When our clients observe usability tests we are careful to encourage them not to focus too much on what users say and instead look at what they do. On many occasions users will tell us that they liked a website, and found it easy to use. But just the opposite was true from our observations. They struggled to use the site and spent a long time being confused when making navigation decisions.
Why does this happen? If you’re asked why you did something (why did you select the button on the bottom right instead of the button on the bottom left), you will probably find a very reasonable answer you believe to be correct (the button on the right is red, and that’s my favourite colour).
Rather than saying “I’m not sure” we have a tendency to formulate credible scenarios to articulate why, but this will often not be the real reason. This phenomenon is known in psychology as ‘confabulation’. Psychologists believe that much of our behaviour is driven by our unconscious which, by definition, is something we are not aware of.
Avoid asking people to explain why they did something
When conducting usability research it is important to try to remain focused on observing real behaviour by looking at how users complete a task, where they seem to get confused, what practical barriers stop them from completing their task and so on.
Choosing the right method in user research is important and some methods are better than others to understand how to improve your website’s usability. Surveys and focus groups can be incredibly useful to gain insight into users but are not the best method to retrospectively ask why users behaved the way they did.
Similarly, eye tracking research often uses a method called ‘retrospective think aloud’ where participants are shown their gaze patterns after using a website and asked what they were looking at and why they used the site in the way they did. This is a fantastic tool in the right circumstances but, if it is so easy for us humans to unknowingly make up reasons for our behaviour. Can we rely on the retrospective feedback users give us when we’re making key design decisions?
When making key design decisions you should observe people using the website
Although we will never really know what unconscious urges can influence users to click one thing over another, by being alongside them while they experience a website, a usability test will provide a time sensitive and clearer insight into which areas of the site cause confusion and which areas work well in supporting user decision making.
We will never ignore what users say, but we are aware of the effects of ‘false memories’ and will use observations of their behaviour to interpret what users say during a test. So, use eye tracking to review your website and you’ll get some great insight, but make sure you use the findings to run a typical usability test, this will validate the findings and ensure you really know why users make the decisions they do.
Have you observed people using your website?
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About Damian Rees
Damian has worked as a usability and user experience consultant for over 13 years. He has worked in senior roles within companies like the BBC and National Air Traffic Services where he has researched and designed for users in a variety of different contexts including web applications, voice recognition, and air traffic control interfaces. Follow Damian on twitter @damianrees