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Image by SIMON LEE
  • Writer's pictureantoniodellomo

Novice and Expert Users

This article explores the differences and similarities between novice and expert users of interactive artifacts. Web usability has focused on ease of learning for the new visitor. While learnability remains important, it is time to also consider expert performance. This makes great sense and should continue to be the main goal but It is time to take expert user performance more seriously on the Web.

All systems have a common problem: new users should understand how to work with the system. This is a matter of usability. In most cases, systems should support two types of users: Novice and Expert. Novice knows a little and the system should guide him or her. The expert knows a lot and the system should help him to perform frequent tasks fast, with fewer clicks and fewer reloads. Let’s take a look at how the expert user differentiates him or herself from the novice user:

  • Focus on efficiency and speed: For the expert user efficiency is much more important than learnability. This is because the user has already invested the time needed to learn to use it the tool, and this is a one-time investment. What is now relevant is efficiency and productivity. In other words, the tasks must be completed as fast as possible without errors. Therefor efficiency will often be a more prominent criterion for the expert user than the basic ease of use.

  • Keyboard: Expert users are reluctant to use the mouse for repetitive and frequent tasks. It is simply too slow (and not very good for the hands). They will rather learn a set of shortcuts and keyboard commands – even though these can be complex and hard to memorize.

  • Overview: Expert users look for oppportunities to oversee large amounts of data in relation to each other or in context of other factors.

  • Control: The expert user wants to feel in complete control over his or her work. This is an important success criteria that also effects the pleasurability of the application. This means that the more feeling in control, the more they like the experience.

Design guidelines

The dilemma between designing for novices versus experts still comes to me as one of the most challenging ones in interaction design. Here are some of the design guidelines I have picked up along the way:

  • It is not always wise to just give the user what they want (ie. crowded UI’s) because even though the user is an expert in the domain, he/she is not a UX designer. Listen to the user’s requests, and meet their needs in the best possible ways – but not necessarily how they think it should be done. And be sure to test early prototypes to see if alternative solutions will work.

  • Design for the learning experience by specifically addressing scenarios in which the user discovers and learns about the application for the first time. Bear in mind that the user will return after this first experience, so they can build upon this first experience and their knowledge about how the application works.

  • Count the number of mouse clicks and keyboard presses and optimize this parameter to make the application as efficient as possible. Additionally, you can measure the speed of actions, the number of screens involved in a task, and so on.

  • Design for realistic scenarios. This includes interruptions (which will often occur in real work-life), the specific work environment, as well as colleague/customer interaction during interaction with the application.

  • Include use of mobile devices when this adds value to the expert user. For example, users will often want to check on statuses and events on their mobile phones before and after work hours.

  • When there are both experts and beginners using the app, the UX designer must address both groups. This might mean creating 2 different UI’s or using progressive disclosure to reveal more information bit by bit.

The fun side

Remember Jakob's Law of the Internet user experience: users spend most of their time on sites other than yours. Thus, users rarely learn enough about any given site to become truly expert users.

Every user should have a great first experience that will make them learn to understand and use the software, followed by a pleasant learning period that leads into expert usage without problems or breakdowns on the way. And none of this can be achieved without applying the principle of simplicity to the user experience wherever this is possible.


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