10 Things Every Designer Should Know (NEOUPA)

On October 18th I attended an presentation by Susan Weinschenk on the Top 10 Things That Every Designer Needs to Know About People. Thanks to both NEOUPA and Metrics Marketing for organizing this excellent event. I am looking forward to learning more about the topic at World Usability Day as well as picking up her book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People.

Without further ado here is her Top 10 list.

People don't pay attention to details

As designers we want people to appreciate all the hard work, careful thought, and time that went into creating the interface. Unfortunately people don't care. It might be they are in a hurry. It could be they landed on the page from Google and are trying to get some context. Whatever the reason most of what is on your site will be completely ignored. People tend to focus only on the aspects which fulfill their information needs.

Speakers and listeners synchronize

Over time as a person listens and watches someone speak their brain waves begin to match those of the presenter. This phenomon is not limited only to face-to-face experiences either. The same effect can be achieved with an embedded video or audio clip.

Why is this important? As the web continues to grow it will move further away from the old model of text in a container. Especially with the features that HTML5 provides for rich content we can only expect more and more multimedia content. This means we need to foster a better understanding of what will happen and how to design around it.

People have "strong" and "weak" ties

Strong ties are people that we interact with on a regular basis and could identify off the top of our heads. Research shows that this network is approximately 150 people. Weak ties extend beyond that. The label 'weak' might be a misnomer; these relationships and connections could still be very useful. However can you personally identify everyone in your Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter network?

People pay attention to human faces

The brain is hardwired to focus on faces. Even apart from the visual parts of the brain there are parts that do such things as identify gender, recognize emotions, and other basic responses to the human face. This ties directly into the emotional responses they will have.

How does this help us in the design world? People looking directly out from the screen can invoke an emotional response that relates people to the product. Faces looking off into the distance or at some page element can attract attention to that part of the page. In both cases this will all happen without the person consciously doing anything.

Chunking allows us to retain more information

This point was demonstrated by a little exercise in which we were asked to rememeber a seeming random string of letters and then numbers. In both cases nobody came close to getting it right except when they were broken down into patterns. For example think about a phone number. Do you remember ten sequential digits or break it down into three chunks - XXX (area code), XXX (prefix) and XXXX (last four digits)?

Another important takeaway is the myth of 7 +/- 2. This used to be common wisdom among people in psychology based on a very important paper from the 1960s. Later research disproved it though to the surprise of the investigators. It turns out that people aren't able to hold more than three or four things in their head at once without external aids.

If you are interested in exploring this topic further I highly recommend picking up the book The Art of Choosing which goes into detail on this as well as many other subjects related to how people make decisions. A relatively easy read, you can then springboard from there to other references.

People have blind spots

Ever wonder why sometimes you can't see what is staring you in the face? It is because people see more with their peripheral vision than with the central vision. Show people the center of a room and they are less likely to identify it than if you block out and show them only the periphary.

This is true even on a screen. While scanning (see point 1) people have a tendency to miss the things that are right in front of their faces. This might include links to FAQs, how to manage an account, or other things that first level customer support deal with on a daily basis.

Another lesson to learn from this is that eyetracking is a tool not a complete answer. Just because the eye is focused on a particular element doesn't mean the person is neccesarily looking at it. Much like search log analysis, paper prototypes, or surveys provide snapshots it can help inform a decision but will not give you the solution.

Pretty fonts make a task harder

When people see decorative fonts they immediately percieve that the task will be more difficult. Complexity in design might provide a wow factor but if you want people to process information easily use a readable simple font. Just because you have 4,000 fonts installed and just discovered Font Squirel does not mean you need to go crazy.

Beyond the usability and performance issues of having too many fonts competing for attention people will have less desire to stay on your site. I haven't done any testing personally but I would curious to see what the completion rates on an otherwise identical form are with different typography. Use them sparingly but don't overdo it.

Test with real users

This one should be common sense to anyone who has been a designer for any period of time. The old adage "Know your user and you are not it" still applies today. Let's dig a little deeper into the reason why.

People form mental models about the way things work. When we, as developers and designers, are intimately involved in the creation process we know how things should work. As a result we make certain assumptions. This is even true of people involved at the fringes; for instance using the same group of people for quick usability tests multiple times. Unfortunately for us not many people want to learn how things work. They want to get in, do their task, and leave.

Mental models are an important part of any design process. Recruit people that don't know how it works and then ask them why they tried what they did. Just be aware of the next two points.

Memories are reconstructed every time

Memories are not statically stored away in the brain. Every time we recall something from the past there is a chance it can be influenced by external factors such as later experiences, suggestions, or our mood at the time. I watched a very revealing documentary on this recently called The Cheating Memory which tries to explain why.

How does this impact usability? It means that what people said they were thinking may not always agree with what they actually did. Perform the same study as a think aloud and then later with a series of post task interviews. If hypothetically you could use the same people for both you might be surprised to find them giving different answers.

Getting back to a previous point this means taking any findings with a grain of salt. Just because somebody said they loved using the product they may have been extremely frustrated when actually trying to use it. Also be very careful about wording as this too might influence their feelings. Of course if your goal is manipulate it to achieve a particular goal then go ahead.

People expect human to human experiences

People expect their interactions with technology to mirrior their interactions with people. What does this mean for usability and design? Firstly don't load your site down with useless jargon. If visitors to your web site have no idea what a "bib page" is then do not use it repeatedly in explanations or labels. Secondly know your audience and talk to them at their own level. Don't oversimplify so much you insult their intelligence. Finally respond immediately. Even if the content still needs time to load let people know something is happening. Acting like a reporter in the field on satelite delay will only frustrate people into quitting.