Apprehending the obvious

- Gerry Gaffney, February 2010

When we conduct user research for clients, we uncover new and frequently surprising things – about behaviour, attitudes, workarounds, peeves and pleasures. However, we also typically find out things – important things – that are already known.

Clients will say something like: “Yeah, we sort of knew that.”

They sort of knew it, but they didn’t really know it. I call this a failure to “apprehend the obvious”.

The word “apprehend” is appropriate because it has several meanings, all of which are relevant to the situation.
To apprehend something means to notice it. I used to go to a coffee shop in Melbourne that had a problematic door. The door needed to be pushed open, but many customers would try to pull it. The design problem was trivial, and could have been fixed with minimal effort. However, month after month it remained un-fixed. The problem was not hidden – the door was glass, and clearly visible to staff from a variety of locations. My perhaps charitable interpretation is that the staff didn’t notice the problem.

Unless you notice a problem, opportunity or behaviour, you can’t address it, and you can’t capitalize on it. The only way to notice things is to be an observer. This means keeping your eyes and ears open, watching out for how people interact with your product and service in particular, but with also with the world in general. I think many people underestimate the value of this. Particularly in the online world, it’s easy to become remote from our users or customers; we can convince ourselves that watching statistics and analyzing pathways is enough. It’s not.

To apprehend also means to understand. It’s not enough just to notice – you have to consider the cause. For example, I’ve recently moved to Sydney, where many of the trains have seats that are reversible – passengers can flip the seat back to a new position so that they can sit facing in the direction of motion rather than sitting “backwards”. Some people don’t bother, while others expend sometimes apparently inordinate amounts of effort in changing the seats. On Hong Kong ferries,which have a similar system, passengers are far more assiduous and tourists often have to move to enable the locals to flip the seats around.

Why do similar designs exist, and why do they elicit somewhat different behaviour? To some extent, no doubt, it’s about habit. To some extent it’s about a psychological preference for sitting facing in the direction of travel – which may be somewhat stronger on a boat than on a train. To some extent it’s about the ease with which the seats can be flipped. To some extent it’s about the number of people effected by flipping (or failing to flip) the seat. No doubt there are other factors I haven’t thought of, but the point is that if we want to understand behaviour, we need to be willing to dig a little. Not all behaviours will be multi-faceted. For example, the reason why people turn back to ticket vending machines on Melbourne’s trams after purchasing is simply that the sound of coins dropping sounds like change being returned. But we need to be willing to dig until we understand the primary reasons for specific behaviour.

To apprehend also means to capture something. In many cases, clients will have noticed an issue or behaviour, and may have an understanding of its causes, but they have failed to capture in a way that enables them to do something about it. They have failed to “operationalize” their knowledge. This is where tools such as personas, scenarios and storyboards can play such an important part. Although they are inherently simple, they can help an organisation take a mass of data – observations and understandings – and turn it into something that can drive business and design decisions.

Finally, the word “apprehend” also has a negative connotation. To be apprehensive is to fear. That which is obvious may also be uncomfortable and inconvenient. So even though we know, for example, that people tend not to read instructions, we build user devices and web services that ignore this fact. We move deckchairs because fixing the hole in the hull is too big a job.

I believe that to do good design, we have to apprehend the obvious. We have to train and exercise our powers of observation; we have to understand the causes for various types of human behaviour, and finally we have to communicate what we know so that our teams and organisations can take appropriate action.