“First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users”

A 15-year-old interesting brief column from noted usability expert Jakob Nielsen, which I saw posted today on reddit:  First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users

Summary: To design the best UX, pay attention to what users do, not what they say. Self-reported claims are unreliable, as are user speculations about future behavior. Users do not know what they want.

I’m reposting here, even though it’s 15 years old, because I think many of us haven’t assimilated this message yet, especially in libraries, and it’s worth reviewing.

An even worse version of trusting users self-reported claims, I think, is trusting user-facing librarians self-reported claims about what they have generally noticed users self-reporting.  It’s like taking the first problem and adding a game of ‘telephone’ to it.

Nielsen’s suggested solution?

To discover which designs work best, watch users as they attempt to perform tasks with the user interface. This method is so simple that many people overlook it, assuming that there must be something more to usability testing. Of course, there are many ways to watch and many tricks to running an optimal user test or field study. But ultimately, the way to get user data boils down to the basic rules of usability:

  • Watch what people actually do.
  • Do not believe what people say they do.
  • Definitely don’t believe what people predict they may do in the future.

Yep. If you’re not doing this, start. If you’re doing it, you probably need to do it more.  Easier said than done in a typical bureaucratic inertial dysfunctional library organization, I realize.

It also means we have a professional obligation to watch what the users do — and determine how to make things better for them. And then watch again to see if it did. That’s what makes us professionals. We can not simply do what the users say, it is an abrogation of our professional responsibility, and does not actually produce good outcomes for our patrons. Again, yes, this means we need library organizations that allow us to exersize our professional responsibilities and give us the resources to do so.

For real, go read the very short article. And consider what it would mean to develop in libraries taking this into account.

3 thoughts on ““First Rule of Usability? Don’t Listen to Users”

  1. This is not exactly analogous but in cataloging I always cringe when librarians (public services or technical services) claim to know where patrons will expect to find things, or how they’ll use them, as this is almost always an argument of last resort (or even first resort) when they don’t have any *good* reasons for what they want to happen. E.g. “don’t assign a call number to this (manga-sized non-manga nonfiction work about manga), the users will expect to find this with the manga (which is generally in “Fiction” rather than having a call number).” How do they know what patrons expect?

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with most of this, especially on its focus on practices rather than self-reports for usability.

    But just a word or two of caution. The specific suggestion here is to “watch users as they attempt to perform tasks with the user interface,” but it is often better to understand user process and workflow more broadly, not just their activity on a single user interface. It is therefore often desirable to define the tasks being asked of users not in a way that reflects the organization of our systems but rather in a way that allows the user to show natural processes and workflows. So for example, rather than taking a user to a library homepage and say, “Show me how you find an article here,” it is far more useful to ask them how they found a few articles recently and to show you some of the ways that they have recently found an article they might be looking for, in whatever way they might wish to do that.

  3. Good point Roger, I agree, thanks. Libraries are interesting compared to typical commercial software development, because our goal is not to get the user to use OUR software or to maximize the time they spend on our software — but to help the user accomplish their goals, with or without our software. Of course, even commercial software development shops will do best when they understand the task environment of their potential or actual users.

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