User expectations

User expectations are the hidden force that determines our web design decisions. To consider a website intuitive, it must satisfy them. Users tend to benchmark unconsciously unknown against known sites. They adjust their expectations about the former, after they have learned the patterns of the latter. As new trends emerge, their past projects itself into the future, so they suddenly expect new things to behave in an old way. Such paradigm shifts make it hard for designers to introduce universally meaningful solutions. While half of their audience may be happy, the other half may feel unheard or even betrayed.

To design without user expectations in mind is mindless. Elegant solutions demand conformance to them in two dimensions—form and function. If we take a mobile phone, we expect its form to fit perfectly in our hand. If we use its camera, we expect it to work properly. An intuitive design makes ergonomy and technology inseparable and transparent.

Designers must validate in advance their potential solutions against common assumptions. What worked for them in the past isn't necessarily the same as what works now. If they make assumptions too, the intersection of both might result in an empty set.

Expectations that remain unsatisfied are pain points. The more of them the user experiences, the less inclined he'll be to use a website again. It doesn't matter then how beautiful or functional it is, when he doesn't feel that it caters to his individual needs. Nevertheless, our designs can never satisfy all people—at the end we must choose which expectations to support and which to discard. In a sense, first users choose the design and then the design chooses its users.

We can't change expectations easily, but we can try to manage them. The designers of some web applications explain to their users how new features work, guiding their behavior in particular direction. But the introduction of multiple improvements at once can quickly overload the interface. We also need to make sure that most users are aware of the improvements that we no longer emphasize, because they may remain invisible within the options of the complex interface. The awareness level depends then on the visit frequency of the average user. These factors impose a limit on the speed of expectation change.

Some users don't know what they want, so they may have no expectations. In this case the designer must guide their thinking in a way that ties their emotions to newly provoked curiosity. Because, without user expectations we don't know what appropriate design is and we can't encourage them to keep us accountable for our decisions. At the same time their opinions can constrain our own thinking and make it inflexible. At the end, we need to strike a balance between commonality and novelty again.