Trends In User Behavior: A View from the Trenches

As a longtime "Law and Order" fan, I greatly appreciate the fact that reruns of my favorite show (and its subsequent spin-offs) are shown on cable almost every hour of every day.  There's something reassuring about the fact that, should one wake in the middle of the night, Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach are but a click away, making New York (and, of course, the world) a safer place for all of us. 

This resonates with me, for, as a champion of user rights, I see myself as a sort of purveyor of Web justice, fighting to ensure that the Internet provides a usable experience for all.  Shaky metaphor?  Perhaps.  But with user injustices taking place on sites across the Internet, the Web could use such warriors working to promote usability across all online domains.

Ironically, it was during an "L&O" rerun that I noticed I was not alone in my battle.  A commercial for, the online repository for all things automotive, touts its attention to user experience as a savvy marketing executive presents his idea for virtual online test drives.



This advertising campaign particularly hit home with me. In a series of research studies over the past eight months, I've found the most salient trend emerging among users is that of usability and user experience.  People are no longer timidly manipulated by the technology, as they were at the inception of the Web, but rather expect sites to work to meet their needs, instead of the other way around.

Of course, the issue of user needs is becoming more important as greater numbers of companies bring their business to the Web.  Usability has become a differentiating factor in many cases, coupled with the trend in user expectations; users expect sites to be intuitive, easy to use and seamless across the board.

People expect sites to be intuitive. Even as recently as two or three years ago, Web users tended to blame themselves for their inability to find information or complete tasks online.  Most research sessions I conducted during this time started off with a lengthy apology from the participant, explaining that he or she was "not very technical" and "might make mistakes."  No amount of reassuring could placate these users, not even the standard "we're not testing you, we're testing the interface" comment.  People thought that they needed to adapt in order to meet the evolving demands of this new technology.

Not so today.  People not only expect to be able to use Web sites in a seamless fashion, they expect sites to anticipate and meet their every need.  A refreshing expectation, but one that places additional pressure on companies looking for customers.

Case in point:  when trying to book a vacation online, a user was unable to compare two hotels side by side on a Web site.  Instead of apologizing, or printing out separate descriptions of the hotels to read offline, the user stopped, put the mouse down and looked me right in the eye.  "This is a mess," she said.  "I am leaving this Web site. This doesn't let me do what I want."

This user, instead of blaming herself, channeled the blame in the right direction: toward the interface itself. 

People still don't read online. In fact, it seems that people are less patient with online copy today than they were in the past.  This could be the result of smaller text, higher screen resolutions or simply because people expect an interface to communicate how it is to be used just by its very appearance.  Imagine if you went to a restaurant but, in order to get inside, you had to read lengthy instructions on how to use the doorknob.  This would be a pain, and you'd probably go to another restaurant.  Web sites are the same way. 

When evaluating a bridal Web site, one bride-to-be wanted to see how a bridesmaid dress would look in different colors.  There was a series of color swatches immediately to the left of the dress in question, and the user clicked on them, expecting the dress to change colors.  When nothing happened, the bride-to-be was disappointed, saying that she'd visit other sites to see if they had similar dresses in different colors.

This participant, a sophisticated user of technology, did not read the small print next to the color swatches on the left that said, "Roll over color swatches at the bottom of the page to see dress color options."  Since she didn't read the copy, she couldn't figure it out, and went to a competitor's site instead.  It's like the old saying goes, if the user can't find it, the functionality's not there.

People appreciate simplicity. There are a lot of beautiful Web sites out there.  Unfortunately, many of these are too good-looking to use.  Sites adorned with extraneous Flash animations, videos, and lots of large images confuse users and make it difficult for them to accomplish their goals.  People want simple designs that are easy to use while being pleasant to look at.  They don't want to wade through lengthy intros and convoluted navigation in order to find what they're looking for.

When evaluating a hospital Web site, users unfailingly complimented the compelling imagery and animation splashed across the site's home page.  They liked the color scheme, the photographs and the messaging.  Unfortunately, none of the participants were able to use the site to find the name of a physician, which was the task they were asked to complete.

"All this pretty stuff is nice, but it's worthless if I can't find a doctor," one frustrated participant told me.

This is not to say that sites shouldn't strive for beauty, or that Flash animations and imagery are ill-advised.  Carefully designed and positioned animations can actually help users get information, and images can lead people through a task-completion process. Designers should strive for beauty in simplicity in order to foster a site's usability.

People look for user-generated content. No, users are not all clamoring for elaborate MySpace pages or detailed blogs.  That type of activity is too time-consuming for people trying to make an investment decision, or figure out what their health symptoms mean.  However, people do look for user feedback and customer testimonials, especially in the health-care and travel industries.

In the past, users gravitated toward professional reviews and information. Not so today.  In travel research, participants actively sought out customer-generated content, such as reviews, feedback, and testimonials.

"I don't care what some travel expert says about this place, I want to hear what real people like me feel about it," a participant said.  "Anyone can pay an expert to get a good review.  I want to know what unbiased travelers thought."

The same held true in health-care research.  An ovarian cancer patient searched the Web for cancer blogs, testimonials, and user pages, looking for hope and information.

"It helps me to see what other people are going through, so I can see if I'm normal or not," she told me.  "I love to read people's personal stories of hope.  It makes me feel like I have a future."

The bottom line. While it is possible, on some level, to "take the industry pulse" in terms of user experience, it is also important to continually explore and refine our assumptions about what users do online--to help us create sites that will provide the best experience possible.


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