The Danger of Habituation To UX & 3 Tips To Avoid It

For product designers, success is all about seeing the details. Every detail is an opportunity to shape the experience that someone will have when they engage in your product. But before you can design the details, you first have to see the details.

With the rise in our use of technology, our brains are simply overwhelmed with information, and though I don’t have data on this, my guess is that it makes our brains really tired. And as a result, we easily fail to see the details that actually matter.

So if we’re not seeing the details, then how can we create great products? Or, how do we even know what products we should be creating? How can we even spot the problems that need to be solved if we’re so easily and rapidly adapting to the world around us?

In this TED Talk, The First Secret of Design is … Noticing, Tony Fadell talks about how important it is for designers to fight against adapting and make a conscious effort to be more curious, thoughtful, observant, and critical of the world around them.

Tony knows a thing or two about design. Tony (follow him on Twitter @tonyfadell) is the founder of Nest and worked alongside Steve Jobs as one of the lead designers of the iPod.

Back to my earlier question:

Why do we so easily just adapt to situations and become oblivious to things that once would have jumped out as an obvious problem?

As it turns out, there’s a word for this — habituation.

Tony describes habituation as the process of getting used to everyday things so that our brains can handle learning new things. Why does this happen?

Well, we have limited brain-power – there’s only so much room in our brains to learn, process, and understand. So habituation creates room in our brains to understand new things.  In some ways, habituation seems like a good thing. Habits help us to be more productive, achieve goals, and not have to think about doing things that once required conscious effort.

But, Tony brings up a really good point; the problem with habituation is that it causes us to stop noticing things around us. We end up simply failing to see problems that are right in front of us.

So, how do we train ourselves to fight against habituation? How do we make ourselves notice the problems around us, see the details, and not lose a curious and child-like mindset and perspective of the world?

Tony suggests three qualities to work on to help fight against habituation. I’ve thought a lot about his tips and I’ve added to them to help you understand how you can apply them to user experience design.

1. Look broader
When trying to solve problems in user experience, a lot of times teams end up spending a lot of time focusing on one screen. The problem with focusing on just once screen is that you end up trying to solve a problem that doesn’t consider the context of the user. When someone uses your product, they likely aren’t just experiencing it through one screen. There are screens before and screens after. This is why I never just focus on one screen. I always try and understand the entire sequence of screens.

For example, in designing in a commerce site, I would never just focus on a product detail screen. I would first map out the sequence of screens that could lead someone to a product detail screen as well as the pages that the user could end up on from a product detail screen.

2. Look closer
This week I was recently designing a homepage. When people ask me to work on their homepage for them, they are always shocked at how long it will take. Everyone expects that a homepage will take 3 – 4 days. Wrong. Homepages are hard. Why? Because the homepage is where you have seconds to capture the attention of someone and hopefully get them to convert as a user. This is why every detail matters.

The exact text on the page – the story that you tell as the user scrolls down the page. The order in which you tell that story as the user scrolls down the page. Deciding where on the page you give the user the opportunity to sign up or engage. The colors, fonts, icons. The images. The spacing. The list goes on and on.

James Currier (@jamescurrier on Twitter) gave an excellent talk at the 2013 LeWeb conference in Paris where he explored how even the tiniest details can impact your product, and more importantly, the growth of your product. Watch the video here (start at about the 8:20 minute mark).

James gives some specific examples of details when it comes to the language you use in your product. Simple changes to the language you use in your product can be a catalyst for exponential user growth. But, it can also help re-frame how your entire team views your product, which can lead to brand new ideas and insights for the product.

3. Think younger
In his TED Talk, Tony talks about how much he learns from his children, who frequently ask questions about why things are the way they are. It’s a constant reminder of just how much we as adults become used to things, whereas children don’t know anything different, and therefore question a lot more than we do.

Applying this concept of thinking younger to user experience design, is a reminder of the immense importance of seeing our product through the eyes of a user, and not our eyes.

One way to do this is through usability. When you’re working on a product, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision, which causes you to simply fail to see obviously flaws and opportunities. Usability testing will help you experience your product through the eyes of a beginner, and help you identify areas that are in need of improvement.

Another way to see your product through a fresh set of eyes is to work with someone external to your team – someone who isn’t working on the product every single day. I recently launched a new offering, Custom Product Evaluations, which are custom reviews of 5 key screens of your website or app with an emphasis on usability testing, messaging, visual design, and key user flows. Interested in having me do a Product Evaluation? Fill out this questionnaire to get started.

Design has not always received enough credit for the impact that it can have to the success of products. But in recent years, we’ve seen design gain recognition as a key factor in product growth and success as John Maeda spoke about recently at Rice University.

As we become more and more tethered to technology in our lives, products that get noticed and widely adopted will be those that are rooted in a dedication to design. These products will be created by teams who make conscious effort to see the invisible by looking broader, seeing closer, and thinking younger.