What vs. Why

Let’s imagine you walked into McDonald’s and saw a post-retirement aged man working the cash register or wiping the tables. What would you think? Would you think that he has made foolish choices when he was younger and didn’t save enough? Would you conclude that he works there because he desperately needed the money? What if you saw him get off work and get into a late model Buick or Lexus that costs more than your car? That would make you think a bit more about your prior conclusions, wouldn’t it?

It’s easy to see what people do. Most people form conclusions based on what they see people do. This is because the ‘what’ is readily available whereas the ‘why’ isn’t. But the why is far more important than the what. We’re in the business where we just can’t make decisions based on what people do. Especially as web designers and usability professionals, it’s far more important that we understand why people do what they do. This is one reason why we encourage test participants to think out aloud.

More importantly, more often than not, what people do isn’t a clear indication of what they actually want. As a simple example, a statistic showing frequent use of the back button while on your site does not necessarily mean people like to use back buttons. It just may be that you have not provided a convenient way to navigate your site. Mostly what people physically do is a manifestation of one’s cognitive process that occurs in advance. The mind forms a mental model of what experience to expect from a site or an app. We may not always be able to influence the formation of user’s mental model. But as designers of user experience we can design a conceptual model of our product that best matches user’s mental model. We need to minimize the conflict between user’s expectations and what the system does. The less we make people think, the more positive experience people will have with the product.

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