3 Lessons Ants Can Teach Us About Users

I've recently had to deal with an odd problem for a New York apartment. In this city we may occasionally have roaches or have mice but the rarest visitors to a tiny NY apartment are ants. So I've spent a lot of time researching them and understanding their needs. You know, customer research and persona development. These ants are now my customers and the transaction I want to engage them with is, unfortunately for them, their death.

I've approached the process from two angles. 

First, research. How do ants approach the world? From listening to a RadioLab podcast on ants I can tell you that they are blind, not particularly smart, navigate by smell and chemical trails and have a flat organizational hierarchy. Most ants are basically the same creature. There is no ruler but if you observe their behavior there are roles that are performed.

The ants move in waves that begin with, what I'll call, explorer ants whose sole role seems to be to go out and make trails. The second role I observed are the ants that seem actually collect the food, let's call them foragers. These are the ones I wanted to target. The foragers. These ladies are like late adopters moving into a known world to collect the goods.

Second, defining their experience. What are the things that ants respond to? Since I'm looking for a negative transaction, extinction, I'm curious what they do not like and how can I use these things to control their behavior? Turns out ants don't like cinnamon and cayenne pepper. When they encounter it they treat it like a wall. So you can pen them in with a ring of cinnamon like something out of a fantasy movie. "Thou shall not pass" kinda thing. So I made a ring around their home and filled it with food. Poisoned food.

This pissed off the explorer ants who seem to pop out, look for the new thing, get frustrated that everything was the same and go back. But remember, these ladies aren't my target audience. I want the forager ants. These ants arrive soon after since the despondent explorers return with the message "lots of food, lots of walls." I now have a bunch of ants eating a bunch of poisoned food and taking it back to their colony where they will soon die off. Successful experience design, successful transaction.

But what's fascinating is observing these psychographic groups in the first place. Turns out ants are incredibly persistent. The cinnamon pen has to be an unbroken line because they will do everything they can, non-stop, to find the chink in the wall so they can go find more stuff to eat. It's like they know the world is bigger and that there are more options for them.

So it turns out ants are the best user testers on the planet. 

This allowed me to iterate tactics and revise my strategy very quickly. They come out in waves. So as each new wave completed explorations and food gathering I had breaks in-between where I could set up new fortifications and reposition the food to ensure the greatest engagement. Often times I would see them persistently butting their heads into the cinnamon fortifications going nowhere. I often thought "you're all trapped in there and I have complete control." But then something weird would happen… I would turn around and see an ant wandering around in a place I never would have expected them to be. 

Individually, ants appeared quite stupid. But this new behavior surprised me. The ones I can observe are going around bumping into something as innocuous as cinnamon and are unable to get past it (duh). But I clearly failed to pick up on the ones who'd found a completely different way of getting out, I made an assumption that I knew all they knew and more. This allowed them to surprise me but only because I believed I had anticipated all potential options for them.

Online we often treat our users in this fashion. We assume a couple things:

  1. We assume we've designed all possible contingencies and interactions for our users

Most users have more desires than ants, most people want more than eat and procreate. We should assume this to be true even when it's not. But most of all we should allow for interactions that can lead to the invention of new interactions. The ants achieved this by crawling under things I couldn't observe to escape their pen. People will do this in similar ways because the perspective of their use as user is inherently different than our perspective as designer. 

We can't envision all possible contingencies for users' actions, emotional state, surrounding inputs, comfort level or knowledge.

  2. We assume our users will continue to persist in trying to complete an interaction until they complete it 

Ants out number humans by something like a factor of 100. This is because they are more persistent than we are. We humans give up pretty easily. When you're online giving up isn't giving up on the "action" it's giving up on your site. We as site owners often confuse this. There's lots of ways to complete the action the user wants to complete. Don't confuse your site with your actions. 

People visit your site to complete an action, not because they like you. 

  3. We believe we can omnipotently observe all aspects of their interactions

But when your user either leaves because of the clumsy interface or discovers a new way of completing their desired action, it's most important to have methodologies and technologies in place to observe the how's and why's of their actions. Unlike ants, people aren't dumb, if someone completes an action or leaves your site before finishing, this is an opportunity to learn and revise. As an industry we tend to focus on the work of "strategists" and "designers" to craft an singularly "perfect" experience. 

There is no such thing as a perfect experience for everyone.

Hopefully these are helpful thoughts to keep in mind as you design experiences for your users. Otherwise those poor ants have given their lives for nothing. (no pressure)