Every time I go shopping or spend time in bookstore or any other retail environment I witness a scenario that gives me a chuckle: a shopper enters the store or is found wandering around by the store’s sales associate…

Sales associate: Can I help you today?
Customer: Oh, no, I’m just looking.
Sales associate: Okay, just let me know if I can help. (smiles and turns away)
Customer: Thanks. Oh, …where are your home improvement books?

…and I smile and shake my head. It’s always the same and I see it every time I’m out shopping.

The lesson in that little scene is central to understanding not just the retail business, but also design and branding and any other endeavor where the purpose is to interact with or convince people of something. Did you get the lesson? If not, let me hit you over the head: the lesson is that it’s your job to convince people that your service or the results of your service is their idea, not yours.

But the scene above is spoken in code. Let me translate it by stripping away the pretense:

Sales associate: Can I help you today?
Customer: Ha! I don’t need help. I’m an independent and perfectly capable person. What, you think I can’t find what I’m looking for without help from the likes of you? Jeez, I wish these places didn’t have sales associates. It would make my shopping so much more pleasant and less stressful.
Sales associate: Okay, I’m available to you when you change your mind. I’ll also be keeping an eye on you in case you try and steal something. (smiles and turns away)
Customer: Whatever, glad that’s over. Hey, where are you going? Now that we’ve established that I’m a perfectly capable person who needs no one’s help, could you direct me to what I’m looking for so that I don’t have to wander around here looking forever? I’m a busy person, you know. Good thing you were here when I wanted (not needed) you.

Before I leapt fulltime into the design profession I spent about 20 years in a couple of customer service-oriented industries. If you do that and you’re paying attention at all you learn a few things about human behavior. The lessons I learned in those jobs stand me in good stead as a designer.

This is why one cannot be a competent web designer without understanding basic human behavior.

For instance, there’s more than one lesson in the above scenario. A fundamental component of the lesson is that that it’s not enough to just solve people’s problems while allowing them to believe the solution was their idea. You have to anticipate needs and problems and ensure that they’re met/solved before they actually become consequential.

For instance, take the scene above and imagine that instead of the sales associate approaching the customer, the customer had to go and find the sales associate to ask for help. First of all, few customers will do this. Most prefer to leave without asking. But if the customer does ask, they’ll be disappointed that the sales associate didn’t first offer help. Either way, it translates into a bad experience and perhaps no return visit.

So what does any of this have to do with design? Well, it’s a facet of the idea that design is problem solving. The problem solving part comes in the design process, before users or customers enter the picture, not after the fact. More precisely, design is problem anticipation and solution. In order to be successful, we designers have to anticipate the problems that could arise and solve them before the user has any problem.

This is why one cannot be a competent web designer without understanding basic human behavior. I know that online behavior would seem to be the more relevant issue, but It’s not necessarily so. As designers we have to begin with the fundamentals of human behavior and, additionally, narrow our focus to online behaviors in the design process. Yes, while we need to know how different people use the web under certain circumstances and what sorts of challenges are inherent in interacting with web pages, these behaviors are rooted in the fundamentals of human perception and typical habits (and are all tempered by context).

So if you’re a designer and you’ve not studied psychology or the diversity of gender, social and cultural norms, get busy; you’ve got a lot of work to do. You can’t anticipate what you’re not aware of or don’t understand.

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This is the personal soap box and playground of Andy Rutledge, principal and chief design strategist at UNIT. A sampling of some of my previous Web design work can be found in my portfolio site.

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