UX testing and the mind - why your users can't find that button

Jenny Goodwin

Dec 02 2016

ux testing

In our UX work with clients, usability testing is a crucial part of what we offer. We need to make sure that we make recommendations based on evidence, as well as our professional judgement and experience.

One of the reasons is that we assume people think and behave in a similar way to ourselves. This might be true in some cases, but for the majority of times it isn’t. We all interpret instructions differently, so we can’t assume that just because we understand something, the person sitting next to us (or halfway around the world) will.

That’s why it’s so important that we design web solutions based on how our users think things should work, not how we think things should work. But why is it that not everyone can find that ‘submit’ button or awesome new search tool when we think we’ve designed it so well?

The UX team here at Deeson went along to Nielsen Norman Group’s Human Mind & Usability course to find out. Here were some of the main points from the day.


Human limitations

We need to design with human limitations in mind.

Our designs should work well within our cognitive and physical capabilities. In the digital world, that means taking into account environmental and psychological factors, as these can affect how users interact with a service.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What sort of mental state are users in when they are visiting your website? Are they stressed? In a state of panic? Calm? Do they have lots of time to spare?
  • Where are they? Outside or inside? Are they desktop or mobile users? If they are mobile users, are they using your product on the go?

Even factors completely out of your control, such as if there’s glare on the user's screen from the sun for instance, should be baked into your thinking.


We as humans have limited cognitive resources.

That means we can’t process everything around us at the same time. We filter things out, focusing just on the things that are important to us.

Attenuation theory explains how we turn down the volume (or attenuate) material so that we can concentrate on the things that are most important to us. The things that we have decided to turn down would appear lost. However, if there is a trigger (such as hearing your name) there is a chance that you’ll process this information because the material is still there.

However, our attention and perception is biased. This means that what we perceive is based on our goals, the context, our prior experience and our culture. These factors can all come into play when using the web, and we need to be aware they’ll be different for everyone.

Inattentional blindness

People are not good at multitasking.

When we try to do too many things at once, we’re more likely to make errors, become distracted or have ‘inattentional blindness’. This means that we tend to use all of our attention up on the tasks at hand, so we miss things that we would have otherwise seen.

An example you may have heard of is the ‘unicycling clown’ - a sample of people who were walking and talking on their phone were 75% less likely to see a unicycling clown ride past them than the people who were walking and not talking on their phone.

In the context of web design, inattentional blindness means users can easily miss things because they are solely focused on their original goal for visiting the site. This might explain why your users don’t use that new feature you’ve just rolled out, or they end up missing the blindingly obvious. They physically see it, but they don’t register it’s there.

This further enhances the need to design with simplicity, clarity and familiarity.

Mental models

We all have mental models which shape the way we behave.

Mental models hold our thought processes of how we think something works. Our mental models are based on beliefs, formed by past experiences, culture and context. They are not based on logic.

For example, we’re all pretty familiar with doors, we know that they are associated with a wall, they can be pushed or pulled and they normally have handles or knobs. So, our mental model of a door allows us to interact with it accordingly.

This can also be applied to the web, as users will have mental models of how a website works. For example, people often expect to find the navigation at the top of a page and the brand logo in the top left corner, be able to type in the search bar, complete the checkout process in sequential steps, etc.

We need to bear mental models in mind when designing for the web, as the designs we produce should tally up with what the user expects. It’s very hard to change a user’s mental model, so designs should build on existing mental models, not challenge them. If you’re going to challenge them, you should at least be prepared for a learning curve.

So how do we go about designing something that looks beautiful and is easy to use while keeping all of the above in mind?

  • Research your users
  • Make assumptions
  • Test those assumptions
  • Make more assumptions
  • Test again

Repeat, until you’ve got something that your users are happy with.

It takes a lot of work and considered thinking to build a website that functions seamlessly and looks beautiful on multiple platforms. If you’re interested in finding out more about how Deeson do things, take a look at our UX process.

Jenny Goodwin

About the author

Jenny Goodwin

UX Designer