The Power of Positive Whining

I recently had a bad experience on a good website and wrote about it here. Writing about experiences is not the same as writing about facts. A company might spend $40,000 to ensure that its navigation labels can be clearly understood by all users. That they spent the money and conducted the tests is the fact. Yet some users might not understand the labels anyway. That would be the experience of those users. Fact versus experience: not the same thing.

Most professionals who create websites want to know when a user has a bad experience. Most professionals who create websites worry about bad experiences. Most professionals who understand the craft of user experience design spend much of their time thinking about the user. That’s why they call it user experience design.

Thinking about the user means listening and trying and testing and changing. When you are lucky you get it right for a lot of your users. But there will always be some people you fail. When you are lucky, you hear about the failures.

The user is never wrong

If web design were not an art, then we would always get every part right. But it is an art, and, like all arts, it deals with the subjective. The subjective is something you can never get 100% right.

As a web professional, I value user feedback even when it’s exactly what I was afraid of hearing. As a web professional, I value user feedback even when the user is “wrong.” Like, when the user misses the giant red headline and the big fat subhead and the clearly stated error message and the grotesquely large exclamation point icon in the unpleasantly intrusive “warning” triangle.

A user can miss everything you put in his path, and call you on it, and the user is never wrong, even if there is nothing more you could have done to help him understand. The user is never wrong because experience is experience, not fact.

Paths and walls

As a designer I am always collecting data on what went wrong for one user or another. It helps me do better on the next round.

As a designer who interacts with websites, airport and subway signage, nasty little cell phone interfaces, and other variously successful communication attempts by designers and engineers (in short, as a user), I not infrequently write about my user experience—especially when my experience is not what the designers and engineers intended.

I do this not as complaint, which is of no use to anyone, but as critique and information-sharing. It is critique when, by examining a specific case, it illuminates a point of interest or failure in many designs. When it’s less broad in implication it still has value as data about a particular path that hit a particular wall.

If the designers and engineers see what I’ve written, they may think about their product in a different way that is helpful to them and to some of their other users. If other designers and engineers see it, they may think differently about their own designs, especially if their designs are informed by the site or product I’m writing about. Write about a usability error at Amazon, and 100 sites that copy Amazon will improve.

Why we fight

I am a walking edge case. If an operating system upgrade goes smoothly for everyone I know, some part of it will go wrong for me. The written directions from Manhattan to Rye may convey you safely and serenely between those locations, but the way I read the same words, I will end up on the dodgy side of Yankee Stadium. I suffer so you don’t have to.

Writing critiques is a thing I sometimes do on my site. I’ve been sometimes doing it on my site for eleven years and will keep at it. Some of these posts can be characterized as pointless, misinformed grousing, while others contain spelling errors. A few have had mildly beneficial effects in the wider world, and that’s good enough for me.

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