A number of years ago, I was returning a hire car to Geneva airport and had to fill it with fuel before leaving it. At the petrol station I got out and tried to open the filler flap but could not see how to do this. Assuming there was a release button inside the car I got back in and started hunting around. I looked in all the usual places but without success.
After 5 minutes I asked for help and soon had 3 French men also hunting around trying to find the button, again without success, After about 10 minutes I was getting worried about being late for my flight and returned to the filler cap with the intention of forcing it open. Suddenly, as if by magic, it suddenly popped open and after a bit of experimenting I realised all you had to do was gently press it.
Nowadays, when many cars filler flaps open in this way, this experience just makes me look stupid. But at the time this was a novel approach to me - and the 3 French men!
I was completely reliant on my learnt experience to solve the problem I was presented with. I could not just experiment with an open mind to solve the problem. I was hide bound by my experience.
Why conventions are important in web design
Studies show that about 40% of people's daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits emerge through associative learning. We find patterns of behaviour that allow us to reach our goals quickly and easily. This makes it difficult for us to change.
Many designers, when designing everything from tea pots (how many of these don’t work!) to websites like to feel they are producing something new, different and better. It is what they have been trained to do. The problem with this is that, like DNA mutations, most changes will be worse that what has gone before. After all, most DNA mutations are fatal!
Therefore, when designing that new website or that sexy new UI element that goes against existing convention, maybe test it with users to see that it works first?
In 15 years of user testing we have seen hundreds of examples of things that designers thought were a ‘jolly good idea’ that simple do not work for users.
An example that has emerged in recent years with the (good) trend to simpler less cluttered websites is the use of the hamburger, not a menu bar, at desktop resolution. These just make it harder for users. Most just scroll the page looking for the content they want and ignore the hamburger. (Trust us we have hours of videos showing this behaviour).
As Steve Krugg said is his seminal book – Don’t make me think – conventions are your friends. Don’t change them unless you are sure they will work because you will make life harder for users as you force them to unlearn all their learnt behaviours.
And when you get to my age that is hard!