If you've ever participated in a classic task-based usability test, you're familiar with this. You've set everything up, given the user a task, and he's started trying to figure out your user interface to get the given task done.
And invariably, one of your test users gets stuck and can't continue. No matter what he tries, he just can't figure out how to go on.
You stare through the two-way mirror while little beads of sweat start forming on your forehead. Is your interface really that crappy? First, the other users made all kinds of mistakes and took ages to finish their tasks, and now this one is genuinely stuck?
Eventually, you're forced to lean forward, push the button next to the microphone, and tell the user "just click on the button with the 'doohickey' label. It's at the bottom of the screen. No... further down... Yeah, that's it. Click that."
The user will look at the button dumbfounded for a second or two, but suddenly he'll get it and announce that "ah, I should have seen that, I guess I was just being stupid!"
Ah, sweet relief. That must be it. Your interface is okay after all, it's just the user being stupid.
It's a trap! Slowly step away from your keyboard and consider this:
Your users are never stupid. Sure, there are many users who may not be experts in using your application (or web site, or remote control, or door knob) - in fact, most users of your interface won't be experts at using your interface. Even if your product is Photoshop and your users spend half their day inside your app, that means they spend half their day inside another app where they are taught all kinds of unsavoury habits.
It's never your user's fault. If one user gets stuck somewhere, you can bet your farm that others will face the same problem. Never accept "I've just been stupid" as an explanation for user failure. There's always something you can do to fix usability issues.
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