Dear UX designers, it’s only easy when you know the answer

1 Dec 2018

Image: © Drobot Dean/

Fathom CEO Gareth Dunlop warns UX developers not to fall into the classic trap of thinking what you know is obvious.

As part of the ongoing process of turning entirely into my father, I increasingly indulge in shouting at the television and, in the car, at the radio. I am now at an age where I find myself having an opinion on everything. This is particularly on things I know nearly nothing about, and I’m not shy about loudly displaying my ignorance in front of the TV or radio if I hear something I disagree with.

It started when I was in my 20s watching Ireland play rugby. Completely absorbed in the game, I become somehow convinced that my remote encouragement would will Simon Geoghegan or Keith Wood over the line. If you are familiar with Irish rugby from that era, you’ll know there’s no need to mention any other players.

Emboldened by the positive impact of my actions on the Irish rugby team of the 1990s, I moved on to football matches, quiz shows and, of late, the political radio phone-in. In weaker moments, I have almost been the ‘I have never phoned in to a radio show before but …’ guy. I can’t be sure but I’ll bet that radio phone-in show producers live for phone calls that start with that immortal sentence.

However, it’s the quiz show where my needless desire to randomly display my sporadic and ad-hoc knowledge to my long-suffering family comes into its own. In my defence, shows such as QI, Pointless and The Chase are appealing specifically because they are designed to encourage people watching at home to get emotionally involved.

When I’m watching these shows from the safety of my armchair, I am often struck how easy the answers appear that I happen to know, in particular if the contestant doesn’t. And how befuddling it is that an otherwise competent contestant doesn’t know them.

I am falling into the classic trap of thinking that what I know is obvious. And, of course, it’s not – unless I’ve been taught it or discovered it.

A few years ago, Fathom was commissioned to deliver a programme of conversion optimisation for one of the largest publishers in London, responsible for 50 publications across many sectors. They wanted to know why conversion from their free online offerings to paid online offerings and physical product were so low. They performed poorly against their immediate competitor (3.5pc v 11.5pc) and were miles off the pace set by US exemplars (3.5pc v 21pc).

Our optimisation work involved heuristic analysis, competitive and comparative review, and exit surveys. However, it was in the usability tests that the key customer frustrations became crystal-clear.

On one page, which sought to persuade the user to commit to the next step, there was no price displayed. Five out of six users commented on this. On the next page, multiple prices and options were selected, and the users were asked to select their option and payment method. Six out of six users said that page was overwhelming. On the same page, which offered six months’ free membership, no mention was made of what happened to users’ credit card details after six months and if the user would be charged automatically at that date. Three of six users said this made them feel nervous.

We collated our findings and presented a highlights reel to the project team and the company’s board, along with recommendations. “Of course our users want to see the price on that page,” one offered. “Why aren’t we telling users what will happen to their card details after six months?” asked another. “This is all just common sense,” they suggested.

Yes, but it’s only obvious when you know.

And the problem with common sense, as we all know, is that it’s not as common as it should be.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user experience (UX) consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile.  

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.