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User Experience Design: The Human Factor

Joe Salowitz - The C2 Group

The C2 Group

User Experience Design - the human factor

All of our pretty pixels and nebulous code is built for one purpose: to serve humans. However, we spend so much time talking about Photoshop brushes and CSS tricks that we often forget to make sure that our final products cater to users needs.

So what do user's need? To answer that question we'd better take a look at what drives people to do what they do.

Here are the top ten things to consider in user experience design:

People don't want to work or think more than they have to

Do people ever really use stairs over the escalator? People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done. Here's a few ways to help people notwork hard.

  1. Show people just a little bit of information so that they can choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure.
  2. Instead of just describing things, show people an example. 
  3. Ensure that actions in your virtual environment mirror actions in the real world. People are more efficient in familiar environments. The fancy word for this is affordance. A cord should pull down, a knob should twist, a button should impress upon pressure. Basically - if something is clickable, make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  4. Only provide the features that people really need. To know what they need, you will need to intimately know your target market. Research is often the best way to get to know your target market.
    • It's worth pointing out here that not all target market research is equal. It's your job as a usability engineer to know what people want and needbefore even they do. Therefore - asking people what they need isn't necessarily the best kind of research to use when trying to optimize usability. Your research should focus on discovering what people are doing now and how they could do it better in the future. Steve Jobs was a worthy model in this specific kind of research.
  5. Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done. 

People have limits

If people were vacuums - they'd be like the little handheld suckers you use to clean the crumbs from between the seats in your car (very small). My point is - they wouldn't be able to suck up very many crumbs. They can only intake so much information or read so much verbage before losing interest. So how do you design with this lack of attention span in mind? Well, I'm glad you asked - here are a few ideas:

  1. Only provide necessary information for that particular moment.
  2. Everything you write should be easy to scan.
  3. Make extensive use of header text and brief sections of text and info to break up your content.
  4. As much as people claim they can - humans are incapable of multi-tasking. So don't expect them to. You don't believe me?  Check the research. 
  5. Here's an odd one: studies show that people prefer brief line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! Confusing, I know - but what this tells us is that the style of presentation is really up to you - is preference or performance more important in your case? Also, remember  our last point about market research? People don't always know what is best for them.

People are easily distracted

Every day, over 97% of people in America are distracted by shiny objects. Okay, I made that up - but you've probably stopped reading this by now because something else came up, so my point is proven. Here are some tips that can help you grab attention, hold it, and minimize any other distractions:

  1. Use the elephant in the room to your advantage. When something is different - it stands out and grabs our attention.
  2. Use any or all senses to grab attention - brilliant colors, bold fonts, small sounds will all capture attention.
  3. If you don't want people to be distracted, don't flash things on the page or start playing music or videos. 

People are social

Humans are social creatures - we congregate in cities, houses, and teams. We look at the examples of other people to know what we should do ourselves (especially if we are uncertain). Use this to your advantage: 

  1. People look to others to lead the way (especially if they're uncertain). This is called social validation. Use ratings, comments, and reviews as tools - they are incredibly powerful influencers. 
  2. Encourage people to do things together. Synchronous behavior bonds them together (there is actually a pleasurable chemical reaction in the brain). Everyone loves to share funny youtube videos with their friends right?
  3. Show people someone else doing a task before you ask them to. We are built to imitate. In fact, when watching someone else do something, the same section of your brain fires as though you were actually performing the task yourself (see mirror neurons).

People's memory is unreliable

When people "remember" something - they are actually reconstructing their perception of the event. Scientists have proved that these "memories" are hardly ever 100% accurate - meaning that people's memory is unreliable. So, how do we apply that to User experience?

  1. Don't make people remember things from one task to another (or from one page to another).
  2. Observe them in action (rather than just taking their word for it).
  3. People can only remember a few things at a time (3-4 things) - don't make them remember more.

People process a lot unconsciously

The majority of mental processing happens subliminally. Often time people believe they are making rational decisions - but are in fact being driven by their subliminal thought processes.

  1. Get people to make a small step first (e.g. signing up for an account) Their subliminal processing thereafter will continue to process that small step, potentially leading to a big step later on (e.g. a paid membership).
  2. The way you "frame" something can subliminally affect your users. Check out the power of framing in this psychological experiment.

People make mistakes

If people were perfect, the Tower of Pisa wouldn't lean, N'sync would never have existed, and the Detroit Lions would have already won the Super Bowl. It turns out that people aren't perfect (surprise!). However, all is not lost! You can still use this knowledge to your advantage as you design.

  1. Anticipate peoples' mistakes and work hard to prevent them.
  2. Make it easy to undo.
  3. Always provide an exit route (e.g. breadcrumbs, back buttons, etc).
  4. If a task is complicated and error-prone, break it up into smaller tasks.
  5. If a user makes an error that you can correct - make the fix and show them what you did.
  6. Whoever is designing the user experience is not perfect too - so make sure that there is enough time to double and triple check the work, do multiple iterations of it, and get lots of user feedback and testing.

People love organization

When you're mother told you: "Clean your room!" You knew what you had to do. The same goes for design - organize your room, structure it in a way that makes sense, and maintain it forever.

  1. Use grouping in your designs to help organize and consolidate information (things that are close together are perceived to be related).
  2. Make fonts legible (duh!). You would think this is obvious - but there are many offenders out there.
  3. Blue and red are the hardest colors to look at together (blue text + red background = bad UX). Make sure elements on your page are contrasted in a way that is easy for users.
  4. People best recognize objects that are viewed from slightly above and a slight angle. This rule of thumb is derived from the " canonical perspective"
  5. Use eye and tracking patterns to layout your design. See " The Z Layout."

People create mental rubrics

My family has always stopped at Shell gas stations over any other station. We are convinced that we get better gas mileage with their fuel, and have even tested this to be true at times. This is just one example of a mental rubric, or model, that I have. I buy gas at Shell and only Shell. Everyone has mental rubrics (waterskiing technique, buying a car, etc), and sometimes they aren't even rational. It's hard to predict peoples' mental rubrics - however, here are some ways you can try to cater to this aspect of humanity:

  1. Use metaphors to help users understand a conceptual model. (e.g. this is just like riding a bike). In this example, you can see how you are catering to their mental rubric as you define your own task.
  2. Do user research to discover popular mental rubrics.
  3. Attempt to establish, or teach, your own mental rubric. Apple has done this well with iPods - they have given users a mental rubric of what it should be like to play music on the go.

People are addicted to information

The first thing I do after rolling out of bed is check the news. I'll admit it - I'm an information junkie. With information comes a feeling of control. If I know things - I can control my existance on this dog-eat-dog planet. It's all about control for people - so cater to that in your designs. Give them control.

  1. Give people feedback so that they feel in control. This feedback can come in the form of a success or failure message on a form, or hover/active states on buttons and links, or even a spinning loading wheel after a form is submitted.
  2. Think ahead to all the questions a curious person may ask and answer them in your design (e.g. Where do I go from here? How do I get back? Why should I sign up for your newsletter? etc)


It's easy to get lost in the pixels and code sometimes. Never forget that all these pixels and code are eventually meant to serve a human user. It's absolutely imperative to understand human nature in our creative endeavors.