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Why Won’t You Just Press That Button?

Understanding Why Users Work in Unexpected Ways

Each week I spend a few hours on our Help Desk answering questions (mostly while wearing headphones and accidentally singing out loud when I forget I’m with other people). Many of the tickets I troubleshoot fall into three main categories:

  1. Someone skipped a step and now we’ve got an annoying loop going.

  2. Field X is supposed to be filled in, but someone managed to override it on hundreds of records.

  3. I need to reverse this weird thing someone else did.

With the pool of experienced users on staff and the seemingly infinite amounts of documentation both users and developers create, it’s easy to wonder why users are interacting with applications in ways that diverge from detailed descriptions of how certain tasks should be accomplished. In my experience, users (including myself) do unexpected things when encountering resistance during their attempts to power through their work and get their job done. So why does it keep happening and what can you do about it?

1. Processes Are Over-Documented

TRANSLATION: There Are 20 Pages Of Instructions, So I’ll Just Wing It

If I don’t know how to do something, my first instinct is to check the online instructions (yes, I’m *that* person). But let’s be honest, if those instructions require me to dig through page after page to find the nugget I need, or simply aren’t easily accessible, I’m opting out and making my best guess as to what needs to happen.

During implementation phases, many sites dedicate a significant amount of resources to documenting internal processes. Hundreds of screenshots are taken. Instructions are carefully specified. Exceptions to any rule we can think of are added “just in case”. In the end, relatively simple processes get obscured under all of the “what if” scenarios. Rather than risk users getting bogged-down digging through hundreds of detailed steps, try having a concise summary with a limited number of short, clear instructions. Include a note with a departmental contact for the rare occasion when a user truly isn’t sure how to proceed. Keeping things simple is often enough to help guide users through a task.


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