Frustrated Users? Their Errors Are Your Fault.

Here’s how to create intuitive user experiences.

Written by Olivia Belitsky
Published on Mar. 22, 2023
Frustrated Users? Their Errors Are Your Fault.
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For two years, I started every workday by watching session recordings from the day before. This exercise let me see my product through my user’s eyes. I began with the highest-friction sessions, taking notes of bugs and areas of improvement.

4 Ways to Create an Intuitive User Experience

  1. Review and reduce the length of blocks of text on your pages.
  2. In a multi-step flow, chunk your experience into distinct steps.
  3. Use clear and direct error messages.
  4. Ensure your experience meets accessibility requirements.

But I fell into a terrible habit. Often, I would see users struggle with minor inconveniences, like typing a “%” in a text field that was already formatted for percentages, and chalk it off to “user error.” I wouldn’t even put these issues in the backlog because they seemed too minor to be worth addressing.

What I missed is that excellent user experiences hinge on a frictionless experience, and even minor errors pull the user out of the flow of a great experience. Even worse, I put the blame on my user by calling it “user error” when my team built the confusing experience. We blame our users for not intuitively understanding our poorly designed or poorly built products.

So here’s a hot take: There’s no such thing as user error, just poor product experiences. It’s your responsibility as the product manager to provide an intuitive, seamless, and frictionless experience to your user.

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Why Intuitive Experiences Matter

There are three core principles that make successful products: they must be necessary, intuitive and delightful. In other words, your product must have tangible value to your user, be seamless to use and spark joy. These principles also build upon each other, in that order. Friction and errors detract from an intuitive experience, which means your product experience won’t spark delight. At a minimum, your users will resent using your product. At worst, they’ll go to one of your competitors, who value them enough to build the experience they deserve.

In 2020, a UK web design agency performed a study that measures the effect that poor design and user experience has on user stress levels. Slow-loading pages caused a 21 percent spike in blood pressure, multiple pop-ups caused a 20 percent increase in blood pressure and non-clickable call to action buttons caused a 14 percent increase in blood pressure. 

This shouldn’t be news to anyone. We’ve all encountered buggy experiences before and they’re extremely frustrating. As product managers, we forget how troubling these experiences can be to someone who is not an expert in your product. While we consider them to be minor issues, they can make or break your whole product experience.


How to Identify High-Friction Experiences

There are two ways to identify high-friction experiences. The first method is through user feedback. If you’re able to speak live with your users, that’s a great place to start. If not, you can investigate using anonymized session recordings or checking in with your customer service team. This is also a great use case for help boxes (freeform text fields) that allow users to submit written feedback when they encounter issues. 

The second method is using data, like tracking error rates or friction scores. If a particular error message is triggered more often than expected, that can be a great opportunity to improve the messaging and flow on that page.


How to Prioritize the Fixes

The best way to address these pesky issues is to integrate them into your existing backlog and force rank priority based on three levels:

  • Priority 1: Core functionality issues. Anything that affects the user’s ability to complete essential tasks on the site.
  • Priority 2: General usability issues. Anything that creates friction in the user experience. This is generally where most “user error” bugs fall.
  • Priority 3: Minor issues. Anything that isn’t a Priority 1 or Priority 2 but is still an issue, for instance grammar errors or an outdated image.

Within each of these buckets, I sort each issue based on how many users encounter it.  Sometimes I have great analytics and error tagging to give me an exact number, and sometimes I have to use my best judgment.  


How to Make Your Experience More Intuitive

If you lack clear data to identify clunky and error-prone experiences, here are a few quick ways to make your experience more intuitive.

  1. Review the amount of written messaging on your pages. From my experience working on a financial product, any block of text over a few sentences will lose all meaning when your user’s eyes glaze over it. If you have to share a lot of information, find ways to break up the content to aid readability.
  2. In a multi-step flow, try chunking the experience into distinct screens. This will allow the user to focus on one step at a time and give you more space to include messaging for each step.
  3. Write your error messages to be clear and direct. When a user encounters an error, give them a “way out”, like a customer service number or the ability to leave feedback. To learn more, check out Jenni Nadler’s excellent guide for writing better error messages.
  4. Ensure that your experience meets accessibility requirements. While this is essential for your users who have a disability, it also aids the usability and flow for everyone. Choices like poor contrast, relying on color alone to communicate information and mouse-only navigation create friction for everyone.

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The Takeaway

As product managers, we like to focus on the next big thing: the next big problem to solve, the next release cycle or the next project on the roadmap. We’re not incentivized to look at the smaller issues or to care about what happens to a product once it’s released. 

The behavior you’re seeing is the behavior you’ve designed for.” - Joshua Porter

However, if our goal is to create delightful product experiences, then we have to address seemingly minor issues and “user error” as part of our prioritization process. 

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