Seeing beyond time to understand user priorities

Imagine a user who spends 95 percent of their smartphone time reading content like emails, social media and web pages. The remaining 5 percent might be split between phone calls, photos and navigation in the car.

Would it be reasonable to conclude the reading experience plays the most important role in the user’s choice of device, given how much of their usage is confined to this activity?


However, there is a counter argument which suggests the things users do infrequently – and therefore are unfamiliar with – play a bigger role in determining the overall experience. This theory may be applied equally to devices or individual apps and services.

For instance, even when reading content occupies 95 percent of the user’s time with the device, its role in determining overall experience quality may be small, for several reasons:

  • There is relatively little difference from device-to-device in the factors which affect reading experience, such as weight, screen size and resolution. Some devices may offer preferable traits – perhaps a 5 inch screen versus a 4.5 inch screen – but the gains are marginal and measured against an indiscrete benchmark, i.e. the user has no pre-determined red line which will realistically be crossed.
  • Reading tends to be an activity where impairment has relatively few consequences. If there are occasional errors which prevent the user from having a high quality reading experience at certain times, there are unlikely to be critical.
  • Consider also the times at which a user is likely to read. Most users read during downtime, when they don’t need to achieve a result by a deadline, making this a low pressure activity.
  • By virtue of the frequency with which they perform this activity, users will begin – within reason – to become accustomed to even sub-optimal workflows.

Reading, therefore, could be classified as an activity which takes up a lot of time, but has little influence on overall product experience.

In contrast, something like navigation could play a much greater role in determining the user experience, even though it takes up a comparatively tiny proportion of the user’s time. Again, there are several explanations for this:

  • There is a set benchmark against which to measure success: does the product get the user to their destination. I know from personal experience there is considerable variation in this from device to device. Personally, Google Maps has never let me down, but in some countries users may have more success with Nokia’s HERE maps or other products. Crucially, unlike reading, there are no grey areas with reaching a destination: the outcome is black or white, success or failure.
  • The grey areas are in the nuance of the navigation experience, such as the clarity of directions, the intelligence of route choice and extent of the places database. Each of these nuances has potentially significant consequences.
  • Navigation is also an inherently time sensitive, and therefore higher stress activity. When a user is traveling somewhere, they often need to be there at a certain time, particularly if they’re connecting to another mode of transport or meeting someone. An uncertain or incorrect outcome is likely to cause worry.
  • For this user, navigation is also an occasional interaction, so they remain unfamiliar and unlikely to adapt to the workflow.

As a result, the significance of the navigation experience in determining the user’s overall impression of the product is higher than reading content, despite the fact it represents a small proportion of their overall usage.

In an ideal world, of course, there would be infinite time dedicated to ensuring all aspects of an overall experience were meticulously crafted to meet user expectations. However, anyone working in the field of UX will know one of the most important skills is understanding where to focus very limited resources to achieve the most meaningful improvements.

What this example teaches us is that this requires a more complex evaluation than simply looking at the activities users perform most often or what they claim to be their priorities when asked. Instead, UX practitioners must develop a sixth sense for applying a weighting system to the overall importance of certain interactions, and focusing their efforts on those which mean the most, rather than simply those which occur most frequently.

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  1. 1
    Peter Michael Ward

    Very perceptive! There are some features and/or functions which are essential and therefore take precedence over the ease-of-use of other functions. I chose a tablet-laptop running Windows because I need native Office, even though 80%+ of my use is browser-based.

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