There is a difference between how we think people use web sites and how they actually use them. I read a great article by Steve Krug on How We Really Use the Web and I totally relate to his observations.
When we’re creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click. What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky ) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at. We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.”
As you might imagine, it’s a little more complicated than this, and it depends on the kind of page, what the user is trying to do, how much of a hurry she’s in, and so on. But this simplistic view is much closer to reality than most of us imagine. It makes sense that we picture a more rational, attentive user when we’re designing pages. It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is. If you want to design effective web pages, though, you have to learn to live with three facts about real-world web use.
“Why are things always in the last place you look for them? Because you stop looking when you find them.”— Children’s riddle
FACT OF LIFE # 1:
We don’t read pages. We scan them.
One of the very few well-documented facts about web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most web pages. Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye. The exception, of course, is pages that contain documents like news stories, reports, or product descriptions. But even then, if the document is longer than a few paragraphs, we’re likely to print it out because it’s easier and faster to read on paper than on a screen.
Why do we scan?
• We’re usually in a hurry.
Much of our web use is motivated by the desire to save time. As a result, web users tend to act like sharks: They have to keep moving, or they’ll die. We just don’t have the time to read any more than necessary.
• We know we don’t need to read everything.
On most pages, we’re really only interested in a fraction of what’s on the page. We’re just looking for the bits that match our interests or the task at hand, and the rest of it is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the relevant bits.
• We’re good at it.
We’ve been scanning newspapers, magazines, and books all our lives to find the parts we’re interested in, and we know that it works.
FACT OF LIFE # 2:
We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.
When we’re designing pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one. In reality, though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option—we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing (a cross between satisfying and sufficing). As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.
So why don’t web users look for the best choice?
• We’re usually in a hurry.
“Optimizing is hard, and it takes a long time. Satisficing is more efficient.”
• There’s not much of a penalty for guessing wrong.
Guessing wrong on a web site is usually only a click or two of the Back button, making satisficing an effective strategy. (The Back button is the most-used feature of web browsers.)
Of course, this assumes that pages load quickly; when they don’t, we have to make our choices more carefully — just one of the many reasons why most web users don’t like slow-loading pages.
• Weighing options may not improve our chances.
On poorly designed sites, putting effort into making the best choice doesn’t really help. You’re usually better off going with your first guess and using the Back button if it doesn’t work out.
• Guessing is more fun.
It’s less work than weighing options, and if you guess right, it’s faster. And it introduces an element of chance — the pleasant possibility of running into something surprising and good.
Of course, this is not to say that users never weigh options before they click. It depends on things like their frame of mind, how pressed they are for time, and how much confidence they have in the site.
FACT OF LIFE # 3:
We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.
One of the things that becomes obvious as soon as you do any usability testing—whether you’re testing web sites, software, or household appliances—is the extent to which people use things all the time without understanding how they work, or with completely wrong-headed ideas about how they work.
Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take the time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through, making up our own vaguely plausible stories about what we’re doing and why it works. And the fact is, we get things done that way. I’ve seen lots of people use software and web sites effectively in ways that are nothing like what the designers intended.
Most web designers would be shocked if they knew how many people type URLS in Yahoo’s search box.
Why does this happen?
• It’s not important to us.
For most of us, it doesn’t matter to us whether we understand how things work, as long as we can use them. It’s not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of caring. In the great scheme of things, it’s just not important to us. (Web developers often have a particularly hard time understanding—or even believing—that people might feel this way, since they themselves are usually keenly interested in how things work.)
• If we find something that works, we stick to it.
Once we find something that works—no matter how badly—we tend not to look for a better way. We’ll use a better way if we stumble across one, but we seldom look for one.
What I suggest – if your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards.