People see things differently. We know that everyone experiences reality through the filter of his or her own experiences, culture, environment and biology. We know this intellectually, but we’re also trapped in our own perceptions and preconceptions. We take for granted that what we see or think is the way things actually exist.

The current foofaraw over the color of a dress demonstrates what happens when we encounter this phenomenon. It’s shocking that someone else can perceive something so differently than we do. Hopefully when this happens it makes you question your assumptions. It makes you stop to reconsider just what is real, rather than jumping to the conclusion that the other person is “wrong”.

The first time I tried a little ad hoc user research I was shocked that an icon that we thought was a natural choice was offensive to a potential website user. It was 1995, and I was working for an ad agency in Los Angeles. We had convinced a client that they needed a website for one of their cat food brands.

The website we designed had six sections; one of which was a Bulletin Board on which cat lovers could share stories and photos of their furry friends. We thought it would bring people to the brand by building an online community long before anyone talked about viral marketing – but I digress.

After attending an interactive design conference in San Francisco, I was inspired to try a little usability test as described by Jakob Nielsen from his work at Sun Microsystems. We had come up with a series of icons for each section of the website, so I decided to try them out on a few potential users. I gleefully roamed the office, seeking colleagues who owned cats to ask their impressions of what each icon might represent. The icon the designers all liked for the Bulletin Board was an illustration of a pushpin stuck into a yellow note.

After talking with five or six people, we seemed to be on the right track. Then I showed the icons to a woman who had a framed picture of two yellow cats on her desk. When she saw the one of the pushpin, she looked horrified and gasped. I couldn’t imagine what she found so upsetting. “You can’t use that one,” she said. “I would never have a pushpin in my house. What if my cats found it on the floor and swallowed it?” Woah! I was instantly hooked on user testing.

In the same way we couldn’t have predicted that the icon might be offensive, I would never have questioned that the dress wasn’t white and gold until someone brought it to my attention. Challenging perceptions and preconceptions is just one of the many reasons we do user research at Catalyst Group. Designers often make assumptions they are not even aware of. This is why they ask us to talk with the people they care about most: the ones who will use their websites or apps, and ultimately determine the success or failure of the design.

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