Eliminating UX negatives is the best way to improve experience

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To make a product more valuable must be the goal of design and development. However, in customer or human relationships, it’s easier to destroy value than create it. Every feature added to a product either reinforces or degrades brand value. We need our customer relationships to be positive or we risk losing them to apathy, contempt and competition.

What is Experience Poison?

According to noted psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, it is a lot (3x) easier to destroy relationship value than to build it.

When we add features to products, we intend each feature to add product value. Each feature is an affordance that should deliver more value to users. However, any interaction that annoys, frustrates or makes a user feel dumb is of profound negative value. If a negative feature or interaction is a frequent part of a customer’s experience, I call it Experience Poison.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten– Benjamin Franklin 

Bad features kill value

A little poison ruins the value of a product, no matter what it does right. How much poison would it take to ruin an awesome meal? Not much. Negatives in product features are worth calling “poison” because that’s how quickly they can ruin the experience.


Imagine a site that can give you 50% lower holiday package prices or improve customer reach by 30%. These offerings could be a tremendous value, but functional value doesn’t always translate into experience value.

A few use cases of poison

Let’s look at some common ways that experience gets poisoned. Forcing account creation is the most common way that experience is ruined. Most sites try to form a tighter bond with users by making users create an account. A common practice is not necessarily a good practice.  Many sites force users to create an account, define a new complicated password and verify it by email before even showing what their products actually do, much less the pricing and actually letting you a) use the product or b) buy the product. That’s pre-poisoning the well because a relationship that is forced on a user will never be valued. Also, every time a user is required to create yet another complicated password, it’s a source of frustration and anxiety. Is that really what you want your brand associated with in the user’s mind? Setting up an account won’t tighten a relationship that you’ve pre-ruined with a customer. Instead, show clear value before allowing a customer to create an account. Depending on what you offer, let them explore what you offer, use it and even purchase it, if possible, as a guest. When they have engaged with your product and brand for some time, highlight the benefits of creating an account and make it as easy as possible to do so. In general, forcing a user to do anything is a way to ensure they won’t value it.

Don’t make users jump around

Another common way that experience gets ruining is by not including relevant details on the screen they are looking at. We tend to think of bad UX as overly-busy or ugly screens, but the other side of bad UX is over simplification. For example, during travel booking, customers often start the journey with some dates and where they are departing and where they will arrive. As the user goes through the process, they are looking at flight itineraries, the specific flight that make up each leg, overall duration, layover time, airlines and amenities on classes of ticket. After digging into all these details, the customer can then pull the trigger and book it. However, when looking at details, the date span and source/destination airports are often fixed and uneditable, forcing the user to back up a few screens if they want to consider other dates or nearby airports. In some cases, this forces the user to start a flight search from scratch again, re-entering all the same filtering information again. Often the user cannot see a comparison between options at once so they would have to remember a lot of details or open multiple browser tabs.

The reason this qualifies as poison is because it doesn’t track with user expectations and the best travel and product sites do it better. If you talked to a human travel agent, you would tell them where and when you want to go, all your preferences, and they’d give you options. You could ask about the same trip on a another day or another airport and they could just do it. There are travel sites that replicate this experience, so the ones that don’t are creating unnecessary hassle for users. If a user enters a lot of criteria for what they want, 95% of the time, they want to tinker with those settings, not start from scratch, so it’s disrespectful to keep asking for the same information.

Micro-interactions are important

A third subtle, but pervasive form of experience poison is the way micro-interactions in forms are handled. My work on payments and e-commerce UX taught me a lot about the importance of form design. If a user struggles to input data into a form, it negatively affects their view of your whole product. Even something as simple as entering contact and credit card information can be easy or horrible. If you have requirements that it be entered a certain way and you don’t even inform the user until they’ve done it wrong, you’re going to annoy them. This goes double or triple for password creation. In case you’re curious, I have had the best results from auto formatting credit card input as it is entered and doing a Luhn check to validate and determine card type as they go along. For passwords, if you have to have the annoying complexity rules, show active guidance on screen as they are typing so that they never get to the end and get a “sorry, you aren’t complex enough to use our system” error message. Users almost always consciously blame themselves when they get an error message, but subconsciously, they blame you for making a product that is hard to use. Every error message tells them “this product isn’t really for me”.

The moral of this story is that little annoyances add up to major destruction of product value.If your design doesn’t align with the mental model users carry about what the process “should be”, they will bail, regardless of what you have to offer.

The Newer it is, the More it Needs Testing

When you improve an existing feature, you at least have a baseline of what users expect. The more a feature is truly new or a radical change to an existing feature, the more likely something will be off. Therefore, these are the things that need the most early and thorough user validation and testing, but everyone is limited in time and budget.

If you do enough things, you’ll get something wrong. Best practices help avoid mistakes, but not all of them. You can’t make up for a negative by building more positives. Find and start fixing negatives as soon as you can. Look outside the web box. Every customer touchpoint (phone, email, browsing your site, meeting a representative, purchase) can be positive or negative.

Do it Well or Don’t Do it

Regardless of functionality, nobody recommends hard-to-use products. Customers won’t love you for doing a lot of things. Brand loyalty comes from a high positive/negative ratio. Do it well or don’t do it. You won’t hear from people so turned off that they won’t use your brand. We do not evangelize products to our friends if we have mixed feelings about the experience. Subconsciously, we worry that the negatives will reflect poorly on ourselves. Negativity can spread quickly, as in the news expression “If it bleeds, it leads.”

ux scale

Fail Early & Small so you can Win Big

If we embrace early mistakes, they become part of the success process. Every successful product I have designed started as mistakes.

If you are afraid to fail, you are afraid to succeed.

By mistakes, I mean that my initial designs weren’t right. To have great ideas, you need to have lots of ideas and be willing to iterate. Back in the day, my company investigated better ways to make infographics and charts. Our approach failed for charting, but we got a lot of general compliments from visitors. Instead of bailing, we put our experiment on the internet for free where we discovered that lots of people liked it enough to pay for it and offer suggestions. Then I worked through more mistakes and improvements. As I eliminated the negatives, we started making serious money. When we made a commercially published version, it blew out every sales chart. Fixing our mistakes led us to create After Dark, the flying toaster #1 selling product in the world.

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan 

Lead, Then Listen

I have learned over time that no matter how smart and creative anyone (especially me) thinks they are, thinly-validated initial designs are just a start. Ongoing dialogue with customers is where you crack open the opportunity to serve deeper needs. Serving those needs is fun and valuable.  In the case of screensavers, being #1 wasn’t the end of the story. There is always room to improve and align better with customers.

Here’s what I learned:

  • When we make features, there will be some mistakes. Small, early mistakes prevent big ones later.
  • Eliminate ‘bad experience’ before adding new features.
  • Customers have choices. Your good/bad ratio is WAY more important than the number of features you deliver. Maximize value by dropping things you can’t do well.
  • Iteratively listen and pivot design around prioritized persona. Products live or die based on how well it delivers the top tasks to a few key personas. Hack away the non-essential.

“You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.” – Warren Buffet

About Bill Stewart

Bill Stewart is the founder and Senior UX Architect/Designer of UX Factor Design. His views on UX are informed by 30 years of experience in product strategy, development, visual design and team leadership. He's designed products used by more than 450M people and his inventions are currently used by more than 1 billion users. ★ Whether he's redesigning products, lindy hop dancing, or teaching kung fu, he dives deep to maximize the value in every experience. ★ Contact him at UX Factor Design (uxfactor.ca) for UX design consultation.

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