Friday, April 01, 2005


user motivation: an under-explored issue

A good example of how usability doesn't really consider the emotional life of users is the general lack of consideration the field gives to how motivated users are to do something. Here market research is way ahead of our thinking (!) The first question a market researcher will ask users is: "how important is it to you to be able to X?" Usability professionals often scoff at such questions as being unreliable: user opinion doesn't matter, user behavior does. We ask people how much they use the web or mobile phones, and for how long, but not how important doing something is. We focus on their ability to learn, and simply assume users are motivated, absent any impediments to learning. It is a simplistic assumption to make. And we flee the issue, thinking: it is marketing's job to "sell" the concept.

A quick web search reveals very little discussion of user motivation (as opposed to consumer motivation). While I don't pretend it was exhaustive, the quick tour revealed only a few items looking at how web logs may show user motivation if we can pinpoint when users give up. Unfortunately, the web log data often isn't good enough to tell us enough to make grand inferences. And even when we have such "hard data", we are still interpreting that data, making our own inferences. It's just our opinion of what why the user behaves the way he or she does. If we are dealing with opinions, why not get the users'?

Just how variable user motivation can be became evident to me today as I went to the optometrist. After 20+ years wearing eyeglasses (spectacles), I decided maybe it was time to try contact lenses. Wellington is a rainy place, and the wind makes umbrellas useless. I was tired of rain-spotted lenses dotting my views.

After nearly two hours at the optometrist, I gave up trying to learn to wear contacts. I cannot imagine of any mainstream consumer product, something used by millions of people, being more difficult to use than contacts. My frustration quelled my prior annoyance with my water-spotted spectacles. From a usability perspective, my inability to use contacts can be explained by a few factors: In have a mild prescription, meaning my lenses are especially floppy and therefore difficult to put in; I'm a male, and am not used to poking around my eyes unlike some women are who use makeup; I choose a cheap lens that was colorless, making it more difficult to place, especially for a beginner. Even so, I was told I shouldn't be discouraged, many people need a good week to get the hang of it. I felt like the user in the test lab: I'm not being tested, so I shouldn't worry if I can't do it.

But worry can be a reflection of motivation: worried users might in fact be motivated users. Indifferent users, after all, don't worry. It's curious we choose to ignore that data, even though it would be difficult to calibrate. It is almost embarrassing for us to encounter a worried user: it reflects poorly on us professionally. (Anger is an acceptable emotion, since it reflects poorly on the client and not us. Anger unfortunately doesn't tell us much about motivation.)

I'm not worried I can't learn to wear contacts, but I have learned today I can't be bothered. Part of me doesn't understand why anyone would spend much more money than eyeglasses for a product that tears easily, is easily misplaced, is difficult to put on and off, requires special care, and can cause damage if misused (such as when sleeping with daytime only versions.) Of course, many people swear by contact lenses. Some are more patient (and therefore more likely to learn), some are more dexterous. But some must be as frustrated as me, and but are still willing to learn to love wearing contacts. These people have a high motivation. Vanity can affect the perceived usability of a product. We need ways to calibrate such issues.

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