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What the oldest joke in the book can tell us about UX design

What the oldest joke in the book can tell us about UX design

“A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good”. — Martin Leblanc  

A new addition to our virtual team dashboard is the best and worst gags of the week,. (Can you tell we’ve been missing award ceremonies?).

Just last week I was victim to being snowblind to a gag.

I was right in the thick of award entries and popped a note to let the rest of the team know we have successfully submitted a Drum Award when I was met with Andrew’s clever response.

screenshot of slack

 If the gag wasn’t bad enough, as it turns out, I didn’t even pick up on it and responded with a generic note.

screenshot of mel's slack 

It wasn’t until the end of the week when the conversation made its way to the dashboard that I realised Andrew’s response was intended to be a joke (sorry Andrew!).

 It got me thinking about the similarities between jokes and user interfaces.

When someone shares a joke, they expect a chuckle in return but when met with confusion (or even worse, no response) it feels awkward for everyone. When they have to explain the joke and the context it no longer seems funny. 

It just doesn’t work.

UX design and the oldest joke in the book

The earliest jokes we have records of are, somewhat unsurprisingly, about sex and farting but their core elements remain the same as today’s best one–liners. Take for example the world’s oldest recorded joke, from ancient Sumeria around 1900 BCE:

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

At its core, this joke works because it subverts expectations.

The set–up of the joke is worded to make it seem like we are about to learn a profound truth of the human condition but the twist comes with an incongruously banal fact. This ‘fact’ further breaks the social expectation of appropriate ‘ladylike’ behaviour (this sentence should be read with a liberal pinch of salt).

The user experience of a poorly designed website or digital project has a similar narrative structure:

The set–up – A user is frustrated by a problem but finds a website that purports to solve this very problem

The twist – The website does not perform as expected

The punchline – The user leaves even more frustrated than before


The power of expectation

When visitors use your website or digital product, the promise of what the button, form, page or overall site does should match the expected outcomes of the majority of those users. 

In that way, they do not become more frustrated by their experience, leave unsatisfied and potentially, think negatively of your brand or organisation. 

We see it often in sites that move too quickly to the ‘sell.’ If the call to action on your page is ‘find out more about this product’ users are not expecting to go straight to a form asking them to book a demo with a sales consultant. In this way, expectations are broken and the user, who was simply gathering information, leaves more frustrated than ever. 

The language on your site should be plain–speaking, clear and intentional and based on thorough research of your user’s motivations, expectations and the context of their usage. 

Common methods we might employ  to thoroughly understand a user’s expectations before we embark on any actual design work would include:  

  1. Competitor / comparator research
  2. Field research
  3. One to one user interviews
  4. Quantitative surveys
  5. Usability testing
  6. Heat map analysis/tracking on existing sites/products

These methods will help you design functionality and content based on a deeper understanding of your user’s motivations and their expectations of performance. 

For more detail on planning, creating and distributing content designed to reach, convert and retain users, sign–up for our free UX Bites Webinar on 8th September.  

If done correctly, your user should simply ‘get it’ and be able to navigate and perform actions on your website or product in an intuitive way which inevitably leads to the fulfilment of your mutual goals.

And that is no laughing matter.

By Melissa Boyle

UX Director

Mel has over seven years of experience managing digital projects and driving tangible results for clients.

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