3 min read

Unpack searching

Unpack searching

In usability tests, it happens very often that the user is looking for something but doesn't find it. How do we figure out why?

The bad technique

Most UXRs would follow up by asking: "Did you notice X in the top-right corner?" This is a bad approach for two reasons:

  • Many users would just say "Yes" only to seem smart. And we have no way to validate their claim because we have just volunteered the location of X.
  • If they say "No", we still can't tell why they didn't find it. This is when some UXRs would ask "Why didn't you find it?". Unfortunately, users wouldn't know. They simply have no insights into their unconscious cognitive processes (e.g. sensation, perception, attention) that are involved in searching for objects. But they will try to come up with an explanation nevertheless. That explanation will have little to do with the real reason.

The good technique

When the user is not finding something, there is really only 3 possible causes of it:

  1. User was not looking at the right location.
  2. User was looking at the right location but didn't notice the thing.
  3. User was looking at the right location, noticed the thing, but thought it was something else.

Luckily a running think-aloud will tell us which of these was the case.

1) Not looking there

If the user hovers over the screen, but never touches the area of interest and not talking about it, then he probably didn't even look at the location.

The important thing to note here is: Where did he look for the thing? The first location he looked at was the location he expected it to be. Where did he look 2nd and 3rd? Those can also be viable locations for the thing.

Fix: put the thing where the user looked for it.

2) Looking there but not noticing

If the user hovers over the target area, talks about things in the area but never mentions THE thing, then he likely has missed noticing it. It just didn't pop out for him. The thing is either too subtle or there is just too much noise around it.

Fix: make the thing more salient, e.g. make it bigger or remove the clutter from around it.

3) Looking there, noticing, but misunderstanding

If the user talks about the target area and even talks about THE thing, we would know that he noticed it, considered it, but assumed it was not the thing he was looking for. In other words, he misunderstood it. The think-aloud would reveal how he misunderstood it. Was it the label that mislead him? Did he think it was not clickable? Was the look of it suggesting it was something else?

Fix: fix the cause of the misunderstanding. E.g. change the label.

All in all, if I have a good think-aloud running I would know what was the cause of this usability issue. But even if I couldn't establish a good think-aloud I can still ask:

"So you were looking for X. Could you talk me through where did you look and what did you consider?"

They will repeat the whole search and I would see where they looked, what they noticed, and how they understood that.