Being in a lab to conduct moderated user research is always fascinating. There is nothing quite like watching somebody using a website to remind us of one fundamental rule: never think of ‘user experience’ in the abstract, always be mindful of the very real people who interact with our work.
In 2016, I spent about 100+ hours moderating or reviewing user research, and spotted a trend that puzzled me at first: almost infallibly, participants would encounter a problem—they would not understand what to do next, fail to see a button, or click something that did not work—and blame themselves. I have heard similar apologies coming from different people, very often along the lines of “sorry I did not see it,” “I’m a bit clumsy,” and “I’m just really bad at this”. And despite knowing that a moderator should remain detached and objective, I have been extremely tempted to say “It’s not your fault!” to at least few participants who had convinced themselves they were doing something wrong.
This self-blame phenomenon is nothing new; what I have been witnessing is simply its most recent manifestation. Take Don Norman, who in his 1988 book The Design of Everyday Things was already reflecting on this point:
I have studied people making errors — sometimes serious ones — with mechanical devices, light switches and fuses, computer operating systems and word processors, even airplanes and nuclear power plants. Invariably people feel guilty and either try to hide the error or blame themselves for “stupidity” or “clumsiness”… I point out that the design is faulty and that others make the same errors. Still, if the task appears simple or trivial, then people blame themselves.
Norman’s point was simple, but important: more often than not, what gets labelled as user or human error is a direct result of poor design, and this means users are not responsible if/when they are unable to deal with machinery, devices, or interfaces.
Although it seems easy to agree with this concept, I have been quite surprised to discover there also exists an opposite stance, described by Jakob Nielsen in a post from 2001: Are Users Stupid? . It is an admittedly provocative title for a piece about an industry still in its infancy, where designers, developers, and practitioners used to be defensive about their work, and blame most issues encountered during usability testing on ‘stupid’, as in: inexperienced or under-skilled, users.
Although things have changed for the better, we know very well that user-centricity is still not completely embraced—and real users very rarely get involved in our processes of creating, designing, writing, and making online products. This needs to change and, for it to do so, we content and optimisation strategists need to acknowledge one simple point and start repeating it as our mantra:
dear user, it’s NOT your fault.
It’s not your fault if you don’t know where you are/you don’t know where to go: we should have used better hierarchy and clearer design to signpost it.
It’s not your fault if you don’t see the CTA: we should have probably placed it somewhere else, or made it easier for you to see it.
It’s not your fault if you don’t understand something: we should have done a better job of communicating for and with you.
It’s not your fault if you get confused: again, we should have worked harder at being clear.
It’s not your fault if something does not work: we definitely messed up and should fix that asap.
…I think you get the gist of it.