User Ability: A Key Ingredient for Competence

User AbilityIn order for a user to do something, the user has to have the ability to get it done. That seems obvious, but product designers don’t always take user ability into account when creating the user experience.

In thinking about what it means for a user to be able to do something, BJ Fogg gives a helpful insight:

Simplicity is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment.

This insight helps us move beyond the idea of ability as possession of a set of skills. In fact, often when a user doesn’t have the ability to get something done within a technology product, it’s not actually a skill deficit. Consider:

  • You’re trying to buy something online, but the checkout process is taking a really long time and you have someplace to be. You abandon your cart without completing the transaction.
  • You are taking a health risk assessment. There are questions about your biometric results, like your cholesterol, and a question about how many inches your waist circumference is. You don’t have this information handy but can’t advance without entering a value. You don’t finish the assessment.
  • You’re trying to use an app on your phone, but it repeatedly crashes. After the fifth consecutive crash, you delete the app in frustration.

In all of these cases, you walked away from the product because you lacked the ability to hang with it. In the first case, your scarcest resource was time; in the second, knowledge; and in the third, patience.

So what does this mean for designing a product? It means you must put yourself in the user’s head and ask, what resources do I need to complete this task? Then, your design process should include supporting your user’s ability to use the product. There are a number of ways you can do this.

Tips for Supporting Your User’s Ability Within Your Product

  • Provide clear instructions. Some technology activities are self-explanatory, but many are not. Particularly if users in your testing phase don’t seem intuitively able to grasp your product function, invest effort in crafting clear and precise user instructions (or, alternately, redesign until such instructions are unnecessary).
  • For more complicated activities, permit users to save progress and return later. And make sure users know they can do this! This tip is especially helpful for lengthy multi-part experiences like a health risk assessment. It’s also helpful if the user might not have all of the necessary information when they start; for the health risk assessment, many users may need to retrieve medical information or visit a doctor to get all of the required data.
  • If an activity is hard or likely to be new for a user, offer guidance and extra information. You may need to provide additional resources for users to assist with their completion of activities. For example, when I complete my taxes online, I’m almost always able to click through to additional documentation and FAQs if I am unsure about what data to enter. This helps me navigate an area outside of my comfort zone.
  • Focus on quality, bug fixes, and reliability. Even if your product is theoretically awesome, if it’s buggy, you will lose users who don’t have the patience or motivation to work through errors and false starts.

What are some ways you support your users’ ability to use your product? What products do you think do this well?