Land of Confusion



Have you ever been told your design is confusing? Personally, I hear that from time to time. Someone reviews your work, and since they didn’t understand it for whatever reason, they think no other human could possibly understand it. It’s imprecise feedback, but they are entitled to their own opinion, and opinions aren’t wrong. Or are they? To begin, it’s more judgment than opinion. I often wonder what the process is for judging design when coming from someone who’s never designed an experience. Regardless of whom it’s coming from, design is easily misjudged. Sadly, it leads to misdirection, poorly designed experiences and, at best, wasted time. You have to know what the situation is before easing the problem. The first step is to understand what the word “confusion” means.

As a word, “confusion” seems to stand in for a lot of other issues. For me, though, I see confusion on a scale of difficulty in cognition ranging from minor hesitation to a fully broken experience. Walking into a closed door because you thought it was open would be confusion. Jiggling the handle because you don’t know if the door is locked is a lack of clarity. Fixing an unclear experience can be as easy as changing a word in a label. Fixing a confusing experience could have you scrapping your design altogether. Still, you’ll hear the word as a catch-all for any friction in the user experience. Your work could very well be confusing, but it could also be a matter of perspective.

How is the critic viewing your work? More than once, I have had someone look over my shoulder at a design and tell me what’s not working. Being told a button is too small from someone standing six feet away from my screen is undoubtedly an incorrect judgment. I once had a VP who refused to view any mobile design unless it was on a mobile device. Seems obvious, but I have been in meetings where mobile designs were being judged while projected on a wall at 20X their actual size.

Now consider the difference between the process of design versus an actual experience. In the design process, we sometimes look at printouts of different screens that are tacked up on the wall. This is not the user experience. It’s a replica, an approximation of what the user will experience. Some things are lost in translation. Compare an architectural drawing to what it’s like walking though a real structure. The user experience is nothing short of what the user is doing while interacting with your actual site or application. We have certain tools to create a vision. We use static mocks, wireframes, and prototypes. Occasionally with these tools, the context and continuity are misread. That confusion is a result of the inherit inadequacies of the tools we use.

I have seen people perplexed by how to navigate a four-way stop. Does that mean a four-way stop is confusing? More likely, the confusion is the result of a distracted driver, one that isn’t in the mindset to navigate it properly. A user can be in the wrong mindset, as can the person judging the experience. But when designing, you have to assume some level of focus from the user. You cannot account for when they are off in dreamland. Designers attempt to remove as much friction from an experience as possible, but nothing is truly effortless. A user has a task. They are attempting to accomplish that task. I have been told a design was questionable because it took a couple seconds for someone to find the thing they wanted to click on. In this case, it was a tertiary action, something most would do infrequently. To ensure that action would have more immediate discoverability, it would have to compete with the primary action that most used frequently. What’s funny is, they complained about a task they were still able to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

The hardest issues to deal with are cognitive biases. This is the curve-ball judgment I fear the most. A cognitive bias can easily lead to an error in judgment based on one’s own perception. To illustrate a bias of my own, I can tell you about the video of the twirling models that plays automatically when a customer clicks a garment on Having been a Flash animator in the advertising industry, I was drawing on an experience that proved to be bad for the user. Principally, it was having unexpected movement on a page when the user first landed on it. On, I argued against having video automatically play. I thought it should be user-initiated, allowing them to acclimate to the page layout first. The counter argument was that the video was a key differentiator, and that we should lead with a “delighter” feature. But based on my heuristic, it wasn’t going to do well. Fortunately, we agreed to test it with a large internal audience. We lead with the auto play video and waited for negative feedback. No one voiced a concern. Then we released the product and waited again for negative feedback. Nothing. I was happy we tested it first, and happy I was proven wrong, because I learned a very tricky lesson about how your own experiences can mislead you. My perception of a confusing experience was proven false. Unless all factors are exactly the same, you cannot predict with a high level of certainty what will be successful. Your biases may lead you in the right direction, but can just as easily distort rational thinking. The process for good judgment should lead us away from our own biases. Getting past them requires listening to other people’s concerns, seriously questioning yourself and, above all, user testing.

The perception of a confusing experience needs to be dissected. There may be a legitimate concern. Take it seriously, but question it. Often, it’s less of an issue than what someone believes. As a designer, you control how a design is viewed and how it is communicated. If you take the time to appropriately frame the experience with the right amount of context, there are a lot of problems you can avoid. For the issues that communication can’t handle, do user testing. Get a broader perspective, and base your decisions on broad and deep information. Be aware that the one person you prove wrong may be yourself.



  1. Nice writeup John! I am really surprised that no one squawked about the auto play video. That is actually a pet peeve of mine especially when there is audio attached to the video.

    Great to see you blogging again.


  2. I remember early in your design career when you’d bring me a design of yours to review and I would say, “I like it, now go do another one that’s completely different. Try to change your perspective and see what comes out. Maybe use a completely different color palette.” You would get this furious look on your face. As if you had created the best experience that was ever going to be. I remember one website you designed where the entire thing was blue. I mean everything was shades of blue. As a viewer it was hard for me to decide what to do first. It was aesthetically pleasing, but I couldn’t decide what action I should take. We went back and added color to the call-to-actions and we were rollin… forget what client that was for but you took off after that and never looked back 🙂

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