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UX is all about error prevention and recovery — oh, and feedback, too

Multi-color static TV screen

By Andrés Zapata \ July 22, 2019

When was the last time you saw someone celebrate after they flip a switch and the lights come on?

Have you ever seen a person give herself a high-five when water runs after she turn on the faucet?

User Experience, Information and Usability Design are the most thankless professions around today.

Think about it. When was the last time you thanked a designer for a lovely or useful interface?

And as designers, we typically only get “feedback” about our work when things don’t work as intended. That’s right, it’s human nature to bellyache when we feel like our expectations aren’t being met.

Our attention is as limited as our tolerance for stuff that doesn’t work. Most people who run into errors on our apps just move on to something else. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we only actually hear about our terrible work when we’ve royally messed something up.

Testing is an obvious way to cut through most of would-be issues. But testing will only help you refine and correct the errors you can imagine. What about the errors you can’t predict?

We are all so screwed.

Human factors have come a long way since the 5th century BC when Greeks first used ergonomic principles to design tools and since ’92 when  arrived.

Today, touch and gestures are ubiquitous forms of input. Apps and websites are generally well designed, fast, and follow standard conventions. Users expect things to just work. And effortlessly so. There is no room for error — or tolerance for it. At best, when users run into an error, they will move on and you’ll only hear about it if you are lucky.

When trust/no-trust designations are formed in microseconds, it’s important that we get things right.

 There are also several great books on the topic.

Don Norman’s  is a fundamental and timeless deep dive on the psychology of errors, how to prevent them and how to recover from them.*

The idea that there are two types of errors, slips and mistakes, is expertly and succinctly dissected in the book . The authors blend Norman, Reason and Mycielska work to arrive at a neat and useful way to think of errors:

  • Slips: are errors of action or errors of execution. For example, when a kid clicks on the wrong button or link because it is too small or too close to another button or link.
  • Mistakes: are errors of intention. For example, a mistake occurs when a user requests a page expecting the page to be and do something other than it does.

So, one type of error, slips, occur due unintended action while the other type of error, mistakes, occur due to intention/outcome mismatch. And to the user, what’s the difference?


But understanding the type of mistake users are making will help you correct for them.

Contextual information, reduction of cognitive load, bigger target areas, and clear feedback are all design techniques that we must master in order to extinguish as many opportunities for errors as possible in our designs.

When errors do occur, our designs should be forgiving and offer low-effort and friendly ways to help users get back on track.

Also, let’s not forget about conventions. The web is basically an oligopoly where most of the web traffic is shared among 10 or so websites. Learn the design patters used in these websites. For better or for worse, most people expect the web to work according to these giants. And if your design is going to break ranks, it better do so for good reason — or enjoy a tsunami of slips and mistakes.

Finally, study the “aesthetic-usability effect.” This concept argues that people believe pretty interfaces to be more useful, regardless of whether they are in fact more useful or not. This is important. Apple has made a fortune by practicing this principle. You will have “forgiveness equity” from your users if your design looks good.

The best UX designers strive to not just please their users, but to also give them an error free experience. If we were to focus more on creating interactions that honor these principles and less on “bells and whistles,” the web would be a better place.

Cartwheeling users will likely never celebrate our good designs, but we’ll have plenty to feel good about. Right?

*I don’t have any special relationship with the authors or the publishers of these books — I just use them as mandatory texts in some of the classes I teach.

Andrés Zapata
Andrés Zapata

Andrés isn’t like most founders. He’s responsible for the operations and direction of idfive, but he’s also the door-always-open, huevos-rancheros-making leader who’ll help you when the wifi isn’t working. A lifetime learner and multifaceted professional, Andrés has nearly 30 years of experience leading projects for clients in various industries. He believes in the power of research and data to create something beautiful that can do something good.