Designers: mind your language

9 March 2021 -
I sometimes wonder how the design community — a group of people who pride themselves on their empathy and ability to communicate clearly — have been able to create a such an unapproachable profession. For outsiders, the litany of buzzwords, methodologies and rules can at best confuse newcomers, and at worst, deceive them. This article explores the latter.

Giving the wrong impression

A developer friend of mine sent me a very frustrated message a few days ago, with this attachment:

He questioned why this ‘weird gross attitude’ was so pervasive in design, and found it ‘dismissive’ and ‘elitist’ to say that we shouldn’t listen to what users say they want.

As any Good Designer would do, my first reaction was explain to him the nuance behind the headlines — that what they’re saying is that we should focus on the problems that a user has, rather than the solutions that they give us, and that it’s our job as designers to come up with solutions. I used the example of my time building a banking platform in Uganda, where users told us that all they wanted was to know when their documents would be sent, or when their contacts at the bank would call them back. From these solutions, we identified the core problem — a lack of transparency — and built a platform in which users could track application progress, and which removed the need entirely for them to receive physical documents or call anyone at the bank.

But then, I got thinking — how was this experienced front-end developer able to get such a wrong impression of what was being communicated? Approaching this from a design perspective, I shouldn’t put the blame on him, but look at the design issues behind such a mistake.

The nuance lost online

Looking at the above screenshot — which includes an article from (gasp) our beloved NN Group — I had to wonder how, despite all our talk about dark patterns and clickbait, we still have these sweeping, generalised statements dominating the design community?

The first thing to point out is that this doesn’t happen everywhere. My experiences with actual real-life designers is great — most have a fairly good sense of nuance, using a healthy dollop of ‘it depends’ in their day-to-day design work. Designers in podcasts, books, and talks usually don’t have much trouble communicating more balanced and pragmatic opinions.

The places where this happens gives us a little clue as to why it does. In my experience, we see these kind of statements where you’d expect to see them: on Twitter and Medium, where a user is rewarded for being pithy and/or contentious. Places where the more controversial something is, the more it will be interacted with.

Mr Spool is particularly infamous for his controversial hot takes.

This doesn’t, however, fully explain the case of the NN Group — surely they would be above basing the title of an article purely off its ability to attract clicks? I can only explain this by assuming that the author of the article assumed that the title would be read in the context of the article itself, where the comment would be given more nuance as the reader continues down the page. They certainly didn’t imagine the title in the context of a search results page, surrounded by a number of other articles that have also attempted the same clickbaity trick.

The easy answer: just communicate better

Now, I’m not going to attempt to tackle ethics in design and whether designers should be held to a higher standard in this article. That’s a very meaty topic which others have spent a lot of time talking about already. What I would say, however, is that it is our job to think of the different contexts that the content we produce will appear in, and of how our users will react to our work. It shouldn’t be that hard for us to carry this same thought process over to the titles of our articles, should it?

Which brings me to my first conclusion: people form assumptions by gleaning headlines, and if we really want to communicate well as a design community, we should design our content to fit this scenario. Meaning that we should aim to avoid misleading or sweeping statements in article titles.

I wish that was the end of this article, and that removing clickbaity article titles would solve the communication issues in our industry. Alas, after talking to friend, I decided to read a bit more of NN Group article, to see how they applied nuance to the statement in the article title. Here’s the summary:

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.

“Users do not know what they want.”

Hmm.

Stupid users and their dumb opinions

I can forgive NN Group for a clickbaity title — after all, we all do it. My most successful article ever makes indirect reference to my own diarrhoea — I’m no angel.

However, the idea that a user ‘does not know what they want’, is in my opinion not just condescending and dismissive, but just plain wrong. Sure, in many cases this is true, and the idea at the core of it is right: that, where possible, we should watch watch a person does, and take what what they say with a pinch of salt. The statement itself, however, is indicative of a larger problem in design.

There’s a very overused (and potentially misattributed) quote that is often used to justify this kind of thinking:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford

Now, I’m no time traveller (working on it), but I’m sure that there were plenty of intelligent and creative people back then, who, if asked what they wanted, would have almost certainly said ‘carriages without smelly horses that can go really fast like trains’.

Check out the superiority complex on this guy.

The point is, there’s nuance here. Sometimes users will ask for a feature that actually should be added to the platform, especially when we’re dealing with mature products that no longer require radical innovation but rather incremental enhancement. That doesn’t mean you should take a user at their word — you should always look at the core problem their request stems from, make sure it’s a common problem, brainstorm different solutions, etc. Sometimes, you’ll run this process and find out that — tada! — the solution they offered is the best route. If it’s really that surprising to you that the person that uses the product regularly can come up with a smart solution to their own frustrations, then I think you need re-evaluate the way you think about users.

Like most other humans, designers like hearing things that make them feel smart, special, or superior. The idea that users don’t know what they want certainly achieves all these things: it elevates designers above others, making us feel like we are the sole anointed ones with the exclusive power to be able to understand what people want. It’s a form of gatekeeping.

But worst of all, it’s just not empathetic. We need to have the empathy to respect the creativity of our users and to allow for the possibility that they could be able to come up with a great solution too, rather than teaching people to dismiss them out of hand.

A conclusion of sorts

I realise this seems like it has turned into a bit of a hit piece against NN Group and the author of that article, who I’ve just realised is Jakob Nielsen himself (gulp). It is not intended to be. We all use flippant, absolutist phrases to teach, to excite, to memorise… I often do the same. That Henry Ford quote is a go-to for me when trying to convince clients to conduct further testing.

Only a lazy designer deals in absolutes.

But I think it’s incredibly important that we are aware of the effect that these over-simplifications have on junior designers and those outside the design community. And most importantly, we need to always remember to respect the user’s intelligence and creativity.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in UX, remember to follow me on Medium (here) and Twitter (@jamchiller) for more content.