The Shelf Life of an Observation Part 3: Users Are Changing

In part one of this series I explained that users’ expectations and behaviors change over time, and that any research observations related to such behaviors have concomitant “shelf lives.”  In part two I covered a major caveat concerning findings that relate directly to human cognitive limitations, which have a much more enduring relevance for any future design iterations.  In this final installment we are going to tackle the tricky business of designing for users as they change.

Users Are Changing (right now)

If your day-to-day involves trying to design appealing interfaces that reflect your commitment to usability and modernity, you’ve probably run into a common problem:  Your latest design is pretty new and different for your users, and their first encounters with it aren’t going as smoothly as you’d like.  YOU know it’s awesome and that everyone will love it, just as soon as they adjust.  But the usability study findings can’t be ignored, and the business is worried about that drop in CSAT.  What to do?

An Example: Three dots

I remember it like it was yesterday.  But it was actually about four years ago, when I worked as a design researcher for the Consumer Experience Design team at Motorola Mobility.  I was in a little fishbowl conference room with an interaction designer, a product manager, and whoever else was dialed-in on the conference bridge.  We were discussing the implications of the findings from a recent usability study I had conducted.  It was not the first time we’d gotten negative feedback about The Dots, and the conversation was getting a little tense.

These dots:


In the latest design for our version of the Android Contacts application, you could swipe to one side or another to get to other “facets,” contextual pages of content, and see status updates or communication history for your contacts.  We needed some sort of affordance to let users know that there was more to see if they swiped.  A tabbed interface was just too old-school, and tabs just took up so much space*.  And so the dots were born, appearing at the upper right hand side of the screen.  “People get dots now,” was more or less the argument from the pro-dots crowd, due to the popularity of using them at the bottom of smartphone home screens to represent multiple pages.  Dots were in.  They were clean, unobtrusive, and modern.

And they totally sucked.

Test after test showed that our users did not know what to think of the mysterious little icons.  They tapped.  They long-pressed.  And that was only the small minority of them that even noticed the dots to begin with.  Users didn’t get it.  But they had no trouble with earlier tasks in the same study when they added things to multiple home screens, swiping away.

The important thing here was context.  We were at a special point in the timeline of trending touchscreen interface design where three dots at the bottom of a viewport had a decent (though still not perfect) chance of being noticed and understood, yet those three dots somewhere else on the screen weren’t quite doing the job.  It wasn’t anyone’s fault, the users just weren’t “there” yet.  Seeing some dots next to each other didn’t automatically mean swipe in most users’ minds.  They had learned they could scroll through home screen panels, but this was a core part of functionality of the newer smartphones that was being widely advertised and talked about, even being demonstrated in the iPhone tv ads.  So the page indicator as a stand-alone new thing was not driving the swiping behavior.  None of our users had had the expectation that they’d be able to swipe a contacts list to the side and see people’s social network activity, thus they were a little blind to the dots.

An Example: Three lines

Ah, the “hamburger” icon.  Three stacked horizontal lines comprise this little controversial wonder.  It means list view.  It means navigation drawer.  It means menu.  I’m typing this up in Microsoft Word and it’s down in the left corner of the screen representing “Draft View.”  It just means everything, doesn’t it?  I believe this is why it’s been taking a little while for three horizontal lines to be immediately recognized as the icon for…well whatever it is you are trying to use it for.

2014-04-30_14-29-55 On the full website, the icon is in a circle and opens a pop up for logging in.

IMG_0098On the Sears mobile site, the icon hides a drawer with all links for browsing the site.

Most recent discussion around this icon is connected to its use to represent navigation.  It is no longer just an alternate view of some content—The primary functionality of an app or site is being “hidden” behind this icon.  This is where the actual shift in users’ expectations is happening.  Where dots meant “more” in some vague way, and the new thing to learn was to swipe horizontally in order to see stuff, three lines means “list” and the new thing to learn is to expect really important functions to be out of view in said list.

Users are changing when it comes to expectations about this icon, especially its position in a top corner of a page.  Content is king, so it’s nice to be tucking things away and filling the screen with content, but in the meantime we have to deal with the transition period.  That might mean task completion in a usability test goes down and task times go up when users can’t find where you’ve hidden “Shop Departments,” for example (True story).

The Point Being…

If there can be such long transition periods (where long means months to years) where users are slowly getting acclimated to a new way of doing things, or learning to recognize a certain unlabeled icon no matter what context they find it in, how do you handle it?

Wait it out

It sounds scary, but depending on your situation, you might just accept a small dip in satisfaction for first-time users and wait until everybody catches up.  Maybe the fact that it took some users 5 more seconds to find something is overshadowed by the valuable things you can do now that you’ve freed up some space on the screen.  In the meantime, for something like the “hamburger” icon, where it is a core part of a major operating system (Android OS) and showing up in the most popular apps (like Facebook…oh, wait, they moved it again), you have the advantage of knowing that users are being exposed to this more frequently than just when interacting with your experience.

Be helpful

2014-04-30_16-31-22On the full website, this icon, labeled as “menu,” opens up navigation to different sections of content, a sign in link for registered users, and various site links that you might typically find in a footer.

As we train users to look to a drawer to find what they need, we can help them out.  Label your menu icon “menu.”  Load the site or the app with the navigation drawer open if that is where the main tasks begin (The Evernote app does this, completely doing away with the menu icon.  They truly got at the root of the matter and it makes sense for the way one uses their app.  Your mileage may vary).  Or just show a little peek for a couple seconds, and let it slide closed.  Go heavy-handed and employ a transparent overlay with arrows calling out important buttons on the screen.  If you can’t afford to have new users of your interface not finding important functionality, then do what you have to do.

2014-05-07_20-25-54Upon opening the Evernote Android app. No drawer icon needed.


What you have to do may just be something else.  If you’re introducing something really new, and your testing shows that users aren’t getting it, you might need to redesign it.  It happens.  That’s why we iterate.  Perhaps you are ahead of your time, and down the road that nifty little idea you came up with will be all the rage.  But for now, happy users matter more.


*Epilogue: Not too long after that, screen sizes suddenly grew.  Where our research had previously been showing people literally laughing out loud while holding up a prototype of a 5 inch phone to their ears, mocking the outlandish size, they began tolerating, even desiring larger screen sizes just a couple years later.  With the larger screens we had more space. Tabs came back into the picture.  Slicker, more flatly-designed tabs, but tabs nevertheless.  The moral of the story, and indeed this whole blog series: Users are fickle changing.  Test, test again, and be prepared when you get different answers.

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One Response to “The Shelf Life of an Observation Part 3: Users Are Changing”

  1. Karol Czyrka →
    May 29, 2014 at 8:01 am #

    What a great series. This is my favorite part of research – not the one off report (although immediately helpful to design teams), but the accumulation of insights.