole. Is it better to learn responsive as standard? Of course. For any new designers starting out: take this route and don’t look back. For those who have been around the block a few times, coming to terms with full responsive as a new way of approaching projects is to put it simply, difficult. I have yet to meet a designer in industry for any amount of time with a different view.

Money, money, money

I work in a commercial organisation and to remain viable in a commercial environment, we need to deliver effective outputs that surpass expectations – within a budget. Recently we’ve committed to producing adaptive sites as standard and deviating from this only where individual projects demand it. Not committing to fully responsive for the moment, our rationale is that doing something is better than doing nothing; not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It’s not what you do..?

As I have said before, we’re getting there and should enjoy the journey. But whether it is acknowledged or not (and it isn’t) there is a purist agenda at work in some corners of the industry. Challenge some of the more vociferous opinions and there is usually a conciliatory climb down, but the inference remains: if you’re not producing fully responsive work, you’re falling short. My problem with this is simply that it places technique over results. The means do not justify the end. There are a number of responsive sites featuring what I would regard as unacceptable design anomalies at certain sizes, and they should not be given a pardon simply because of the way they have been constructed. An adaptive approach may yet be more condusive to better overall design on certain projects.


To repeat myself (again), why create divisions where none exist. We’re all on our way. Those who fail to come to terms with the changing landscape in web access are condemning themselves to history. For those who are moving forward, there is more than one way to do so.

A sense of completion

Throughout a career primarily as a visual designer, I’ve always struggled with the judgement of when a piece of work is “done”. In graphic design, the urge to continue adding, embellishing is almost overwhelming. Maturity and of course experience influence better decision-making, but inevitably you find yourself mentally revisiting each project many times in the months after it’s supposedly ‘finished’, thinking of better choices you could have made, better directions you could have taken, better refinements you could have insisted on.

The craftsman’s eye

I often find myself looking at things that my dad made during his life, his joiner’s skills manifesting themselves in seemingly flawless dovetail joints and perfect angles, and outputs consistently fit for purpose.

The end is not nigh

Producing work that is deployed in a digital context brings with it a frustration, a yearning for a sense of completion where you know that something is simply done. This is something that has dogged me throughout my working life to date, whether I realised it or not. The quest for completion led me to acquire technical skills I never believed I would want or need, in what I now believe was the hope that they would bring me a clearer understanding of “finished”.

In short: I’m older now

What this drive for completion has meant for me is a quest for metrics, for data – measurable factors. In joinery, a glance through seasoned eyes can likely offer all the reassurance required to know it’s a job well done. Call it a search for meaning if you will, but moving deeper into UX thinking has brought me closer to the answer; knowing the right questions were asked, the right conclusions were reached and the right recommendations were made is as close as I believe I’m going to get. That sense of satisfaction is what drives me now – a far cry from the “cool” factor that motivated the younger me, an empty quest to mimic the latest ego-centric design trends.


And yet, no matter what nostalgic gloss I might put on it, I am sure Dad would have been able to see in his work where improvements could have been made. It is both the blessing and the curse of the craftsman – the belief that the next project will be closer to elusive perfection that never comes.

Putting the spotlight on ‘delight’

Disclaimer: I tend to react adversely to industry buzzword memes.

A new word has been gradually creeping into the design industry lexicon. Designers should now, apparently, design for “delight” – and once again a word has been introduced without context into the forefront of design debate.

I’ve avoided ‘cool’ for most of my professional career. I don’t do ‘awesome’. I don’t trust it. I don’t strive for it. But I like ‘effective’. Effective I can work with.

The most rational, level-headed thoughts on this come from CX Partners’ Giles Colborne. The points Colborne makes illustrate that we don’t really know what we’re saying. It’s all too easy to drop these phrases into discourse, but it’s quite another to try and measure or define it. And yet invariably a section of the design community, certainly within web design, will regurgitate this type of commentary and broadcast it without questioning what it actually means.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment; I agree fully that ‘delight’ would be a.. um, delightful reaction for users of our work to have. But to impose this on an industry that strives for effective results appears to be imposing very shallow measures on a complex profession. If we’re going to propagate something meaningful, what about “design for success” – how’s that?

“Delight” is a meme and a millstone. It’s another way of saying that we should design something cool. But cool is not a commercial imperative, and it’s place in the process is undefinable. So, at what point should ‘delight’ appear? Until definitions and metrics emerge I will continue to hold such opinion at arm’s length.

There is no magic ingredient for a successfully designed product. There is only process and effort. As with cool, ‘delight’ will be a by-product of an effective outcome.

‘Delight’ happens, just as ‘cool’ happens, most often through rigorous attention to detail and a rock solid understanding of user requirements.

Reflections on Refresh

…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Responsive Summit.

Apart from work itself, two industry events dominated last week for me. I was directly involved in one, but watched the other from afar with many others. As it transpired the two were not unrelated.

On Monday evening I was fortunate enough to co-host a session of RefreshBelfast with none other than Richard Weston under the title “There’s more than one way to design a cat”.

We managed to shoehorn all manner of issues under that banner, the central theme being that the middle ground of the design industry is a pretty vibrant and rewarding place to practice. We sang the praises of teams and organisations (versus the notion of the rockstar individual designer), and addressed the idea that vehement opinions put forward on the web as truisms are nothing more than that: opinions.

It was an enjoyable evening and one that we hope lived up to the standards set by previous speakers, including Jeremy Keith, The Creativity Hub and Design by Front.

Another key point Richard and I made was that no single point of view on techniques and processes is any more true than others simply because of how strongly the point is made, and attempts to dictate best practice to the wider industry is wrong. Unfortunately, that was the perception of many of an event in London later in the week.

The Responsive Summit – a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware moniker – riled a number of people on Twitter and beyond, apparently by bringing together a select group (‘select’ only in the sense that it was organised within a matter of days) to discuss the current hot topic of responsive design.

It is now almost two years since Ethan’s original post, yet RWD remains a grey area and continues to be difficult to implement on larger commercial projects. The idea behind Responsive Summit was nothing more sinister than trying to aggregate opinion on the challenges at hand and at least begin to plot a way forward. Knowing a couple of the personalities involved, I am confident that the aims of the session were true and will produce not diktats or imperatives, but something of practical benefit to our industry.

We need more honest and open discussion in this area. Early support for RWD was a touch absolutist in its fervour and more honest documentation of the difficulties in implementing RWD as a solution on large scale commercial projects is required. I believe this pragmatic viewpoint was reflected in the discussions during the day.

It may be that this one event will inspire many others either directly, or as a reaction against an unfortunate perception of ‘elitism’ surrounding it. Either way, this is what we need and positives will flow from it.

I am grateful for both of last week’s events, in different ways. Thank you to everyone involved.


For more information on the background to Responsive Summit, see Chris Armstrong’s candid summary of the build up to the event on Storify.