About features that make user experience suck

About features that make user experience suck

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In my last post, I discussed how using the right level of fidelity could ease design reviews and help the design process, especially in multi-disciplinary environments. This topic is somewhat related to the one I want to discuss today, which is about how your design can provide features misleading the users.

CAD puts too much emphasis on the pixels in the early stages of design

Let me guide you through one of the occurrences of this phenomenon. Back in 2002, I was hired to conduct a ethnographic field study of collocated design practice in two architecture firms. The goal was to identify key physical interactions that participated in the sound collaborative practice of architects. One insight we identifies was the shift of practice from pen-and-paper based drawing, and CAD based drawing. I remember having a fascinating conversation with one architect explaining to us that he felt CAD was getting in the way of his real job, problem solving and design, by putting too much emphasis on the pixel right from the beginning. Because the software allowed users to create straight lines, to-scale drawings, he felt pressured at all times to deliver on such promises when using the tool. Yet the early stages of the design did not require that level of precision, and he consequently often found himself spending too much time prettifying things that would be thoroughly iterated on anyway and changed significantly thereafter.

About affordances

This ties back to the concept of affordances, coined by ecological psychologist James J. Gibson. Real world affordances are ways in which an object in the real world provides cues as to how it can be used in our lives --e.g. I could use the hammer to hit something, because it has a flat hard surface and a long handle, and a nice weight to it--. (For those of you design savvy, you may be familiar with Don Norman's book who talks, amongst other things, about the role of affordances in design: The Design of Everyday Thing). In 2001, Bill Gaver derived this concept to the digital world by talking about technology affordances, or how widgets can tell users what they can do, or help them learn it. In this post, I want to talk about a slightly different kind of affordance, a design affordance if we must label it. It is about how, by fashioning an object and placing it, people will be tempted to use it, with or without an understanding of what it is good for, or how to use it. The mere fact that it is there says two things: By being there it is useful for something, and by not using it, you make a conscious decision not to use it.

"Because the ruler allows you to get very precise, you feel like you have to."

To go back to the hammer analogy, imagine being in a carpenter's shop. You see the hammer, and you already have a physical understanding of how you can use it, added to a cultural understanding of other more complex things it may be able to do (pull nails out, serve as lever, etc). Nothing new here. Imagine now that you find a nice big ruler, that provides precision own to the 64th of an inch (Yaya!). If you are a visitor passing by, you will be impressed by the minutia of the work of the carpenter. If you are a carpenter apprentice on your first day, there are chances you will feel like you need to upscale your technique to reach 64th-of-an-inch precision. Because it allows you to do it somewhat implies that you should. I would bet that many senior carpenters have seen overeager beginners starting to measure everything with the precision provided by the tool, and have made their quest to teach their pupils that in many cases, it's about getting the right level of detail, regardless of what the tool allows you to achieve. Which sometimes means using an already cut piece of lumber to measure where to cut subsequent ones, even if it is precise only to the 8th of an inch. In other words, because the ruler allows you to get very precise, you feel like you have to.

How does this translate in the software world? In a paper last year, I started discussing how social media websites like Twitter and Facebook provided you with mechanisms that set the expectations of people in a relationship of how they can communicate. In twitter, you will never expect a letter about the latest in the other's life, due to the limitation in the number of characters. On Facebook, you are provided with a text box for entering comments which affords you typing many characters, so this is what people do. I sometimes feel pressured to use this box to its full extend. What if I only do a smiley where I could have written a  more complex text? I feel pressured: the choice of not using this feature to its full capability can be perceived as a lack of engagement ("I could not be bothered giving you more than that, even though I could"). I strongly believe this is why, not so long ago, Facebook has introduced the "like" button. Now you can express yourself easily, without having to engage in a conversation. This is accepted, since this is a mechanism supported by the interface.

I am sure by now you can derive this concept to many interfaces. Please do not hesitate to share those with me, as I work my way around understanding and better defining this phenomenon.

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