Users are liars

Asking a user what they want is a very poor decision, period. The reason for this, is because users are liars!

I know that seems like a very bold statement for an article about UX, and when I say this people are often a bit taken aback, but there is really no need to be. I don’t think users are bad people. I don’t think users have a sinister or underlying motive. I don’t even think users lie intentionally. Bias is often viewed as a bad word. Nobody wants to be biased! But humans by nature are exactly that. Whether you like it or not, psychology has shown time and time again that the human brain cannot be completely rational. In fact, there are around 100 known and studied cognitive biases. So being aware of a few of these should definitely help in your research. View a list of cognitive biases.

Why you should never ask the user what they want

It seems pretty logical to ask the user what they would want your product to do, right? You may think:

‘If the user tells me what they want, then they’ll certainly use that if I create it!’

The problem is, you’re asking the user to envision something completely unrestricted. The only boundary you have set is the realm of possibility. The lines between what they need, what they want, and what they can only imagine are now utterly blurred.

The user is going to think for a short while, and then lie to your face. They are going to make up a bunch of features that they think they would want in the product, and then tell you that they would use it if those were present. The reason the user will probably not actually use your product or those features, is that humans often have no insight into their own thought process. The users at this point probably have no idea what they need themselves, which makes their testimony completely unreliable.

You may try to counter this problem by thinking up a feature yourself so you can pitch it to the user. Problem solved.

‘Imagine if we built this into the product, you’d find that helpful, right?’

Again, the user will probably think for a moment and then lie to your face. ‘Yes’ is probably the answer you will hear nine times out of ten. The reason for this is that the user still doesn’t know what they need, and you are still making them try to envision something that they can’t physically see. Even if they have no idea what you are describing, they will probably tell you what they think you want to hear, because saying yes is easier. There are no awkward follow up questions after the answer yes, and they have absolutely nothing to lose; it isn’t their time or their budget that will be wasted on this utterly pointless feature.

Ok, third time lucky! We will show them something!

‘I’ll take my ideas, design a few versions and ask the user which one they prefer.’

Now we are getting somewhere. Now the design is within the boundaries of the budget, and the user can see what it will look like when it is finished. Job done. Hmm… Not exactly.

You take four versions into your testing session, and you ask the user which one they prefer. Because the user still has no idea what they need, they will simply make a decision between four things that look very similar and tell you their favourite. When presented with similar designs one after another, the human brain will have a tendency to favour the last one because it is the one it can remember the most clearly. And when presented with several designs at the same time, the brain will often favour the one farthest to the right. Now, when you press the user to explain their decisions, they will probably be able to. But again, they will be lying to your face. Introspection illusion is a cognitive bias where we will attempt to explain our decisions as if they were conscious, despite them being made completely subconsciously.

There is an interesting study by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson about four identical garments that the customers convinced themselves were different. The two items on the right racked up 71% of selections, the furthest right taking the most with 40%. When asked to explain their decisions the customers said that the garment furthest to the right had the best quality, despite it being identical to the others.

So what does this mean for your research?

Before designing anything, you need to first work out what the user need actually is. To do this, there is only one thing you need to ask your user; ‘WHY!’

By asking why, you are not asking your user to envision anything or critique your design. You are simply getting to the root cause of their problem. It is often easy to identify a user need too high up the chain, in which case you are only fixing part of the problem.

For example, a person you know got caught speeding. Anybody could be forgiven for thinking some sort of speed camera detection device would be the obvious user need in this case, but just ask why a few times.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘I got caught speeding in my car.’


‘Because I was late for work.’


‘Because I slept in.’


‘My alarm clock didn’t go off.’


‘The batteries have died.’


‘Because I didn’t know they were low, so I didn’t replace them.’

If you took the above example, and started working on the fact that the user got caught speeding, you could be designing the wrong thing for an assumed user need. The user need was never to speed and not get caught. The user need was to be on time for work. As we move down the iterations of why, you can see that the need gradually shifts away from the motoring offence and ends on the user simply being unaware their alarm clock batteries were running too low.

Once you think you have established the genuine user need, you should break it down further to understand what you should be designing. I use three questions to build a hypothesis for anything I am designing.

Gather an understanding.

Q: What is the user trying to get done?
A: Be on time for work.

Analyise their workflow

Q: How do they currently do this?
A: Battery powered alarm clock

Look for opportunities

Q: What could be better about how they do this?
A: Warning / notification system for low batteries. Alternative power supply.

Ok, user need established. So what now?

Building ‘the thing’ is far easier once you have a genuine user need. Build a cheap prototype version and watch users try to complete their task by using it. This will teach you far more about your product than any other method. If you can’t physically watch your user, then make sure you have ways of tracking data to get an understanding of what is going on. It becomes very apparent where the problems are. Which parts are they finding easy? Which parts are they struggling with?

Iterate the parts the users are struggling with until they become easy. If there is a genuine user need for your product, then users will likely persevere with the bad parts long enough for you make them better. Without a user need, anything that makes the user struggle is likely to make them abandon your product forever.

Don’t build what users tell you they want. Build what you see them need.

Hear no, see no, techno

Last week I attended Camp Digital, in the beautiful Town Hall of Manchester. It was your usual digital conference, and your usual crowd; but today I saw a talk that has hopefully changed the way I think about websites and service design forever.

We all know websites have to be responsive. They have to be malleable so that they look crisp and well laid out on all devices. We know the font size needs to increase for mobile devices, and that columns should stack when the viewport becomes narrow. We think we have this all figured out. But the problem with assuming, is that we think all of these people are using the devices we use and seeing the site the way that we see it.

Hear no, see no, techno‘, was an inspiring talk by the incredible Molly Watt, about how technology allows blind and deaf people to interact with the world and the web. Molly was born with Usher Syndrome, leaving her deaf. As if this was not challenging enough, in adolescence she became almost completely blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. But here she stood, strong and independent, delivering this amazing talk and interacting with the audience through the use of digital hearing aids.

Molly began to talk about things that are often not on a designers scope. Can the contrast of the website be changed? Can the colours be changed? Can the font size be changed? The answer is probably not; unless it involves opening the stylesheet.

Another issue was something as simple as a twitter widget. Twitter uses ‘infinite scrolling’, which means by the time you reach the bottom, it loads in more tweets. This is fine you are able to click away from the widget and continue your interaction with the site. But what if you’re trying to tab through the content using a keyboard. Every time you tab down a tweet, it loads in another one, and as it is called ‘infinite scrolling’, you could be seven years deep in somebodies twitter feed by the time you get out!

I realise the hypocrisy of publishing this post on my non-accessible WordPress blog. But at least I have had my eyes opened to these kinds of challenges, and can begin to implement some design changes in future! Perhaps as designers we often focus too much on making things look pretty, instead of making them available to everyone.

Are You A Cereal Killer? – Tesco’s Bad UX When Buying Spoons

As an interaction designer, I like to analyse the technology I see, and work out how it makes life easier, or in some cases, more difficult. This is a short story about how I noticed that sometimes technology can create ridiculous scenarios out of nothing.

It was a Sunday. I was working out of the office, and I had packed a pretty generic ‘sandwiches / crisps / yoghurt’ combo for the day ahead. The yoghurt looked amazing. A little vanilla number that I’d been eying up all morning. However, I’d soon come to realise I had made a grave mistake. Ok, ok… It wasn’t that dramatic, I’d just forgotten to bring a spoon!

The thought of ‘cave-mannning’ the yoghurt; using the lid as a makeshift trowel, did cross my mind. But as I’m a civilised human being, I figured I’d just go buy a new one from Tesco.

I can’t find anything I’m looking for in Tesco. I would expect to find spring onions next to the onions, but they are not. They are next to the strawberries. Perhaps this is because strawberries have a green stalk, and spring onions are green? Probably not, but it’s the only explanation I have come up with so far! Anyway, on this one occasion I was in luck. I entered the store and within three aisles, there were the spoons!

I opted for a single dessert spoon. Just one. Not a pack. Not a cutlery set. Just one lonely dessert spoon. I made my way to the till; bearing in mind that I already felt a little stupid for buying one spoon, I had fully expected to be chastised, but nothing could have prepared me for the conversation that ensued.

The till was being governed by a young, nervous looking woman. I’m not going to get into descriptions for reasons that I will discuss later, but given her reluctance to push any buttons, I would assume that she hadn’t been trained for very long.

‘BEEP’, she scanned it through. So far so good. The woman looks at the screen and looks a little uncomfortable. She looks up and says ‘it says I need to see some ID.’ I thought she was joking. ‘But… It’s a spoon?’ I replied. As if she hadn’t noticed that already, and had actually mistaken it for a chainsaw. ‘It says that it’s a restricted item, so I have to see some ID’ she stammered.

I assume from her nervousness, that this is the part where I am supposed to belittle the member of staff, and tell her how ridiculous the whole charade is. Perhaps I demand to speak to a manager, because this will get me more money-off-vouchers for being so massively inconvenienced. My driving license on that day made me twenty nine, so if I were under eighteen, my face already looks like the dishevelled after picture of a crystal meth awareness campaign. I think based on these two facts, I would have had a pretty solid case to argue back. But instead, I nod nonchalantly, hand over my ID, and then tweet about it instead.

I did a quick Google search, and I found that this is a common occurrence at Tesco tills. Newspaper articles[1][2], tweets[3], Facebook posts[4]; all of similar spoon related stories. I would have thought that the most obvious solution would be to amend the database of restricted items, and simply remove spoons. I can’t imagine it being a difficult task. Simply scroll down until you find ‘spoons’ in the ‘restricted database of doom’ (hint: they’re probably somewhere between Soft Toys and Ryvitas) and hit delete.

However, as we have already established with the ‘onions / spring onions location debate’, Tesco don’t share my logic. Instead, they responded to my tweet with an itinerary of information they needed. The exchange of tweets is below:

@abbott567 – Genuinely just got ID’d for a dessert spoon at @Tesco – is this actually a thing?

@tesco@abbott567 Hi Craig, I’m really sorry about this. It definitely is not a thing unless it was along with any sharp objects.

@tesco@abbott567 Please DM me your full name, address, email, barcode, store purchased from & a description of my colleague who ID’d you?

@tesco@abbott567 If you still have a copy of your receipt, a pic would be very helpful. I will then contact Store Management 🙂 TY – Jade

@abbott567 – .@Tesco Thanks, but not really her fault. Instead, I’d look more at why your software flags an individual dessert spoon as a restricted item

I may be being a bit harsh on Tesco. It may be that they need the barcode so they can remove it from the database, and they need the store location because perhaps different stores have different stock lists or whatever. But the ‘description of the member of staff’ part makes me uneasy. Why do they need that? This is why I refused to cooperate. If the staff need informed about spoons, then inform all of your staff about spoons. The quick Google search I performed showed this was not an isolated incident. A Daily Mail article from 2009 shows that this has been a Tesco problem for more than 6 years.

I am under the impression I was asked for ID because the woman was trying to do her job correctly. Because she was more fearful of getting in trouble at work for not asking, than she was of me for asking. We probably all know what it is like working for a large corporation, with their policies and their staff performance reviews. The pressure is on to do everything right, but to also use your initiative when it suits them. They always need a person to blame if they are left embarrassed. But I don’t blame the cashier. Nor do I want her to point her out in an identity parade, just to get her in trouble.

I think the blame lies in the design of the Tesco till system. By simply being more aware of their products, their users and their customers they could easily put an end to the ‘Spoonsgate Scandal’. It appears that despite several newspaper articles Tesco keep using the same come back. ‘We ask our colleagues to use their judgment as to whether this should be applied.’[1]

If the problem keeps on occurring, then you need to design a solution to quash it at it’s core. Wagging your finger at cashiers or stating you ask staff to make their own judgement is simply smoothing over the fractures, it isn’t solving the problem at it’s foundations. For more than six years, Tesco have been asking their members of staff to use their own judgement and common sense on this, rather than address the design flaw in their system.

A feature that simply pops up when you scan a spoon, and asks ‘Are there any knives present? YES / NO’ would probably suffice. If the cashier hits yes, then by all means do your ‘THINK 25’ checks. If the cashier hits no, then just continue with your scanning.

Sometimes the problem isn’t that hard to solve, it’s asking the right question that’s difficult, and this should be factored into your design process. If you keep encountering the same problem, then ask ‘why does this keep happening’ or ‘how can we make things easier’. Telling somebody to use their own judgement, and then telling them their judgement was wrong, is never going to solve the problem.

Anyway, to wrap this up. The vanilla yoghurt was amazing, and well worth the spoon inconvenience, so I fully expect to live happily ever after.

The End

[1] –
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What Is Normal Anyway?

‘I just want to be normal.’ I wonder how many people have muttered these words during times of turmoil. I wonder how many people have (at least in that instance) wanted to trade their noisy, adrenalised, racing thoughts, for a brain that was more peaceful. A brain that was numb, and void of opinion. I know I have.

As I sit here, staring at the blank page, I can already feel my anxieties rising. As I begin to write, I find myself trying to envision how my words will be perceived by anybody that reads them. Type, then delete, then type, then delete.

The problem is, I rarely talk about these issues for fear of ridicule. I fear that I won’t be taken seriously, or that I will be branded dramatic. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Doctors, councillors, they all just like to label stuff and hand out leaflets. Cyclothymia, Bipolar II, these are just a few attempts at a diagnosis I’ve had thrown at me, to try and ‘define my troubles’. Professional people, friends, family, everyone has an opinion. ‘Cheer up mate.’ ‘What do you have to be down about?.’ ’Things can’t be that bad!’ This is why I say nothing. This is why I shuffle through life hiding the lows and pretending to be ok.

My anxieties go way back. I believe the need for acceptance and the need to fit in is burned deep into the limbic system of my brain. You can pretend to be confident. Bravado can get you so far, but then the armour cracks and that ugly viscous fluid of self-doubt slowly leaks out. It makes you forget who you are. It stains your soul, and the very skin you are printed on.

“As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction!”

The problem is…

I have always know I was ‘different’. Parties, fashion, clubbing, ‘getting on it’, they are all part of ‘normal life’ when you’re 18 years old and living in Newcastle; the party capital of the UK. I hated it. But if you didn’t conform, you were quickly branded ‘boring’. There is no room for introverts here, you will simply be crushed under the egos of narcissistic juggernauts.

Large crowds. Strangers. Drunk people. Rowdy and volatile situations. These are all things that send my anxieties through the roof. I spend most of the night on edge, analysing every detail of the room. Escape routes, possible threats, objects that could become potential weapons. I feel out of control, and the only way to regain any is to analyse everything. To come up with a plan for possible scenarios. As you can imagine, this is mentally exhausting, and I’m usually ready for home well before midnight. But of course, you can’t go home before midnight, because that’s ‘boring’.

Now comes the bit I find extremely difficult to admit. I spent these times (the best part of a decade), finding ways to try and subdue my anxieties, whilst still trying to fit in and maintain the illusion that I was a ’normal’ socialite. Trying to last until 4am when the clubs closed, so I could be part of the taxi-queue victory parade of full-time-partiers! I found the only way achieve this, was to not think about (or not get anxious about) anything. It sounds simple enough. But for me, the only way to achieve this, is to simply to get so off my face that my brain can’t think up anything to worry about. Or at least so it can’t remember any of it in the morning!

Looking back on it, this behaviour made me hate myself. It made me a selfish, angry and often unapproachable person. I would spend my nights unable to sleep, and my days unable to get out of bed. I would snap at anybody that attempted to save me from myself. As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction! I wasn’t addressing the issue. I was simply abusing a coping mechanism. The trouble with coping mechanisms, is that they never address the problem directly. They don’t ever make you feel better, they just delay the onset of despair. And they amplify it when it arrives!

“How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?”

Creative people tend to think more. And by this, I don’t mean creative people are more intelligent, or that people who don’t necessarily consider themselves creative have nothing going on between their ears. What I mean is that creative people have a much higher chance of dwelling on something that others may overlook. They pay more attention to things, in far greater detail. Whilst this is our gift, it is also our curse. That attention to detail is the difference between painting a picture, and painting a masterpiece. But it is also this attention to detail that makes us ruminate. It is the reason we can’t let go easily. The reason we play scenarios out in our heads over and over again. The reason we can always see how we could have done things better.

It is this ruminating that is often the catalyst for depression. Or at least, it is in my case. The constant battle with yourself to be better. The over analytical views you take of your work, or yourself. The feeling that you don’t deserve any credit you receive. These feelings are all too real in our industry. Because, in this industry, it is rare for you to come up with anything entirely on your own. Developers are given work from designers. Designers are given briefs from clients. So when you reach the end of a project, it is often easy to feel like you have possibly been carried by the team, or that you have been handed an idea. If we go back to my counselling sessions they would have called this ‘imposter syndrome’. It is the inability to accept an accomplishment, despite the external evidence.

So how do we deal with this?

Learn to internalise any external verification. When somebody compliments you, believe them and take it on board. Very few people go around handing out lies as compliments, so if they tell you they like your work, it’s likely that they genuinely do. Say thank you, pat yourself on the back, and don’t discuss what you felt you could have done better!

Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. Don’t surround yourself with people that may be negatively impacting your life, or making you feel anxious about just being yourself. One of the biggest problems in my life, was believing I had lots of friends, when in fact, I actually had lots of acquaintances. If people are being negative towards you, then stop taking their comments on board, and stop associating with those people. As Goi Nasu once said: “An entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship. Similarly, the negativity of the world can’t put you down unless you allow it to get inside you.”

Don’t suffer in silence! If you have any doubts, anxieties, or if you are feeling depressed, talk to somebody. Sometimes just lifting the lid off it all makes the load seem lighter.

Look for flaws in others. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should make things difficult for people, or point out their mistakes. But notice to yourself that they do make mistakes, and realise that this is what humans do. Realise that you are not alone. By noticing that other people are not perfect (because nobody is), it can help you to come to terms with your own mistakes when you make them.

Discover your fears. All anxieties stem from fear. You need to work out what it is exactly that you are afraid of, and make an active plan to try and conquer them.

Discover what really makes you happy. Most people think more money will make them happy. But the depression doesn’t go away, no matter how much money they make. For me, I am most happy when I am helping people. I would rather give something away for free and feel I have genuinely helped another human, than see it as an opportunity to exploit somebody and make some money.

Don’t conform. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. I am now teetotal, simply because I don’t enjoy drinking. I never have. The coping mechanism is no longer needed. People may think it is boring, so what? In fact, people often have more of an issue with me not drinking, than I do!

Most importantly: Be true to yourself. Wear the clothes you want to wear, rather than what society has told you is cool. Discuss things that interest you, rather than ‘twerking’, or what ever is popular at the time. Individuality is what makes us human. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that everybody is different. How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?

If you don’t agree with any of these points, then that is fine. If I don’t know you, I no longer require your approval! I am what I am, not what you would like me to be.’

Geek Mental Help Week is a week-long series of articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer, and those who care for us.

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