UI Design: 2 Risks, 2 Solutions

The Candy Connection: What M&Ms Tell Us About UI Design

What do you see below? Anything missing?

UI design m&m candies
Photo by gmanviz License

There are no brown M&Ms® in the jar. Don’t worry if you missed it; most people do. Unless you’re an M&Ms® fanatic, you probably don’t care about the color of this American candy icon (no UI design pun intended).

Indeed, the colors themselves don’t matter. What’s important is that most of us don’t notice that brown M&Ms®, one of the five original colors, do not appear in this photo. Okay, but why does this happen and what is the connection to UI design?

The reason we overlook the missing brown M&Ms® is, well, because they’re missing. It’s the old out-of-sight-out-of-mind phenomenon.

UI Design Risk 1: Overlooking the Real Design Challenge

While overlooking missing M&Ms® is hardly important, the implications for UI design are serious. Just as we overlook something that is not in our direct line of sight, we often fail to consider information that we cannot easily recall focusing instead on what we can remember.

This mental error is called the availability heuristic and often results in faulty assumptions. For example, rather than conduct user research, product managers, subject matter experts (SMEs), and even some UX designers rely on what they think they know about their target audience.

The resulting design can prove problematic as happened on a design project in the financial sector. The target audience for the Web application was the company’s sales force. When I asked permission to observe and interview sales reps, the product manager replied “We don’t have budget for that. Besides, I understand our financial products.”

The UI design was based largely on the product manager’s opinions. For example, key data often appeared not only in red but also in subtly different shades of red. When I explained that red is a risky choice for male users (approximately 9% of U.S. males are color blind with red-green types among the most common), the female product owner assured me that it was not a problem. They had used red before, and, besides, she could see it. Well, of course she could. Only .5% of women in the U.S. are color blind.

By dwelling on different shades of red the product owner got caught up in the details while overlooking the core challenge of this UI design, how to present all the relevant data in a way that users could absorb and understand.

UI Design Risk 2: Answering the Wrong Questions

As if these assumptions were not bad enough, the availability heuristic leads to a more insidious dynamic; it causes us to take a complex question and unconsciously replace it with an easier question. Economist Connel Fullenkamp illustrates the point with the following anecdote.

Imagine that you have just finished a delicious sandwich at a new restaurant chain. Based on this delightful experience you become convinced that the company is surely on the rise, and you rush home to buy the company’s stock.

The problem? You’ve substituted an easy-to-answer-question (was the sandwich delicious?) for a much more difficult question (do the company’s financials and market share make it a good candidate for revenue growth?). As Fullenkamp explains, “The really amazing thing about system 1 is that it seems to be really good at translating the experiences on one dimension and expressing this intensity on another dimension.”* System 1 refers to the brain’s fast, automatic, and largely unconscious processing, a concept that behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman explains in depth in Thinking Fast and Slow.**

Basically, the availability heuristic unconsciously tricks us into thinking we have understood a complex situation. In the world of UI design the most common examples of this bias emerge when product managers and SMEs substitute their knowledge and opinions for end user needs as happened on a web application design project for a telecommunications company.

The supervisors and product owners assured us that the most important need was a single screen crammed with as much information as possible:  “I was thinking more in terms of clicks,” said the product owner referring to the misguided goal of reducing the number of clicks.  Specifically, she objected to our proposed UI design with critical information on the landing page and clear cues and links to details. Our goal was to meet the users’ needs by presenting access to critical information up front with links to details. In short, we aimed for a dense but not cluttered design, a commonly approach to UI Design when designing for expert users who are in the app for several hours each day.

The point of this anecdote is not to engage in endless debate about clicks. Rather, it illustrates the risk of substituting an easy question, “how many clicks?” for the more difficult and more important question, how to best meet the users’ needs.

The key word here is “substitute.” Replacing a complex question about how end users can find and act on important information with an easier question about clicks is equivalent to substituting our opinion about a tasty sandwich for the more nuanced questions about a company’s prospects and financial footing. The result is poor design based on faulty assumptions.

UI Design Solution #1: Use Design Thinking as a Lightweight Start

Design thinking has emerged as the go-to discipline anyone in business today. Discipline, not trend, or so UX designers should hope. Why? Because design thinking has surfaced what UXers have advocated for years, a user-centered focus based on research.

In How Design Thinking Can Help Improve Your Organization’s Customer Experience Dom Nicastro cites the Interaction Design Foundation definition, “Design thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.”

Nicastro continues by explaining that design thinking focuses on solutions. It is more than a set of methods but a way of thinking and working. This way of thinking is not only for designers but everyone in the organization.

When people throughout the organization adopt design thinking it gradually becomes integrated into all operations returning the focus to the human factor for internal and customer-facing initiatives.

Nicastro quotes Aurimas Adomavicius, president and co-founder of Devbridge Group who describes design thinking as a lightweight approach because it happens before any code is written, “So, it’s a really low-cost, fast-to-market, iterative approach to validate different ideas that originate with potential end-users, and not necessarily an internal stakeholders.” Adomavicius continues, “There may be multiple iterations to arrive at ultimately, a much better design, at a much better workflow, at a much better product both for the customer and internal stakeholders.”

This is familiar ground for UX practitioners who should embrace the emphasis on design thinking as a discipline that has the potential to enhance UI design and change the way organizations approach app, product, and service design

UI Design Solution #2: Become An Active Problem Seeker

One way to shift toward a design thinking mindset is to challenge assumptions by seeking problems. Seeking problems may sound counterintuitive. Why would we look for problems? Don’t we already have enough to deal with? In truth, however, organizations that seek problems often demonstrate impressive performance.

In the UI design world, problem seeking is most often successful with frequent design reviews and usability tests.

  • A seasoned user experience consultant can conduct an informal heuristic evaluation in a matter of days or even hours if the site or app is small.
  • Designers and coders working in an Agile environment should allot time in each sprint for quick usability tests. For example, when designing a healthcare application, quick might mean assessing only the most critical functions such as a dosing calculation, something that could literally make the difference between life and death. By focusing on one function, the team can run a usability test in one day and report the results the next day allowing the design and development team to iterate quickly.

The point is that problems are not the enemy; hidden problems are because these hidden problems become serious threats down the road. Review, assess, and test frequently to identify problems before the software goes live. These UI Design checkpoints will reduce the chances of relying on assumptions about users’ needs and preferences.


*The Economics of Uncertainty (The Great Courses) by Professor Connel Fullenkamp.

**Kahneman and Tversky are properly credited with developing the concept of a brain with system 1 (fast, automatic) and system 2 (more deliberate) processing. Other scholars, however, have contributed to the literature on multiple processing systems and, in some cases, have expressed a different view. For example, in Rationality and the Reflective Mind, Keith Stanovich argues that the human brain engages in three types of processing.