Photo of the Loch Ness Monster

Al Gore invented the Internet. Drinking alcohol keeps your body warm. You won’t get pregnant if you stand on your head after … well, you get the idea. Myths are those hard-and-fast rules that often start as a plausible idea or once-off observation that grow and distill into ‘common knowledge’ as they virtually spread. I know I’ve believed a few of these. I’ve also asked my UX expert Twitter friends for their UX Myths – and they have many!

So, let me entertain you with a list I compiled of my favorite ‘User Experience myths’. Then perhaps you, like many UX folks, will have some myths of your own to share …

Note from the Editor: Doug Bowman, Dan Cederholm, Jason Santa Maria and more, will be talking about UX at The Future of Web Design NYC.

Myth #10: If the Design is a Good One, You Don’t Need to Test It

"LKMMyth: If you follow usability rules and really think your UI through, you don't have to test. (@songcarver)"
If you're an expert there's no use in doing user research.'

This myth states basically that if you are experienced, and you know what you’re doing, then you won’t need to do any user experience testing. The parallel myth to this is that Great Designers create finished products in one shot, with less need to mockup, prototype or user test. If there’s one theme I’ve noticed when studying experienced and successful design firms and approaches, it’s that user testing is absolutely key.

IDEO are known to create dozens of prototypes for testing during a product’s development. Apple’s Jonathan Ive has admitted his love of prototypes – and you can attribute part of Apple’s recent success to their willingness to spend the time, money and energy to prototype and test everything, even their stores.

I’ve been enjoying the trend in the software industry towards SCRUM and agile design, where quick turnaround, testing and redesign are key.

One of the reasons why user testing is often delayed, or skipped, is because of a tendency to think that testing needs to ‘formal’, ‘proper’ or extensive. When doing UX design on software applications Comic Life and Skitch, my co-UX designer and I often approached random people at our cafe hangout and asked them if they would take a few minutes to try our latest build. Because our applications are used in education, we also asked teachers and students to use our try our software.  You’d be surprised how helpful an independent experience of your design can be, and with minimal expenditure of time and money. My one tip is to make sure you’re being clear that you’re not testing them, just the product.

Myth #9: People Don’t Change

Apple Preferences window with how-to trackpad video
OS X Preference window includes a how-to video on using the trackpad.

This myth assumes that the population’s understanding of a technology stays the same. I remember using an early Macintosh and watching the tutorial on how to use a mouse. Particularly how to double-click, and how to pick up the mouse and move it to the edge of the mouse pad if you run out of room. (I’ve seen computer users who would still benefit from this tutorial.) In its place on a modern Mac is a video demonstrating multi-touch gestures.

There was an early time on the web when everything important needed to be ‘above the fold’; the area seen in a typical browser before any scrolling took place. This is now much less relevant. Here are some more myths that are not necessarily true anymore:

Donna Spencer on twitter with UX Myths

My point is that there is a history of cultural change that you can draw on. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” works for a while, and then grows old. Soon, people that use what you work on are no longer captivated or mentally constrained by the newness of the technology. (Of course, I’d still love those mouse tutorials back, and so may your customers.)

Myth #8: Design to Avoid Clicks

“Everything should be made as simple as it needs to be, and no simpler.” Albert Einstein.

While we’re talking about reducing clicks, there is a myth, or perhaps it’s closer to an intuition, that the number of steps of interaction should always be reduced. But my experience leads me to believe that sometimes the result of an overly ‘optimized’ design is actually harder to use, and the user would have been much happier just doing a few more steps.

One example I’ve seen is the concept of ‘styles’ in word processing and graphic design software. Styles offer the powerful ability to define a visual look once, and apply and update it for many objects. However, I’ve seen users struggle with the concept and resort to changing each element separately. Alternately, they multi-select objects and change attributes in this fashion. At at guess, it seems the time-saving ability of styles costs more mental effort than the physical effort it saves.

Interestingly, the study of ergonomics owes much to pioneering industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. If you ever think you’ve got it tough in the new field of User Experience Design, find solace in the fact that Industrial Design was in the same position in the 1930s—and Henry Dreyfuss was at it’s forefront. And if you’ve never heard of Henry Dreyfuss, then you’ll probably enjoy reading about another influential Industrial designer Dieter Rams and comparisons made to modern day Apple products.

Also,  there is an interesting story on the work of another pioneer Walter Dorwin Teague when consulting for Kodak. In an effort to sell more Kodak cameras to women, the ‘Vanity Camera’ was released in five distinct colors. The iPod, decades later was to use the same trick (and with a very similar color palette.)

Myth #7: UX Design Stops at the Edges of the Product

Interestingly, the ‘Vanity Camera’ mentioned above came in a satin-lined box colored to match the camera. If you’ve got this far, then you’re probably also the kind of geek who’s seen “unboxing” videos posted for  many new shiny pieces of tech, and understand how appealing good packaging can be.

In my world of software, the equivalent of unboxing is often the download and installation of software. Popular Linux distros like Ubuntu seem, in my opinion, to be offering one of the best virtual ‘out of the box’ experiences when finding, installing and updating applications. This Ubuntu screenshot demonstrates the app installer; a built in utility that makes it easy to search for applications by their description, knowing that they have some measure of safety, pick one you like based on it’s popularity (for example), automatically check that your system can run said application and if not, install the necessary pieces, install the application, and keep it up-to-date in future. Nice.

Ubuntu App installer
View larger

The Linux approach, in my opinion, is the best of any platform. Other platforms don’t offer such a seamless experience; I’m looking at you OS X, and your confusing virtual disk image installation method.

From a services perspective: I’ve read that Disneyland employees make note of your car and where you park it on your arrival—if you come back dazed at the end of the day and can’t find it, they’ll happily locate it for you.

IDEO provides another great story in it’s redesign of the hospital experience. One of the IDEO staff pretended to be a patient, lying on a gurney with a video camera and recording a typical visit in it’s entirely. The result? Patients on their way to, and from treatment spend the majority of time staring upwards; confused, disconnected and disoriented by constant motion between rooms all with a uniform vista of impersonal ceiling tiles.

These are all examples of the value in the ‘outer edges’ of a user experience. Often overlooked, in both product and service design.

Myth #6: If you Have Great Search, You Don’t Need Great Information Architecture

Or, “If you have great information architecture, you don’t need great search.”

After years of battling it out, the best practice seems to be to always offer BOTH a well-fitting structured information space, and also great search. Search is not the sole answer: Dr Williams Jones, Author of Personal Information Management and key member of the Keeping Found Things Found research team discusses the weaknesses of a pure search approach in a (fitting) tech talk to Google.

Conversely, you can’t get away without having search: There’s increasing integration of sophisticated search into areas which traditionally were organized hierarchically or spatially. For example, the OS X System Preferences window is searchable in a reasonably sophisticated way.

OS X Preference pane with search field
Notice the search for ‘wallpaper’ that revealed ‘Desktop & Screen Saver’

Myth #5: Can’t Decide? Make it a Preference

So, from myth number #4 you can tell that the user mental model can differ, and there’s not always a one-size-fits-all. In my experience, designing what preferences your product has, and how they will be presented, is long and challenging task.

I look at it like this:

Every preference which is not really needed is a design choice that I’m offloading to all the users of my product or service.

They’re all having to do the work I should have, and duplicate work at that. I know in the designs I’ve worked on, deciding on just what will have a preference is a massive issue worth paying attention to.

On simplicity:

Trust is increased by caring enough to unburden the user from extraneous decisions. Working on Skitch and Comic Life taught me an unexpected lesson: when a customer/user has total trust and familiarity with a product they cross a threshold of use: it starts being used innovately.

For example, we once received an email from a user who had used the drawing capabilities of our little screencapture and markup tool to design large, real-world signage for a restaurant. Sure, Skitch was designed to output smooth vector lines, but this was not quite the use-case in mind! The lesson was that when a product becomes very familiar to a user, they’ll often reach for it first when trying to solve a problem.

I tend to think of it like using a screwdriver to open a tin of paint. It’s actually not the best tool for the job (because it has a tendency to bend over time), but it’s the first thing that comes to mind for many people to use, and is something they are very comfortable with. Similarly, we once had a nice email from the forensic department of a Police force who wrote to say how handy they found Comic Life to be for laying out (gruesome, I imagine) crime scene photos. The simplicity of the tool meant it was applied in many contexts for which it wasn’t designed.

On choice:

A few months ago my girlfriend went looking on Dell.com for a new laptop. She was so overwhelmed with  choices that she gave up. This topic’s been covered widely, but if you’re not familiar with it then enjoy the research and storytelling of Barry Schwartz who discusses how too many options can not only lead to your customers making no choice, but (counter-intuitively) resenting the choices they do make.

Twitter image of "@songcarver VTPG myth: "professional" always means more options."

The extension of this myth here is that “Pro” users need and want more choices. In my opinion there is some truth to this, but at the same time it’s a slippery slope to preference/choice hell.

Myth #4: Design Always with Implementation in Mind

when desiging an interface always keep technical limitations in mind

This one is easy to interpret as ‘dream up anything and have someone else worry about the building of it”, which is not the case. Instead, I increasingly see it as the skill of having a split personality. On one hand, ‘the users experience is everything’ guy, and on the other ‘how can we implement this with the most sensitivity and understanding of the building materials?’

Good reading: 37signals’ Ryan Singer on separating design from implementation.

Myth #3: People Know What They Like

For background on this one, have a read of Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely and Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert B. Cialdini — you’ll soon see the hard scientific evidence that our ‘tastes’ can be quantitatively swayed by external situations, environs or people. (By the way, the latter book is much more research driven, and much less cheesy than its title implies).

There is also the infamous story of ‘chunky spaghetti sauce’ told by Malcolm Gladwell (Here’s a TED talk where he retells the story) imploring that market research (asking people what they want) won’t always reveal the products they do want. This one is also easy to misinterpret — asking what people want is a great thing—it might just take you some detective work to find out their real needs, and imagine how to fufil and surpass them.

Myth #2: People Read

Short: They don’t. 🙂

Long: The thinking usually goes something like “If the user is confused, some text explanation will help.” Or you, or someone in your team will think that a dialogue box, page of instructions, or a warning sticker will help clarify a situation.

Chance of being read = 1/volume of text

OK, I just invented the above equation, but it seems pretty close to the truth. Eye Tracking studies I’ve seen from the Nielsen Norman Group highlight that many web surfers are only reading the links on pages.  So the point is to make sure that linked text actually says something, instead of [click here]. And that text is concise. And readable.

It’s not sexy, but improving the text in your site, application, product design, service script etc. can have the biggest payoff for effort. 37signals have written about the relation of copywriting to UX design, but I wish good copywriting got more coverage in User Experience texts.

In my opinion dynamic text (dialogue boxes, popups) seems most readily ignored/confused by users. For example, most users seem not to see Skitch’s popup help tip.
Skitch popup help tips

However, this small piece of static and useful text in the Comic Life interface(below) seems to work well.

Comic Life text 'drag these to your comic'

Myth #1: The Design Has to be Original

Truthfully, I don’t know if this one is a myth, or just a hard lesson for me to learn. I love to solve problems, to come up with the ‘aha!’ moment of inspired UX design. However, if I’ve learnt anything in UX design it’s that the great design solution you seek is probably already out there in the corner of someone else’s product or service, and they’ve done the usability testing for you! Look for ‘standards’ or memes in design, assess their UX suitability and quality, and use them.

Various power buttons with same symbol

And You?

That completes my Top Ten of User Experience myths, most of which seem to have just enough truth to remain popular. Or not—you tell me! It seems everyone has a story to tell about User Experience design and I’d love to hear yours.

Special thanks to my twitterer friends for their contributions. Photo credit for black Photo credit for black cat Photo: