As computers and digital devices increasingly insert themselves into our lives, they do so on an ever increasing social level. No longer are computers merely devices for calculating figures, graphing charts, or even typing correspondence. When producers of the first personal computers initially launched them into the market over 20 years ago, they could think of no better use for them than storing recipes and balancing one’s checkbook. They couldn’t predict how deep computers (and related devices) would seep into our lives.
Computers have enabled cultures and individuals to express themselves in new and unexpected ways, and have enabled businesses to transform how, where, when and even what business they do. However, this rosy outlook has come at a price. Computers have become more frustrating to use. In fact, the more sophisticated the use, the application, the interface and the experience, the more important it is for computers and other digital devices to integrate fluidly into our already-established lives without requiring us to respond to technological needs. Also, the wider-spread these devices, the more socially-agile they need to be in order to be accepted.
- Be more aware of themselves.
- Be more aware of their surroundings and participants/audiences.
- Offer more help and guidance when needed, in more natural and understandable ways.
- Be more autonomous when necessary.
- Be better able to help build knowledge as opposed to merely processing data.
- Be more capable of displaying information in richer forms.
- Be more integrated into a participant’s workflow or information and entertainment processes.
- Be more integrated with other media.
- Adapt more automatically to behavior and conditions.
People default to behaviors and expectations of computers in ways consistent with human-to-human contact and relationships.
Ten years ago, when the computer industry was trying to increase sales of personal computers into the consumer space, the barrier wasn’t technological, but social. For the most part, computers just didn’t fit into most people’s lives. This wasn’t because they were lacking features or kilohertz, it was because they didn’t really do much that was important to people. It wasn’t until email became widespread and computers became important to parents in the education of their children that computers started showing up in homes in appreciable numbers. Now, to continue “market penetration,” we’ll need to not just add new capabilities, but build new experiences for computers to provide to people that enhance their lives in natural and comfortable ways.
If you aren’t familiar with Cliff Nass’ and Byron Reeves’ research at Stanford, you should be. They showed (and published in their book Media Equation) that people respond to computers as if they were other people. That is, people default to behaviors and expectations of computers in ways consistent with human-to-human contact and relationships. No one is expecting computers to be truly intelligent (well, except the very young and the very nerdy), but our behaviors betray a human expectation that things should treat us humanely and act with human values as soon as they show the slightest sophistication. And this isn’t true merely of computers, but of all media and almost all technology. We swear at our cars, we’re annoyed at the behavior of our microwave ovens, we’re enraged enough to protest at “corporate” behavior, etc. While on a highly intellectual level we know these things aren’t people, we still treat them as such and expect their behaviors to be consistent with the kind of behavior that, if it doesn’t quite meet with Miss Manner’s standards, at least meets with the standards we set for ourselves and our friends.
We should be creating experiences and not merely “tasks” or isolated moments in front of screens.
Experiences happen through time and space and reflect a context that’s always greater than we realize. Building understanding for our audience and participants necessarily starts with context, yet most of our experiences with computers and devices, including application software, hardware, operating systems, websites, etc. operate as if they’re somehow independent of what’s happening around them. Most people don’t make these distinctions. How many of you know people who thought they were searching the Web or buying something at Netscape five years ago? Most consumers don’t distinguish between MSN, Windows, Internet Explorer, AOL and email, for example. It’s all the same to them because it’s all part of the same experience they’re having. When something fails, the whole collection is at fault. It’s not clear what the specific problem might be because developers have made it notoriously difficult to understand what has truly failed or where to start looking for a solution.
We need to rethink how we approach helping people solve problems when we develop solutions for them. We need to realize that even though our solutions are mostly autonomous, remote, and specific, our audiences are none of these. They exist in a space defined in three spatial dimensions, a time, a context, and have further dimensions in play corresponding to expectations, emotions, at least five senses, and real problems to solve—often trivial ones, but real nonetheless.
Most of you probably create and use user profiles and scenarios during development to help understand your user base. These are wonderful tools, but I have yet to see a scenario that includes someone needing help. I’ve never seen a scenario with a truly clueless user that just doesn’t get it. Yet, we’ve all heard the stories from the customer service people, so we know these people exist. When you pull out those assembly instructions or operating instructions or even the help manual, they really don’t help because they weren’t part of the scenario or within the scope of the project (because the help system never gets the same consideration and becomes an afterthought). They may not be part of the “interface,” but they are part of the experience.
This is what it means to create delightful experiences, and is a good way of approaching the design of any products or services. What delights me is when I’m surprised at how thoughtful someone is, how nice someone is in an adverse situation, and when things unexpectedly go the way I think they should (which is most likely how I expect a person to act).
Think about how your audience would relate to your solution (operating system, application, website, etc.) if it were a person.
Now, I’m not talking about bringing back Bob. In fact, Bob was the worst approach to these ideas. He embodied a person visually and then acted like the least courteous, most annoying person possible. But this doesn’t just apply to anthropomorphized interfaces with animations or video agents. All applications and interfaces exhibit the characteristics that Nass and Reeves have studied. Even before Microsoft Word had Clippy—or whatever that little pest is called—it was a problem. Word acts like one of those haughty salesclerks in a pricey boutique. It knows better than you. You specify 10-point Helvetica but it gives you 12-point Times at every opportunity. It constantly and consistently guesses wrong on almost every thing. Want to delete that line? It takes hitting the delete key three times if the line above it starts with a number, because of course it must, must be a numbered list you wanted. You were just too stupid to know how to do it. Interfaces like that of Word might be capable in some circumstances, but they are a terrible experience because they go against human values of courtesy, understanding and helpfulness, not to mention grace and subtlety.
So when you’re developing a tool, an interface, an application or modifying the operating system itself, my advice throughout development and user testing is to ask yourself what type of person is your interface most like? Is it helpful or boorish? Is it nice or impatient? Is it dumb or does it make reasonable assumptions? Is it something you would want to spend a lot of time with? Because, guess what, you are spending a lot of time with it, and so will your users.
I don’t expect devices to out-think me, think for me, or protect me any more than I expect people to in my day-to-day life. But I do expect them to learn simple things about my preferences from my behavior, just like I expect people to in the real world.
Human experiences as a model
When developers approach complex problems, they usually try to simplify them; in other words, “dumb them down.” This is usually a failure because they can’t, really, take the complexity out of life. In fact, complexity is one of the good things about life. Instead, we should be looking for ways to model the problem in human terms, and the easiest way to do this to look at how humans behave with each other—the good behaviors, please. Conversations, for example, can be an effective model for browsing a database (show example). This doesn’t work in every case, but it is a very natural (and comfortable) way of constructing a complex search query without overloading a user. And just because the values are expressed in words doesn’t mean they can’t correspond to query terms or numerical values. An advanced search page is perfectly rational and might accurately reflect how the data is modeled in a database, but it isn’t natural for people to use, making it uncomfortable for the majority, despite how many technologically-aware people might be able to use it. There is nothing wrong about these check-box-laden screens, but there is nothing right about them either. We’ve just come to accept them.
God is in the details
As Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” Well, these are the details and the fact that they’re too often handled poorly means that technological devices are ruled by a God that is either sloppy, careless, absent-minded, inhuman, or all of the above.
This isn’t terribly difficult but it does take time and attention. And we don’t need artificial intelligence, heads-up displays, neural nets, or virtual reality to accomplish it. There is a reason why my mother isn’t a fighter pilot—several, in fact. But the automobile industry in the U.S. spends tens of millions of dollars each year trying to develop a heads-up display for cars. That’s all my mother needs—one more thing to distract her from the road, break down someday, and scare her even more about technology and making a mistake. What we need are human values integrated into our development processes that treat people as they expect to be treated and build solutions that reflect human nature.
Everything is riding on this: expansion into new markets, upselling newer and more sophisticated equipment, solving complex organizational problems, reducing costs for customer service, reducing maintenance costs, reducing frustration, and (most of all) satisfying people and helping them lead more meaningful lives. Companies fail to differentiate themselves anymore on quality or tangibles. Instead, they try to differentiate themselves on “brand.” What marketers and engineers often don’t “get” is that the only way to differentiate themselves on brand is by creating compelling experiences with their products and services (and not the marketing around them). Niketown and the Apple Stores would never have succeeded—at least not for long—had they not been selling good product experiences. This isn’t the only reason the Microsoft store failed (a tourist destination for buying Microsoft-branded shirts and stationery really wasn’t meeting anyone’s needs), but it was part of it. Gateway, in comparison, has been much more successful, though they still aren’t getting it quite right.
The Apple Store is a good example. You can actually buy things and walk out with them (unlike the Gateway stores which really disappoint customers by breaking this social assumption). What’s more, anyone can walk in, buy a DVD-R (they come only in 5-packs, though) and burn a DVD on the store equipment. Really, I’ve done it. I may be the only person who has ever taken Steve Jobs up on this offer, but it is a very important interaction because most people aren’t going to have DVDRs for awhile—and neither are their friends. Most people don’t even have CDRs, but if they want to burn a DVD of their children’s birthday party to send to the grandparents, what else are they going to do? This recognition of their users’ reality is what made Apple’s approach legendary (not that it hasn’t been tarnished often). It’s not a technological fix, it’s not even an economic one. In this case, access is the important issue and allowing people to walk in off the street, connect their hard drive or portable, and create something with their precious memories became the solution. It works because it supports our human values (in this case, sharing). It works because this is what you would expect of a friend or someone you considered helpful. This is not only a terrific brand-enhancing experience, it jives with our expectation about how things should be and that is what social and human values are all about.
This is not a crisis of technology or computing power, but one of imagination, understanding and courage. I would love to see designers create solutions that felt more human in the values they exhibited. This is what really changes people’s behaviors and opinions. Just wanting things to be “easy to use” isn’t enough anymore—if it ever was. If you want to differentiate your solution, if you want to create and manage a superior customer relationship, then find ways to codify all those little insights experts have, in any field, about what their customers need, desire, and know into behaviors that make your interfaces feel like they’re respecting and valuing those customers. This is the future of user experiences, user interfaces, customer relations and it’s actually a damn fine future.
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|Nathan Shedroff has been an experience designer for over twelve years. He has written extensively on the subject and maintains a website with resources on Experience Design at www.nathan.com/ed. He can be reached at .