Three user experience myths busted

User experience (UX) is a rapidly evolving discipline. As with any emerging practice area, there are lots of unsettled questions, and even areas of general misunderstanding. This article debunks three of the most common UX myths, touches on some key UX principles and provides valuable UX tips.

UX myth #1: A good UX professional will instinctively know what works and what doesn’t.

Not long ago I saw an online discussion that asked UX practitioners how they’d use a particular strategy concerning user registration. The UX community responded overwhelmingly that the aforementioned strategy was “cheesy” and “not something that they’d suggest” and “every time they saw one they would immediately leave the website.” I was dumbfounded. Not something you’d suggest? You’d immediately leave the site?

Are you kidding? Initially, none of the UX practitioners asked what the situation was or why that strategy was being used. They just responded with an immediate, “Don’t do it!” If you take that at face value, all they did was reinforce the fact that they obviously weren’t the strategy’s intended audience. Or so it would seem.

As the discussion progressed, a couple of people did ask, “Why?” At this point I began to follow the discussion more closely and started my usual feasibility and user acceptance research on that particular strategy. I found several highly successful websites that were using the strategy and experiencing higher than average conversions. One of the sites was far and away the leader in its field—so much so that most of the sites in the field are patterned after that leader.

That’s a pretty strong reinforcement for using that particular strategy, wouldn’t you say?

So, what was the strategy that had everybody saying no? Up-front registration.
What business model was considering that strategy? Flash sales.
What website was the clear leader in that space? Groupon.com.

And did any of the members of the original discussion have a registration with Groupon? Yes, quite a few.

The moral of this story?

If you take the position that, “as a UX professional, I would never use _______ as one of my strategies or designs because I don’t personally agree with it, or I would never visit a site that uses that type of strategy,” then you’re not a UX professional.

A UX professional doesn’t let personal preferences get in the way of using a strategy or design. A UX professional does the research, runs tests with intended users, and then lets the data determine whether or not to move forward from concept to design based on best practices, standards and, if applicable, contemporary design patterns.

A UX professional understands that what’s important is the user workflow and user desires, and that is what the user should receive. A UX professional also understands that if users get what they want then the business gets what it wants in the form of increased conversions. And if the business gets increased conversions, the UX professional gets increased engagement.

UX myth #2: A good user experience for a mobile device is one that provides all the functionality and content of the full website.

A couple of years ago I conducted a listening lab that asked users what their biggest frustrations were when using mobile applications. More specifically, I asked what would keep them from purchasing goods or services on a smartphone. The users all stated that they didn’t think the mobile applications were capable of offering the same functionality or content that the full websites did.

This got me thinking…what was it that made users believe that mobile applications couldn’t provide the same functionality or content as websites? What functionality and content from full websites did they want in mobile apps?

To answer these questions, I conducted another listening lab—this time with twice the number of participants. I also conducted online surveys that followed up the listening labs. It turns out the participants weren’t talking about the functionality and content of a particular site, or even just one site. They were talking about sites that defined their workflow. All of the people interviewed and surveyed used a process or workflow that spanned several websites. The content and functionality varied among those sites. But when put together, the sites produced an experience that allowed the users to identify a successful workflow that allowed them to accomplish their goal.

You see, when users stated that mobile apps didn’t have the functionality or content that full sites had, they were speaking in generalizations and not specifically. Taking this into consideration, I interviewed and surveyed again a selection of users from the previous groups and added a new group to the mix. This time I presented a specific series of tasks that represented the workflow that had been identified previously. I also introduced a fictitious prototype that provided targeted content with limited functionality throughout the user’s workflow for these tasks. The results were astounding.

All of the participants acknowledged that the prototype met and exceeded their needs. Everyone was surprised to see that it was capable of performing “at this level,” a phrase used more than 63% of the time, and wondered if this was a prototype for a new smartphone—even though it was clearly presented with an iPhone display.

When it came to functionality, the prototype had less pure functionality than previous prototypes or applications the that users had seen before. But this prototype was presented at a time and in a way that anticipated their identified workflow. The content was delivered in the same fashion. User only saw content when they needed it, delivered in anticipation of supporting their identified workflow. And because the content and functionality made the best use of the device’s inherent capabilities, the experience for the user was nothing less than stellar. Why? Because it met the users’ needs, when they arose, and did not just present a conglomeration of content and needless interactions and functionality.

So, is a good user experience for mobile devices one that provides all the same functionality and content as a full website? No, it’s one that provides users with what they need…when they need it.

UX myth #3: I can accomplish the same thing by doing my user testing with internal test subjects.

I get to work with a lot of different clients, in different industries, with different audiences. Some of these clients are household names, while others are large companies that you may never have heard of. And with all their differences, one thing remains the same. Testing has to be done with each company’s particular audience. Period, end of story!

If you have a broad audience, you can segment it and test each segmentation for the specifics that you want, whether you’re testing an entire path or just a page, no matter what channel. You can also use a small sampling or a large group and can test either moderated or unmoderated. But what you cannot do is turn to internal personnel for user testing. And if anyone tells you that you can? Well, get a second opinion.

There are so many bad experiences still out there on every channel because companies—yes, even major corporations—don’t ask their audience what that particular audience wants. Hard to believe, isn’t it? What’s even more frightening is that some companies claim they participate in user testing but only use their own internal people for the testing. This is a recipe for disaster.

Internal personnel are often so familiar with the products or services that they can’t help but bias the test. Or they only want to take the test to impress the people they report to. And the majority of the internal people want to hurry up and take the test to get it over with. They are too busy with their own projects to want to deal with yours. In fact, this segment of internal folks is likely to tell you anything you want to hear in order to be done.

For the best test results, follow these UX tips:

  • Pick external audience members who are directly impacted by what you’re testing.
  • Use segmentation to refine your audience selections to exactly target your highest conversion audience for each particular test. After all, these are the people who are spending their money with you.
  • When testing a path, look for ways to simplify it so you can “get out of your customers’ way” and they can convert.
  • This is especially important—ask your audience members what they’d like to see in order for them to convert. If you don’t ask this question, you may find yourself testing many different solutions only to discover that none of them get you the numbers you’re looking for.
  • Have a goal in mind. Setting a specific goal for your testing helps you know when you’re done. Too many user tests are conducted every day with no definitive objective. “We’re looking to increase conversions” doesn’t count. Exactly what does this mean? Would a .1% increase in conversions make you happy? That’s preposterous! If I conduct a user test and only increase conversions by .1% then I’ve got more scenarios to produce.
  • Don’t be afraid to produce test scenarios that fall flat. That’s what testing is for.

Remember, you learn from your failures—you gain only confidence from successes. And in order to achieve success, you have to be ready to fail.

Read more. Check out “Could UX follow data and become its own vertical market?”