Usability: Users are impatient and don’t pay attention

10 January 2011
Tim Fidgeon

Author: Tim Fidgeon

Tim is a trainer and consultant who has worked in the fields of digital design, usability and marketing since the 90s.

Users are impatient, so sites should load quickly. Most users only scan web pages, so they should be specifically written for the web.

User behaviour drives usability

Over the past 12 years of working on usability projects, we’ve had lots of opportunity to observe user behaviour (from activities such as usability testing, paper prototyping and web analytics). This has shown us lots of examples of a basic usability principle:users are impatient and don’t pay attention.

Most of us know this intuitively from the silly mistakes we’ve made ourselves (“How could I not have seen that?!”). At its heart, the field of usability is all accepting the way users behave and designing for it. Once you accept that users on your site will only ever use about 2% of their brainpower, then you are on the road to good usability (that 2% statistic isn’t based on science, but it certainly feels true!).

Reasons – why do users behave this way?

There are 2 main reasons why most users are impatient and don’t pay a lot of attention:

  • Monitors – Most people view web pages on a display with relatively low resolution that’s shining light into their eyes. That’s a recipe for eyestrain and headaches. This is why most of us print documents rather than read them on-screen. It’s also why most of us scan pages rather than read them (see below for more details on scanning).
  • Interactivity – Users know that they are in control of their online browsing experience – they can click to go to a new page, or site, at any time. Most usability studies show that users like clicking – in fact, they will normally click on the first item that looks relevant to their task, rather than evaluate all the available options.

Impatience – how to improve usability

Users are impatient – keeping them waiting is almost always a bad idea. After all, it’s boring and gets in the way of what they want to do. For this reason, allowing users to complete their task as quickly as possible is almost always good usability. Here are some factors to bear in mind:

  • Load speed – Every page on a site should ideally load in under 1 second. This is quick enough for the user to feel their experience is not being interrupted and helps achieve good usability 1.
  • Flash Intros – Nobody we’ve asked has ever watched a Flash Intro (unless they’re researching them). Everybody always says that they click ‘Skip’. On this basis, Flash Intros seem a waste of money and simply get in users’ way. We’d recommend that they should be avoided.
  • Splash Pages – These pages appear before your site’s Homepage and seek to promote a particular product/service. Some organisations use them very profitably (especially if their users are motivated enough to carry on through onto the Homepage). However, most sites should probably avoid thembecause they just get in the users’ way and act as a disincentive to continue their visit.

Attention – usability can help

A fundamental usability principle is that users don’t ‘read’ web pages in the same way they read offline material. Instead, users quickly ‘scan’ a web page to get the gist of its message(s) and attempt to locate relevant information. To make sure your pages will have good usability, you should make sure they are designed and written to support this behaviour.

Eyetracking studies show that users’ scanning of a page (within cultures that read top-down and left-right), tends to focus on the top/left of the content column. Here are some good ways to make sure your pages support users scanning:

  • Content column – Usability studies have shown us that users focus their attention on the content column (where they expect the most useful information to be located). It therefore makes good usability sense to ensure that all key messages and calls-to-action appear in this area.
  • Links – Users often click on the first link which looks relevant to their task. Your page needs to draw a user’s attention to all the available options, thereby encouraging users to make better decisions. This is achieved by making sure their layout is clear and prominent. It’s also important that their naming is clear and straightforward.
  • Writing – The usability techniques involved in writing for the web are critical to writing web pages which are usable and promote your key messages. The main features of this style of writing are the appropriate use of these features: Page summary, Headings, Bullet points, Bold and Link text.

Conclusion – usability next steps

Usability is almost always about finding ways to design for users who are impatient and aren’t paying attention. Making your site load quickly, removing unnecessary obstacles and designing for users’ scanning are some of the easiest ways to begin addressing these issues.

However, please bear in mind that some of these suggestions might not be appropriate to your organisation and its audience. That’s why usability guidelines can not applied blindly – they should be applied either on the basis of informed experience (and preferably user research, such as usability testing).

References

1 Card, S. K., Robertson, G. G., and Mackinlay, J. D. (1991). The information visualizer: An information workspace. Proc. ACM CHI’91 Conf. (New Orleans, LA, 28 April-2 May), 181-188.

Miller, R. B. (1968). Response time in man-computer conversational transactions. Proc. AFIPS Fall Joint Computer Conference Vol. 33, 267-277.

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, of Spotless Interactive – a leading user experience research and usability consultancy

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