Know the company’s position in the marketplace before devising a UX strategy

There is not one universal UX strategy that is completely effective for every company. In fact, all businesses must carefully consider how to implement a proper UX strategy around their business and industry. Therefore it is imperative the UX strategy starts on a high level and take the overall business strategy in to consideration.

As the UX strategy is being developed, some of the really important questions that need to be addressed include:
• How important is UX to our company?
• How can we strategically position our UX, given our role in the marketplace?
• Do we have the necessary resources to build out the selected UX capabilities?

Industry can be a major determinant of the level of user experience needed. Online retailers, for instance, would likely want to consider a higher level of spending in UX since their online presence is the main vehicle for interacting with their customers. A local electrician, on the other hand, typically don’t need great UX since they often secure most of their work through referrals from existing clients and sites like Angie’s List. For the handyman, it’s better to focus on the in-person customer experience than creating a hearty digital user experience.

Furthermore, different UX needs may exist for companies within an industry segment. For example, it may be more important for Uber to have good UX than for yellow cabs since Uber relies on in-app sales whereas yellow cabs simply pick people up off the street, with no online interaction.

This is not to say that developing a strong UX is not important for companies, rather that it’s a matter of allocating resources appropriately based on the company’s core competences and position in the marketplace. I believe that many companies underspend on UX as a whole, but even more importantly, they are spending money on UX resources inefficiently because they don’t understand how the UX strategy fits into the larger picture.

A major differentiator for McDonalds is its ability to find locations for new restaurants – a capability they have built up over time. Burger King, on the other hand, tends to follow McDonalds’ lead and expands to locations nearby new McDonalds spots. While there are drawbacks to Burger King piggybacking off of McDonalds’ strategic decisions, they can also enjoy the benefits of freeing up resources and spend elsewhere. Being a follower is not always a bad strategy, if the company can focus their efforts in another business area. In addition, it requires thoughtful consideration about how the UX strategy and team is developed in the company to leverage their position in the marketplace.

For some companies, this means they should abandon their attempts of pushing the boundaries of designs and accepting a follower role. Still we see many companies contracting design agencies to create something “new” and “better” than much larger competitors. For me, this is a puzzling proposition. A company with one-tenth the market cap as Amazon accepts the reality that they would be facing a large uphill battle in replicating Amazon’s delivery and distribution system, but for some reason, with UX, they still seem to believe they can become industry leaders.

Of course, for smaller company with big UX aspirations, there are tactics that can optimize UX spends and build up the necessary capabilities. For those looking to be leaders, such tactics may include properly assessing budgetary allowances for exploratory research and constantly iterating off prior designs through consistent user experience testing. Research is also important for those not seeking to become industry leaders in UX, only that these research efforts may want to start by looking at the UX of high-powered websites in order to understand which elements works best and which do not.

With a better understanding of their place in the market, companies can optimize a vision for their UX strategies. After determining whether to be a UX leader or follower, other things such as budgetary spending and team compositions can be considered.

© David Juhlin and, 2016

5 participants is not enough

Many UX experts and gurus have argued that feedback from 5 participants is sufficient for evaluating usability. I think that this may have been true in the past but nowadays, given the changing demographics of tech users, at least 10 participants are usually required for meaningful results. There are many factors that influence the number of participants required for a study and I will try to present my view of these considerations.

5 people standing

The basic starting point is to have at least 3 participants from each unique user group for each task. I think 3 participants is a bit on the low side and my preference is to have at least 4, but ideally 5 participants. Since there may be unforeseen events, all 5 participants may not show up. There are two options for how to get at least 5 participants to show up for your study. The first one is to schedule a standby participant. This is a person who shows up to the testing and is only asked to participate if another participant doesn’t show up. The problem is that this person often has to arrive and wait for several hours. Once you know that you have sufficient participants he is dismissed, but it’s expensive to compensate for this extended time.

The other option is to over-recruit. This means that you schedule 6-7 participants and anticipate that some participants won’t show up. This still tacks on an extra cost, but it is cheaper than having standby participants. The recruit vendors I have been working with at the User Experience Center have a show-up rate (percentage of participants who come to the session) of over 90%. This means that if we schedule 6 participants the probability of at least 5 showing up is roughly 88% (and to get at least 4 to show up it’s approximately 98%). Therefore, scheduling 6 participants provides for the best result.

Now, I also stated “each unique user group to go through each task” so let’s talk about user groups. If a significant difference is expected between user groups it is necessary to recruit 6 participants for each of those groups. If the system is being used by both power users and less frequent users, for example, it is likely they will interact with it differently. Power users tend to rely more on recognition and learned sequences so they are more likely to be able to handle having a lot of information on the same screen as well as having all of the menu options in one large mega menu. Less frequent users, on the other hand, need more assisted direction, so if all the information is cluttered on the same screen they may have a harder time locating what they need. This means that to capture the unique experiences of these two groups, you’d need to double the number of participants for the test.

Another thing to consider when deciding participant count for user groups is age. I have observed over and over again that there is a significant difference between older (roughly around 55 and above) and younger (roughly under 30) study participants. One example is that almost all young participants understand the ‘hamburger menu’ in a tablet application, while approximately 25% of the older population don’t even find the navigation and often think the three lines are part of the logo. During the early ages of the Internet when the common approach was to schedule 5 participants (to have at least 3 show up), all tech savvy people were essentially in the same age bracket. Therefore, it wasn’t necessary (or possible!) to have a cross section of ages represented in the study. Besides familiarity with technology, we also need to consider another factor—vision decreases with age (The importance of accessibility).

Furthermore, the number of participants depends on the scope of the system that will be covered in testing. The more areas that are tested, the more tasks will need to be performed. If there are many tasks, the first thing to do is to increase session length, but I advise against a session longer than 90 minutes since the participant will suffer from fatigue. If all tasks can’t fit in a 90 minute session, one solution is to start to rotate tasks. If the tasks are rotated (each participant performs a randomized set of 10 out of 15 tasks, for example) it is necessary to increase the number of participants since it is desirable to have at least 4-5 participants go through each of the tasks.

Lastly, keep in mind how many platforms are being tested. If there are a few tasks on each platform, it may be possible to allow the same participant to test all the different platforms; otherwise the number of participants will need to be increased.

So far I have primarily discussed this from a “milestone test” point of view (final testing before moving over to the next phase of the design). But there is another type of testing that I call the “sanity check”. The sanity check is a quick test that designers should be doing as they design the interface. These can be conducted with 3 participants and can be done very cheaply though online testing (if there is no confidential information). These sanity checks are for the designer to make sure there aren’t any major issues while also working in a ‘lean’ way.

There are other factors to consider as well (budget, combinations of user groups, etc.), but if these basics are kept in mind the researcher should be in pretty good shape. In summary, most “milestone tests” should schedule at least 12 participants (unless the product only targets one user group), while a “sanity check” can be conducted with as few as 3 participants.

© David Juhlin and, 2015

The importance of accessibility

Accessibility is often viewed as a waste of money by many organizations. They therefore often try to get away with adherence to the minimum accessibility standards required by law. I think these organizations may be overlooking one important factor: with an ageing technology-savvy population there is a growing number of customers with some type of disability who benefit from accessibility. The disabilities often referred to when discussing accessibility are:
• Visual impairment
• Cognitive and learning impairment
• Physical impairment
• Hearing impairment

Picture of the four commonly discussed disabilities

The four commonly discussed disabilities: Physical, Cognitive, Hearing, and visual impairment

Visual impairment

Many people immediately think of blind users when discussing visual impairment, but very few are thinking of their own parents. With an ageing population there are many more aspects to visual impairment.

First off, let’s discuss the subgroup of completely blind users. These users rely on screen readers so for them it is crucial the system has been properly coded. It is therefore important to have developers who understand accessibility.

There are many designers that still don’t understand visual impairments, even though their design impacts many users. For example, roughly 7% of males have some type of color deficiency (this does not mean they are completely color blind). For women on the other hand this percentage is less than 1%. Color perception in the eye is based on three colors: red (600 nm wavelength), green (575 nm) and blue (450 nm) and if any of these cones are damaged the person will have problems distinguishing that color as well as mixes of that color. This means that designers need to take the colors selections into account.

Ageing has a significant impact on vision. A  young adult can focus on items about 15-20 cm (roughly 6- 8 inches) away, but the same focus typically is about 87 cm (34 inches) away from the eye at age 60. The retina of a 60 year old also only receives about 33% of the light a 20 year old person’s retina receives. Eye diseases also starts earlier than most people think. Macular degeneration (loss of vision in the center of the visual field) usually starts in the mid-50s and the likelihood of developing cataracts (clouding of the lens) increases with age and tends to affect people over 55. Presbyopia (diminishing ability to focus on lose objects) normally starts around the age of 40, but eventually happens to all people. While Glaucoma (optic nerve damage) usually only affects people over 60, except for African Americans were the threshold is about 40 years. Some of these diseases can be treated, but the individual may not seek medical help immediately and with our ageing population many companies will have users over 60 interacting with their products on a regular basis.

All designers should familiarize themselves with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), In addition, it can be good to have the “SEE” Chrome plugin installed that allows designers to simulate different vision deficiencies, Lastly, it can also be good to calculate the contrast difference between the text and background, to ensure that the eye can distinguish between the two

Cognitive and learning impairment

When mentioning cognitive and learning impairment, most people think of the people with severe impairment, while there actually is a broad range of impairment. Cognitive and learning impairment is the most common disability in the population, and in a survey conducted by Microsoft it was found that 16% of working-age computer users in the USA have some type of cognitive or learning impairment.

The issues users with cognitive and learning disabilities encounter are often the same that affect all users, the difference is that these problems pose more severe issues for these users. Since the issues often are the same, normal usability testing can discover and prevent them. However, one thing that may need to be given a bit more attention is content writing. A good general guide line is to try to write text so an average 13 year old can understand it (this also benefit users that have English as their secondary language).

For older users the primary issue is memory. Memory impacts many mental processes such as planning, learning, decision making, etc., so it is important to present things in a clear way. In web design, guiding older users as they navigate between pages is important since they may forget what pages they have just visited. The two main ways to relieve this are 1) to have a clear navigation structure (with proper highlighting etc.) and 2) usage of conventional link colors (unvisited links are in blue and visited are in purple).

Physical impairment

People with disabilities caused from disease and injury represent the second largest group of impaired users. Similarity to cognitive and learning disabilities, there are a wide range of disabilities in this category. Most of these users have some type of assistive equipment to help them interact with the technology. However, there are still things designers can do to improve their experience. When developing a website, follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), but also try to navigate the site by only using the keyboard. If you are able to navigate the site using the ‘tab’ button, it is likely that the assistive equipment also is able to do it. Another thing to keep in mind is to make sure clickable areas are large enough so that users with disabilities are able to click them easily.

Hearing impairment

About 8.6% of the US population is hearing impaired to some extent (4.3% worldwide) and about 0.2% can’t hear at all. The hearing impaired can interact with most of the technology online since it often relies on vision and not hearing. The main thing required is to produce captions for videos or transcriptions (which also can help screen readers). This also means it may not be the best idea to use videos in an onboarding process, unless you use captions.

Our capacity to hear diminishes significantly as we grow older. 20% of people between 45-54 years have some degree of hearing impairment, but this figure rises to 75% for people between 75-79 years of age. The ability to hear high pitch sounds is affected first, so it is beneficial to use narrators with low pitched voices when speech is used as the mode of communication (Allstate, for example, avoids this problem by using a narrator with a really low pitched voice People who have become hearing impaired later on in life usually don’t know sign language, it is therefore better to provide captions than a sign language translation. Sign language also varies from country to country.

Final Thoughts

As I explained above, the number of people with impairments tends to be vastly underestimated and this population group will continue to increase as the average life expectancy increases. In addition, the subset of severely impaired users are often very loyal to companies that make their lives easier so repeat customers are higher and the churn rate is lower.

My expectations of good designers are that they can both create appealing, trendy designs that users can interact efficiently while taking accessibility into account. This approach will place a limitation on the design to some degree, but it will also make sure the design is not packed with usability issues.

Before dismissing accessibility as an additional expense, really consider what the the cost benefit ratio would be (with a good designer and developer some things are already taken care of) and what additional profit you may gain (increasing population of disabled users).


  1. Web Accessibility- A foundation for research, Simon Harper & Yeliz Yesilada
  2. Engineering Psychology and Human Performance, Christopher D. Wickens & Justin G. Hollands

© David Juhlin and, 2015

Waterfall can be good

Many people advocate agile work methodology, but there are times when the waterfall method is more beneficial. The top things to consider are whether the company has an in-house development team and if the UX team is integrated in it.

Even though it can be difficult to incorporate UX into an agile development process, there are clear benefits to agile development. Since agile basically breaks a project in to many micro projects the main benefit is the ability to respond to market changes and changes in business directions. The overarching idea when incorporating UX into agile is often to have the UX team a few sprints ahead of the developing team which allows the UX team to iterate the design a bit before handing it over to the development team.

However, there are times when it is more beneficial to split the project into two separate projects and revert back to the waterfall method. One example of this is when you don’t have the necessary competencies in-house. For example, an electricity company in Sweden needed a new intranet but they did not have a lot of competency with either UX or coding. At this point most companies would have hired a consultancy that would provide all of the services needed and provide a “functioning system” in the end. We all know how this usually turns out: most of the times the users are neglected and the delivered system is not good enough. The result is to try to fix the issues later on, which results in late and very expensive changes. The reason why this tends to happen is because the purchaser doesn’t know enough about UX and the consultancy can get away with minimal spending on user experience.

Luckily, the energy company in Sweden had a project manager that knew UX and realized he would not have time to make sure the consultancy take all necessary UX steps. The solution for them was to split the project into two distinct phases by sending out two requests for proposal. The first request for proposals was for the system interface and was sent out to different UX consultancies. The goal was to create one clickable prototype without any back-end functionality, but comprehensive enough to clearly communicate the design. Since these companies understood the importance of including users and iterating the design, they discovered unmet needs and additional features they needed to include before it became expensive to make these changes. The final result turned out great and all stakeholders (end users, project managers, project sponsor, etc.) were happy with the interface.

Project split into two distinct phases. Interface design and development

With the interface done, they created the next request for proposals which included the prototype so that all bidders could see exactly what was expected to be delivered and how the system was supposed to work. The benefit was that the developers could get an overview so they could select the right technology/programming language from the start and structure their databases in an efficient way. As an aside, the coding companies also preferred the split proposal method since it decreased their risk (they knew exactly what to build) and they did not have to try to include UX, which was not one of their strengths.

The result was a success and the system worked flawlessly for the users (with some minor bugs) and they did not have to do any late changes. The budgetary split between the two parts of the project was roughly 25% for the first part and 75% for the second part. I believe there are very few consultancies that would take on a contract and allocate 25% of the budget to UX.

When looking into purchasing a system, it can be very tempting to hire one vendor that does all of the work because they charge less, but with all of the late changes that could be necessary, will it really be cheaper in the long run? It can be better to develop the interface first and then ask for proposals, as mentioned earlier. Some industries often purchase out- of-the-box solutions which may have interface limitations. With the split proposal, it is possible to find out what the vendor is unable to build so this can be taken in to consideration when choosing a vendor. They may also suggest their interface solution, which you can evaluate to make sure it is good enough.

The primary benefits of a split project are:

  • Decreases the number of late changes
  • The right technology is decided upon from the start
  • Better estimate of the amount of work required to implement the system

The primary drawbacks are:

  • Significantly increased run time for the project
  • Limits the possibility to account for rapid changes in the business environment
  • Increased upfront investments

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to running projects in a more agile style and overlap different project phases. It is more important to recognize which approach is best for which project (there is none “one fits all”). If you have your UX team and developers in-house and they are working close together, I definitely think you should capitalize on this benefit and run it as agile as possible. The problem is if you outsource the project or if the teams are not considered a unit (you may have internal billing resulting in different goals between the units), you may run into problems.

The final thing to consider is if you are just starting up a UX team in your organization. At this point it may be better to start with a full split between UX design and development. Later on, when everyone gets more used to the process it will be possible to overlap between these two groups. Think of it as, “don’t try to run before you can walk”.

© David Juhlin and, 2015

Ethics in Business and User Experience

Business professionals and user experience professionals regularly engage in discussions of ethics. In this post I will highlight a few key points to keep in mind as well as provide insights about how both parties might approach the conversation a bit differently.

Most ethical discussions arise when there is a trade-off between “making money” and “doing the right thing”, but I want to take a step back and consider how ethics and profit interact from a higher level. I use a simplified model consisting of a 2×2 matrix (see picture), with a business dimension and an ethics dimension. The best quadrant is obviously the top right, where there is a win-win solution that is ethical at the same time as the company is making money. For example, IKEA executes some business practices that are good for the environment while allowing them to save money at the same time. Flat packages mean more furniture in each shipment, resulting in fewer transports. This leads to lower fuel consumption, less emissions and ultimately lower costs.

2x2 matrix, the x-axis has unethical to the left and ethical to the right. the y-axis has making money in the top and losing money in the bottom.

Illustration of quadrants for business and ethics.

The bottom right is the charity quadrant. UX professionals usually end up in this one because they see it as their responsibility to speak up for the users and always do “the right thing”. For example, some companies go the extra mile (beyond the legal requirements) to accommodate for accessibility even if they think they will lose money doing so.

The top left quadrant (profit focus) is most often the subject of business ethics discussions. Should something unethical be done in order to make money? There are an abundance of examples to illustrate this question. The classic example is the car sales man who tries every trick in the book to get the customer’s money.

The bottom left quadrant (lose) is obviously not a place anyone wants to be, since it is both unethical and the company is losing money. No company ever intends to lose money as a result of an unethical decision, but it can happen if they misjudge their customers’ reaction. Consider a scenario when a company is outsourcing their manufacturing to a low-wage country and uses child labor to save money and boost profits (the intention is to end up in the profit focus quadrant). Later on it back fires when consumers find out about the company’s practices, leading to a boycott and resulting in a shift to the bottom left quadrant (lose).

The distinctions between each of the four quadrants are not black and white; there are also gray zones. This is because financial outcomes are always uncertain and because ethical boundaries are not always clear. Consider this list of scenarios. Which ones do you think are unethical?

  • IKEA is promoting their consideration of the environment in their business decisions as if these decisions are solely founded on environmental concerns and not on monetary gain.
  • When searching for funds at, the results page has the Fidelity funds in the top (i.e. not sorted by performance, expenses, etc.), increasing the likelihood that users will choose Fidelity funds.
  • A casino makes gamblers’ exchange money for chips so they lose the sense of “real monetary value”.
  • Some online retailers display “only X left in stock” even if they have more in stock to make it appear as though customers will miss out if they don’t purchase the item immediately.
  • Bakeries pipe air out to the street so people walking by want to come in and purchase goods.
  • Someone is offering to buy your car for fair market value, but you know it has severe defects and should be sold significantly under market value. You still sell your car for the price suggested without disclosing the issues.
  • Airline companies track visitors online and change the price depending on their search/visit behavior instead of actual supply and demand.

As you can see, ethics are not always concrete. When discussing one specific feature/action, one person can see the outcome as ethical while someone else can see it as unethical.

Answering these questions for themselves, many people take the high ground and believe they would behave ethically; unfortunately far too many have poor self-awareness. In a negotiation class in which I was a student, the teacher talked for 1 hour about ethics. Thereafter, it was time for group negotiations. Everyone had confidential information the other party did not know about. The result was astonishing. All ethical considerations had disappeared right away. Rather than disclosing information and acting according to good ethics, most students withheld information intentionally and flat out lied to get the best deal possible.

The class consisted of a mix between business and UX professionals, and there was a tendency for UX professionals to be more transparent, withholding less information and lying less often. If I generalize to the extreme, the business professionals end up in the profit focus corner of the matrix while the UX professionals end up in the charity corner. When working together, it is important to understand where the other side is coming from and that business people are often competitive in nature, causing them to prioritize winning over ethics. Try to understand what is driving the other person and that their decisions and priorities may differ from yours.

For example, I was talking to a business professional who did not think it was unethical for airline companies to set prices based on visitors’ behaviors instead of supply and demand (most visitors think ticket cost is dependent on supply and demand). He believed that this was fair since the airline charges a price (which can change) and the customer can either purchase the ticket or not. Similar to buying any product, the price can vary and in the end the customer can take it or leave it. When I talk to UX professionals, they tend to view this as unethical since there is a lack of transparency. Additionally, business professionals (project sponsors, analysts, etc.) often have a monetary incentive to do more unethical decisions. This is an unfortunate result of evaluating performance primarily on profits.

As a UX professional, It can be hard to make the business case for ethical decisions since the discussions usually surface when there is a discrepancy between profits and ethics (i.e. decisions in the profit focus quadrant and the charity quadrants; those in the lose and win-win quadrant are no-brainers). In order to make a successful business case that merges ethics and profitability, UX professionals need to demonstrate when decisions are actually in the win-win quadrant or the lose quadrant. This is no easy task, but one way is to explain how unethical behavior can have a significant cost in reputation and brand perception, especially if it goes against what the brand’s values. Similarly, unethical behaviors that make the company money in the short-term can potentially damage the brand in the long run. When talking to a business person about an idea they consider to be a charity, it is important to demonstrate when it actually is a win-win. When talking about an idea that is in the profit focus quadrant (unethical), it is important to show that it is actually is in the lose quadrant.

Some additional questions to consider when making the case for the ethical decision can be:

  • Can the charity generate more customers?
  • Can the charity build customer loyalty?

While the tendency exists for UX professionals to reason from an ethical perspective, it is important to be aware of ethics creep. (In the figure, the vertical gray zone is shifted to the left so more outcomes are viewed as win-win or charity.) Every time a person’s ethics are compromised, they rationalize their actions by becoming more flexible in their consideration of what is ethical. This is done subconsciously to protect the person’s view of themselves since most people want to identify with strong ethical standards and avoid cognitive dissonance.

As I mentioned earlier, people can have different views of what is unethical. Here are some ways for you to evaluate whether you think a decision is ethical or not.

  • Could you tell your mom, children, mentor, etc. about your decision without feeling ashamed?
  • Would you be OK if it was on the front page in the newspaper?

Another way to think about it is regarding the intent. If the intent is only to benefit the company, the action is most likely unethical. On the other hand, just because the intent is to benefit someone else, the action may still not be ethical. For example, playing classical music at the entrance of a train station resulted in a reduction in drunken teenagers spending their weekend nights there. This benefitted other travelers, but probably resulted in the teenagers went somewhere else to drink. The new place might be less safe for the teenagers as well as they may cause more problems at the new place compared to the train station. In this case, some may argue it would have been more ethical not to play the classical music.

Ethics is a fuzzy topic and people view it very differently depending on their background. When discussing a decision with ethical considerations, it is therefore important to understand the other person’s point of view while understanding that the final goal often is similar. Everyone wants to ensure that the company remains sustainable while maintaining a satisfied customer base.

Special thanks to Joshua Rosenberg for providing feedback and helping me clarify my thoughts.

© David Juhlin and, 2015

New tool from Optimal Workshop

Optimal Workshop will launch a new tool in June (2015), but they are still keeping the details and features of the tool a secret. I have high hopes regarding the tool since I think I know what it will be.

Some of you may know that Optimal Workshop acquired UXpunk a bit over a year ago (I think it was February 2014). My suspicions are that they are integrating some of the UXpunk features into their suite of tools. If I remember correctly, the main feature UXpunk had that Optimal lacked was a method of creating website navigation elements (utility, primary navigation and footer navigation) so they could be tested.

This feature, Plainframe, was a hybrid between a first click test and a tree test. It allowed the participant to click utility links at the top of the page or footer links at the bottom and record it as a first click. At the same time, if the participant clicked the primary navigation, it dropped down and showed sub levels of the navigation (similar to a tree test) and the participant would indicate where in the navigation they expected to find the information. Below is an image where I tried to recreate the look of Plainframe as I remembered it:

Example of how I remembered Plainframe looking like for the participant

Example of how I remembered Plainframe looking like for the participant

When I used Plainframe I felt it was missing a few key features and I hope Optimal has addressed these over the one-year period of integrating the tool into their suite. The main issue I had was the lack of customization of the primary navigation menu. For example, it was not possible to use a megamenu or place the second level menu to the left as a side bar, or as tabs below the primary menu.

I am really looking forward to this new tool since the other Optimal Workshop products are great. They are easy to use and it is easy to analyze the results, which also has improved with their recent redesign of their analysis pages. I guess their recent redesign of the analysis also might have been a step towards integrating Plainframe.

If you want the check out their teaser page for the new tool and have the chance to win a free 5 year subscription, visit the following link .

© David Juhlin and, 2015

When should participants consist of a mix between genders?

People with a marketing background have been drilled to make sure there is a perfect mix of participants in the test sample to represent the larger user population they are interested in. In user experience, however, it is often possible to get by with a more lenient recruitment strategy. One of the criteria that can often be relaxed is gender.


Men and women can have different perceptions of a brand, different behaviors in their morning routines, different attitudes towards certain sports, etc., but they typically interact with technology in the same way. For example, if men struggle to understand the available balance in their checking account, we can be fairly sure that women would also have issues with this task. Similarly, if females are successful in making an purchase online, men are likely to succeed as well.

Nevertheless, there are some exceptions to this ‘rule’. I have conducted many usability tests and the only time I encountered variations in performance between genders was when we tested a setup of a hardware similar to a printer. Participants were instructed to unpack it from a box and set it up so that they could control it from their smartphone. The box contained an Ethernet cable that was not required for the set up (it was in the box because there may have been some odd cases when it might have been needed). We observed that women read the instructions before they started to plug in all the cables, and realized that the Ethernet cable was not necessary. Around half of the men ignored the instructions and immediately started to plug in all of the available cables, including the unnecessary Ethernet cable.

Some of the men just left the cable hanging from the printer like a tail, while others were determined to plug it in somewhere. One participant found our router (our lab equipment had been moved off to the side in the lab) and plugged it in there. To make sure it did not happen again, we had to hide the router. Another participant saw an Ethernet outlet on the wall and plugged it in there. We had to place a ‘post it’ note on the outlet to hide it. Another male participant plugged the Ethernet cable into the computer we had moved off to the side. We tried to block all of these inputs with cables. Another male came in with his own laptop (he just randomly had it with him) and plugged it into his own laptop. This kept on happening throughout testing and it seemed as nothing we did could prevent the male participants’ from trying to plug in the cable somewhere. We also tried to get the point across by wrapping a tag around the Ethernet cable that said “optional”. Unfortunately, even this was unsuccessful, and the tag ended up being torn off and tossed in the trash before the male participants even read it.

Another example of where gender may have an impact is with fashion or gender-specific items. For example, men probably don’t categorize shoes in as many narrow categories as women might. A man may look at a shoe and say it’s a “flat” or a “heel”, whereas some women can readily categorize a “heel” into “wedge”, “peep toe”, “espadrille”, “pump”, etc.

When recruiting users for testing, always try to get a mix of genders, but don’t put too much emphasis on it unless it is expected that there will be a difference in interaction style between the genders. There are often other criteria that are much more important such as technical expertise and domain expertise. In the shoe example, for instance, women are more likely to have more domain expertise, but there may still be some men who have equal expertise and would have the same type of interaction with the website.

© David Juhlin and, 2015