Usability isn’t just about eliminating frustration anymore

[This is an excerpt of an article published in UX Magazine on June 16, 2010.]

I’m a devotee of TED talks. I was once assigned to watch several TED talks to deconstruct what made each a good or a bad presentation. TED topics are wide-ranging, though they generally relate to the categories that make up the “TED” acronym: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. I tend to stick to the design topics, but during my research I came across a video of Martin Seligman talking about positive psychology.

Happiness is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while. According to Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History, happiness is a relatively new construct in the history of humanness. It’s only been in the last 250 years or so in the West that we’ve been safe and healthy enough to think about how we feel emotionally. Continue reading Usability isn’t just about eliminating frustration anymore

Beyond frustration: 3 levels of happy design

Most of us in the UX disciplines are here: Users can use the design, but they’re not excited about it. You already know about eliminating frustration. The team is constantly working to remove obstacles and hindrances that prevent users from reaching their goals. Ideally, through remedying those problems, you’ll gain users’ trust. But it’s more than that. The sites we’ll look at here know that trust is tied to how well the design team anticipates users’ needs.

Isn’t it your secret wish that you’d like users to be in love with your design? You’d like them to enjoy using it. Look forward to using it. Maybe even miss it when they’re not able to get to it.

Creating remarkable design
The thing is, creating a lovable, remarkable experience versus a just satisfactory one can seem unattainable. As Jared Spool has said, “Too often, we choose a design because it’s doable, not because it’s the best we could do.” We want to make the ship date. Or there are internal or external pressures or constraints on the team and the design.

But there are companies making their customers happy – so happy that the users engage willingly, sometimes even with longing. It comes down to three levels of happiness, according to psychological research done by Martin Seligman and others. The levels of happiness are progressive and commingled, but they come down to these:

  • Mindfulness
  • Flow
  • Meaning

Let’s talk about how this manifests in user experience design.

Three levels of happiness in user experience design

Mindfulness in design is about a pleasing awareness. In relationships, it can mean infatuation. It’s knowing that this is good, it makes me happy. It’s satisfying.

Flow, from work done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, comes from immersion, absorption, the beta waves rocking the brain so you forget about the task you’re doing to become one with what is happening. There’s no time between tool time and goal time.

Meaning comes from a feeling of fellowship, contributing, and making the world a better place. As I say, I didn’t make this up. Most of these ideas come from Martin Seligman, with help from Don Norman, and Stuart Brown. (Read to the end of the newsletter for links to sources from them that inspired me). It occurred to me after studying them and watching users perform with designs, that there was a connection there.

A counter example
First, let’s talk about what not to do.

Here, the traveler is checking in for a flight online. The page she’s just come from has asked all the necessary questions about carrying hazardous materials, checking bags, and so on. Wanting to move on to getting the best possible seat, there’s this:

Note the defaults. There are interesting interactions here that go well beyond frustrating to downright annoying. Yeah, let’s buy a couple of thousand “award” miles right now, which is an “option.” What happens when our traveler clicks the Add option button without thinking? She’s sent to a shopping cart. Further and further away from the goal of checking in to a flight. Not the optimum moment for selling something.

What this feels like is an act of desperation. We can’t make you like us, but we can make you spend money, even if we have to trick you into doing it. That is not a happy experience.

Today, I’m going to focus on three favorites: TripIt, Netflix, and Zipcar.

Mindfulness: TripIt
This first level of design builds in as much positive emotion as possible, helping people have the skills to engage in that positive experience. That is, having positive experiences and being aware enough that you’re savoring them. A beautiful afternoon. A perfect summer peach. Looking into the eyes of someone you love. shows consideration and thoughtfulness – there’s a pleasing awareness of the user throughout the user interface, not only of who the user is, but that the person has relationships other than the one with TripIt. It tries to anticipate the user’s needs.


Here, the page shows some standard stuff. When the user logs in, there’s a picture, and a welcome, but there are other nice features, like showing upcoming and past trips on a map, listing the trips of people she’s shared itineraries with, and offering an option to share all trips in particular relationships.


Now drilling into an itinerary, TripIt anticipates needs like the best travel agent would, with a link to rent a car – which is a very subtle cross sell, at just the moment when the user might be thinking about that – along with other useful trip information so the user can find her way around on arriving.

It’s really easy to get used to this kind of attention. Users begin to expect this level of happiness pretty quickly. Soon, the relationship is taken for granted by the user.

Flow: Netflix
How many times have you been to your Netflix queue only to look up a half hour later realizing that you’ve just spent 30 minutes rating movies? Here we have contentment, understanding, immersion, and trust. Time stands still in a good way.

Using Netflix, I’ve seen users become completely absorbed. It starts by clicking a star in an email. It’s a simple call to action.

The star ratings take you to the Netflix web site, where it now offers you other movies it thinks you will like, asking you to rate the ones you’ve already seen.


It’s a natural extension of the same task. Even people who say that they don’t rate things on other sites have said in my research that they just get completely sucked in. They rate a few movies, and look up to find that 30 or 40 minutes have flown by. But it’s not like spending time on other sites (like Facebook). This is useful. The more you rate, the better the suggestions are that the site makes.

Netflix even talks about love – they’re not called suggestions, they’re called “Movies You’ll Love.” It does seem to adore users, and users adore it as it continues to offer them things that they are likely to like. As users add movies to queues, it offers yet more. Every page of movies is like a group of gifts. What’s not to like about that? Give me more and keep it coming.

Meaning: Zipcar
Yes, people get meaning from the web, and not just from social media. Meaning comes from belonging, reflectiveness, contributing, making a difference, commitment – being involved in something bigger than you.

Zipsters – that’s what people who sign up for Zipcar are called – who I’ve talked to about their experiences with the service are radiant when they describe their interactions with the company, glowing with purpose and pleasure at the same time.

Zipcar encompasses mindfulness and flow as well as meaning – the nirvana of experience design.

Reserving a car is pleasant, even cute.


The flow of Zipcar comes from how quickly and easily it is incorporated into members’ lives. The people in charge of the experience seem to have taken into account everything important, from how easy it is to reserve to how easy it is to extend a reservation, all the while keeping a fun, whimsical tone.

But it goes well beyond just ease of use. The idea of Zipcar is simple: rent a car by the hour. This works great for people who live in expensive, dense, urban areas where owning a car isn’t necessary and sometimes is downright inconvenient. Zipcar’s commercial premise is inexpensive convenience. But everything about using the service says “sharing.” The rules are simple, and all about being considerate of the other people who use “your” car.


Zipsters at a cocktail mixer sponsored by Zipcar (to which no one drove, by the way), many of whom said they joined just for the convenience of the service, said that they loved the environmental, sustainable aspects of being a member. This goes beyond just social networking online. People who had never known one another before met face to face because they were excited about their experiences with the service so far, and found themselves effortlessly becoming involved with the company and one another, signing up for community based activities sponsored by Zipcar. This was the germ of a real community forming within real neighborhoods, mediated through a service that is self-served on the Web. Customers see themselves as members, but forget about themselves instead thinking about making a difference in the world. Magic.

Design happiness in to the experience
Want your users to fall in love with your designs? Fall in love with your users. The companies I’ve showcased here are just a few that have done that. And it shows. That’s how users become excited about designs – being desired is very seductive.

:: :: :: :: ::::> Related links
TED Talks:
The psychology of happiness – Martin Seligman

TED Talks: Play is more than fun – Stuart Brown

TED Talks : Happy design – Stefan Sagmeister

Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, by Donald Norman

Happiness: A History, by Darrin M. McMahon

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

:: :: :: :: ::

:::> Come see me!
Hear me speak Sept. 21 and 22 at the EdUI conference in at the University of Virginia, where I’ll be talking about “Usability Testing Without The Scary.”

I’ll be capping off the summer by going back to college! Well, actually I’ll be speaking at one. The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia is hosting a two-day conference for web professionals in higher ed. The speaking line-up looks pretty exciting, featuring Jared Spool, Molly Holzschlag, Derek Featherstone, Dan Rubin, and of course yours truly, among others. There’ll be a broad coverage of a lot of universally useful information about usability, accessibility, design, coding, and social media, with a little higher-ed-specific content thrown in as well. View the full program at

:::> I have moved!
After 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve bugged out. As of September 1, I will be operating out of my new office and home in Andover, Massachusetts. I’m excited about this move. It’s big!
You can still find me at, email me at, on Twitter as danachis, and on the phone at 415.519.1148.

Tools for plotting a future course of design, checking progress

“Let’s check this against the Nielsen guidelines for intranets,” she said. We were three quarters of the way through completing wireframes for a redesign. We had spent 4 months doing user research, card sorting, prototyping, iterating, and testing (a lot). At the time, going back to the Nielsen Norman Group guidelines seemed like a really good idea. “Okay,” I said. “I’m all for reviewing designs from different angles.”

There are 614 guidelines.

This was not a way to check designs to see if the team had gone in the right design direction.


Are you designing or inspecting?

They are not interchangeable, guidelines and heuristics, but many UXers treat them that way. It’s common to hear someone saying that they’re doing a heuristic evaluation against X guidelines. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

Designing is an act of creation, whether you’re doing research, drawing on graph paper, or coding CSS. Inspecting is an act of checking, of examining, often with some measure in mind.

Guidelines are statements of direction. They’re about looking to the future and what you want to incorporate in the design. Guidelines are aspirational, like these:

  • Add, update, and remove content frequently.
  • Provide persistent navigation controls.
  • Index all intranet pages.
  • Provide org charts that can be viewed onscreen as well as printed.*

Heuristics challenge a design with questions. The purpose of heuristics is to provide a way to “test” a design in the absence of data by making an inspection. Heuristics are about enforcement, like these:

Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on…

Match between system and the real world

The system should speak the users’ language…*

User control and freedom

The system should provide a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state … **


Creating or diagnosing?

Heuristics are often cast as pass/fail tests. Does the UI comply or not? While you could use the guidelines to evaluate web site designs, they were developed as tools for designing. They present things to think about as teams make decisions.

Both guidelines and heuristics are typically broad and interpretable. They’re built to apply to nearly interface. But they come into play at different points in a design project. Guidelines are things to think about in reaching a design; they are considerations and can interact with one another in interesting ways. Heuristics are usually diagnostic and generally don’t interact.


Don’t design by guidelines alone

For example, on the intranet project, we looked at guidelines about the home page. One directive says to put the most important new information on the home page, and the next one says to include key features and company news on the home page. A third says to include tools with information that changes every day. But earlier in the list of guidelines, we see a directive to be “judicious about having a designated ‘quick links’ area.” Guidelines may feel complementary to one another or some may seem to cancel others out. Taken together, there’s a set of complex decisions to make just about the home page.

And it was too late on our intranet to pay attention to every guideline. The decisions had been made, based on stakeholder input, business requirements, and technology constraints, as well as user requirements. Though we were thoughtful and thorough in designing, anyone scoring our site against the guidelines might not give us good marks.


Don’t evaluate by heuristics alone

Likewise, when looking at heuristics such as “be consistent,” there’s a case for conducting usability tests with real users. For example, on the intranet I was working on, one group in the client company was adamant about having a limited set of page templates, with different sections of the site meeting strict requirements for color, look, and feel. But in usability testing, participants couldn’t tell where they were in the site when they moved from section to section.


Guidance versus enforcement

What are you looking for at this point in your design project? In the intranet project, we were much closer to an evaluative mode than a creation mode (though we did continue to iterate). We needed something to help us measure how far we had come. Going back to the guidelines was not the checkpoint we were looking for.

We sallied forth. The client design team decided instead to create “heuristics” from items from the user and business requirements lists generated at the beginning of the project, making a great circle and a thoughtful cycle of research, design, and evaluation.

I don’t know whether the intranet we designed meets all of the guidelines. But users tell us and show us every day that it is easier, faster, and better than the old intranet. For now, that’s enough of a heuristic.


* From “Intranet Usability: Design Guidelines from Studies with Intranet Users” by Kara Pernice Coyne, Amy Schade, and Jakob Nielsen

** From Jakob Nielsen’s 10 heuristics, see



Where do heuristics come from?

What are you asking for when you ask for heuristic evaluation?