Why are there so many bad user interfaces in the world?

Paul Boag

Have you ever wondered why you encounter so many bad user interfaces everyday? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

From unnecessary clicks in a mobile app to slow web pages, the world is full of substandard user interfaces.

We all get frustrated by poor user interfaces. So why do they exist? If we all hate them wouldn’t we stop building them. It’s not like there are people who like the complex, time consuming and frustrating.

We think we know the answer. It is either down to incompetence or lack of budget. Either the designer knows no better or isn’t given enough time to do a proper job.

There is no doubt that these are factors. But they are not the whole story. There are other reasons too. Reasons that if left unchecked in your organisation will lead to frustrated customers. Reasons like the fact management become disconnected from users.

A disconnect with the user

I find it fascinating that a senior executive will moan about the usability of a website he is trying to use. Yet won’t invest in his own organisations site.

This is because most executive teams don’t spend a lot of time with customers. They forget customers are people just like they are. Customers become numbers or revenue streams. They are not real human beings who suffer from real frustrations.

That is why I like to show management videos of users getting frustrated using their website. That drives the point home. That stops customers being abstract and makes them human.

Broadcast marketing

A similar problem exists in many marketing departments. They reduce users to demographics and personas. They relentlessly push crafted messages at them.

Traditional marketing is not about serving the user. It is about convincing them. It talks at the consumer. It doesn’t engage with them.

This leads to hero images, banner ads and meaningless copy. It results in FAQ sections that contain questions marketers wish users would ask, not ones people actually need. It forces users to pick through the marketing bullshit to get the answer they need.

Marketers damage the user experience in an attempt to push more products.
Marketers damage the user experience in an attempt to push more products.

But things are changing. A new generation of marketers are realising that what customers will tolerate has changed. These marketers know customers want their voice heard. That they want support, not a sales pitch. This gives me hope for the future of user interface design.

Blinkered developers

Blame doesn’t just lie with incompetent designers, insensitive executives or out of date marketers. Developers have their role to play too.

Many developers become fixated on efficiency, data cleanliness and security. They end up making the users online interactions more challenging as a result.

There are no shortage of ways the developer can damage the user interface. From CAPTCHA to password rules and form validation. Issues of security, efficiency and data management are issues we need to be dealing with. They are not issues that the user should have to worry about.

Developers attempts at efficiency can come at a high cost.
Developers attempts at efficiency can come at a high cost.

That is why it is so important to include the developer in the entire development cycle, not just bring them in at the end. Nobody explains user requirements to them. Nobody invites them to watch a usability session. It is unsurprising then that they don’t put the users first.

A project mentality

It is not just people that are the problem. Organisational culture and processes are a big issue too. Most organisations think about projects. Projects that have a beginning, middle and end. Projects with finite budgets.

But you cannot treat digital like that. User interfaces are never done. No matter how much you test your site, you never know if it meets user needs until after launch. Only then can we watch real users interacting naturally with our sites. That is when the hard work begins.

Our user interfaces need to evolve through continuous testing. But that means organisations need to let go of viewing websites as projects that get finished. You never complete the work of financing or marketing. Why then would you finish the work of digital?

Politics and ego

As you can see there are a lot of areas that impact your user interface. But the most damaging is internal politics. It is the manager who wants control over her own content online. The business silos that fail to cooperate or the chief exec who insists on having a welcome message from him on the site.

This obsession with internal structure comes at the expense of the user experience. Sites end up structured around departments rather than user needs. Users fall between departmental gaps. Digital projects drag on as they struggle through endless committee meetings.

This is why I fight hard for strong digital leadership and a culture of collaboration. This is why I resist committees in favour of side by side working. This is why I look to see the user interface design and development under one roof.

Undervaluing the customer

The universal trend here is an undervaluing of the customer. A trend still all too prevalent in many organisations. We no longer live in a world where that is good business.

Consumers have ever higher expectations. They have more choice and expect a higher standard of service. I know it is an overused example but there is a good reason why Apple is the most valuable brand in the world. They provide an outstanding user experience from their stores to their website. Their culture would not tolerate a bad user interface and neither should yours.