Mountain biking, misdirection and peanut butter sandwiches

Recently I took part in a 30 mile mountain bike ride. It was quite a challenge and on reflection made me think about not only my cycling ability but also user experience design… naturally!

This post explains how I’ve made the tenuous leap from mountain biking to UX and then to my thoughts on Jared Spool’s lunch.

My DorsetDirt experience


The annual event is a challenging loop around Dorset starting and finishing in Dorchester. Having grown up in the area the route looked pretty straight forward, the ride not too competitive, and on the day the weather was perfect.

I forgot to pick up an OS map before leaving home but made the assumption, based on previous experiences, that on registering for the event I would be given a route map, so wasn’t too worried. On arriving at the start no maps were available, only written instructions. The directions seemed clear but without a map or prior knowledge of the route I couldn’t be sure. I settled on the tactic of following the herd and for the first half of the ride it worked nicely. I simply made sure I stuck like glue to a decent sized group of riders and let them do the navigating.

As I reached the halfway checkpoint it became apparent that I was near the front and the only people leaving were in ones and twos. My plan to follow the herd looked like it might fail. I latched onto the biggest group I could find. At the first junction we stopped and asked each other ‘where next?’ We started making regular little mistakes, so I turned to the instructions for guidance in an attempt to figure it out for myself. Before long the group had split up and I was riding on my own. I was pretty sure I was on the right course but riding alone made my confidence drop.

The last instruction on the sheet before the penultimate checkpoint was to turn down a steep hill towards a Friary. After 2 miles of cycling I realised I had taken a wrong turn. I blamed myself for it and headed back in the opposite direction. After a short distance I met 2 other riders who had made the same mistake. I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one. We turned down the next junction we came to and rode for another couple of miles. We soon came across another group of riders all studying the instructions. We were all lost and couldn’t figure out how. Within a couple of minutes 2 more riders turned up from a completely different direction to the rest of us. We were all pretty tired and being so lost was starting to annoy all of us. We were in a steep sided valley and through one wrong turn we were having to ride up and down the valley to find the correct path out which made the ride all the more tiring.

We read back through the instructions one last time and I realised that the instruction to ‘turn right down a steep hill to the Friary’ was actually just a comment ‘there is a right turn down a steep hill to the Friary’. We had all made the same mistake and the error had cost us time and energy and had negatively impacted on our experience.

Clear sign posting

In retrospect my experience had a lot in common with issues I often see people face when taking part in user research.  Each time I made a mistake, however small, I instantly blamed myself and with each error my frustration grew.  I blamed my poor preparation, which in the case of the ride is probably quite fair, but conversely if my preconceptions were commonly held, that preparation wasn’t necessary,  then it should be catered for. An good online example of this is the application for a UK Driving License. It’s a legal document and you’d expect to have to submit some official information, but not necessarily what sort. The first step of the process deals with this well, it clearly explains who can apply and what is need to complete the application.


DirectGov lays out clear instructions at the start

During the ride the errors at first were slight and easily corrected but as the ride progressed my confidence dropped and I had a strong feeling I was the only person that had made mistakes. I’ve witnessed this regularly in usability testing, however much a system is at fault people will often blame themselves and believe that they’re alone in making it. It’s often not until you witness someone else make the same mistake that your confidence is reassured. When I took the wrong turn I felt far more confident when I saw another rider, even if they didn’t know the right way either, at least I wasn’t the only one!

“Any good global navigation scheme should, at a glance, answer the top three questions every user has at the back of their mind.” Derek Powazek

The lack of a route map wasn’t the only problem, the route wasn’t sign-posted either which meant even when you were on the right track there was still a sense of uncertainty. Derek Powazek in his A list Apart post ‘Where am I?‘ explains that for navigation to be successful it needs to answer 3 questions:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where can I go?
  3. Where have I been?

Without the reassurance of clear sign-posting I became paranoid that if I needed to, I wouldn’t be able to find my way back and although ultimately I completed the ride and was therefore successful in completing my task I had more work to do to get there. The extra effort wasn’t necessary and negatively impacted on my overall experience.

My diminished experience wasn’t the fault of the organisers, they did a great job, they just hadn’t necessarily taken context into account. After 20 miles or so a lot of people would have been tired and hungry, and if they weren’t familiar with the course their chances of going wrong would be increased. When mentally and physically tired its far easier to make a mistake, especially if in my case it looks like the easier option!

Lessons learnt

In summary, there are 5 lessons that can be learnt from my experience and applied to web design:

  1. Understand your users preconceptions
    What preconceptions will your users have of your service or product? If they don’t match make sure its clearly communicated to the user.
  2. Instructions are only needed if the journey isn’t intuitive
    Optimise the interface and make sure instructional text is only used when absolutely necessary.
  3. Make sure each step of the way is clearly sign posted
    Where am I? Where do I go next? How do I get back to where I started?
  4. Consider the context
    Accessing a website at home in a comfortable environment with no distractions is a totally different experience to accessing the same site in a busy work environment or on the move via a mobile device.
  5. And lastly, provide free tea and biscuits at the end In other words make sure the finish-line is obvious and if there is no direct reward (e.g. a successful purchase) make sure there is a sense of completion or achievement.

Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches

In writing this post I was reminded of a workshop technique that Jared Spool wrote about a while ago on the UIE blog which helps to illustrate the importance of clear instructions. In my next blog post I’ll be looking at Jared’s techniques and the use of instructions within web design.

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3 thoughts on “Mountain biking, misdirection and peanut butter sandwiches

  1. Glad you liked it Will. I was worried it was a little long and rambling to be honest. I’m still trying to find my feet from a writing point of view so any feedback is appreciated.


  2. Couldn’t agree more with Will. Really enjoyed reading, and you made some very good points which I will definitely be considering when developing sites! Thanks for posting 🙂


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