Like Riding a Bike

I recently came across an intriguing video about relearning to ride a bike. The phrase “… like riding a bike” implies that once you learn, you never forget how. For 99.9% of us this is true. Learning how to ride a bike is something you need to do only once. But what if you changed a major mechanic of riding a bike like the steering? Would you be able to hop on and instantly figure out how to ride? If not, how long would it take to relearn a major functional mechanic of the process your mind knows as “riding a bike”?

In his video Smarter Every Day does exactly that. He meets some welders who reverse the steering of the bike (steering right goes left, left goes right) and challenge him to learn to ride. The TL;DW is that it takes him 8 months to relearn riding a bike, backwards. The interesting thing is that his young son, who recently learned how to ride a bike, learns how to ride both ways within a few weeks. More interesting still is that after learning how to ride a “backwards bike”, switching back to a normal bike took about 20 minutes of trying before it clicked.

Imagine your brain’s cognitive learning experiences as a river. And new activities you learn are streams off the central river that is your entire thought process. Let’s start the “Riding A Bike” stream. Now, your central stream will have multiple sub streams branching off of it, each one representing a major mechanical function to help you achieve your goal. We have one for peddling forward resulting in movement, and we have one for steering left and right to control direction. The more you ride a bike the more nuanced and fleshed out your river becomes, with multiple intertwining sub streams for functions like balancing and braking. As you become more skilled at bike riding, these “streams” of consciousness are widened and deepened, and new smaller streams are added.

Your “Riding A Bike” river of consciousness helps you accomplish a goal (getting from point A to point B), utilizing all sub streams of learning to avoid obstacles that may get in your way. But the more you flow down that river in the same way, the more you deepen those channels. And rightfully so, your brain makes common streams have stronger “currents” so-to-speak. It’s how the brain saves energy, by moving common activity to the parts of the brain associated with habit. Now imagine you’re using your “Riding a Bike” consciousness river but your “steering” stream is reversed. By this point in your life you’ve gone down this path so many times the river is deep and has a very strong current flowing towards it. It’s become a deeply engrained habit and your brain has decided it doesn’t need to associate consciousness to its mechanics. Every road points to this direction but the path no longer works. Try and try again and eventually you’ll create a new stream for steering, one that functions with reverse mechanics. But this stream will be weak and take a very long time to feel comfortable swimming down (about 8 months in this example).

Okay, okay, I get it.. So what does it mean? It means that we need to be aware of switching cost when designing a new user experience. Yeah, duh. I know it seems trivial, but in most cases switching cost is either not considered or completely avoided. All too often I’ve heard “Our users won’t understand that. They’re used to [x].”, so the designs that get pushed out are ones that are essentially re-skins of an old function, or a completely new function where switching cost isn’t considered. So how do you navigate this design challenge?

Teaching your users a new way of experiencing an old feature can be extremely beneficial, as can incorporating existing usability into new features**. When a user invests time to gain a deeper understanding of your product they gain an attachment. And if that new experience is a better, more streamlined one, (requiring less sub streams of consciousness to operate) your user will be more inclined to use this feature over and over again. Thus deepening their understanding of your product and, as an added benefit, making that cognitive path more engrained in the user’s brain. Your product become closer to a habit, making it their go-to solution.

A great example of this, in my opinion, is Apple’s 2011-and-newer computers and their switch to inverse scrolling by default. In 2011 Apple released OS X Lion where they reversed their default scroll direction to mimic how you interact with your smartphone. You push content in the direction you want to view. This works beautifully on a trackpad, the experience closely resembles that of your phone. Apple’s timing is critical. 2011 marked a time of rapid smartphone adoption. Over one third (35%) of American adults owned smartphones.

However, not everyone uses a trackpad, so the switch is not seamless. Many people, myself included, use a mouse and external keyboard with their laptop or primarily use a desktop computer. Two years prior Apple introduced the Magic Mouse, essentially combining a trackpad with a mouse. Their product interfacing tools are now starting to align.

Not everyone wants to go and throw away their perfectly good scrollie mouse, but as far as a consistent experience goes, one can’t help but feel off using a piece of equipment that just doesn’t fit. By breaking the seemingly simple scrolling barrier, they are drawing the user closer to an interaction that is more native and ubiquitous across their devices. This opened the door for more inventive interactions, like swiping gestures, and the “force touch” experience Apple is rolling into their new products.

I’m not advocating that the Magic Mouse is a perfect tool, or that the reverse scrolling transition was frictionless. There are specific areas in which Magic Mouse fails in comparison to other mice (gaming comes to mind immediately). But as a tool who’s essential function is to become invisible, it does an amazing job 99% of the time, and has set their software up for a forward looking world in which the user doesn’t feel the interaction with their content. Making the decision in 2011 to reverse scrolling directions is just one example of a much larger product/UX strategy, and shows why Apple is consistently differentiating themselves from the competition.


**Mega Man X Game Design — This is a video I highly suggest to every UX designer. Although it’s about game design, the same design principles are still very relevant. It covers teaching new features to a user like I explained above. ( Video contains some very NSFW language)**

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