Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Expectations & Usability: Introduction

The role of expectation in usability ...

"I've been reviewing a lot of small business websites lately, and as I see the same usability issues popping up over and over, it occurs to me just how many of those problems are a result of violating visitors' expectations. So, I've decided to write a short series (3-4 installments) on the role of expectations in usability, and how we can better anticipate those expectations to help website visitors accomplish their goals.

What Are Expectations?

It may seem like a silly question, but what exactly are expectations? Essentially, expectations are the unconscious predictions we humans constantly make based on our models of the world around us. In other words, we use our past knowledge and experiences to predict the near future. Expectations are, in many ways, evolution's ultimate survival mechanism.

Cognitivism & Mental Maps

The man in the picture is one of my professional heroes, Edward C. Tolman, early 20th-century psychologist and one of the fathers of the cognitive revolution. It may surprise you to know that the idea that people can make plans and build internal models of the world is a relatively new one, and met with intense skepticism throughout much of the 20th century.

The cognitive revolution ushered in the idea that animals and people can create mental models or cognitive "maps". Prior to this, it was assumed that all behavior was a function of complex stimulus/response mechanisms. In other words, our behavior was determined directly as a result of outside events triggering learned patterns. In the behaviorist model, we were victims of our past and environment. The cognitive model started to see us as proactive, creating models and expectations and anticipating instead of merely reacting.

Violating Expectations

In the internet world, we expect, from our experiences, that websites will follow certain standards and be self-consistent. So, what happens when those expectations are violated? In essence, the brain does a double-take, forcing people to stop (even if for a split second) and re-evaluate. With every violation, the time needed to process information grows and frustration increases."    (Continued via User Effect)    [Usability Resources]

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