Our unpredictable users

If you’re reading this, you are probably a human being, and if so, you are member of a most strange and unpredictable species.

Trying to predict human behaviour in order to change it is big business. Governments impose laws trying to get their citizens to conform. Companies create products and services trying to get people to buy them. The problem is that people often behave in a way that is completely opposite to what you would expect.

Let’s start with the government. Our dear leaders want us to drive safely so that we don’t kill or maim ourselves or each other. To encourage this, they enact various driving safety laws, including speeding limits, mandatory seat belts, and in some jurisdictions, mandatory winter tires. The idea is that these safety measures will result in safer driving. But often, it actually reduces safety. How is this possible?

Studies have shown that drivers who perceive their car to be safer will drive more recklessly, because they believe that the car’s safety features will protect them. In other words, safer cars can actually make drivers less safe.

While it is true that the number of winter accidents in Quebec’s have declined since snow tires were made mandatory, this is probably due to the province’s high unemployment rate. Fewer people working mean fewer drivers, and fewer accidents.

There are a few solutions to this conundrum. To encourage safer driving, governments could offer lower vehicle license renewal rates to accident-free drivers. A stranger “solution” would be to make cars more dangerous. If a sharp spike pointing towards the driver was placed into the steering wheel, you can be sure the driver would drive very carefully.

Predicting people’s behaviour is big business in business, too – it’s called “marketing”. Marketing involves understanding a person’s core beliefs in order to determine their actions so that ultimately they will be convinced to purchase a specific product. This often means developing products with characteristics that are counter-intuitive. There are many examples:

Those “inefficient” Japanese
A Japanese manufacturer can assemble a custom-made bicycle in a few hours. However, they do not deliver the bicycle to the end user as soon as it is ready. Instead, they store the finished bike for several days, then contact the customer for a pick up. The reason for this delay is that customers are hungry for the anticipation of the product – it is part of the joy of the purchasing process. Picking up the bike only a few hours after ordering it would diminish this joy.

No pain, no gain, no sale
A medical supply company created an antiseptic that did not sting. Sales were terrible, forcing the company to add alcohol to the product in order to make it sting. People associate pain with sterilization. Because the antiseptic did not hurt, people thought it did not work. Similarly, Buckley’s, a vile-tasting cough medicine, promotes itself with the tag line: “It tastes awful. And it works.”

The package is the product
Steve Jobs not only designed Apple products, he also designed the packaging. When Macs were first introduced in the 1980s, people were not familiar with the computer mouse. Jobs designed the packaging of the mouse to deliberately slow down the unpacking process, in order to force people to become acquainted with this strange new accessory. Even in the packaging, Jobs was creating a full user experience.

Increased price; increased sales – what the…?!
When China increased the import taxes on Porches, sales actually increased. The luxury car became even more a status symbol, because everyone knew how much more valuable they were. It is one of the few examples where raising the price of a product actually had a positive effect on sales.

Unpredictable docs

Knowing that people are unpredictable has a direct impact on documentation and product design in the business world. Again, there are many examples:

Does she or doesn’t she?
Years ago, Clairol introduced products allowing women to colour their hair at home. The product only had to set in one’s hair for two minutes, compared to the thirty minutes it would take at a salon. However, the instructions that came with the product stated that the user should keep the colouring material in place not for two minutes, but thirty minutes. Why?

Women were used to the fact that colouring their hair took 30 minutes. They simply would not have believed that a two minute set time would be effective, so Clairol actually stated to keep the product in their hair fifteen times longer than required. Behaviour trumps practicality every time. 

Rock that doc
When the rock group Van Halen arranged tours, they relied on a most interesting 53-page document: their contract. In addition to various technical specifications regarding the stage setup, the contract had an obscure clause stipulating that a bowl of M&Ms was to be provided backstage with the brown ones removed. Failure to comply with this demand would result in the show being cancelled. Was Van Halen really so picky about candy?

The reason for this exotic request was to ensure safety. Van Halen’s onstage equipment was massive and had to be assembled to strict specifications. Failure to do so could result in injury or death. The “no brown M&Ms” clause was there to ensure that the intended readers of this document complied with the stage setup instructions. If a brown M&M was detected, it probably meant the backstage staff had not followed the other (and much more important) instructions.

May I take your order?
A online enterprise developed a simplified product ordering process, reducing the number of screens required to place an order from five to one. It failed completely – users wouldn’t use it. They wanted the safety and security of being able to easily back out of an order at any time. Giving the user only one screen to complete a purchase, while more efficient, scared away potential buyers.

Let’s be charitable
Often when you receive requests from charities asking for a donation, they will include a form with several suggested amounts. There is usually a small amount, a medium-sized amount, and a large amount, for example, $5, $50 and $500. The target amount that the charity really wants is the middle amount. $500 is too much for most people, so they will ignore it. $5 is too cheap. $50 is “just right”. The design of the document (the donation form) influences the behaviour of the donor.

When designing documents, we must understand how thoroughly unpredictable our readers will be. They will do things like:

  • not open the help even when there is a clear link to it
  • not search the help or use the index, even if these functions are clearly visible
  • be unable to find a button or other user interface element unless you tell them where it is
  • completely skip over a critical introduction to a procedure, in which case you may need to restate the information within the procedure
  • ignore headings at the top of a topic or within a topic
  • look up an item in an index using a term or phrase that you could not possibly imagine

There will always be two things which will remain difficult to predict: the future, and our users. The more we can predict the irrational behaviour of our users, the greater the quality of our documents will be.