July 14th, 2009

Of Arugula, typoes, and handshakes

in: Create

When it comes to product design, good product managers  often say, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” In the early stages a good product manager needs to focus on the one thing that’s absolutely needed.

But that backfires when tight focus is used as an excuse for sloppiness. One thing taking all of the attention at the expense of all the other small things can backfire — specifically, when a user doesn’t have a well-formed understanding of the product or service and is searching for cues.

Small things matter a lot

Wilted arugula leafI recently opened up a bag of arugula, that bitter green of haute cuisine and yuppie punchlines. As I was about to pile it haphazardly on plates, I spied a single wilted leaf. This prompted me to dig further — what if I’d bought a bad bag? What if it had spoiled in the fridge? Sure enough, closer inspection revealed others. Even the slightest imperfection reinforced my perception that something was amiss.

This happens every time your users see a mistake.

As product managers, we use the application or product we make almost every day. We’re going through a normal, familiar pattern. We know how we’re supposed to use it. We’re focused on the task and process. We’re not judging quality, or trying to decide whether we like it.

On the other hand, new users are in a different mental state.  They are exploring and evaluating – meaning they’re open to even the tiniest suggestion that something’s wrong. They’re searching for cues, and incredibly receptive to new information

New users are open to suggestion

In Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and hypnosis, the hypnotist can often make a subject enter a state of increased receptivity to new ideas by interrupting an existing pattern of behavior. Confused by the sudden interruption, they become unusually receptive to suggestions. One form of this is a Handshake Interrupt which “establishes a waiting set, an expectancy.”

Have a look at this to see what I’m talking about; it happens around 2 minutes in.

The point here is that with no existing patterns your new users are in a different mental state.  Until they’ve formed an opinion of your product’s usefulness, they’ll be looking for reasons why it’s not for them. Tiny mistakes suggest to them other problems, and ultimately, to dismiss you outright. And with little else to go on, they’re likely to rely too much on these perceptions (known as an Anchoring Trap — thanks, Alex!).Fresh eyes during usability testing are vital for just this reason. Similarly, small errors such as bad punctuation, improperly resized graphics, backgrounds that don’t quite line up, and inconsistent font sizes — shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. Buy your most critical Font Nerd a pizza and listen carefully to their criticisms. New users will derive similar impressions from your product or service.

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