Usability: User Expectations Are Important

6 min read
Ben Logan
Design Research

Meeting user expectations throughout a site normally delivers good usability. Ways to make sure you meet expectations: user research, reviewing competitor sites and following usability guidelines.

Meeting expectations improves usability

A key principle within usability is that people carry around a ‘mental model’ of how we expect the world to behave1. These models are based on past experiences and can be a very powerful factor in influencing how people behave in certain situations.

In our experience of usability testing, usability suffers when a site does not match users’ expectations. Indeed, our usability testing sessions have repeatedly shown that breaking expectations makes users unhappy.

User’s reactions – to poor usability

We have seen users react very strongly during usability testing sessions when their expectations are not met. The 2 main reactions we have observed in these situations are:

  • Denial – Users can find it difficult to accept that their mental model does not apply to the site. This often leads to them persisting in a course of action even though it does not seem to be working.
  • Resistance – We have found that people are often very reluctant to interact with anything that doesn’t obviously fit into their existing mental model.

Denial – a real-world usability example

During a usability testing session, several users repeatedly clicked a ‘Buy Now’ button on a supermarket website. They did this because they did not think the site had recognised their action. The reason the users thought this, was because they had expected to be taken to a ‘Your Basket’ page. Instead of taking the user to such a page, the site simply updated the on-screen basket.

This illustrates a profound truth in usability: a site’s unexpected behaviours must be super-obvious.

The problem with the site’s usability wasn’t (necessarily) that it didn’t take users to the ‘Your Basket’ page, but rather that its updating of the on-screen basket was too subtle to be noticed by anyone who was not expecting it. It’s vital that if a site does something unexpected that it make an extra effort to make ‘what just happened’ very obvious.

The way to do this is, of course, by providing strong feedback on the consequences of a user’s action which can not be missed.

Resistance – a real-world usability example

Many users were very reluctant to upgrade from Office 2003 to 2007. When asked, people generally said that this was because they had spent a lot of time learning how to use the 2003 interface and did not want to learn a whole new interface. In fact, many people got quite angry if their employer forced them to use the 2007 version.

People’s resistance to Office 2007 was due to radical changes being made to an interface which they knew well and were comfortable with. During usability testing sessions, we have seen the same issue when people frequently use a website or intranet.

If people use your site regularly, it is very likely that they get used to a certain way of doing things. If the site suddenly (and radically) changes the way it does things, users will tend to react negatively. This is simply because most people hate change. From a user’s point of view, this makes perfect sense (“Why have you suddenly changed the site so I need to re-learn how to do everything?!”).

If you have a site which is used regularly by a significant section of your audience, we would normally recommend that you evolve the design rather than have a Big Bang. Obviously there are exceptions to this (where an existing site design is simply unsustainable, for example), but evolution is generally a lower-risk approach.

Site design – where expectation impacts usability

A user’s expectations about your site can apply to almost every area of its design. In order to experience your site as having good usability, it needs to match its users’ expectations (or at least not contradict them) with regard to its:

  • Structure – Your site’s logical grouping of content and concepts should be easily understood by the user. For example, in a supermarket site one would expect to see categories similar to a supermarket’s physical aisles (Fruit & Veg, Tinned beans, etc.)
  • Behaviour – The site should respond to a user’s actions in a way that they could confidently predict. For example, all underlined text is clickable.
  • Language – The language which the site uses when talking about a topic should be familiar, relevant and appropriate (from the user’s perspective). For example, most people shop for a ‘DVD’ not a ‘Digital Video Disc’.
  • Appearance – Certain elements of a web site should look a certain way and/or be located in a certain area. For example, navigation menus should normally appear at the top or alongside the left of the page.

Ideas – how to avoid usability problems

There are several well-known ways to try and mitigate any usability problems which might arise from a web site conflicting with a user’s mental model. These include:

  • User research – Most companies have repositories of ‘knowledge about our audience’ – whether it be in the Market Research department, the Sales Office, or the Call Centre. If this information is not available, then consider running some usability studies to try to understand how users think about the topic in question (such as interviews, focus groups, card sorting or usability testing).
  • Competitor research – Look at what competitor websites are doing. If a lot of your competitors are doing things in a certain way, it might be a good idea to follow their lead (if only because prospective customers are likely to shop around and at least your site will be consistent with theirs.
  • Internal consistency – Users start building a mental model of your site as soon as they arrive on it. For this reason, your site needs to be as internally consistent as possible (in each of the parameters mentioned above: structure, behaviour, language and appearance).
  • Guidelines – Usability guidelines which have been widely adopted can be very useful in helping to provide ‘de facto’ answers to many design decisions.

There is a potential risk, of course, that if every web site follows users’ expectations then they will all look very similar. Realistically, however, there is still plenty of scope for creativity within a design that meets user expectations.

To be clear, it is perfectly possible to design a very innovative website with great usability – it’s just more difficult and expensive than designing a site that ‘follows the rules’. This is because every innovation is a potential risk which should be mitigated through user research (such as usability testing).

Conclusion – usability next steps

Most sites should be able to meet their users’ expectation by simply accessing their existing market research, following well-known usability guidelines and looking at what the competition is doing. But even then, any design should be subject to usability testing in order to iron out the wrinkles.

If you are embarking on a project where you don’t have access to any existing knowledge about how your users think about a topic and the expectations they might have, then user research becomes absolutely critical.


1 Craik, K.J.W. (1943). The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

This article was written by Tim Fidgeon, of Spotless Interactive – a leading usability consultancy offering usability testing.

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