Keep features and functions simple…users may not take the time to learn more

Andrea Ferguson

President at AndiSites Inc.
Andi is founder and President of AndiSites Inc. She writes about website design and development, best practices, and random stuff her busy brain thinks would be useful.
Andrea Ferguson

In a recent blog post, User Experience (UX) specialist Jakob Nielsen discusses research verifying that the typical website user will never get to most of your features.  As avid followers of UX research and how people actually use your website (as opposed to how you may wish they would), we take this as more evidence that you should keep your website simple and your most important features up front and easily accessible.

“Even long-term users of a computer system usually know and use only a tiny fraction of its available commands and features. If the design has good usability, people learn a core set of features fairly easily during their early days of system use. And then they stagnate and don’t get much better. Decades can pass with even frequent system users barely learning one or two new things per year.”

Microsoft introduced “the ribbon” with Office 2007 in order to make users aware of its many features; still, people only used a few.

More recently, researchers conducted usability studies of popular mobile applications and discovered that users didn’t know about many of the apps’ features, despite using the apps frequently.

Nielsen refers to this as the “stagnation of expertise.”  Use an app or website for one thing, keep using it for that one thing, and never bother learning what else it can do.

“Whatever the underlying biology, it’s an empirical fact — based on 3 decades of research — that users are narrowly focused on the present. What’s in front of them is all they know. What they’re doing right now is all that matters.

People don’t read manuals. People don’t go exploring all over the user interface in search of neat features. People don’t investigate whether there’s a better way of doing something once they’ve learned an approach that works.”

Learning is hard work, and users don’t want to do it. That’s why they learn as little as possible about your design and then stay at a low level of expertise for years. The learning curve flattens quickly and barely moves thereafter.”

Here are a few takeaways that may be helpful when designing or streamlining your website:

    • Have fewer features.  Just because your website can do everything doesn’t mean it should.
    • Make features easy to see and use.  Seems simple enough, but many websites hide their most important features behind non-essential content or design elements. Make it apparent to users what to click on to accomplish a task.
    • Keep instructions upfront and brief. 

Users won’t read manuals–give them up-front tips that are easy to understand.

  • Practice forgiveness. “Exploration is more likely when users can easily get themselves out of any situation. Undo (including the Back button) and clear navigation are essential. Conversely, if people try a new feature and get hurt, you can bet that they won’t be exploring your UI again.”
  • Plain usability. Simple, simple, simple.  The easier something is, the more likely users will learn it instead of spending brainpower struggling with it.
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