A Sneaky Trick for Highlighting Usability Problems

It really seems to me that in the midst of great tragedy, there is always the horrible possibility that something terribly funny will happen.”

― Philip K. Dick

Are you a rule-bending kind of person? No? OK, you can stop reading. This one’s for rebels only. If your organisation sometimes struggles to accept that usability problems really are worth fixing, and you see no problem playing the system a little bit, this is for you. I learned this trick by accident. Some may consider it unethical, but I’ve come to feel completely at ease with the trade-off between bending the truth and being a perfectly ethical user researcher.

But first, we must examine why bosses are so ill at ease when they find out there’s something wrong with the product. If you tell someone a product they’ve overseen is causing users problems, most people automatically enter denial mode even before processing the evidence. This is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance. The message that the world sends them ’there’s a design problem’ conflicts with their beliefs about themselves ‘I am a competent decision maker’.

When you experience cognitive dissonance, there are a couple of ways that you can resolve the annoyance in you mind (both unconscious).

Post-rationalise an explanation and maintain your beliefs: “well, I find it perfectly usable; they’ve only watched 5 people, there’s really nothing wrong.”.

Bring your beliefs in line with the world. Sometimes that's easy, e.g. advertising. “Yes, I really do think I should look as cool as that super-hot model, I’ll buy those clothes they’re wearing and instantly feel better.”

But when it’s harder to update your beliefs than simply pulling an item of clothing off the shelf, then perhaps you need a little help to get the medicine down.

Enter: my mildly unethical trick. It’s simple really. Hire a funny person to participate in your testing.

Think about what a comedian does, and why we find them funny. They offer us a new perspective on the world; they turn it upside down, offer us a new lens to see the truth. Often we laugh in a cringey kind of way, because they remind us of our humanity, our fallibility. But laugh we do. And if someone had simply told us that truth, without making us laugh at ourselves, then we’d have a much lower chance of appreciating the truth in what they were saying.

Some comedians, like Patton Oswalt, or Bill Hicks, have been as influential to my world view as any writer. I’ve long been close to the comedy scene, indeed, I used to work every summer at the Edinburgh Festival. I’ve got a secret aspiration to try stand-up one day.

In my current life as a UX Strategist, I once had a mildly witty person come along to some testing for a government website. He made some funny remarks about how unusable the website was, but he did it in that oh-so English dry, ironic way, i.e. ‘there’s no problem here’ while totally and utterly experiencing the problem. He couldn’t find his way out of that hot mess, and he knew it.

I didn’t find him particularly funny at the time, but when I played back the clips to the stakeholders, they loved it. They were laughing at themselves, and went on to show the video of this guy failing to use the website to literally hundreds of people. If you want to try this, it's fairly easy to find people like this to participate in your research, just look to your local comedy or improv scene.

This strategy has become a little secret weapon in my back pocket. Back to the ethics here: you should only be doing this if you know there’s a real problem that others have experienced, and if your comedian isn’t too far from the kinds of people who would use the product. You’re not changing hearts and minds just for the sake of it, you’re doing what a great filmmaker does when they edit: finding the best way to express a scene already written.

So don’t cheat the truth; curate it, make light of it. And may permission to change be yours.

Ben Sauer

Ben Sauer

Ben Sauer has an English degree, but don't hold that against him. He specialises in research and product strategy for companies large and small across the world, including the BBC, Penguin Random House, and also mentors startups. Organisations hire Ben to upgrade their design skills and design culture, so running workshops is his bread and butter. Recently he’s been writing about voice interfaces and speaking on the subject with audiences across Europe.

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