I think I was six, which would have made my brother four. We were avid fans of The Hulk TV series, starring Lou Ferrigno. My dad, like most 70s dads I suspect, had a crush on Lou because he was manly and buff. For my brother and me, though, we just loved that he was green, wore purple pants, and beat the shit out of bad guys for doing bad things.
One day my dad tells us that the Hulk is going to be at this toy store near our house and that we can go meet him. While I don’t recall my exact thoughts, I believe it was a solid blend of excitement and fear. I mean, meeting the Hulk would be amazing. I just wanted to make sure I had properly cleansed myself of sin so I wouldn’t become his next victim.
So the big day arrives. We climb into my dad’s giant man-truck and head down to the toy store. We wait in line for a really long time with all of these other kids. Mostly boys. There weren’t too many girls there because, you know, in the 70s girls weren’t really encouraged to like superheroes and their fathers didn’t really bring them to toy stores to meet the Hulk.
It was a super-hot day, which likely elevated the tense atmosphere. When I feel like I’ve had enough of the metal box we’re in, with its sun-welcoming windows and its lack of air conditioning, I turn around and see him. The Hulk. He’s walking down the aisle towards us. But before I can complete the task of getting my father’s attention, with a sentence still tucked inside my mouth, my father enters a metamorphosis. His muscles flex, his clothes get ripped, and he turns bright green (figuratively, of course), before beginning a rampage about what he, too, has seen before us.
This is where our unified experience split at the seams — like the Hulk’s purple pants — sending us into two different realities. Two different experiences. Even though we were in the same room, at the same time, witnessing the same event.
My father was expecting Lou Ferrigno. My brother and I were expecting a green monster in purple shorts. The result was some other muscle dude in a Hulk costume. So while my brother and I were delighted (and also a little terrified) my father was left feeling ripped off by some click-bait advertising — metaphorically speaking. Our experiences were different because of our expectations. Reverse the expectations, and the experiences swing 180º.
Expectations and the Subjectivity of Usability
Our expectations create subjective biases that can drive our experiences. Psychologists and scientists have proven this with placebo pills and studies into the human psyche around topics such as anxiety/fear. Even when we proceed into the unknown, we conjure up ideas about what might manifest.
As UX practitioners, we can’t always predict what mindset people will be in when they use our product, even when we conduct extensive research. We can arrive at some general conclusions, but this isn’t wholly inclusive. And this subjectivity tends to shape the usability of a product.
Take, for example, some expectations for the US Soccer mobile app that was recently released. I was the Senior Experience Designer on the project. After it was released in the App Store, I decided to read some reviews to see what people thought. Much to my disappointment, there were nearly as many ratings with 1 star as those with 5.
I thought we nailed it. So why the low ratings? Why did we irritate almost as many people as we delighted? Most of the people were upset about data/compatibility bugs. While important in its own right, my immediate focus was on the features and the overall experience. I wanted to know where we fell short of delight and usefulness.
Expectations seemed to be at the heart of the disparity. Take, for example, these two conflicting reviews:
Smrrva (on the left) was delighted because it met their expectations of using the app as a broadcast surrogate and afforded them unique data visualizations. Imaclutz89 (on the right), on the other hand, was disappointed because they expected to see a feature that wasn’t present.
Here we have two USWNT soccer fans auditing a soccer app featuring the USWNT. One ranked its usability favorably while the other gave it a thumbs down. They each had different expectations going in, and this colored their unique experiences. Their expectations directly influenced their perception of the app’s usability.
Expecting Lou Ferrigno and Getting Some Dude
While it’s not possible to accommodate everyone’s expectations, we can oblige more of them with meaningful research at the beginning of a project. The value of this UX research is pivotal because it helps us break down our ideas and assumptions into real-world data.
There are two types of research that help define what features people will want to see in a product: generative research and evaluative research. The former helps us draft a list of features that we can build and subsequently test using the latter (ideally in iterative cycles). This enables us to validate our ideas by aligning them with what people actually want.
I don’t actually know what the advertisement looked like in the case of the toy store meet-and-greet. Ruling out, for a moment, that my father misinterpreted the advertisement he saw, we can assume that it was in some way misleading. Perhaps the marketing team was incompetent. Perhaps it was a dark pattern. In any case, it undoubtedly influenced people’s expectations.
Research would have shown that this event’s target audience was kids. Kids were Hulk fans. But it also would have shown that kids would be chaperoned to the event by their 70s dad. 70s dads were Lou Ferrigno fans. So the event would need to be clear in how it created expectations.
My brother and I weren’t susceptible to the influence of any designer’s expectations. Had we seen a commercial while watching Fat Albert, our expectations would have been driven by the ad. But we only had the word of our father; simplified and open to interpretation.
My father discovered that we could see “The Hulk,” and combined that with his knowledge of what “The Hulk” actually meant to him: Lou Ferrigno. He told us that we were going to see “The Hulk,” and we combined this with our knowledge of what “The Hulk” actually meant to us: a green monster in purple shorts.
Together we were playing the telephone game in defining what this event would be for us. Generative research, such as end-user interviews, would have unearthed these variations. It also may have influenced how the event was promoted or even changed the event itself. Perhaps the people really wanted Lou, and they would have partnered with him to make it happen. These are the ideas that research helps us manifest.
Expectations are an important part of understanding our target audience. It’s the difference between designing “Lou Ferrigno” and “a green monster in purple pants.” And UX research helps us get there.