The paradox of the active user

This is the first in a series of fundamental user experience concepts useful for understanding people’s behaviour when using the web and mobile.

The paradox of the active user is a concept that was first articulated by John Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson in 1987 at IBM’s User Interface Institute [PDF].  It describes a phenomenon that is ever-present, and still relevant to the way that people use the web and mobile devices today.

Active users want to get started

You can get users off the blocks more quickly if you know what they need to learn on the way

When users approach a new design or device, they will tend to ignore instructions and tutorials. They will gloss over anything that distracts attention from getting their work done, and instead start getting on with it.

This is in spite of the fact that learning about the system early on may repay itself by avoiding errors, frustration and confusion later.

Therein lies the challenge: designers must have a clear handle on the behaviour and current knowledge of actual users, some of whom may have no clue about what they are doing, and have limited interest in diverting themselves away from their task to find out.

The design must support active users’ current knowledge

This means that the way that users interact with the system must have learning integrated within it, rather than being separated out into a siloed “FAQs” section or series of instructions where it’s rarely needed.

Understanding just how much knowledge users have is therefore critical. Putting user research and iterative design techniques to use helps to get to grips with your users. Each research session and design iteration is an opportunity to unpick design challenges, test new approaches and learn more about what users know.

Active users in e-commerce

Choice paralysis and form-filling fatigue can set in when looking for holidays. But that won’t stop users searching.

Consider a typical travel e-commerce website. Most will feature a prominent search form, asking users to complete the dates for their holiday, where they want to go, and from which airport they would like to depart. But let’s say the user is in the early stages of research. Perhaps they haven’t chosen a destination or a specific date yet.

Users are forced to answer questions they’re not actually ready to answer. That’s a really uncomfortable experience. But it’s not a deal-breaker.

Users are likely to provide a “dummy” answer for now, and see what happens.  By doing this users are learning more about the available options, the prices those options sell at, and how attractive the options look.

Making your design clever

The clever designer will make sure that the ‘from-search-to-search-results’ experience adds more value for users than simply delivering the direct matches for their query.

Clever touches include communicating the company’s value proposition in a way that differentiates, allowing users to discover new options by showing what lies just outside the specified search, and using persuasive elements such as highlighting scarcity or displaying social proof to encourage decisive decision-making. User research and robust testing will uncover which concepts have legs.

Avoiding the paradox

Through researching users’ level of knowledge and guiding them through a process sensitively, you can find delightful design touches to make active users into expert users and advocates, without the need for an in-depth tutorial.

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