Experts don’t know everything, not even usability experts

Do experts know everything?

10 years ago I thought so. More specifically: I thought I knew everything.

Surely my usability expertise, my deep knowledge of information architecture would be enough to find and solve all the usability issues on every possible website?

Without research you can never truly know your users

10 years of user testing have made me a bit more modest. Okay, a lot more modest. Expert knowledge alone is not enough.

Does that mean I’m not a good usability expert? Hell no. I think I know more about web usability and information architecture than anyone else in Belgium. (Non-Belgian readers, please suppress that giggle.) Actually, that’s a lie: Els knows more about it than I do. See, I told you I was modest.

And still, despite all of our combined expertise, we often say things like ‘That depends’, ‘We’ll have to ask your customers that’ or ‘We’ll have to test that’.

Usability rules are not stone tablets

A lot of web designers and programmers resent those answers. They like it when everything is fixed. That makes it nice and easy.

Admittedly, Jakob Nielsen’s rules, the interface pattern libraries you see all around and even the usability tips we write on this blog, sometimes suggest it’s all black and white, clear-cut.

Wake up call: it isn’t. Usability isn’t that thing you read about in books. To fully understand usability, you have to see real users in action.

There are lots of rules and often those rules are right. But sometimes they’re also flexible, open for interpretation. Quite often the things that we as experts thought might cause problems end up not troubling users at all, while the things we thought wouldn’t be too much of a problem cause half of the test users to trip up.

Is that because we’re stupid? Because we’re not really experts after all?

I don’t think so. And our customers, who gave us a client satisfaction score of 100% in our latest audit in 2009, obviously don’t think so either.

Content and structure are determined by your visitors

When it comes to your site’s information structure and your content, the rules don’t really help you much. They get more than a little vague.

A few examples:

  • Use words that your visitors understand for your menu labels
  • Put the 3 to 5 things that matter most to your visitors above the page-fold on a detail page
  • Start every page and every paragraph with the most important information you’ve got

While these rules are all true, they’re also very theoretical. Which words do your visitors understand? What exactly are those 3 to 5 most important things according to your visitors?

Pretentious

In all modesty, we think web builders or information architects who claim they don’t need to involve real users because ‘they know what’s best’ are pretty pretentious.

Sure, those web builders’ and information architects’ common sense will probably keep their customers safe from all too big disasters. But is that really good enough?

User research gets you facts

Are you really so all-knowing that you know what people exactly want to know about a hotel, an airconditioing unit and an oil-free compressor? And a forklift, a handbag and a car loan?

Really? Wow, you must be making around 10.000 euro/hour. Congratulations!

In all fairness, nobody knows those things. The only way to find out what your visitors really want is by doing user research. That doesn’t have to be ridiculously expensive. You can do some of it yourself. A good online survey and interviews with potential or existing customers will already point you in the right direction.

Facts trump opinions

One of the biggest advantages of user research is that it gets you facts. The case for the information structure you present to your client is a whole lot stronger if you can base your decisions on facts rather than just your own opninion. Data from logfile analysis, survey results, user test videos – those are things that make compelling arguments, not your opinion.

Gathering facts is the main reason why we push clients to include user research in their project. Agreed, it costs a bit more when you’re doing it, but it sure saves time on meetings full of endless discussions based on nothing more than opinions.

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What do you think?

Are we right or are we right? Feel free to disagree.


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  • http://www.TheLongDog.co.uk The Long Dog

    ‘Advanced common sense’ this might be, but it’s often easy to lose sight of ressearch in the face of deadlines and clients not underdstanding why you dont’ arrive with answers.

    I’m frequently required to tell clients that I rarely start with the answers, but arrive with the tools and experience to know what questions will get the right answers.

    Nice post.

  • http://daniiswara.com/ dani

    Agree that researches will bring the facts and the needs.
    Best practices, recommendations, checklists, and semi-automated tools (for accessibility), will help to minimize the barrier. Then, user testing for sure.

  • http://www.projectsjunction.com Usability Experts

    thanks for the rules regarding web usability and information architecture