Thanksgiving is a time for family, giving thanks, football, and providing technical support for family. This year’s task was helping my mother in law make a purchase on a site dedicated to craft and sewing patterns. My mother in law is not super tech savvy but isn’t a novice by any means. She emails, shops online and does your basic 21st century computing tasks. Unfortunately the website was so poorly designed it was not clear exactly how to complete a purchase or how that product would be delivered once purchased. While I walked her through the process I started thinking about how design decisions can lead to such an awful experience for the user.

When working on websites and applications there are two themes I hear over and over. The user shouldn’t do something and the user just needs to read the instructions. First of all, if you allow a user to do something on our site some user will end up doing it. So, designing a way to prevent that behavior will make your user happier and get you the end result you desire, e.g. good data or a product purchase. An example of this was a site where a visitor signed up for an appointment. It didn’t make sense to sign up for an appointment in the past but the site allowed it. When reviewing the code with the developer he stated that the user shouldn’t enter a past date so he didn’t handle for it.

In many meetings with stakeholders and subject matter experts I often get asked if they can add four to five paragraphs of text plus link to multi-page printable instructions. I start my response by asking if they want the text to actually be read or does it just need to be there for legal reasons. Since they usually choose the former option we start working through what they actually want the user to know and when. Why make the user do the work when your site can do it for them. As they interact with the site you can tell them what they need to know if it is actually relevant to them. For example, why show information about the rules of using your product for California residents when the customer is in Maine?

In both of these cases we moved from thinking about the website as the owners of the site and shifted to thinking about it from a potential visitor. This is such an important way of viewing your site but often gets lost when we insist it is the user’s fault for not using our site properly rather than seeing how we could have helped them.