January 19, 2021 Why are Design Improvement Discussions Prone to Stagnation?

Hiroshi Ushioda
Senior Executive Officer / UX Researcher

As a UX researcher, I often interview the users of various websites and apps. However, since the outbreak of the novel-coronavirus pandemic, to minimize infection risk, I’m increasingly conducting interviews remotely through online conferencing systems.

In addition to this communication with end-users, I’m also participating in online meetings with our clients - the owners of the websites and apps. Prior to the pandemic, our clients observed interviews with users about their products from an observation room adjacent to our studio; however, with the streaming of interview sessions, our clients now participate remotely. At the conclusion of the user interviews, we often hold online follow-up meetings to review outcomes and discuss improvement measures.

While not without restrictions and some inconvenience, a positive aspect to conducting both user interviews and follow-up discussions remotely is the opportunity for an increased number of client-side participants. For the design and development of websites and apps, while operations staff, designers, developers, etc. each have different roles and responsibilities, this cross-sectional participation facilitates the answering of general questions such as "what do users need? what will best benefit users?" This shared understanding among project members then enhances communication during the development process. Additionally, when considering improvement measures based on the interview outcomes, through having persons in various roles participate, it’s possible to discuss business objectives, limitations, and feasibility on the implementation side, etc. I believe this provides a great opportunity to efficiently consider subsequent, optimal action.

Mass-Participation Design Improvement Discussions

While there are benefits to having people in various positions participate, and despite the fact that everyone is observing the same user, discussions can tend to diverge and stall depending on how each participant perceives the user experience as well as their own expectations as creators. Therefore, in this Column, I’d like to introduce two common patterns of how to best proceed when discussions diverge and stagnate.

As an example, a common usability issue observed on websites and apps is that users tend to overlook the information they need. User issues include:

  • not noticing link banners to useful content
  • moving on without properly reading text content
  • clicking submit buttons etc. before performing required pre-configuration

Discussions on resolving these issues usually commence with questions such as "why did the user overlook the content?" and "how can we improve the design so that the content will be used/viewed as we, the creators, intended?" However, if the following two approaches of framing and discussing issues are followed, proposed improvements will likely be limited and inflexible, and discussions may stagnate.

1. Commencing Discussions with a Tangible Improvement Plan

When the above-listed user behaviors are observed, the following improvement plans may initially come to mind:

  • it’s advisable to put the link banner at the top of the page
  • for content that should be read before progressing, it’s better to create an additional page which users pass through thereby ensuring that they see the relevant information before continuing
  • until the required pre-configuration is completed, submit buttons etc. should remain deactivated

Discussions then proceed from these proposed solutions. When considering an improvement plan from the outset, in some cases it may turn out that designs are difficult to realize. Reasons for this include conflicts with business requirements as well as issues surrounding actual implementation. In such cases, the improvement plan may simply be branded "unusable" and discarded or, to come up with a feasible plan based on the original improvement plan, the issues requiring resolution may even be abandoned.

Occasionally team members who’ve researched a lot of websites and apps tend to have confidence in commencing with a tangible plan because they’re aware of "good design examples they have seen elsewhere.” However, these solutions may not always be the best and most feasible option for your service’s site or app, so it’s important to first consider the actual cause of the issue at hand and then formulate an improvement plan.

2. Considering Only Visual Aspects/Design Layout

Next, instead of initially considering a specific improvement plan, attention should be given to the cause of issues. For example, the following may be reasons for the "user oversights" mentioned above:

  • links and banners are blended in with other colors and do not stand out, they are small, or are poorly positioned.
  • users are overlooking the sentences that should be read properly
  • the pre-configuration options in the UI are overlooked, and the disproportionately prominent buttons are clicked first.

The above are the most frequently raised factors when discussing the causes of issues - and all are based on visual factors such as content being either "not conspicuous enough” or “overly conspicuous.”

However, the following should also be considered as potential causes of issues:

  • it's not that users don't notice the link/banner, but rather that they’re interested in something else on that page.
  • it’s not that the users are unaware of the text but rather that they want to avoid reading lengthy sentences as much as possible
  • on most websites pre-configuration isn’t required before clicking a submit button, so users are just looking for the button

The above aren’t visual aspects but are instead related to human attention, cognitive load, and memory/learning. They are just examples of possible alternative factors, so, of course, the causes could be visual factors. However, if, unfortunately, an improvement plan premised on remedying visual factors doesn’t resolve issues, the improvement measure of "making content conspicuous" soon loses credibility and then subsequent design improvement activity stagnates. As human information processing mechanisms don’t only include visual recognition but also attention, memory, learning, thinking, reasoning, etc., it’s necessary to contemplate all these possibilities before considering actual improvement plans. This allows for a wider range of improvement ideas and enables essential enhancements to be made.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why visual factors alone tend to be considered as the causes of issues is that the creators want users to “notice or find” content, therefore, it's simple to assume that the appropriate measure/strategy to "get noticed" is to "ensure content stands out."

Seminar Information

In this column, I briefly introduced issues that may arise when discussing design improvements with a cross-section of creative team members. However, regarding the second point of "only considering visual factors," I believe that some readers may be thinking "okay then, what other perspectives should I consider?" Well, focusing on the theme of "design and cognitive mechanisms", I will host a seminar titled "Practical Methods for Design Improvement from the Perspective of Cognitive Mechanisms" on Friday, January 22, which will cover various other practical methods in more detail.

While the term "cognitive mechanisms" may sound somewhat obscure, through the application of the basics of cognitive psychology, it’s merely a way of reconsidering the ways we think, perceive, and feel as everyday users. Please note that seminar content is fully understandable even without a background knowledge in psychology. Furthermore, I will also explain how the first issue, starting discussions with specific improvement ideas, can be solved through taking this approach.

In my seminar, I plan to introduce the key themes as well as share specific examples of actual design improvements on websites and apps. For those that are interested, both those already undertaking design improvement work as well as those who are new to UX design activities, please join us. We look forward to welcoming you.

  • * The seminar titled "A Practical Approach to Design Improvement based on Cognitive Mechanisms" was held on January 22, 2021. For those that are interested in learning more, please read the report (in Japanese).

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