By Andrew Mayfield


All the things in all the right places at Optimal Workshop’s office in New Zealand.

I lost my wallet recently. It was in my pocket and then mysteriously wasn’t anymore, so I spent at least 20 minutes actively looking for it before getting back to business and leaving it up to the universe. But the thought kept tugging at me — where is that damn thing?

The crisis was eventually averted, you’ll be pleased to know. I got my wallet back — but what I’ll never get back is the time I lost looking for it.

Wasted time by the numbers

Amongst the cool cats, the web’s got some cool stats about the cost of lost things, especially about the cost of missing information for knowledge workers. A US survey showed that looking for misplaced items in the office took up an estimated 38 working hours (or close to one week) per person per year.

Another research team attempted to quantify the cost of lost information in a typical enterprise of a thousand knowledge workers. The research established that time spent looking for lost information could cost the enterprise $6 million a year, and time spent recreating information cost a further $12 million a year. Yikes!

And what about time wasted looking for things online? One study found online searchers were successful 50% of the time or less. Another found that only 21% of respondents found the information they needed 85% to 100% of the time. And there are thousands of anecdotal stories online about bad user experiences, many of them lamenting the time it takes to complete tasks.

People make do — but should they have to?

Now, we humans are adaptable. When a task is even a little challenging, we use heuristics — mental shortcuts or rules-of-thumb — to get it done with minimal effort. And a bunch of fascinating research by the Nielson Norman Group shows that these shortcuts are in overdrive when it comes to using the web.

Research published by the Group says we have a limited amount of ‘brain power’ available when we use websites, so we save our energy by scanning information and predicting where we’ll find things. We rely on mental models that tell us what we can expect to see where on a website, and that create confusion for us when our expectations aren’t met. Granted, we do tend to settle for a ‘good enough’ answer if we can’t find the answer we’re looking for — a practice described by psychologists as ‘satisficing’. But satisficing does not a great user experience make.

Ultimately, most time wasted looking for things is a result of them not being where they should be. Which raises the question — where exactly should things be?

Where the people who need the things think they should be, of course.

Putting things in place

Experience design does for the web what a well-organized LAN drive or a fastidious office manager would do for the offices losing millions: it aims to put things in the places people instinctively expect to find them. Now, there are no official stats about how much time experience designers have saved people. So I ran my own thought experiment to demonstrate the potential cumulative impact of reducing wasted human endeavor.

Experience designers respect people’s time in three ways. They conduct user research to understand where best to put all the things their users are looking for. They ‘get out of the way’ — they remove distractions and obstacles and make it easy to get things done. And when they do want to engage people’s attention for longer, they choreograph delightful, informative experiences that make for time well invested rather than wasted — experiences much like this! Enjoy.

About the Author

Andrew Mayfield PhotoAndrew Mayfield lives in Wellington, New Zealand where he is CEO at . Optimal Workshop provides online tools for measuring usability, testing information architecture, and discovering mental models.