The drop down that made me cry

An anecdote from a user research session where the options provided weren't suitable for the participant in question.

We talk a lot about emotion in user research.

For example, to what extent a customer is satisfied, confident, secure or comfortable using a product or service is essential to knowing how successful it is.

However I recently had a participant whose reaction to a dropdown menu brought me and the client to tears. The lesson I learned is valuable for any company who wants to build a long-term and valuable relationship with their customers.

We were researching an online account-opening journey for a bank, which for most is a relatively emotionally subtle experience.  The participant was a retired woman in her late 60s. She was recruited specifically because we wanted to understand how retired people would experience the journey.

The conversation went like this:

Me: When you’re opening a new current account, what options would you choose in the ‘About you’ section?

[Participant fills out most fields then pauses on the marital status drop down]

Participant: I’m not sure how I can answer this one.

Me: Why?

Participant: Well. My husband passed away recently from a heart attack. He was right in front of me. So, to choose ‘Surviving spouse’ is an emotional thing. I’m now single. So I’d rather be seen as single.

The key thing she said at this point was: “I’d rather be seen as…”. This is important for reasons that became clearer as the research continued.

Me: So we’re on the employment status section now. Which option best applies to you?

Participant: This one. [Participant chooses ‘Part-time employee’]

Me: That’s interesting. You mentioned earlier that you were retired. So why did you choose this option?

Participant: [Long pause. Sigh.] Well, I don’t usually like to talk about this. But since my husband passed I’ve needed to keep myself busy and strong for myself and for my children. I’ve been so close to having a breakdown, but now I feel strong. It helps me get by.

As I wiped the tears away, I came to realise that although her situation was sad, it highlighted a fundamental problem with how this company, like so many others, fail to listen properly to their customers and design solutions accordingly.

The issue for this participant wasn’t that she couldn’t choose an option, or didn’t want to share the fact she was a retired widow, it was that she could only choose one option. And in only being able to choose one option she opted in both cases - marital and employment status – to select the option which represented how she wanted to be seen.

The conversation with the client then went something like this:

Me: So can’t we make these checkboxes rather than a single option dropdown? If she wants to accurately describe herself, let her select more than one option.

Client: Unfortunately, the system requires the user to choose one primary option, so we can’t have multiple selections.

Me: That feels like a problem to me.

Client: It’s just the way the system is.

And here lies the lesson from this story:

The real challenge here is not only to design a user-friendly interface for a new bank account, it’s to design an entire system with the customer experience in mind.

This is one of the biggest challenges facing large organisations with legacy systems and processes. It’s not that banks – or other organisations – don’t want to make their customers feel special, but more often than not the whole business needs to adapt in order to achieve this.

If the UI is the customer-facing part of a service or product, and the system is what supports it, the customer experience needs to be considered at every stage of product delivery; not just the customer-facing part. User research is more than just validating and iterating designs; it’s about getting those key insights that can transform the way an entire business thinks about its customers.

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