The User is Never Wrong

In years past, as a wee adolescent first discovering the intimidating art of interaction with real people, I worked as a sales clerk in a local software store. At the store, we had a motto, something that you’ve probably heard many times before: the customer is always right. I will say now that I didn’t fully believe in our motto at the time. I was young, naive, and perhaps even a little cocky (weren’t we all?).

There is one incident in particular that I will never forget. We had a customer who stormed into the store, made a bee-line for the checkout counter, and immediately started yelling. There was no escalation; this man went from zero to red-in-the-face-irate in no time at all. “I demand a refund,” he proclaimed. By his tone, I knew that he was already aware our return policy: no opened items will be accepted. This was in the days, if you will remember, when computers actually had optical disc drives and you purchased software in boxes. In the infancy of CD writers, it was exceedingly easy to copy unprotected software, and thus our return policy was understandably strict. The man standing in front of me obviously disagreed.

I looked at the open box in his hand and began with the customary and practiced response: “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t accept returns of opened software.”

“No,” he interrupted. “No, I want a refund. This damned thing cost me forty dollars and it’s terrible.” He looked at me with raised eyebrows, as if his statement made it plainly obvious that he was entitled to his request.

I was, and have always been, someone who avoids conflict at all costs, and this situation was making me quite uncomfortable. Fortunately for me, the manager of the store was nearby, and eager to step in. I looked at him as if to say, “What now?” Strangely fond of this sort of situation, the manager was happy to replace me and reinforce my recital of the return policy to our angry new friend. A yelling match ensued, and the two men fired back and forth, culminating with the customer storming out of the store in an angry fit.

An uneasy silence settled over the store as the customer left. The entry bell chimed a nervous tone, and we were left once again to the peace of an empty store. The manager and I exchanged glances and returned to our daily regimen.

The next day, it was business as usual. Normal, happy customers came and went, browsers browsed and buyers bought. The day was nearly complete when our disgruntled customer enter the store once again, this time armed not with a loud and angry voice, but with a casual and confident smirk on his face. I looked to the manager for support, but he had a defeated look on his face. He was not going to put up a fight.

Our argumentative customer received not only a full refund for his opened box of software, but also a free complimentary product of his choice. I had never seen a smile so wide. We had offered him what was essentially an apology of the monetary kind. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t agree with it. My manager must have seen the look on my face.

“The customer is always right,” he said. “Even when the customer is wrong, they’re always right.”

The User is Never Wrong

Now, years later, I work with a very different type of customer. I design and build interactive interfaces. I create websites. My customer is the user. Looking back, I realize that even though it didn’t feel right, and even though I didn’t agree with the angriest customer I’ve ever seen, we were right to give him a refund. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is right, it matters how people feel about the service. It’s all about the experience. It’s about the emotions that people associate with your product. Be it an electronic gadget, a child’s toy, a car, or something that appears on a digital screen, we as users don’t remember the product, itself. We remember the emotions the product creates. We remember how the product makes us feel, be it anything between fantastic and infuriating.

The truth is, the customer (the user) is never wrong. This is a lesson learned that I think about constantly. It was in a different time, in a different industry, and in a different context, but it applies all the same. I still work to serve a customer, and I can never forget that. Creating a good user experience is about creating something that people will remember with positive emotional association. In order to do that, we need to make decisions on behalf of our users. We need to empower them, and cater to their needs. We need to realize that the user is always right. Always. More specifically, we need to create consistency, communicate clearly, and eliminate potential frustrations in our products.

Creating Consistency

Different products call for the cultivation of different emotions. A sports car can invoke emotions of power and awe, or of luxury and elegance. A more modest sedan, however, may be portrayed in the emotional light of reliability and value, or of safety and security. They are similar products, but have completely different emotional associations intended for different types of customers.

The same holds true in the world of interactive design. Not all interfaces are created equal. What works well in one website may be awkward and out of place in another. One of the most valuable assets I can bring to a design project is a practice of consistency. From the very beginning, it is imperative to study and understand the users of a system. Once you know the user, you can develop an appropriate message, and reinforce that message at every step of the way. This should persist from the project’s inception to completion, with no exceptions.

A fantastic tool that can be used to create consistency is the user persona. These simple documents personify the users of a system, and can even be printed and distributed as a constant reminder of the message, the goals, the users, and the emotional tone of a project. Aarron Walter, author of Designing For Emotion, offers a fantastic template for design personas to help begin this process.

Furthermore, I go so far as to print these personas out. I affix them to the walls near the team I’m working with, and I tell everyone to look at them every single day. With every feature and component that we build, we should look to the personas and ask ourselves, “Does this fit the emotional tone of the project?” “Does this fit our users?” These are important questions to ask, and all too easy to forget.

Communicating Clearly

Users often visit websites in search of something. Search engines help make this process easier, but once the user has stepped off of Google’s digital subway and landed on your website platform, it’s up to you to guide them to the content they’re seeking. I often consider myself an electronic usher of sorts. As such, I do the things an usher would do. “Why are you here?” I ask. “Right this way,” I say. That’s how users should feel: ushered. There should be no options when using an interface. You’re here to make decisions for your users, and you should exercise that power frequently. As Steve Krug has famously stated in his book, Don’t Make Me Think:

…as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory. I should be able to “get it” — what it is and how to use it — without expending any effort thinking about it.

Be an usher. Any time you feel you’re giving users options, stop and think about it. Is there a better way to do this that doesn’t present users with a choice? Less is more: don’t complicate things. Don’t make your users think about it.

Eliminating Frustration

Frustration is the downfall of many an otherwise great design. The tiniest thing can drive users absolutely crazy. For me, any time I see a message that tells me “please don’t use the back button in your browser,” I am immediately turned off. Why is it my responsibility to control my browser in a certain way? As a user, I do a few things, and I do them all the time. I click. I scroll. I go back. I go forward. These are the sacred functions of the web browser that you simply don’t interfere with. Ever.

Any time a user has problems with technology, we often chalk it up to the myth of “user error.” In almost every case, however, the “error” is a result of disorganized content, poor communication, or a lack of consistency. Eliminating these common sources of frustration can go a long way toward creating great user experiences. Most of the time, however, it falls to simple common sense. Don’t create challenges for your users, create solutions. That sounds exceedingly obvious and simple, but it’s very easy to lose sight of.

Our angry customer in the store was wrong from the very beginning. He was wrong when he made his choice of purchase; obviously, it wasn’t the right product for him. He was wrong when he decided to storm into the store with a negative and combative tone. He was wrong when he assumed the store’s return policy didn’t apply to him. He was wrong about so many things, but in the end, he was right. He was right because it was our store. All of the negative emotion this customer was feeling was a direct result of his experience in our store, and that experience is our responsibility. No matter how crazy it might seem, providing a good user experience is about making the user right. All the time.

You’ll never please everyone. It’s impossible for any one team or any one designer to think of every possible frustration a user could encounter. If you at least acknowledge those frustrations, however, and if you create good user experiences, you’ll find that frustrated users are much harder to come by. In the end, it’s not about the product, the website, the system, or even the design. It’s about the little things. It’s about the emotion attached to it all. If you focus on that, you’ll make your users happy. You’ll make them right.

3 comments

  1. Kyle great article, I will be sure reference the books. I really like your blog it is really user friendly.

    Regards,

  2. Steve O'Donnell says:

    I’m a communications guy, not a web guy. Consequently, I often find myself in meetings where a web design person tries to explain how the site works, where the user is supposed to go, why the interface is intuitive, even though I’ve asked a series of questions that indicates it really isn’t. “When’s the last time,” I usually ask, “did you go on a website where the first thing you saw was a form that said ‘Please give us your name, street address and zip code so that we can send you a copy of the user manual for our site?'” The point is, if you need a user manual (or any other kind of explanation), it isn’t a good site.

  3. John says:

    If Henry Ford had this mentality, he would have made a faster horse—rather than building a car.

    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

    I wouldn’t argue with my doctor about which kind of medicine I should take. He’s the doctor, he should know.

    I suppose “the customer is always right” is a saying that only applies in certain professions. It’s definitely not universally relavent.

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