Why User Experience Works Better Without User Contempt

The discipline of User Experience consists of focusing on the needs of the user, instead of those of the web designer or website owner. The thing that makes it difficult is that we imagine that we’re already doing that. We believe, as we put together the layout, functionality, and information architecture, that we’ve done so in a way that lets the user do whatever he or she is supposed to do.

Then, when they can’t find a navigation option, use a tool, or grasp our thousand words of text, we blame them. Then, if we do adjust our designs for these users, we do so under the belief that users are stupid.

Technology people have been doing this for a long time. Back when people had VCRs, many households had the flashing 12:00 display that meant nobody would or could set the clock. Yet technology people assured us that:

Anybody Can Program A VCR Clock

Really. Just check out this article. Or this one. The authors seem to believe that all those people who haven’t already learned to perform this task and yet, inexplicably, can’t read a manual or go online, will somehow read a long article, go home, and program that annoying clock. They won’t. The attitude of the authors is clear enough:

“The problem seems to be reaching epidemic proportions lately, as more and more people are complaining that their inability to master this technology is impeding their ability to learn anything at all, or that the fact that their VCR clock flashes 12:00 is somehow symbolic of a deep technophobia.”

“The point is that with so many resources there is little excuse for not learning how.”

Then there are writers who aren’t concerned with helping users program their VCRs who have even more contempt for those who can’t:

“ a blinking 12:00 is an unrelenting reminder to anyone within eyeshot that a clock’s owner is unable or unwilling to reset her clock.” (The Believer)

“the inability to program one’s VCR, as demonstrated by the flashing 12:00 on the VCR display, was an indicator of other forms of technological incompetence.)” (Network Solutions)

Here’s the thing, though. It’s too much trouble. A lot of people who bought VCRs thought that, maybe, they would set them up to record shows. But mostly they rented or bought videos. Setting up that clock was never that important, though it always seemed to annoy the younger generation.

User Experience is not about making things possible, it’s about finding the most important tasks and making them easy. And not annoying visitors with features that aren’t relevant. Web designers and technology people can usually figure out how to do things, but even this group won’t bother if they don’t have time. Yet we sometimes look down on users—imagining the problem being low user tech-literacy, when in fact we’ve done nothing to earn their attention.

Wikipedia even has an entry about the “Blinking Twelve Problem.” According to Wikipedia:

“In Software, any feature which is either an overkill or desirable but rendered difficult to use due to complexity of the user interface, is referred to as ‘the blinking twelve problem’. This may also refer to the challenge faced by software companies to address users’ actual difficulties”

The first, most important step in user experience is to respect the user. Admit that, even if we’re pretty sure we could accomplish the task or find the navigation option that users keep missing, we are only getting a small slice of their attention, and have to do what we can with it.