Web Usability: Reality vs Perception

Web Usability: Reality vs Perception

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reality vs perception

“Why are things always in the last place you look for them?

Because you stop looking when you find them!”

We all must have spent a lot of time watching people use Web, the thing that must have struck most of us is the difference between how we think people use websites and how they actually use them.

When we are creating a product, we work as though people are going to pore over each page, reading all of our carefully crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click.

What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is a glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are almost always large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.

In fact, it’s a little more complicated than this, and it depends on the kind of page, what the user is trying to do, how much of a hurry he’s in, and so on. But this simplistic view is much closer to reality than most of us imagine.

It makes sense that we picture a more rational, attentive user when we’re designing pages. It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.

If you want to design effective Web pages, though, you have to learn to live with three facts about real-world Web use.

We don’t read pages. We scan them

One of the very few well-documented facts about Web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages. Instead, we scan them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

The exception, of course, is pages that contain documents like news stories, reports, or product descriptions, where people will revert to reading—but even then, they’re often alternating between reading and scanning.

Why do we scan?

web usability

We’re usually on a mission.

Most Web use involves trying to get something done, and usually done quickly. As a result, Web users tend to act like sharks: They have to keep moving, or they’ll die. We just don’t have the time to read any more than necessary.

We know we don’t need to read everything.

On most pages, we’re really only interested in a fraction of what’s on the page. We’re just looking for the bits that match our interests or the task at hand, and the rest of it is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the relevant bits.

We’re good at it. It’s a basic skill

When you learn to read, you also learn to scan. We’ve been scanning newspapers, magazines, and books—or if you’re under 25, probably Twitter,  or Facebook—all our lives to find the parts we’re interested in, and we know that it works.

We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.

When we’re designing pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one. In reality, though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option—we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing.

As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.

Why don’t Web users look for the best choice?

We’re usually in a hurry.

Optimizing is hard, and it takes a long time. Satisficing is more efficient. There’s not much of a penalty for guessing wrong. Unlike firefighting,
the penalty for guessing wrong on a Website is usually only a click or two of the Back button, making satisficing an effective strategy.

Back is the most-used button in Web browsers.

Weighing options may not improve our chances.

On poorly designed sites, putting effort into making the best choice doesn’t really help. You’re usually just as well off going with your first guess and using the Back button if it doesn’t work out.

Guessing is more fun.

It’s less work than weighing options, and if you guess right, it’s faster. And it introduces an element of chance—the pleasant possibility of running into something surprising and good.

Of course, this is not to say that users never weigh options before they click. It depends on things like their frame of mind, how pressed they are for time, and how much confidence they have on the site.

We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.

One of the things that become obvious as soon as you do any usability testing—whether you’re testing Web sites, software, or household appliances—is the extent to which people use things all the time without understanding how they work, or with completely wrong-headed ideas about how they work.

Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take the time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through, making
up our own vaguely plausible stories about what we’re doing and why it works.

Take the Web browser, for instance—a crucial part of Internet use. For people who build websites, it’s an application that you use to view Web pages. But if you ask users what a browser is, a surprisingly large percentage will say something like “It’s what I use to search…to find things” or “It’s the search engine.” Try it yourself:

ask some family members what a Web browser is. You may be surprised.

Many people use the Web extensively without knowing that they’re using a browser. What they know is you type something in a box and stuff appears. But it doesn’t matter to them: They’re muddling through and using the thing successfully.

Usually a box with the word “Google” next to it. A lot of people think

Google is the Internet.

And muddling through is not limited to beginners. Even technically savvy users often have surprising gaps in their understanding of how things work.

Why does this happen?

It’s not important to us. For most of us, it doesn’t matter to us whether we understand how things work, as long as we can use them. It’s not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of caring. It’s just not important to us.

Web developers often have a particularly hard time understanding—or even believing—that people might feel this way since they themselves are usually keenly interested in how things work.

If we find something that works, we stick to it

Once we find something that works—no matter how badly—we tend not to look for a better way. We’ll use a better way if we stumble across
one, but we seldom look for one.

If people manage to muddle through so much, does it really matter whether they “get it”? The answer is that it matters a great deal because while muddling through may work sometimes, it tends to be inefficient and error-prone.


On the other hand, if users “get it”:

There’s a much better chance that they’ll find what they’re looking for, which is good for them and for you.

There’s a better chance that they’ll understand the full range of what your site has to offer—not just the parts that they stumble across.

You have a better chance of steering them to the parts of your site that you want them to see.

They’ll feel smarter and more in control when they’re using your site, which will bring them back. You can get away with a site that people
muddle through only until someone builds one down the street that makes them feel smart.


By now you may be thinking given this picture of your audience of how they use the web, Why don’t I just get a job at a local grocery store?
At least there my efforts will be appreciated

So, what should you do?

I think the answer is simple: If your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards.

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