UX & The Weight of Expectation

October 18, 2012

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.

Conclusion

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.

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    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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