Demystifying UX Design: Common False Beliefs and Their Remedies: Part 4

By Frank Guo

Published: September 9, 2013

Knowing when and how to make user-interface changes that matter is critical for UX management and resource planning.

Many designers, product managers, and front-end developers hold a false belief: users should notice and understand the changes that we make to user interfaces. For example, they might assume that users would pay attention to a new logo that they just put on their Web site’s home page, should read the update message telling them about the logo, and should appreciate that their new design is more visually appealing than the old one.

Observing designers’ and product managers’ response to how real users react to user-interface changes, I’ve heard them say: “I can’t believe that they didn’t notice the difference!” After our already having asked users a hundred times, they asked: “Can you ask them one more time whether they noticed this?” “Should we make it bigger so they will notice?”—when it’s already a huge banner. Or simply, “How come? Are they blind?”

In this part of my series, I’ll talk about a common—and somewhat obscure—false belief relating to user-interface design. This belief has real business implications because companies spend huge amounts of money and invest significant resources in updating their Web sites and mobile apps. However, they fail to plan many of these changes to meet particular user needs or address specific pain points. As a consequence user neither notice nor appreciate their efforts. Therefore, knowing when and how to make user-interface changes that matter is critical for UX management and resource planning.

Users Won’t Pay Attention to Your Design Changes—Unless They Have Substantial Impact

“The only time users really notice a design change is when it results in a functional difference—that is, the new user-interface enables them to do something that they could’t do before or, on the flip side, prevents them from doing something that they were able to do before.”

During my many years of evaluating user-interface designs through user research, one of the most startling, but consistent findings I’ve seen is this: Regardless of how obvious changes appear to designers, most users don’t even notice most of them. And, when they do notice them, it is when we badly screw up a previously working user interface.

People Won’t Notice Design Changes That Don’t Impact How They Complete Their Tasks

Users are notoriously oblivious to design changes. The only time users really notice a design change is when it results in a functional difference—that is, the new user-interface enables them to do something that they could’t do before or, on the flip side, prevents them from doing something that they were able to do before. Let’s analyze a few types of design changes.

People don’t tend to notice these types of changes:

  • skipping one or two screens in a process—for example, a registration process or checkout process
  • making minor changes to a visual design’s color palette
  • updating the wording of on-screen tips, instructions, and warnings

People do tend to notice these changes:

  • not being able to do something they could do before—for instance, no longer being able to figure out how to add an item to their video rental queue or no longer being able to find a way to cancel an order that they’ve placed
  • being able to do something that they could’t do before—for instance, being able to export their past records in a .csv format or chat with their friends on a social network

People Don’t Usually Read Text—Unless They Are Seeking Information

“While people don’t tend to read text, well-designed text does get noticed….”

How many times have you tweaked the wording of email messages or on-screen instructions, tips, and alerts, just to find out that people didn’t notice any difference? I’ll bet most user-interface designers and product managers have experienced such frustrations many times.

On the other hand, while people don’t tend to read text, well-designed text does get noticed—depending on how well you execute a number of design principles such as meeting user expectations, making text scanable, limiting the length of text, and using images to break up text. Let’s look at a few examples:

People won’t read in the following situations:

  • They are focusing on performing a task and don’t expect to encounter any problems.
  • They feel that they are already familiar with a site, a company, and its products.
  • They assume that the text is promotional—for example, advertising—or standard boilerplate—for example, legalese—rather than being truly informational.

People do read in these situations:

  • They are actively seeking information—for example, confirmation that they’ve just successfully completed a transaction, instructions about what to do next, or a license agreement.
  • They encounter an error message that stops them from moving to the next step.
  • They are new to your site and are trying to learn about your products and services.

People Don’t Care About Branding in User Interfaces, Unless They Are Still Evaluating Your Company

“People don’t pay much attention to brand-driven visual elements or language. … They remain very task focused, so tend to ignore promotional messages and banners. ”

Branding—alongside a company’s products and technology—is part of an organization’s core value. On the other hand, when interacting with the Web or a mobile user interface, people don’t pay much attention to brand-driven visual elements or language. Just the opposite. They remain very task focused, so tend to ignore promotional messages and banners.

People don’t care much about branding in these situations:

  • They are already a customer of your company and trust your brand.
  • They’re focusing on a particular task such as buying an item or looking for a product review and couldn’t care less about anything that isn’t relevant to their task.

People do care about branding in the following situations:

  • They come to your site to research your company and its products and determine whether your company is trustworthy and stands for high quality.
  • They are looking for visual cues that are consistent with your brand promise. This happens only with brands with very distinctive brand attributes—such as Apple, BMW, and eBay.
  • When the visual design and overall tone of your message appear unprofessional or out of line with what your company stands for—making eBay.com look like the Tiffany Web sited, for example—people will take notice and feel negatively about your brand.

How to Make Design Changes That Matter to Users

“The more changes help users with their tasks, the greater the resulting business impact.”

So, how can you make design changes that have a real impact on users?

Make Sure Your Design Changes Impact Task Completion

For most Web sites and mobile apps, the single most important thing that you need to consider is how to enable users to easily carry out their key tasks. Therefore, a surefire way to make design changes that matter is to ensure that your changes impact the way users complete their tasks. The more changes help users with their tasks, the greater the resulting business impact.

Here are a few things that you can do to make impactful changes:

  • Ensure that design changes happen within the context of a task and affect its completion. For instance, display an individual ToolTip in proximity to its related icon rather than list all ToolTips in the sidebar on the right. Or show users additional products once they’ve added one item to their shopping cart.
  • Make sure that a concrete user benefit accompanies branding changes. For instance, next to the message “Celebrating 50 years in business!” offer users some discounts. When users click a discounted item, reinforce the branding message to ensure that they are aware of the company’s long history and solid reputation.
  • Insert screens or steps within a user’s task flow. For instance, based on past usability testing, I’ve learned that using a lightbox pattern—which is similar to displaying a dialog box except that the background of the page appears dimmed—is one of the most effective things in getting users’ attention. When users reach a certain step, the light box appears and grabs their attention, forcing them to think about what to do next.
  • Require users to take an action before moving forward. To follow up on my first point, users tend to ignore all kinds of pop-ups and banners if they don’t perceive them as being relevant to their tasks. To increase the chance that a light box gets noticed, make sure that it has very prominent calls to action—one of which users must click to move to the next step.

Please note that these techniques make sense only if our design changes benefit users in relation to their tasks. For example, you might encourage users to download your iPhone app when they browse your Web site because the app provides a better experience than your site. However, you shouldn’t use these techniques to nag users to buy more on your site when they’re no longer shopping.

Don’t Worry About Whether Users Notice Design Changes—Focus on Behavioral Impact

Another thing to keep in mind is that users typically are not consciously aware of design changes. Even when users behave differently as the result of a design change, they still might not recall seeing a difference. What does this imply? It’s okay that users are not consciously aware of the design changes that you make. What matters is whether users act differently as a result of the changes. A/B tests, Web metrics, and usability tests can all shed light on behavioral changes.

What If There’s No User-Driven Reason to Make a Change? Don’t Make It!

“To ensure that you make design changes that have real impact, you need to start by looking at why you should consider making the changes in the first place.”

To ensure that you make design changes that have real impact, you need to start by looking at why you should consider making the changes in the first place. The fundamental assumption that design changes—such as keeping your Web site’s look and feel up to date or making it look interesting—are always good drives many companies’ design decisions. On the other hand, as I’ve shown, changes are useful only if they help users to achieve what they want to accomplish. So, when putting together a roadmap of the user-interface changes that you want to make, make sure that you always have a user-driven reason for each change.

Bad reasons for making design changes include the following:

  • politically driven reasons—For example, an executive requests a design change to enhance his visibility in the company. Often there is a hidden agenda underlying many pointless design changes.
  • ego-driven reasons—Often, when creative designers—especially those who are great at visual design—feel compelled to unleash their talent, the result is design changes that don’t address users’ needs. The remedy: we need to remind ourselves that we’re doing user-centered design, not designer-centered design.
  • I-need-to-do-something reasons—When a company or a product team feels that they just have to do something—whether to keep a user interface up to date or, worse, just to show that they’re not slackers—they often make unnecessary changes.

Good reasons for making design changes:

  • solving usability issues—Improving a user interface to address known usability issues that negatively impact business results is always a good thing to do.
  • improving general user satisfaction and loyalty—Addressing users’ known painpoints and, thus, improving their engagement and satisfaction, is always a compelling reason to make appropriate design changes.
  • changing user behavior to align with business goals—Modifying a user interface to shape users’ behavior often makes business sense. For example, you might want increase registrations, reduce your site’s checkout abandonment rate, or encourage users to buy more items from your store.

Conclusion: Making Design Changes Wisely Has Huge Impacts on a Business and Its Users

“Understanding what kinds of design changes people pay attention to or ignore can have a huge impact on your business.”

Understanding what kinds of design changes people pay attention to or ignore can have a huge impact on your business. On one hand, while design changes might not negatively impact users and typically help improve a Web site’s visual presentation, companies routinely spend millions of dollars to update their site’s user interfaces. In addition to costing a lot of money, this has huge impacts on the implementation and maintenance of their Web sites—for example, updating the CSS files across a whole site or auditing all Web pages to keep them consistent with new branding.

On the other hand, users are oblivious to many of these design changes. But much worse, if updating a user interface for nonfunctional reasons such as making it look trendier or more on brand accidentally compromises usability, a business would, in fact, be hurting itself by compromising users’ ability to complete their tasks. For instance, changing the colors of buttons may make it harder to discover calls to action.

Take-Away Message

Don’t be fooled by the false assumption that users naturally care about and appreciate the design changes that you make. Think long and hard about the real reasons—or the lack thereof—for updating your user interface before you start making changes.

3 Comments

Some very good points here. For best results, business Web sites should be designed not for designers or even site owners, but for the end users and customers.

Absolutely. And part of my motivation is to help business decision makers make the right calls in terms of spending money more wisely, aligned to what matters to users.

As a technical writer, I often make the argument that “People don’t usually read text….” Much of this article applies to product documentation (on-screen or otherwise) and collateral.

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