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The 7 Big Myths Of User Experience And Usability

October 29, 2015 Mojo Media Labs

In the world of the ever-accessible Internet, people espouse tidbits of knowledge as fact, mystified by numbers and seemingly intensive research studies. Of course, as any good researcher knows, the Internet should always be taken with a grain of salt, and sources and resources should be checked and double-checked, else any topic can be taken as truth when it is instead a fallacy. 

Take for example, the Myth of “right brained v. left brained.”

People spout with authority “Oh I’m very right brained,” there are books and articles constantly addressing how to tap into one side or the other, and people use this self-assessed characteristic as the only identifier you’ll ever need to know anything about them. 

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the idea of right-brained and left-brained is a myth, perpetuated by a small study of epileptic patients who had the corpus callosum of their brain severed. With this in mind, it seems a little silly to apply the findings to a larger population without this particular difference in their brain, huh?

Well, brains are quite complex, so perhaps that’s semi-forgivable. Let’s instead take something a bit simpler. How about caffeine?

Any coffee drinker knows that dark roast tastes like it has more caffeine because it’s more bitter, but light roast has higher caffeine content, right? Except this, too, is a myth—one that gets spouted across the length and breadth of the web. In reality, caffeine content in coffee beans changes little across roasting. Instead, any changes in caffeine content across different roasts come from a change in the weight of the coffee bean. Beans with a lighter roast become smaller in volume than those of darker roasts, which means coffee brewed with these beans require a slightly larger quantity of beans. This is what has ultimately led to the belief that lighter roast coffees have a higher caffeine content, when in reality, any difference is due to the amount of beans, and is ultimately negligible.

Why do I bring these misconceptions up? Because no topic is immune, not even user experience. And while most myths are rather harmless, UX (and sometimes CX) myths can cause problems for both your business and your customers.

Myth #1: The Three-Click Rule

Existing since the dawn of the Internet, the three-click rule suggests that users should be able to find what they need in three clicks, or they’ll abandon the site or process through which they’re going. Designers, usability experts and inbound marketers alike swear up and down by this rule, and make major decisions based on this assumption.

While well intentioned, the truth of the matter is that by operating under the three-click rule, these people are more often than not hindering their goals, by sacrificing true usability for a rule that has shown little measurable difference in user abandonment or user satisfaction. It is indeed true that fewer clicks are better—but the number three is rather meaningless.

The fact of the matter is that user satisfaction and abandonment of a task is less about clicks than it is about task failure and the inability of the user to find what they need. A user will find more success with more clicks that are well designed than three clicks that are over saturated with information.

The take-away? Use less clicks when possible, but don’t overthink it!

Myth #2: Choices, Choices, Choices

In the eyes of inbound marketing, more choices are tied to driving value. Usability falls into this trap, too—we should let our users make more choices because choices means giving the user control. Unfortunately, psychology is not on the side of either the inbound specialist or the UX designer.

Choices seem great, and they do drive value on a product once a decision on that product or service has been made already, but before that choice, it can prove to be a hindrance in customer experience and ease of usability. The issue is a little thing called decision paralysis, or the paradox of choice, and can often lead to unprecedented levels of frustration.

Have you tried to make a dinner decision with a group of people lately? If so, you may have experienced this phenomenon. There are so many options and so much input that it becomes and increasingly difficult and overwhelming endeavor to try and plan. People begin to claim indifference and you get nowhere until finally someone takes initiative and makes an executive decision.

That’s decision paralysis; except when it happens to your user, they’re often alone on the decision they’re making. Too many choices mean too many decisions and too many decisions sometimes means no decision at all.

Of course you don’t want to eliminate decision altogether, as this can lead to similar levels of dissatisfaction. But more choice does not equal more usable.

Myth #3: Minimalism Means Usability 

We all know people who swear by minimalism—they dig modern, streamlined furniture, admire Mondrian, and live by the law of Apple. They also think that minimalist design should be used for everything.

“It’s so simple!” they argue.

These people are sadly mistaken.

The success of Apple (and to some extent Google) has led to the misconception that minimalism and simplicity are synonymous. Less-is-more design is the new wave. They’re not entirely wrong in theory, but the approach leaves something to be desired.

Apple’s strength in user experience lies less in their use of minimalism and more in the intuitive nature of their usability. Apple uses icons and interfaces that mimic real life—that’s why the iBooks UI looks like a bookshelf, the compass looks like a compass, and so on.

Most of Apple’s iPhone functionality lays in the “swipe zone” of the thumb i.e. the lower right hand arc of the phone screen, and what doesn’t is less necessary for normal use. Apple also gives good feedback to users when interacting with the product.

Ever notice that when you type your password wrong on the phone, it’ll buzz and the window will shake? That is feedback, and it’s easily recognizable feedback at that.

So why does the minimalism myth continue to exist? Because Apple utilizes a minimal user interface. There’s a tendency to mistake the depth of a UI as the measure for the UX of an item e.g. if the UI is simple the UX is too. This is not the case.

UX accounts for much more depth and thought than what you see in the design of the UI, but taking a reductionist approach to UX for the sake of a minimalist UI is a mistake that can cause irreparable damage, no matter how sleek your interface is.

Myth 4: But I Can Make X Easier!

This is another myth perpetuated by the success of Apple.

Think swipe to unlock. It’s such a simple part of life and culture now, but this wasn’t always a thing. Remember flip phones? Apple was able to take this basic interaction and make it a norm; they’ve begun to sue other companies (i.e. Samsung) for patent infringement. All over a simple motion! This has led other designers to believe that they can create a motion to make their product or service unique.

“It’ll make the process easier!” they say.

There’s just one problem with that. Humans are creatures of habit—and no matter how bad our habits are, they’re hard to break. The Usability Bible (Steve Kreug’s Don’t Make Me Think) explains this through “satisficing,” which is the idea that we don’t make choices that are optimized, but instead make the first choice that seems reasonable.

It seems counter-intuitive when you account for how much we think we are about efficiency and time. Wouldn’t the seemingly “reasonable” choice lead to more trouble in the long run? Most likely. But given that we can’t even take the time to read information that would make something easier, why would we lean a whole new system?

It’s natural to want to be innovative. Innovation can be a great thing! But being innovative in your UX is more likely to do harm than good.

Myth 5: Content Comes After Design

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This is the same problem encountered in building a site if you substitute the words content and design. Design shows where content is laid out, but content is important to the optimization and creation of design.

It seems incredibly difficult and even counterintuitive, but if you can manage it, content should come first.

“Lorem ipsum” in a wireframe helps keep the design formatted, but if your content isn’t the same length, the design quickly loses shape. Design should also be dependent on content optimization.

Users come for your content and stay for your design. So what content are you emphasizing to them, and just how important is it? Having content before hand can help you create a strong and usable design that emphasizes content, and therefore the user experience of those attempting to access your content.

If this isn’t feasible, at least produce the two concurrently so you’re not wasting time on a design that will not work for your content or your user’s needs.

Myth 6: Form Follows Function

The most prevalent of modernist design principles, the idea that the purpose of the design should hold the most importance over all, does not hold up in the world of user experience. Usability is indeed about how easy it is for your user to use your website, your product, or your service, but user experience is about how people perceive that usability. That’s where design is important.

There’s a large subset of people that shun the importance of design in favor of a usable interface. “Design doesn’t matter!” they say. If that were truly the case, we’d be looking at barebones wireframe sites all the time. The fact of the matter is that design is equally as important as function when it comes to user experience.

Your usability may be excellent in testing, but when it comes time to report and assess afterwards, your user is less likely to remember the flow of your site or how easy it was to get around. They’re going to remember the aesthetics and how the site made them feel.

Form and function go hand in hand in the user experience world, and if you don’t have both, don’t expect much in the way of success.

Myth #7: Abandon Scrolling

If you’re in the inbound marketing world, you probably hear this all the time: “Primary Content should be above the fold.” We live by the idea that CTAs should be the first thing visible on a site for conversion purposes, and that people want their content and they want it quick.

But time and time again, we’ve seen that people don’t act in a way that makes sense. For a population that largely skims, we’re not averse at all to scrolling. In fact, ClickTale, a group that looks at web heat-maps, found that while the top of a page is still your most important real estate, 76% of users will scroll, and the majority of those will scroll no matter how long the scroll is.

Of course, attention during this scroll varies, but using design elements such as headers and images to create sections can aid in drawing attention to various portions of your site. Otherwise, operating under the assumption that people won’t scroll leads to far too much content crammed above the fold, which ruins your user experience.

So while information above the fold is indeed still important, you can be flexible with what you present there and how much.

The Importance of Reading and Research

Mythology plagues any and every field of study, especially when that field is growing the way user experience is. The prevalence of information available on the Internet is handy, but it can also be a slippery slope of information stated as fact with little actual truth or backing, especially if that information goes viral.

So how do you differentiate the good information from the bad? A few simple things can help!

First, make sure you know where the information is coming from. Statistics may seem authoritative, but what are the sources for these statistics? Was there a study? Who conducted it? How many people were tested? What is the significance of the results? This can seem like a lot for anyone outside of the research field who doesn’t absorb this sort of information on a regular basis.

So when in doubt, here’s the second piece of advice: make sure you are getting your information from a trusted source. A Tumblr blog may or may not be a good source of information; it’s hard to know because blogs have little to no authority unless experts in the field write them.

Instead, look for resources from research groups, universities, viable news sources (less Buzzfeed, more NPR), and known and trusted sites in the industry. And lastly—keep reading! Information is always changing, but no one’s going to tell you right off the bat what’s right or wrong. It’s up to you to navigate changes and use your own judgment to evaluate them.

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