Chapter 2. How we really use the Web


Why are things always in the last place you look for them? Because you stop looking when you find them!


In all the time I’ve spent watching people use the Web, the thing that has struck me most is the difference between how we think people use Web sites and how they actually use them.

When we’re creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading all of our carefully crafted text, figuring out how we’ve organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click.

What they actually do most of the time (if we’re lucky) is glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are almost always large parts of the page that they don’t even look at.

We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.”

Two webpages titled "What we design for…" and "The Reality…" are shown.

As you might imagine, it’s a little more complicated than this, and it depends on the kind of page, what the user is trying to do, how much of a hurry she’s in, and so on. But this simplistic view is much closer to reality than most of us imagine.

It makes sense that we picture a more rational, attentive user when we’re designing pages. It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.

If you want to design effective Web pages, though, you have to learn to live with three facts about real-world Web use.

FACT OF LIFE #1: We don’t read pages. We scan them.

One of the very few well-documented facts about Web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages. Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

The exception, of course, is pages that contain documents like news stories, reports, or product descriptions, where people will revert to reading—but even then, they’re often alternating between reading and scanning.

Why do we scan?

Image We’re usually on a mission. Most Web use involves trying to get something done, and usually done quickly. As a result, Web users tend to act like sharks: They have to keep moving, or they’ll die. We just don’t have the time to read any more than necessary.

Image We know we don’t need to read everything. On most pages, we’re really only interested in a fraction of what’s on the page. We’re just looking for the bits that match our interests or the task at hand, and the rest of it is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the relevant bits.

Image We’re good at it. It’s a basic skill: When you learn to read, you also learn to scan. We’ve been scanning newspapers, magazines, and books—or if you’re under 25, probably reddit, Tumblr, or Facebook—all our lives to find the parts we’re interested in, and we know that it works.

The net effect is a lot like Gary Larson’s classic Far Side cartoon about the difference between what we say to dogs and what they hear. In the cartoon, the dog (named Ginger) appears to be listening intently as her owner gives her a serious talking-to about staying out of the garbage. But from the dog’s point of view, all he’s saying is “blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah.”

What we see when we look at a page depends on what we have in mind, and it’s usually just a fraction of what’s there.

One webpages titled “What DESIGNERS BUILD...” and two webpages titled “What USERS SEE...” are shown.

Like Ginger, we tend to focus on words and phrases that seem to match (a) the task at hand or (b) our current or ongoing personal interests. And of course, (c) the trigger words that are hardwired into our nervous systems, like “Free,” “Sale,” and “Sex,” and our own name.

FACT OF LIFE #2: We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.

When we’re designing pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one.

In reality, though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option—we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing.1 As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.

1 Economist Herbert Simon coined the term (a cross between satisfying and sufficing) in Models of Man: Social and Rational (Wiley, 1957).

I’d observed this behavior for years, but its significance wasn’t really clear to me until I read Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

Klein spent many years studying naturalistic decision making: how people like firefighters, pilots, chessmasters, and nuclear power plant operators make high-stakes decisions in real situations with time pressure, vague goals, limited information, and changing conditions.

Cover Page of the book “Sources of Power How People Make Decisions” with the image of a king chess piece is shown.

Klein’s team of observers went into their first study (of field commanders at fire scenes) with the generally accepted model of rational decision making: Faced with a problem, a person gathers information, identifies the possible solutions, and chooses the best one. They started with the hypothesis that because of the high stakes and extreme time pressure, fire captains would be able to compare only two options, an assumption they thought was conservative.

As it turned out, the fire commanders didn’t compare any options. They took the first reasonable plan that came to mind and did a quick mental test for possible problems. If they didn’t find any, they had their plan of action.

So why don’t Web users look for the best choice?

Image We’re usually in a hurry. And as Klein points out, “Optimizing is hard, and it takes a long time. Satisficing is more efficient.”

Image There’s not much of a penalty for guessing wrong. Unlike firefighting, the penalty for guessing wrong on a Web site is usually only a click or two of the Back button, making satisficing an effective strategy. (Back is the most-used button in Web browsers.)

Image Weighing options may not improve our chances. On poorly designed sites, putting effort into making the best choice doesn’t really help. You’re usually just as well off going with your first guess and using the Back button if it doesn’t work out.

Image Guessing is more fun. It’s less work than weighing options, and if you guess right, it’s faster. And it introduces an element of chance—the pleasant possibility of running into something surprising and good.

Of course, this is not to say that users never weigh options before they click. It depends on things like their frame of mind, how pressed they are for time, and how much confidence they have in the site.

FACT OF LIFE #3: We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.

One of the things that becomes obvious as soon as you do any usability testing—whether you’re testing Web sites, software, or household appliances—is the extent to which people use things all the time without understanding how they work, or with completely wrong-headed ideas about how they work.

Faced with any sort of technology, very few people take the time to read instructions. Instead, we forge ahead and muddle through, making up our own vaguely plausible stories about what we’re doing and why it works.

It often reminds me of the scene at the end of The Prince and the Pauper where the real prince discovers that the look-alike pauper has been using the Great Seal of England as a nutcracker in his absence. (It makes perfect sense—to him, the seal is just this great big, heavy chunk of metal.)

Comic strip with a side note “The Prince and the Pauper (Classics Illustrated)” is shown.

The Prince and the Pauper (Classics Illustrated)

And the fact is, we get things done that way. I’ve seen lots of people use software, Web sites, and consumer products effectively in ways that are nothing like what the designers intended.

Take the Web browser, for instance—a crucial part of Internet use. To people who build Web sites, it’s an application that you use to view Web pages. But if you ask users what a browser is, a surprisingly large percentage will say something like “It’s what I use to find things” or “It’s the search engine.” Try it yourself: ask some family members what a Web browser is. You may be surprised.

Many people use the Web extensively without knowing that they’re using a browser. What they know is you type something in a box and stuff appears.2 But it doesn’t matter to them: They’re muddling through and using the thing successfully.

2 Usually a box with the word “Google” next to it. A lot of people think Google is the Internet.

And muddling through is not limited to beginners. Even technically savvy users often have surprising gaps in their understanding of how things work. (I wouldn’t be surprised if even Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin have some bits of technology in their lives that they use by muddling through.)

Why does this happen?

Image It’s not important to us. For most of us, it doesn’t matter to us whether we understand how things work, as long as we can use them. It’s not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of caring. It’s just not important to us.3

3 Web developers often have a particularly hard time understanding—or even believing—that people might feel this way, since they themselves are usually keenly interested in how things work.

Image If we find something that works, we stick to it. Once we find something that works—no matter how badly—we tend not to look for a better way. We’ll use a better way if we stumble across one, but we seldom look for one.

It’s always interesting to watch designers and developers observe their first usability test. The first time they see a user click on something completely inappropriate, they’re surprised. (For instance, when the user ignores a nice big fat “Software” button in the navigation bar, saying something like, “Well, I’m looking for software, so I guess I’d click here on ‘Cheap Stuff’ because cheap is always good.”) The user may even find what he’s looking for eventually, but by then the people watching don’t know whether to be happy or not.

The second time it happens, they’re yelling “Just click on ‘Software’!” The third time, you can see them thinking: “Why are we even bothering?”

And it’s a good question: If people manage to muddle through so much, does it really matter whether they “get it”? The answer is that it matters a great deal because while muddling through may work sometimes, it tends to be inefficient and error-prone.

On the other hand, if users “get it”:

Image There’s a much better chance that they’ll find what they’re looking for, which is good for them and for you.

Image There’s a better chance that they’ll understand the full range of what your site has to offer—not just the parts that they stumble across.

Image You have a better chance of steering them to the parts of your site that you want them to see.

Image They’ll feel smarter and more in control when they’re using your site, which will bring them back. You can get away with a site that people muddle through only until someone builds one down the street that makes them feel smart.

If life gives you lemons...

By now you may be thinking (given this less than rosy picture of your audience and how they use the Web), “Why don’t I just get a job at the local 7-Eleven? At least there my efforts might be appreciated.”

So, what’s a girl to do?

I think the answer is simple: If your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards.

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