In this part of my series, I’ll talk about a common—and somewhat obscure—false belief relating to user-interface design. This belief has real business implications because companies spend huge amounts of money and invest significant resources in updating their Web sites and mobile apps. However, they fail to plan many of these changes to meet particular user needs or address specific pain points. As a consequence user neither notice nor appreciate their efforts. Therefore, knowing when and how to make user-interface changes that matter is critical for UX management and resource planning.
Users Won’t Pay Attention to Your Design Changes—Unless They Have Substantial Impact
During my many years of evaluating user-interface designs through user research, one of the most startling, but consistent findings I’ve seen is this: Regardless of how obvious changes appear to designers, most users don’t even notice most of them. And, when they do notice them, it is when we badly screw up a previously working user interface.
People Won’t Notice Design Changes That Don’t Impact How They Complete Their Tasks
Users are notoriously oblivious to design changes. The only time users really notice a design change is when it results in a functional difference—that is, the new user-interface enables them to do something that they could’t do before or, on the flip side, prevents them from doing something that they were able to do before. Let’s analyze a few types of design changes.
People don’t tend to notice these types of changes:
- skipping one or two screens in a process—for example, a registration process or checkout process
- making minor changes to a visual design’s color palette
- updating the wording of on-screen tips, instructions, and warnings
People do tend to notice these changes:
- not being able to do something they could do before—for instance, no longer being able to figure out how to add an item to their video rental queue or no longer being able to find a way to cancel an order that they’ve placed
- being able to do something that they could’t do before—for instance, being able to export their past records in a .csv format or chat with their friends on a social network
People Don’t Usually Read Text—Unless They Are Seeking Information
How many times have you tweaked the wording of email messages or on-screen instructions, tips, and alerts, just to find out that people didn’t notice any difference? I’ll bet most user-interface designers and product managers have experienced such frustrations many times.
On the other hand, while people don’t tend to read text, well-designed text does get noticed—depending on how well you execute a number of design principles such as meeting user expectations, making text scanable, limiting the length of text, and using images to break up text. Let’s look at a few examples:
People won’t read in the following situations:
- They are focusing on performing a task and don’t expect to encounter any problems.
- They feel that they are already familiar with a site, a company, and its products.
- They assume that the text is promotional—for example, advertising—or standard boilerplate—for example, legalese—rather than being truly informational.
People do read in these situations:
- They are actively seeking information—for example, confirmation that they’ve just successfully completed a transaction, instructions about what to do next, or a license agreement.
- They encounter an error message that stops them from moving to the next step.
- They are new to your site and are trying to learn about your products and services.
People Don’t Care About Branding in User Interfaces, Unless They Are Still Evaluating Your Company
Branding—alongside a company’s products and technology—is part of an organization’s core value. On the other hand, when interacting with the Web or a mobile user interface, people don’t pay much attention to brand-driven visual elements or language. Just the opposite. They remain very task focused, so tend to ignore promotional messages and banners.
People don’t care much about branding in these situations:
- They are already a customer of your company and trust your brand.
- They’re focusing on a particular task such as buying an item or looking for a product review and couldn’t care less about anything that isn’t relevant to their task.
People do care about branding in the following situations:
- They come to your site to research your company and its products and determine whether your company is trustworthy and stands for high quality.
- They are looking for visual cues that are consistent with your brand promise. This happens only with brands with very distinctive brand attributes—such as Apple, BMW, and eBay.
- When the visual design and overall tone of your message appear unprofessional or out of line with what your company stands for—making eBay.com look like the Tiffany Web sited, for example—people will take notice and feel negatively about your brand.