Men & women, usability & blame

A recent MySpace sign-up problem reminded me: men and women react differently to software and usability problems.

I first learned this when doing a usability study with theUEgroup in San Jose. Tony Fernandes, the principal and founder, told me that when men encounter problems, they tend to think it’s the fault of the site or software that they are using. On the other hand, women tend to think the the fault lies with them.

We saw this over and over again in our two days of testing. It was a site that was intended for women, and it had been designed by me – male – and built by a few developers who, yes, were also male. We brought in women to test the site, and sitting in a nearby room looking at the video monitors, saw the same thing again and again and again:

  • “I think I’m doing something wrong.”
  • “I’m sorry, I’m not very good with computers.”
  • “Did I do something that I wasn’t supposed to?”

The site was in a fairly early state of production, and it had gaping holes in it that these women were finding – and then blaming themselves for. “I’m sorry” was a fairly constant refrain.

In fact, as I recall, we eventually made over 40 significant changes to the site based on the findings of the usabilty study. They weren’t all technical and programming: some of them were simple wording or order switches. But all were significant. Somehow, though, the women were blaming themselves for our problems.

Lucky us, in a sense. But if the people using our site could not create the products that we wanted them to create and then purchase them, were were sunk. Unlucky us.

Situational versus dispositional
This reminds me of university psychology: situational versus dispositional attribution.

Situational attribution assigns blame or praise based on the environment. Example: she succeeded because she was with a great company. He failed because the economy was really tough.

Dispositional attribution, on the other hand, assigns blame or praise based on personal characteristics. Example: He succeeded because he’s smart. She failed because she made too many mistakes.

Men are more likely, on average, to make dispositional attributions. Women are more likely, on average, to make situational attributions. This is a big generalization, and I don’t fit the mold myself, every time. But I think on balance, it holds true.

Which has interesting consequences for the software and sites we build, and the people we build them for.

[tags] usability, theUEgroup, tony fernandes, women, men, situational, dispositional, websites, software, design, psychology, john koetsier [/tags]