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Communicating clearly with the user — Trickier than it sounds

'Communicating well can solve half your issues' is a statement you must've heard often.


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Vasudha Mamtani

3 years ago | 4 min read

While re-designing an investment portal for a client a while back, me and my team came across a peculiar problem. The client had mentioned that a major issue they faced was that their customers kept calling the call center to help them with basic actions like updating their mailing address; actions that were already available for them to use on the portal.

When we spoke to the customers, we heard the reverse. They said that even though they used the portal to make payments, they had to call up the center to update their information from time to time, because they were simply not able to understand how to do it online.

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After doing a little bit of Sherlock Holmes-ing, we were able to locate the link to ‘Modify Details’ a couple pages deep into the portal. There was barely any context to it. At first glance, you’d assume that the user would Modify Details of their insurance plan rather than their Profile.

Our derivation was simple — our users were not able to locate what they needed, despite a subtle indicator. What they needed were clear, direct instructions which told them exactly what to do.

After seeing how being subtle had worked against the portal, we decided to maintain our focus on communicating with the user clearly; while keeping our eye on our designs.

Here are some insights we discovered that I carry with me to every project I work on –

1. Design for the amateur, not the expert

Before kicking off any project, most of us like to do our groundwork. We study up the domain enough to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of our users. We acquire enough knowledge to become the average users; better than a newbie, but not as good as an expert. Thus, when we start designing, we keep the average user in mind and accommodate their needs.

A trick here is to ALWAYS design for the most basic user there is. An expert user will easily be able to interpret a basic experience; but an amateur user will not be able to decode a complex experience.

This can be done by keeping the language of communication simplistic, keeping actions that might be relevant to the users upfront and more accessible and providing clear instructions to them for the journeys they go through.

2. When in doubt, over-communicate

Remember to NEVER assume that the user would know how to do something. Providing clear instructions at every step is essential for users to be able to find their way around the system.
This stands especially true for systems that are being re-designed or are more complex than usual.

More information has never hurt anyone.
Users who don’t need additional information will choose to ignore it; but users who do need the instructions will benefit tremendously from it.

If we feel that the additional content will be applicable to a very limited audience, we can choose to hide it behind a ‘Learn More’, but keeping it accessible at all times should always be the priority.

3. Keep the user informed

The very first principle of Jacob Nielsen’s Heuristic Principles is Visibility of System Status. The principle states that — ‘The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.’

It is human nature to feel extremely anxious if they don’t know where they are, or what they have to do. Moreover, with the human attention span going down by the day, patience is not something we can afford to test with our designs.

It is good practice to communicate very clearly with the user to tell there exactly where they are in their journey, and when the journey would end. Design elements like breadcrumbs, progress indicators, steppers and loaders were specifically created for this purpose.

So when closing the design on a page, be sure to check if the user is well informed about their position in the journey.
Find detailed techniques to deal with user impatience here.

4. Assure the user when necessary

We are a skeptical species, with a lot of trust issues. I personally blame it on the MULTIPLE scams we have grown up reading about.

To provide our users with an experience that make them feel safe and secure, we need to reassure our them from time to time.

For example — The consumer of a certain product might not know what an ISO Certified mark is, but simply seeing the mark of the product reassures the user of its quality.

Your application could have the most secure servers and the best encryption technique to protect user data at the back end, but the user will never know that if you don’t tell them.

As designers, it is our job to make the user feel that they have entered a safe space when they interact with our applications. Clear communication informing the user about how their information would be handled kills the skepticism of the user, creating the safe space.

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While concluding, I’ll re-iterate how important it is to communicate well with your user to be able to get your point across. Your designs and the supporting tech stack could be top notch, but it will all fall flat if the communication is sub-par.

If you have any insights to improve user communication, please drop a comment below.

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Vasudha Mamtani


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