Often when I am working with a designer or vendor I have to put myself in the user’s position and ask myself, “is this simple?” Engineers and designers have the unique ability to be with a project from the ground up. They have spent hours (hopefully) going through the reasoning why something functions a certain way, is placed in a certain place, or is worded a particular way.

Users, on the other hand, show up with no prior knowledge and don’t want to put more than a moment’s thought into where things are “logically” located. They quickly want results or they will navigate to another site or succumb to the appeal of watching a squirrel out the window.

One check is to write down and verbally go through the steps for a critical task with another person and see if at any point you stop and go, “boy, that’s a ridiculous amount of steps.” Even if you are oblivious, hopefully the other person will interrupt you or start chasing squirrels at some point. (It’s not rude but rather a tell-tale sign that you lost them.)

Even some of the most functional sites and applications may have critical areas that need tweaking. I’ve often wondered myself, as I am bringing a client through the steps, if the designers ever actually used a particular function before committing it to production.

Take this example for a saved search that will automatically email users when new results are added to the system. The backstory is that saving and automatically emailing results on a set frequency was an often requested feature by users, so they do expect to be able to save and receive updates.

Read it mentally first, then read it out loud.

  1. Click on “Advanced Search”
  2. Enter a name for your search in the “Save Search As” text field
  3. Check the box next to “Save Search”
  4. Select search criteria
  5. Click on the “Perform Search” button and see results
  6. Go to the “Saved Search” tab
  7. Click on the name you gave your saved search
  8. Check the box for “Email Me Updates”
  9. Save
  10. Click on “Schedule” next to your search name
  11. Choose frequency (every three days, Monday and Thursdays only, etc)
  12. Save

Seriously, don’t just read it mentally, read it out loud. When reading it out loud what step did you get to before you said, “this is stupid”? There is a difference from blindly reading through or performing steps as a developer to actually verbalizing the steps.

Why? Because verbalizing is slower and wastes your time! If you are wasting your time, imagine what you are doing to your user who is not reading step by step instructions but is trying to figure out how to get to the next step which they may or may not know know about!

Imagine yourself as a user trying to figure out how to get to step 1 without prior knowledge.

As a user, figure out how to jump back to step 1 after performing a search you realize you would like to save.

One reason why this does not work (though there are many) is because it takes the user out of the task up to 3 times and requires the user to have knowledge about what area, hidden from view, to go to next.

So, as an exercise, let’s rethink this. The point of this exercise is to work towards a simpler solution. As with any design project there are many factors unique to the situation to take into account and therefore many solutions. The idea is to train yourself to think simply and put good user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design into practice.

If, in this example, we have reason to have a separate advanced search tab rather than an expandable form that goes from simple to advanced when the user chooses, we should probably still have saving functionality built into the simple search form.

On either the simple or advanced form, we could have a check box for saving the search. Also, on the results page we should allow the user to save the search criteria that was just executed. This puts the idea of saving a search right in front of the user no matter at what point they realize they want to save the search. We just took care of step 1 in the previous walk-through and allowed the user to do something by impulse rather than thinking it through.

Once the user has submitted the request to save a search, either by checking the box from the search form, or clicking Save Search from a results page, we should allow the user the opportunity to name the search (or use a default of some descriptive search criteria) and additionally the option to receive an automatic email.

This removes the name field from the already complex search page and only presents it to the user once we know their intention is to follow through with saving. Why have them complete two steps to initiate the process? Get them in the door and then drill into their needs.

The final step is to automatically present the user with the additional option of frequency only after they have asked to receive email updates. This can be done by expanding the email option on the same form, or on a separate screen that the user arrives at after submitting the form.

So, now the steps are:

  1. Go to the search page
  2. Select save search (either from the form or results page)
  3. Fill out saved search info

The system now allows snap-judgement intuition to guide the user through the steps. All information presented is minimal and it is up to the user to determine how detailed they get in setting up the saved search.

Any marketing communication would have previously read:

For convenience, users can save their searches in our application. Just:

  1. Click on “Advanced Search”
  2. Enter a name for your search in the “Save Search As” text field
  3. Check the box next to “Save Search”
  4. Select search criteria
  5. Click on the “Perform Search” button and see results
  6. Go to the “Saved Search” tab
  7. Click on the name you gave your saved search
  8. Check the box for “Email Me Updates”
  9. Save
  10. Click on “Schedule” next to your search name
  11. Choose frequency (every three days, Monday and Thursdays only, etc)
  12. Save

(I only copy and paste the steps again to reiterate how dumb this is.)

Now marketing communication can simply say:

For convenience, users can save their searches in our application. Just perform a search and save!

There is no need to provide more detail because, if we did it right, the steps flow automatically.

The next job, from a design standpoint, is to watch feedback, traffic stats, etc. and continually tweak it for your own solution. Remember, design is iterative and is never complete.

Oh, and yes, this was a real-life 12 step example that I verbalized to a vendor step by step over the phone and then asked, “This doesn’t sound complicated?” The answer wasn’t inspiring.

About Chad Leigh Kluck

I enjoy technology development and management by following new trends, change and disruption, and security. I have a Master of Science in Software Engineering and my hobbies include railroads, history, do-it-yourself projects, writing, and ham radio (K0RRX). More...

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