It’s not me, it’s you. Eliminating self-blame in User Experience

Normally we blame our own misfortunes on our environment and others’ misfortunes on their personality (Donald A. Norman). But when it comes to user experience, the opposite is often the case. A user will blame himself first when he can’t use a website properly or when he can’t handle a product like it’s designed to do. But users don’t need to blame themselves.

We humans are curious creatures. When something goes wrong we look for causes, we want to know why it went wrong and preferably get quick and easy feedback on how to prevent it in the future. This is the case for every kind of problem whether it occurred in an online or offline, digital or analogue environment. When the problem occurred in an environment with no personal contact with the other party, the sociability factor is very important. We seek interaction with the interface we use, we need it to provide us with feedback and to guide us along.

Self-blame and learned helplessness

I’ll share a personal experience with you to illustrate this.

“One and a half years ago I got my first ever smartphone for my 25th birthday. Yes, I know, I was a late adopter or even a laggard. I never felt like I needed it, but internet access wherever you are seemed so nice. Because it was all fairly new to me I hadn’t had a lot of experience with apps. I used the common ones like Whatsapp, Twitter, Waze, … but then I installed one that stated that I could look up the top products sold in each category. For example if I wanted to buy a new smartphone, which one is trending at the moment? But I just couldn’t find anything with the app. No matter what I did, nothing would appear on my screen and the reviews in the app store made it clear that people found what they were looking for. Not that they were very happy with the app, but still… Why was I incapable of finding the most trending smartphone? I deleted the app and felt bad about my experience, I blamed myself for the fact that I couldn’t use the app the way it was intended for. Maybe I just didn’t understand it? Maybe I used it incorrectly? I perceived that it was my fault, the app didn’t respond properly because I felt that I couldn’t work with it.”

We are likely to perceive that there is a relation between our action and the event that happened. When we look at ‘learned helplessness’ we can understand this issue. Learned helplessness occurs when you have the feeling that nothing you do will ever have an impact on the outcome. I experienced repeated failure when trying to work with the app. I didn’t know why it didn’t do what it was supposed to do and I gave up. I felt like I was incapable of using the app and therefore felt technically inept.

I call it a failure but that’s not true, I didn’t fail in using the app. The system didn’t respond accordingly, therefore the system failed at giving me the experience I was hoping for.

Dear user, it’s not your fault, it’s the designer’s fault

Actually instead of failure we should call it a ‘learning experience’. We learn from the fact that we fail at something. But we need someone to teach us, to guide us and to say that it’s okay.

We need to understand that we’re not stupid. The designer didn’t give us sufficient feedback in such a way that it could have resulted in a learning experience for us.

What can designers/developers do?

What must designers do to make the life of the user easier? Designers have to prototype early on and often in the development stage “fail often and fail fast”. Every failure can teach the designer a lot about how to do things right.

One of the rules of thumb of Human Centred Design is “fail often and fail fast“. However, the first rule of Human Centred Design is: create with your end user in mind. When creating something you have to think about the persons you are designing for. What do they need? What are they going to use your creation for?

Involve your end user from the start in the design process and throughout the development phase, he’s the real expert.

Writing software is about building relations, it’s a human-computer interaction. Write your software in such a way that it interacts with your users. Don’t blame them when they are unable to perform a task but register the problems so that you as a designer can improve your product. Your user needs feedback and guidance to solve the problem, don’t use standard error messages.

Instead, provide help and guide the user through the problem. When a problem has occurred, don’t make your users start over again when trying to solve it, allow them to continue with the task.

When designing you can use these next 7 questions and place yourself in the shoes of your end users. They need to be able to find an answer on all of these questions during their user experience.

Let’s take my app experience for example:

  1. What do I want to accomplish?: My goal is to have an app that shows me the most trending product in each category.
  2. What are the alternatives?: Where can I choose from? What product offer is close to my goal? Here I want to see an overview of all possible apps that deliver more or less the same outcome.
  3. What action can I take now?: I’ve picked an app which I would like to use. What do I have to do in order to start using the app?
  4. How do I do it?: I execute the action, go to the app store and select the one that I want to use, install and open the app.

    => These are all questions which provide information that helps to solve questions surrounding the execution.
  5. What happened?: Hopefully the app made its own shortcut on my home screen. How do I perceive the app? I am using it for the first time and try to find my way through it. Do I get guidance? Does the app give me feedback when something goes wrong? How do I perceive its usability?
  6. What does it mean?: I used the app and interpret the information it provides me. I learn what the app really does.
  7. Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?: At this stage I evaluate the outcome; does the app match my initial requirements?

    => The last 3 questions are about information that helps in understanding what happened.

It’s the job of the designer to connect with the user and to empathize with him. Make people feel good when they use products and try to minimize the impact when something goes wrong.

What do User Experience experts do?

Human Centred Design designers have a way of looking. They make ideas visible and tangible, they try things out in simple ways. By doing this they will discover the P.O.I.N.T!

  1. Problems: what is too hard to do for the end-user?
  2. Opportunities: they will get new ideas and become inspired by what they see
  3. Insights : they will be surprised and learn by seeing things they didn’t expect to see
  4. Needs: they might discover what’s missing to help the end-user
  5. Themes: they might discover emerging patterns

User Experience experts can help designers and developers from the start in understanding their users and their specific persona. Based on the user’s needs, UX researchers will select the top functionalities that the user is looking for and which definitely need to be incorporated into the design. Together with all stakeholders, UX experts map how something needs to work, visualized with wireframes or prototypes. These will then be tested with users to see if there are still bottlenecks which need to be eliminated. How is the user experience and where do we still need to improve the experience?

All this information will be gathered via User Experience Research and is applicable for products/apps/tools/websites which still have to be created or are being created. It’s also very recommended if your creation needs to be innovative, profitable, successful in the market and preferred by end users.

So, if you are a designer or developer a good start would be to answer the 7 questions as laid out above. But if you want to obtain real insights a User Experience expert can help you! Together we will eliminate the self-blame and optimize the user experience!