Changing Practiced Patterns Leads To Errors

by | January 3, 2018, 8:34

Changing Practiced Patterns

Summary: The expectations of the user arises from repeated practice and past experiences. Mistakes arise as a result of deviating from a learned routine. "Old habits die hard, goes the saying" As humans, we are continually learning, and a habit formed can be hard to unlearn, although it is possible with enough practice. This is why many people find it hard to follow a new routine, and why it is dangerous to change a long-practiced pattern.

Learning and Familiarity

Most of the time, familiarity produces positive results as it serves as a conduit through which we tap into past experiences to make a better assessment of the present, thus allowing us to make weighty decisions without much stress. If you have been a carpenter for the past 20 years, most carpentry works will be a piece of cake for you; you are well above the 10,000 hours needed to become an expert in the field as suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and many other sources. Such can’t be said of a neophyte who still relies on some crude trial and error to resolve issues. Web users are like this-they recognize a familiar web design when they see one, and they instinctively divert their energies to more important matters since they can easily navigate the interface. This is the reason why users don’t like changes in the user interface of websites, as they require more cognitive energy to navigate an unfamiliar pattern. Familiarity is the result of repetition. Before users can become familiar with a new interaction pattern or interface, they need to use it repeatedly to become as proficient as they were with an old well-practiced interface. This is known as the power law, and it is pervasive in every aspect of human learning. According to Jacob's Law of Web User Experience, users do not spend most of their time on your website; they spend it on other websites. There is ample opportunity for them to practice and learn well-known patterns. When you deviate from established patterns, your users will need to start learning a new pattern and expend much energy in the process.

User Expectation Determines Attention

The way the users respond to a pattern is usually determined by the mental model which they have associated with the pattern in the past. If you implemented the pattern in a way that is different from the established method users are conversant with, you create an atmosphere of confusion among the people. The feeling is akin to having a tunnel vision, as the users concentrate on the areas of the screen which they think should hold information relevant to their current tasks, according to the mental model they've built around the pattern. An example of this behavior is the exhaustive review, where the user repeatedly brings her eyes back to an area of the screen where she expects to find the right content. The hot-potato scanning pattern is the opposite of this behavior-here the users intentionally avoid looking at a particular area of the screen and immediately redirects their gaze whenever their eyes accidentally fixate on any content in that area. The hot potato behavior is also an example of the effect of mental models shaping users' actions-from experience, users don’t expect to find any useful information in that screen area. An example of the hot-potato behavior is banner blindness in which users ignore anything that has a slight resemblance to an ad, and they will avoid everything placed at the right rail of the web pages because they associate the area with ads. This further buttresses the point that the mental models formed through repetition build user expectations. This is why a successful website design will take into consideration the mental models and expectations of users about that interface and build upon it so that users can efficiently perform their tasks using the shortcuts they've committed to memory.

Violated Assumptions Causes Mistakes

Major issues related to usability can develop when users erroneously avoid screen areas based on previous mental models which they have about the functions of those areas. According to our recent studies on usability, we instructed participants to locate via the Starbucks website or mobile app the nearest Starbucks that served a special type of cappuccino or one with a drive-through. We observed that 3/5 of the participants were not aware of the filter on the store-locator page, rather they thought the website was deliberately designed to force them to go through each store detail page to know the amenities they offer. The process wasn’t at all pleasant, and it was time-consuming. The participants who didn’t notice the filters complained that the site didn’t provide a means of streamlining the search results. Unknown to these group of participants, the site had a filter feature, but they couldn’t find it despite its highly conspicuous location. The striking thing about this is that the Search Stores field was immediately below the filter button, but they couldn’t find it. The location and design of the Filter button made the users arrive at a wrong conclusion that it was a search-submit button, which was why they didn’t try to validate their assumption. What is common in most digital interfaces at the right-hand side of a search field is a Submit button. When users encountered something similar, they instinctively assumed it was similar to what they knew before, but they were wrong.

Repeated Routines Lead To Repeated Errors

You might think a user will learn not to repeat a mistake after one or two occurrences, but mistakes from repeated routines can be extremely difficult to avoid. In one of our mobile eye tracking studies, a participant made the same mistake repeatedly. She was closing her app accidentally because her browser was recently updated, which made the regular Close button resemble the Close icon. In many mobile apps, the Close icon is placed in the top left corner of the screen as a back button, and the participant wanted to go back to a previous page on the browser. Instead, she was closing the browser. While the user knew she was making a mistake, and fully understood the functionality of the new design, her mental model for the previous version was so strong it leads her to continue repeating the same mistake despite not getting the required result. An old dog may be able to learn new tricks, but it would be extremely difficult and slow.


When a website design doesn’t conform to the established pattern, users are prone to multiple mistakes as they find it difficult to navigate the unfamiliar pattern. This becomes more pronounced when it involves well-practiced actions in which the user pays less attention, leading to more mistakes. What is most troubling is when users ignore important aspects of the interface or make mistakes without knowing they are missing critical parts of the content, making it impossible to correct their errors or change their behavior. The power of concentration and energy required to assess the layout of every design as common or unconventional is too much burden on the user-thus the onus is on designers to know the mental models of users and make our designs to support users' behavior. We must be aware of the well-practiced behavior of users and make our designs congruent with users' expectations or create a similar design without confusing the users. This is because the user expends too much energy in trying to identify, learn, and practice deviations from the established norms.   Learn how zigzag image-text layouts reduce the efficiency of scanning.