The Worst Usability Mistake I Ever Made

When designing websites, a lot of decisions may appear to be common sense from the surface. Huge usability mistakes are easy to catch, but most huge mistakes aren’t always a single act. Often, they are made up of a combination of smaller issues which are more difficult to identify.

The biggest usability mistake I ever made was not putting myself in the user’s shoes and having a preconceived notion about how the user would behave.

Understanding your user’s mindset is critical to usability. Gartner analyst writes: “Usability affects how customers perceive and respond to products, services and artifacts of all types, including websites and applications.”

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This erroneous theme, then, showed up in multiple mistakes that I made.

I will be detailing what exactly went through my head before and after making these usability mistakes, providing examples, and showing you how to avoid these common pitfalls.

My Thought Process Going into the DayWhere it all Went Wrong

Typically when I explore websites, I have a clear goal in mind.

I know what I am looking for, and can competently navigate webpages to find it. For me, Google search bars were redundant. If I needed to find something with Google, I would have used it in the first place. As such, I did not include a search bar on the front page of the website.

I had a similar approach to interface design in regards to blank slates. Anything extraneous gets in the way of the functional parts. I considered everything that wasn’t absolutely essential as clutter. If there’s no data to be read, then nothing should appear in the appropriate fields.

My logic here was solid: even Gartner recommends “Strive for a great UX by realizing that design is not just about adding features, but also is about their carefully considered removal.”

Finally, when designing hyperlinks, I did not do anything ‘special’. Text links on tabbed elements were simply put in as labels. I am precise with the mouse on my desktop, so in my own testing, I saw no need to change the clickable area of the links.

The Problems that Arose from those Mistakes
The Downward Spiral

While I might think that the site was straightforward and easy to navigate from my own perspective, it was a narrow-sighted approach. Many users will go to your site with a specific task in mind and search for it with the search bar. My problem here was that I didn’t consider how the user would interact with the site.

Research by Jakob Nielsen found that more than half of all users are search-dominant, and one fifth of the users are link-dominant. Search-dominant users are task-focused and head straight to the search function to find information as quickly as possible.

I found that many users found the barren blank slate page very confusing. Users do not have preconceptions about how the site is supposed to function, unlike the designer. The absence of information can look like the site hasn’t fully loaded, or there are errors on the page, like an error 404 page.

What I also found was that many users were imprecise with their clicks, making it difficult to navigate. This was even more apparent on the mobile version of the site, where people used touch controls to navigate it.

How I Fixed the Issues – Getting Back on the Horse

I was able to implement a Google search bar into the code quite easily, because Google already indexed the entirety of the site. I made sure to include the search bar on the front page for quick and easy access for search-dominant users.

I fixed the blank slate issue by making sure that all information is made apparent, even if there is no data to use. For example, if there were no comments, I would explicitly say “no comments were found” in the field. The extra words were not clutter. They were vital for keeping the user on track.

I fixed small clickable areas by introducing additional padding around the links, or using images as links. According to Signal v. Noise, padding around clickable links creates a feeling of comfort for the user.

How You Can Avoid Making these Same Mistakes

As you can see, all of the mistakes that I made had easy technical fixes. Every single usability mistake I made could have been avoided with more careful consideration of the user’s experience from their perspective. A designer’s perspective can be skewed by your own experiences, just as mine were skewed by my technical abilities.

Jessica Miller
Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.
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