The Second Law of UX. Nielsen’s law from 2000 stands as the… | by Rick Monro | Oct, 2021

Tool soup is a term I first heard when designing for developer experience.

The phrase describes an extensive and disparate toolset relied on to get a range of work done.

It also implies a sense of struggle and competing priorities. This context-switching has been accredited with up to 80% drops in productivity.

But tool soup is not the exclusive domain of developers. It’s a daily reality for all of us.

At work, we leverage multiple tools to communicate and collaborate, to document and produce. At home, we use apps and websites to shop, manage our money, perhaps engage with public services.

We all deal our own variety of tool soup, whether as professionals, customers, or consumers.

This context partly informed the ‘first’ law of UX, introduced by usability guru Jakob Nielsen in 2000:

“Users spend most of their time on other sites.”

By this, Nielsen means that users will prefer a website to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. Don’t, for instance, reinvent familiar interactions when all people want is something recognisable to work with.

We should acknowledge a second, equally impactful truth in our software-saturated and time-poor world:

Most of your users would rather be doing something else.

Very few enterprises or startups may want to admit it but, far from offering an irresistible or unique experience to users, their products are vying for attention with the biggest names in digital: Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, and more.

I would often begin client meetings with a statement that their product — be it an app, a website, or software — was competing with Facebook. Despite initial and understandable resistance, eventually, the penny would drop. Their users would rather be doing something else.

One telco I worked with had decided to include a game as a feature in their customer app. They somehow developed an expectation that customers would check their data limit, maybe top up their account… and then want to play a third rate game. Even when a vastly superior option was probably just a thumb stretch away on the same device.

This is the kind of delusion that organisations can get themselves into — genuinely believing that people want to spend time on their app as an end in itself.

“The scarce resource in the 21st century will not be technology. It will be attention.” Mark Weiser, former CTO, Xerox PARC

Time spent interacting with an app or a website is an investment on someone’s part. They expect a return on that investment, whether in a tangible result — say an item bought online — or through realized ambitions and goals achieved. Are there exceptions to this? Yes, but they are few and far between.

People will love your product if it allows them to effortlessly achieve mundane tasks and then get back to whatever they would prefer to be doing.

This is a humbling prospect for designers. What you design is just one thing amongst dozens of others that people will interact with throughout their day. Do you want to elevate the experience you create and make it a differentiator? Of course you do. This will be achieved by facilitating goals in a much easier and intuitive way than any competitor.

If you are short on context for your product or service, work with this default: users need to get too much done in a finite amount of time. They are wading through tool soup.

Assume your users would rather be doing something else, and your product experience will be better for it.

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