A story about how I’ve been using the analogy of a shopping at a grocery store to demonstrate that a user’s experience is not entirely in our control, why it’s not a bad thing, and how expectations can help us design better products.

The idea of designing experiences has become so widely accepted in the digital product world that we like to think we have control over the way people interact with and experience the products we make. I believe that if you are designing anything that will be viewed on a screen people are going to have expectations of how it should look and how they can interact with it, regardless of the way you design it.

It’s hard for teams, especially startups, to accept this. For years I too struggled to come to terms with this. It feels unjust to think that something or someone else can have an influence on the way people experience what I make. To help myself and the teams I work with get comfortable with this fact I’ve been using the analogy of a shopping at a grocery store to articulate how a user’s experience is not entirely in our control, why it’s not a bad thing, and how expectations can help us design better products.

I regularly shop at Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter. I’m comfortable in these stores. I know what food they sell. I know where the food is located. I know how much the food will cost. I know how the cashier will speak to me during checkout. I can predict with pretty good accuracy what my experience will be like when shopping at these stores.

Sometimes I find myself in a grocery store that I’m unfamiliar with. SCARY STUFF. Let’s say I’m in Los Angeles and I need some spinach to make a salad, so I swing into Ralphs. I expect the spinach to be located on the far left wall in a cooler. The spinach should cost anywhere between $2.50 and $4.00. If it cost more I’m going to be pissed. I expect the spinach to have other vegetables around it that can be used to make my salad, like lettuce and carrots. When I pay for the spinach the cashier should ask me how my day is going and if I had trouble finding anything.

Maybe the spinach isn’t where I expected it to be. It might be located in the very center of the store with a huge sign at the end of the aisle trying to yell SPINACH. I might not see the sign and waste five minutes walking around aimlessly. Hopefully when I find the spinach it doesn’t cost five bucks because I’m seriously going to be pissed. When I go to pay for the spinach the cashier better be nice to me, but not too nice…I’m not hear to make friends.

The point I’m trying to make is that Ralphs can intentionally design every aspect of their store in a way that makes sense to them but I’m going in there with a clear expectation of what my experience should be like. How could I not? Shopping at grocery stores is something I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s an experience that’s deeply ingrained in my life, much like using websites and mobile applications.

It’s important to remember that we are designing products for other people, not ourselves, and those people are going to have strong expectations of how things should look and work. Don’t fight this.

A better way to approach this is to try and understand what expectations people have for the type of product you are designing. Talk to your users or target audience about other products they use. Find out how those products solve their problems and where they fall short. Include them in your design process to gain a better understanding of how they expect the information in your product to be organized. There are a bunch of discovery methods you can utilize to get started.

If you are designing a grocery store talk to people about the grocery stores they currently shop at. Ask them where they think the spinach should be located and how much it should cost.

Digital product design is no different.

If you are designing an app for a clothing company talk to people about the apps they currently use to buy clothes. Ask them where they think the shirts should be located and how much they should cost.

Acknowledging and designing for expectations seems simple but it’s much harder in practice. If you are a designer the biggest thing stopping you from doing this is probably yourself. Try to be open to the fact that what makes sense to you might not fit the mental model of the people you are design for.

This doesn’t mean you have any less control over the experience you are trying to create. Understanding what users expect from your product will help you make better informed decisions on how you can improve the experience and what downfalls of similar products you should avoid.

I’ll leave you with a very public display of what happens when a product is designed in a way that blindly ignores expectations.

I lead in defining and implementing strategy for User Experience design teams.