Enhancing Usability by Building User Confidence

November 14, 2013

Consider your experiences with web applications, and see if this scenario seems familiar: Your electricity bill has some incorrect charges on it. Fearing that you will have to spend 40 minutes on hold if you call in, you find that the electric company website has a support center where you can submit billing issues and questions; you are saved! You carefully fill out the form with your sixteen-digit account number and detailed description of the incorrect charges. You read it over and click the submit button. Your page goes blank for a couple of seconds, the form comes back with a note saying you typed in your phone number incorrectly, and the detailed description you spent eleven minutes meticulously writing is gone.

Web applications have gotten much better at preventing these kinds of user experiences over the past few years, and I'm sure that none of your applications have this problem (if they do, fix it right now!), but "usability" is more than just handling errors gracefully. Having a seamless process is only half the battle when it comes to giving your users a great experience with your application. The other half of the battle is a much more subjective: Your users need to feel confident in their success every step of the way. By keeping a few general guidelines in mind, you can instill confidence in your users so that they feel positive about your application from start to finish with whatever they are trying to accomplish.

1. Keep the user in a familiar context.

As the user in our electric company support application example, let's assume the process works and does not lose any of my information. I have to have faith that the application is going to do what I expect it to do when the page refreshes. Faith and unfamiliar technology do not exactly go hand in hand. Instead of having the form submit with a page refresh, the site's developers could introduce a progress wheel or other another kind of indicator that shows the data is being submitted while the content is still visible. If detailed content never goes away during the submission process, I'm confident that I still have access to my information.

Another example of the same principle is the use of modal windows. Modal windows are presented on top of a previous page, so users have a clear way of going back if they get confused or decide they navigated to the wrong place. By providing this new content on top of a familiar page, users are much less likely to feel disoriented if they get stuck or lost, and they will feel more confident when they're using the application.

2. Reassure the user with immediate feedback.

By communicating frequently and clearly, users are reassured, and they are much less likely to become anxious. Users want to see their actions get a response from your application. In our electric company support application example, imagine how much better the experience would be if a small blurb was displayed in red next to the phone number text box when I typed in my phone number in the wrong format. The immediate feedback would pinpoint the problem when it is easy to correct, and it would make me confident that when the phone number is updated, the application will continue to work as expected.

3. Provide warnings or extra information for dangerous or complicated operations.

When users are new to an application, they are not always sure which actions will have negative consequences. This is another great opportunity for communication. Providing notices or alerts for important or risky operations can offer a good dose of hesitation for new users who aren't prepared. Effective warnings or notices will tell the user when they will want to perform this action or what the negative consequences might be, so the user can make an informed decision. Users are confident with informed decisions because a lack information causes anxiety.

I learned how to implement this tip when I designed a wizard system for a previous employer that standardized how the company's application would walked users through any step-by-step process. My team decided early on to standardize a review step at the end of any implemented wizard. This was an extra step that every user had to go through for every wizard in the application, but it made all of the related processes much more usable and communicative. This extra information gave the users a chance to see the totality of the operation they were performing, and it gave them a chance to correct any mistakes. Implementing this tip resulted in users who were fully informed and confident throught the process of very complicated operations.

4. Do not assume your users know your terminology, and don't expect them to learn it.

Every organization has its own language. I have never encountered an exception to this rule. It cannot be helped! Inside your organization, you come up with a defined vocabulary for referencing the topics you have to work with every day, but your users won't necessarily understand the terminology you use internally. Some of your ardent users pick up on your language through osmosis, but the vast majority of users just get confused when they encounter terms they are not familiar with.

When interacting with users, refrain from using any of your internal language, and strictly adhere to a universally-accepted vocabulary. In many cases, you need shorthand to describe complex concepts that users will already understand. In this situation, always use universal or industry-wide vocabulary if it is available.

This practice can be challenging and will often require extra work. Let's say you have a page in your application dealing with "display devices," which could either be TVs or monitors. All of your employees talk about display devices because to your organization, they are essentially the same thing. The technology of your application handles all display devices in exactly the same way, so as good software designers you have this abstracted (or condensed for non-technical people) so that you have the least amount of code possible. The easiest route is to just have a page that talks about display devices. The challenge with that approach is that your users understand what monitors and TVs are, but they don't necessarily think of those as display devices.

If that's the case, you should use the words "monitors" and "TVs" when you're talking about display devices externally. This can be difficult, and it requires a lot of discipline, but when you provide familiar terminology, users won't be disoriented by basic terms. To make users more comfortable, speak to them in their language. Don't expect them to learn yours, because most of them won't.

When you look at usability through the subjective lens of user confidence, you'll find opportunities to enhance your user experience ... even when you aren't necessarily fixing anything that's broken. While it's difficult to quantify, confidence is at the heart of what makes people like or dislike any product or tool. Pay careful attention to the level of confidence your users have throughout your application, and your application can reach new heights.

-Tony