It’s not often you stumble upon a service where you’re willing to pay a professional to work while intoxicated. In fact, getting drunk on the job is usually frowned upon. But when Richard Littauer founded The User is Drunk, he seemed to have found just the right niche where this was not only found acceptable, but people were willing to pay a little extra for it.
Operating under the tagline “Your website should be so simple, a drunk person could use it.” Littauer’s homegrown side-hustle took off as designers and businesses invested in a UX pro that would review their sites with honest commentary and a new perspective.
At CrossBrowserTesting, we believe web design should be optimized for every user, no matter what browser, device, or operating system. Littauer’s project suggests that it’s important to consider the universal user in another way — drunk or sober.
Though Littauer no longer regularly drunk reviews websites (for money, anyway), he still remains opinionated on what separates a good web design from a bad one. In order to answer some of our burning questions, Littauer gave us an exclusive on some of the things he learned and experienced while testing under the influence.
What’s your background in development and UI/UX?
I grew up with computers and had a half dozen dumpster-dived desktops in my basement. So, naturally, I did a university degree in Linguistics. After enjoying coding for my senior thesis and being the web developer for some societies in uni and for my own personal sites, I took a Masters in Computational Linguistics, with some UX courses which lead through a long, tangled route to me working as a front end developer for a couple of years in New York and San Francisco.
When I started the User Is Drunk, I mainly had front end experience, not UX, and was working as a freelancer on a project with the MIT Media Lab as a designer and developer. There’s no easy path that shows how I got from A to B, and I’m not entirely sure where B is, anyway.
So, how did you decide to start getting drunk and testing people’s websites for them?
Personal experience. Basically, I had come back from a nice night (I assume, I’ve since forgotten. I think it was a date.) and my friend asked me to jump on Google Hangouts and review his site for him. The feedback was brutally honest, and kind of useful because of that, and I remember saying “I should make a thing out of this.”
Drunk advice is different than normal advice; it’s not caged, it’s emotional bull**** but not normally buzzword bull****, and it is not good at error recognition or correction at all. It’s niche. And niche things are good.
I let the idea stew for a couple of months, and then, at a hackathon, decided to just run with it one day. The rest is history – it went viral, and there I was, reviewing people’s sites for money.
When and where have you primarily done this?
I did the majority of the reviews while traveling with Hacker Paradise through in Bali and Thailand. But I’ve done reviews all over the world – I’m a digital nomad, so it’s anyone’s guess where I am going to be at any given moment. I remember doing reviews in Tokyo, Berlin, Boston…
I don’t drink alone. That’s a quick way to hate yourself. So, normally, I invite some friends out for some drinks, and then slip away for twenty minutes, and come back and buy everyone a round. It seems to work pretty well. I’ve gotten better at planning to do little work the next day, too.
What do you do when you aren’t critiquing people’s websites?
Live my life. Recently, that means I run a company I founded – maintainer.io – which helps people maintain their open source software, and consults with businesses on their open source strategy. I am a community manager as well as a developer, so this came out of that, realizing that a lot of what maintainers do can be done as a service.
Sometimes I debate getting a lot of buzz words I’ve used to describe my work printed on hats, and hanging them all on my wall.
What’s your approach — do you wing it or are you usually looking at something specific?
I wing it. Sometimes clients have questions for me, but mostly I just go. It’s very hard to plan drunk. There have been many times where I’ve failed to turn on my microphone, for instance, so I am largely better off just clicking around and following my gut.
How do you think drinking allows you to look at websites differently? How do you think web designers benefit from getting a drunk user to look at their site from a UX perspective?
Basically, it means that I am honest, or at least that there is no filter. There’s what alcohol does; it inhibits your own ability to self-reflect and realize what you are saying and doing. This kind of reaction can’t be faked, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve never pretended to be drunk (the other reason being because that just wouldn’t be right).
The advice or complaints you give while drunk haven’t gone through some review board, haven’t been cleaned up – it’s what me, a real person, actually thinks about your site at a given time. That’s invaluable.
Couldn’t just anyone get drunk and click through their own website?
Sure. But they don’t have the experience I do, and they may not be used to developing and designing websites. Also, at this point, I’m the most experienced drunk UX auditor in the world. I think that counts for something. But if you’re up for it, go have a good time. Drink responsibly.
What are the top 3 worst things websites tend to do in the eyes of an inebriated user?
- Dark UX patterns are very, very clear when you’re drunk. A lot of websites are jerks – no, I don’t want to sign up for your newsletter. No, I don’t want this pop-up to happen every time.
- Another major thing would be too much text. Reading walls of texts isn’t really my thing, and probably isn’t other people’s either. On the other hand, Pam, the mom from The User Is My Mom, loves reading walls of texts. She has a longer attention span. Age matters.
- The final worst thing would be red and green colors everywhere. I’m a bit colorblind; not horribly, but if you point to a cardinal in a Christmas tree, it’ll take me a while to find it. A lot of sites don’t cater to people with this disability, although it is fairly common. That gets annoying, fast.
Have you ever drunk tested in different browsers or devices? Do you think there would be any value in testing responsive design under the influence?
I’ve done a few apps, and a few private sessions. There is some value, there. Frankly, though, I’m not an app developer, and I’ve always felt that my advice on websites is more pertinent. There is definitely value in responsive design for drunk people. You have no idea where your users will be.
How did people respond to the results? Do a lot of people change their web design after your reviews?
It’s all across the board. I’ve gotten a few people who were full of praise, and changed a lot of things, working my tips into their sites. I’ve had people change their onboarding process after, especially.
I’ve also had a fair amount of people who never got back to me. Those are not fun. Drunk user testing is very hard to standardize – sometimes I’m nice, sometimes I’m not. That’s how it goes.
What’s your drink of choice?
Uisge beatha. Talisker, 12 year, or a Laphroaig, quarter-cask. But normally it’s just a local beer. I’ve gone off stouts, wheat beers, and red wine with cigars as a result of some bad nights. That’s OK with me.
What advice do you have for designers who want to cater to the user experience, whether those users are drunk or sober?
Get on Twitter and Designer News. This is the golden age of learning – never stop.
And please don’t use red and green colors too much.
Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
While the User is Drunk is fun and stupid, it’s also fun and stupid. This is not my main job, at all. Currently, I’m working on consulting for companies wishing to do better open source, and helping individual coders and teams who have too much code to maintain – check out my business at maintainer.io.
I say this because I think a lot of people are under the illusion I only do the User Is Drunk, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I limit my reviews to around once a month now. Livers can’t be fixed by resetting the router. Drink responsibly, folks.