A Good User Flow Has No Wrong Path

“THEM: Well, I have to confess that we don’t quite use it the way you’d want…

ME: (frowns)

Now, that frown you see may not be for the reason you think. I’m not frowning because people don’t follow the methods we share to the letter. I’m frowning because they seem to think that’s a problem.” -Jesse James Garrett, How to Design Experiences the Adaptive Path Way (Or Not)

In Jesse James Garrett’s recent article, he goes on to talk about the process Adaptive Path uses, and how it works for some people but not others. He advises readers to use the parts that work for them, and let the rest sit for another day.

His words are wise, and they apply to more than just process. They are true of user flows as well: people can follow a user flow even when they’re doing it “wrong.”

The Best of User Flow Intentions

Many people are familiar with the legend of the first chocolate chip cookie: a sugar cookie recipe used by Ruth Graves Wakefield in 1930 went awry, when the baker accidentally dropped chocolate into her recipe. Voila! The chocolate chip cookie was born. Are we all making sugar cookies wrong every time we add chocolate chips? No. Instead, we’ve developed something new, essentially reinventing an old product.

Some people may also be familiar with Skin So Soft – a face and body lotion that has a hidden talent for repelling insects. Are the millions of people using Skin So Soft as insect repellent wrong? No. They are using the product in the most helpful way to them.

My mother, a very intelligent if slightly technology inept woman, uses Google’s search function to find URLs. She’ll type “www.facebook.com” into the Google search bar, and Facebook is always the first result. Is she using the internet incorrectly? I used to say she was, but ultimately, she always finds the site she’s looking for.

All of these are merely anecdotes, and there are hundreds like them, all pointing to the same conclusion: it doesn’t matter how the designer “intended” for the product to be used. What matters is how the end-user uses it.


The Customer’s Flow is Always Right

User research, from ethnographic interviews to usability testing, is intended to help align the designer’s goal and the user’s goal. But even then, a new user may appear on the scene and find some new way of using the product. This leaves us in a position of great freedom, as well as great responsibility. A few key takeaways:

  1. Prioritize your users. People will always find new ways to use your product, and trying to design a perfectly intuitive flow for the whole family is often a task destined to fail. However, if you design for your top-priority user, other users will still pop up – and they’ll find your product because they live with, are friends with, or bumped into your target users.
  2. Ask questions with an open mind. We’re not lawyers, who live by the rule “only ask a question you know the answer to.” We’re UX professionals, and as such we need to step back and listen to all sorts of users. They’ll give us information we didn’t know we didn’t know – and if no one’s surprised you yet, you need to start asking more open-ended questions.
  3. Focus on flows (not just goals). The flow of a Google search is clear. (1) Type in the search terms, (2) Click the button, (3) Select the site to view. It is so clear that when a user (like my mom) visits with a different goal in mind, she is still able to follow the flow and succeed in her goal. The same is true of Skin So Soft – whether the user’s goal is to lotion their skin or repel insects, the flow is clear and easy to follow.
2 comments Add yours
  1. Twitter is a great example of this as well. So many of its uses – hashtags being the most notable – came from users experimenting with it, not from the designers and developers. They’ve done a great job adapting and evolving their product.

  2. Great example Brian! Any product that can adapt and evolve to meet the user’s needs – and their *preferences* has a better chance of surviving. It’s Darwinian.

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