User Error – Everyday Mistakes that Can Save Your Business

Why do users get blamed for poorly designed systems, confusing interfaces, and mis-leading instructions?

A User Error is commonly defined as “an error made by the human user of a complex system, usually a computer system, in interacting with it.” The Urban Dictionary defines it as “Used by computer on the occasion that the user is incorrect, poorly configured, incompatible, or just an idiot.” In the geek world there is a certain degree of snobbery about user errors. We usually use the term to look down upon those who make mistakes with anything tech that us “geeks” wouldn’t make.

We playfully throw this word around office quite frequently. I more than others love to tease my fellow co-workers when ever they have an issue with their computer or an application by blurting out the words “USER ERROR” in my best robot voice – yes I can be a bit of a you-know-what, but they still love me.

The fact is we all make user errors, daily, and not just with computer systems. It’s within our nature as humans to make mistakes when we’re trying to figure out how to use or do something for the first time, it’s part of the learning process at any age. We learn from our mistakes, at least most of us do.

The real question is why blame the user? 

If a system is not intuitive or easy to use, it is hardly the user’s fault if they have difficulties with it. We see this all the time, interfaces like a website, application, or even an ATM machine with poor design and little or no understanding of good UI/UX (basically how the user interacts with it).

I’ll give you an example; if you are put in front of an interface and you need to spend more than a few seconds to figure out what button you need push to get your money out of the machine, it’s not your fault, that is not a “user error”, that’s just BAD design.

Bad design is everywhere, not just on the internet, and the “user errors” keep growing. However, it’s not all bad! These everyday mistakes might just save your business. As already mentioned, making mistakes is part of the natural human process, the key is learning from these mistakes to create better designs and products. I know, I’m not saying anything new, yet many agencies and product designers keep producing crap! That’s a fact.

User errors can lead to happier customers 

This is where it gets weird. I’m going to tell you to make user errors everyday, all day long if need be, the more user errors you and your friends, staff, and customers make the more you will understand your business, its product, and the people that use it.

I may be the CCO of Brendan & Brendan but I wear a lot of hats and a good majority of my time is spent managing our developers and coding my self. When we’re working on a project for a client we get a basic prototype in place for the rest of the staff to look at, design aside, we make sure at least the functionality and copy are in place to see how they interact with it. More often than not they make “user errors”. My initial re-action is almost always, huh? How did they do that? Why did they do that? What don’t they get?

See, as a coder I get so caught up in the “functionality” of a site sometimes I forget “who” will be using it and what I consider standard may not be for the demographic of users. This is why user errors can be so incredibly beneficial. I can use all that data to better understand what it is the user really wants and needs to understand the story we’re coding.

This is not exclusive to code. This applies to all the copy, the CTAs, basically any element that  defines the overall story we’re trying to tell. Every user error helps us build and design a better product.

Our recommended cycle for user error checking:

  • prototype
  • internal peer review
  • implement changes
  • internal peer review
  • if client – client review
  • implement changes
  • beta testers/external review
  • implement changes
  • repeat

Focus on the user errors

This is nothing new. QA processes have been in place in every industry for a long time. The problem is most QA processes don’t take user errors into consideration. They look at spelling, grammar, code bugs, placement of objects, design flaws, etc. but rarely do they look at how the average user within their targeted demographic interact with it.

I know what you’re going to say, that I’m wrong. What about surveys, feedback forums, beta testing, focus groups, etc. You’re right. Those all exist and sometimes get used. However, they still don’t really focus on user errors. Let’s look at focus groups as an example. Consumer-based product developers like toy companies, electronics, food, and even television run focus groups. In recent years tech startups have started using focus groups as well to find out what people think of their iPhone or web app. The problem is they usually run these groups after they’ve built their product and they almost always ask people “what do you think?”.

That ain’t going to work! What I or anyone thinks is not relevant to the user error I produced. My opinions may be shaped by the positive or negative experience I gained from the product but by not monitoring the actions “we” took or what made “us” take them you’re never going to learn how your product can be improved or fixed.

If I test your iPhone app for 15 minutes and then you ask me to answer a bunch of questions like: What did you like about the app? Would you buy the app? Would you recommend the app to your friends? etc, you’ve learned nothing about the product experience. Ask me why I clicked or didn’t click on a button? Ask me if I understood what I was doing and how to do it? Make me perform user errors. The more frustrated I am and the less I can figure out the more you’ve learned about you customer and how to build for them.

No more user errors

You will never eradicate user errors and you will never please all users. Some people will never get it and always have something to complain about. You can however build and design a better product that the majority of people understand which in turn leads to more sales and happier customers.

Always watch what your users are doing and listen to what they have to say – revel in the user error and use it to your advantage!

One thought on “User Error – Everyday Mistakes that Can Save Your Business

  1. Pingback: The “Grumpy” Poet – It’s not the Tools, it’s the Artist! | Keep Marketing Fun

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