By Frank Spillers

woman confused at laptop- ux designer

Summary: Most IT professionals including UX Designers logically run away from confusion. All too often confusion is perceived as bad or the thing to avoid. Instead, confusion offers an opportunity to explore, learn, and deconstruct poor user experience, allowing designers and decision-makers to create better experiences for users. 

Confusion is how we learn

Without confusion, we would not be able to understand user behavior, problem-solving, or issues that arise with service and product experiences. TED Talks Founder, Richard Saul Wurman, and the first to get us to think about designing for understanding through information design and visualization provided the term 'Information Architecture' to explain this art form, back in 1976. He famously nailed the gift of confusion in the following phrase:

"The key to making things understandable is to understand what it's like not to understand". 

-TED Talks Founder, Richard Saul Wurman

Users explore and discover oftentimes through and with confusion. Confusion is not bad. It is like a trail of crumbs that leads to the "why" behind an experience. When evaluating a user interface or experience, aka a "heuristic evaluation", confusion that you discover as part of the User Advocacy can be useful. Especially if you or fellow colleagues do not understand something, explore that. I have seen too many people over the years run from confusion due to embarrassment. Geek culture reinforces the "smartest person in the room" syndrome or simply you want to avoid the shame of not knowing. It's logical. However not a good approach for understanding and empathizing with potential user confusion, like when evaluating the ease of use of an interface or experience.

Types of user confusion that only makes you smarter

Users get confused! Again, it's how humans learn. When studying users or trying to improve products, services, or experiences-- confusion can be very instructive. User confusion will reveal what it is you need to know to add back understanding (logic, intuition, knowing) as a designer. Users typically reveal the following confusion types:

  • Confusing steps, processes, rules, events that happened on-screen or off-screen.
  • Confusion with what to do, what to do next, where to go, and how to go to the next thing.
  • Confusion in how to approach a decision, problem, opportunity.
  • Confusion with instructions- interpreting and deciphering them as expected by the designer/ developer.  
  • Confusion due to a disability or eg. aging, tiredness, fatigue or multi-tasking or multi-contexting (eg. speech interface and visual overload while driving).

Confusion is your friend

Being comfortable with confusion is being comfortable with ambiguity. This is a key skill for interviewing and observing users and uncovering their world. An amateur mistake in UX is to jump to understanding or to force understanding in a UX problem or with a user directly. This is a user help/training mentality and generally an artifact of attacking confusion with problem-solving (part of good engineering). It is also about jumping to "rescuing the user" with a solution. Instead exploring confusions lets you spend more quality time in the 'problem space', allowing enough of your own understanding to form before you move more elegantly into the 'solution space'. Smart teams and smart organizations redirect their thinking and energy into problem spaces without 'jumping the gun' into "solutioning". Note: Solutioning means going straight to solutions before properly exploring the problem and its context. 

  • Your user confused during a usability test? Let them be. Let it lead you to cross-examing your own assumptions or learning about their coping strategy or mental model. 
  • Your UX Researcher confused by interface rules, processes, or procedures? Let them be. Organic or innocent confusion and lack of understanding provide an opportunity to ask: "How easy will it be for our users to understand this?"

Handling confusion as a discovery tool without feeling stupid is a professional skill. As a UX consultant, I love being confused as an outsider. Yet this is a dangerous place for most UX consultants or contractors, they don't want to be seen to "not get it". I've seen colleagues and teams shy away from the expected "need to know". This is a mistake. When I conduct a group expert review, I absolutely love forcing people to squeeze the juice out of someone's confusion before moving on to the next issue. The results of the discussion are usually very rewarding.

So, next time you notice confusion or potential confusion, don't shut it down-- give it space to instruct or enlighten you or your team. You'll need to tell them "Hang on, this confusion can be useful to explore...can we just spend a little time on this..."

Catch up with Frank Spillers by joining his mentoring community, the UX Inner Circle