Stop blaming users, start fixing product flaws

Recently I was at a conference and overheard someone jokingly mention, “PEBKAC”, which stands for “Problem exists between the keyboard and chair”. Although user experience disciplines and user empathy have come a long way in the past few years, you still hear people blame the user for the flaws in the product or system. As UX professionals, it’s our responsibility to represent the user and address their issues, not dismiss them.

Many of these are just excuses for design flaws in the product. These “user errors” could be prevented by testing your product and considering the user’s environment, tasks, context, behaviors, mental model, and more.

In the book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman suggests, “Don’t think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.”
“When issues are dismissed and remain unresolved, it leads to increased user frustration.” [Tweet this]

This is turn, will cause your users to have a negative outlook of your product, which may be difficult to reverse. Once users have a poor experience, negative emotions can linger if not addressed quickly.

A report by Temkin Group found that when customers have a positive experience, they are 6 times more likely to to buy, 12 times more likely to recommend a company, and 5 times more likely to forgive a mistake.
In this user journey map example, we follow a user through each stage of the journey. If you don’t identify and address pain points immediately, you may see a decline in satisfaction, desirability, and perception of your product’s value over time.

Product management must define minimum feature criteria. Engineers also define acceptable code coverage before deploying a release. For UX, define upfront what is minimally acceptable before shipping as well. Be the voice for the user and influence other members of the agile team to think the same way. Remind them that you can meet the deadline with the required functionality to spec. But, it won’t matter if the user can’t easily complete actions or use the functions.

“Don’t ship products without UX acceptance criteria.” [Tweet this]

How might we encourage others to stop blaming the user so we can improve UX? It all comes down to increasing empathy so conversations drive collaboration, not hinder.

Here are some ways:

  1. Spend time with tech support. Invite a representative to speak to to the team about the top 3 customer service issues. They’ll hear directly from coworkers on what they deal with all day, every day.

If you apply the Pareto Principle to UX, 20% of a product’s core features cause 80% of user’s frustrations. Therefore, focusing on fixing the user issues within that 20%, will reduce a majority of the product’s functional and design flaws.

2. Talk to real users, and listen to their stories. Bring along team members from various disciplines — it could be a developer, QA, product manager, etc. User empathy is much more valuable when it exists across the entire team.

“Storytelling can be a powerful thing and has a way of influencing others by connecting emotionally.” [Tweet this]
When we listen to an engaging story, our brain releases oxytocin, which has been scientifically proven to increase empathy.

3. Get out of the building (GOOB) and observe users in the wild. When you see users struggling with your product, it helps you identify their pain points and frustrations. Test prototypes before development and releases. Pay attention to their facial expressions and body language.

Once, when I was testing a product, a participant was so polite, stating everything looked and worked great but based on her interaction and facial expressions, I could tell she was struggling.

“Sometimes users will say one thing but react differently; this is why research is invaluable to uncovering insights.” [Tweet this]

I want to share a personal story. Recently, I started a new job. In my experience, I began to feel like a new user interacting with an unfamiliar product for the first time. I had to learn how things worked and there were no onboarding carousels or just in time education tooltips popping up as I explored the halls and environment.

One day, I was in the elevator with executives and couldn’t figure out why the buttons were not working. I tried a few times and it wasn’t until an executive pointed out what I had to do, that I got it to work. To me, this is a classic example of a product design flaw. You shouldn’t need instructions to complete a basic task. That’s why it’s important to observe your users interacting with your product early on.

Ask yourself what the emotional and mental state of your users are at various states of their journey with your product. In my experience, I was quite frustrated, a little embarrassed, and stressed. This qualitative research is something that you can’t find in an analytics report.

To share your findings, create an empathy map and supplement with videos and photographs.

An empathy map will help you understand and categorize user needs in 4 areas: Say, do, think, and feel.

4. Stay committed to hypothesizing, experimenting, and rapidly testing. For each iteration, testing with 3–5 users. If after 3 users, you don’t see patterns, continue to test. Set up a webinar where you can share the videos with the team.

5. Help team members visualize your users. It really does help colleagues connect with users when you develop personas and give them a face and a name. Make sure to post the personas in your workspace and update regularly based on research and data.

Remember, shifting someone’s outlook from dismissive to empathetic will take time, patience, and work. Don’t get frustrated if colleagues don’t have the same viewpoints as you.

Just remember to share, share, share so the entire team can empathize with the user and fix the flaws of the product.

Good luck!

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