We use our favorite websites daily, navigating quickly from a Facebook profile page, to an Amazon shopping order, to a YouTube video of our favorite comedian.
Most Internet-goers probably don’t think too much about what goes into the actual experience of surfing the Web. Clicking through photo albums on Facebook feels like second nature. Crafting that natural feeling is front and center for a UX designer, however.
Clutch and Brave UX conducted a study of heavy Internet users – defined as those who use the Web for 4+ hours per day – to get a glimpse into how these Internet users interpret the UX of popular websites. We drew from the top Alexa-ranked websites in the United States as of August 9th, 2016 to determine targets.
Our results give insight into Internet users’ opinions regarding the most popular websites, including Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and more. From this data and associated expert commentary, we can form a better idea of how the general population understands UX design principles – and what they actually care about.
- The largest percentage of respondents (66%) listed Facebook as easy or pleasant to use.
- The same percentage (66%) said that none of the websites listed were difficult or frustrating to use.
- Over 90% of respondents said that a website’s ease of use is important when deciding whether to continue using it.
- Only 66% said the same about the website’s beauty or attractiveness.
The User-Driven Force of Facebook
We begin with Facebook, the social media giant.
Facebook far out-ranked any other website in terms of popularity – 75% of respondents listed it in their top-three most frequented sites. For comparison, only 38% of respondents listed the second-place website, YouTube.
There are many reasons why Facebook is a priority for such a large number of Internet users. For example, experts highlight the innate “high” that can accompany using Facebook.
“I think a lot of it has to do with personal connection,” said Kelaine Conochan, Director of Strategy at Brave UX. “I think a lot of people get a dopamine response from the idea that they are getting personal interactions with people they know and they’re getting what seems like a customized view of information.”
Facebook also has the “element of discovery,” according to Denis Lacasse, Executive Vice President at Momentum Design Lab: “It’s the same with Instagram, where you never know what you’re going to find. It’s a little bit of discovery and the fun of finding out about new things.”
This is fairly obvious, though. Anyone who has ever “Facebook-stalked” someone knows that the site’s deluge of information regarding another person’s life is addicting.
“Through Facebook, you get an understanding of what someone’s like, what their preferences are, where they work, where they went to school, etc.,” said Yazin Akkawi, founder and principal designer of MSTQ. “Regardless of how that information is presented, I think that there’s something to be said about the value in having that information all in one place.”
However, these elements are reinforced by their presentation via Facebook’s user interface, which caters to a wide variety of skill levels and interests. Facebook users can easily find a niche that appeals to them within the broader platform.
In fact, our survey results show that 66% of heavy Internet users think that Facebook is “easy or pleasant” to use.
Jordan DeVries, Director of User Experience at Brave UX, gave a few examples that demonstrate how Facebook encourages users to interact and how they simplify their UI:
- Anchoring interactions around profile photos.
"They trained us over time to look for the face first and then out of the face there's usually a name, there's a time stamp, there's a comment, and so on... So even though I would argue that at a high level, parts of the navigation and parts of the newsfeed are incredibly diverse, it is a lot more navigable because there are these handrails. You can recognize people's faces."
- Simulating actions before they are made.
"For example, on a given post and some parts of the newsfeed, they actually show your face in a little input box and then it asks, 'What would you like to say?'... You're showing the user what it would be like if they did an action, which makes them more likely to perform the action."
Overall, Facebook allows casual and heavy users alike to “carve a path” that works for their needs. The depth of its features runs deep, but users need not stray too far outside their comfort zone to get what they need from the platform.
“They have a fairly dense UI played out in a smart way so that even casual users can figure it out very quickly,” said Lacasse. “The more advanced users can easily go deeper and create groups and interests, etc. – but it’s not something you have to do. So they’ve really mastered this dual reality very well in my opinion.”
The Myth of Rationality
Heavy Internet users aren’t having many problems navigating popular websites. A majority of the respondents said that they found none of the listed sites difficult or frustrating to use. The rest of the respondents divvied up their responses sporadically among other websites.
There are several reasons to potentially explain this result:
- Lack of Self-Awareness
Internet users often don’t think rationally. “If you’ve ever seen anyone Google,” said DeVries of Brave UX. “They have Yahoo Mail, so they go to Google.com and Google ‘Yahoo Mail’ instead of typing in mail.yahoo.com.”
DeVries admits that this makes it hard for even UX experts to understand how Internet users navigate websites as frequently visited as, say, Facebook.
Users integrate coping mechanisms into their everyday website navigation, blinding them to aspects of the UI that they don’t understand and might otherwise frustrate them.
- Lack of Imperfections
Akkawi of MSTQ says that these websites have the resources to largely iron out the flaws in their UI: “They do a good job of thinking through all the dark corners of where someone could go... There’s no dead ends and no obstacles. Everything is also consistent too. There’s never a question of what something means on any of the Alexa top-ranked sites. I think there’s something to be said for that.”
- Expert Users
Clutch and Brave UX surveyed frequent Internet users in order to ensure that the respondents were highly familiar with the websites and could accurately speak to their interfaces.
Lacasse notes this as a simple explanation for the data. “Your survey focused on expert users,” he said. “You see that in the enterprise space all the time. We had a lady that was 25 years on the job. They were using a terminal-based green screen system and she had no problems, but they weren’t able to hire somebody else because they couldn’t figure it out. But she was an expert user using the system for 25 years. I think that’s probably what you’re seeing here. Those expert users will know all the work around it and it comes second nature.”
A seemingly logical train of thought is that older users would find more frustration in the websites, given that they had to adapt to the new technology later in life. Surprisingly, however, an age breakdown shows that users age 45 to 65+ actually reported less frustration overall. In fact, 75% in that age category responded “None of the above,” compared to only 55% of users age 18-44.
Breaking this down further, 11% of the younger demographic said Facebook is frustrating to use, while only 5% of the older demographic said the same. Conochan of Brave UX attributes this to the plethora of content and options available on Facebook: “What these statistics may suggest is that the younger demographic has higher expectations for the simplicity of interfaces.”
Beauty vs. Practicality: Which Matters Most in the End?
To frequent Internet users, usability is an overwhelmingly prominent factor when they decide whether to continue visiting a website. 93% of respondents listed ease of use as either somewhat or very important.
Meanwhile, beauty came in almost 30 percentage points behind, at 66%.
You would think, then, that beauty holds a noticeably smaller influence over Internet users. UX experts claim that’s there’s more nuance to the results, though. “We know that there’s a real phenomenon called aesthetic usability,” said DeVries. “Researchers gave users an ugly, but efficient and error-free app and a beautiful, but sluggish and error-prone app. Without knowing which app they received, the users reported that the prettier one was the better app.”
Lacasse agrees. “My hypothesis would be that reality is actually the reverse of what people are verbalizing here,” he said. “That attractiveness is more important than ease of use. You see that all the time – it’s why marketing works. It works at a subconscious level. If something is not attractive visually, your propensity to buy will be diminished.”
However, there are other signs that signal the importance of practicality. Take Craigslist, for example. All the interviewed experts brought up the website as a prime example of usability over beauty. DeVries even called it the “cockroach of UI.”
Akkawi said, “It looks like it lacks style, but just from the organization of information, the content aligned and groupings for readability and quick scanning - if you are an OCD personality type, you would love Craigslist. You would think it’s beautiful.”
Another example of usability over attractiveness is email. Many platforms have tried to bring about the death of email, such as Slack, HipChat, and even Facebook Messenger. Yet, email has stuck around.
Reddit.com is also largely known among UX circles as a potentially difficult experience. However, many of its users see the complex interface as a beneficial gatekeeper.
“It is not immediately obvious how to participate and use Reddit,” said DeVries. “But there’s a learning curve that’s optimized on participation. Some ‘Redditors’ even take pride in the fact that Reddit’s seemingly confusing interface is a good wall to keep casual Internet users out.”
Above all, though, people value content. Nearly 95% of respondents said that a website’s goods/content/services were the most important deciding factor in whether they wanted to continue using the site. DeVries says that content is often more important than the experience of the website itself:
“A classic example - every major network television show, every major movie that comes out has a website made. From the data that we have available, nobody goes to them. People will watch a trailer on YouTube or they go to the Facebook page or all these other things. They’re just looking for the content.
We’re coming from the days where there used to be counters on websites. There used to be tools for webmasters. All that’s gone now. You need to elevate the content. Get people to the content they’re looking for so that all the trappings of buttons and frames just kind of melts away and people end up remembering the content.”
From the data points and interviews, we can produce a few key takeaways:
- Users are not rational. Don’t expect them to use a platform with your exact intent.
- Users likely aren’t aware of their own coping mechanisms when it comes to their online experience.
- Internet users claim to value usability above beauty – but the opposite may be true.
- Don’t undervalue the unconscious bias toward an attractive website, though.
- The cliché is true – content is still king, even in the UX world.
About the Survey
Clutch and Brave UX surveyed 1,001 heavy Internet users, defined as those who use the Internet four or more hours per day. Websites were selected from the Top 15 most visited websites in the US, according to Alexa.com. In an effort to focus on more complex interfaces, we replaced the search engines with their email services (using Gmail.com instead of Google.com and Outlook.com instead of Live.com), and replacing Bing.com with Instagram (#16 from the list).
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