How it Taught Me to Manage a Users Expectations


1. Performance of or skill in performing magic or conjuring tricks with the hands; sleight of hand.

2. A show of skill or deceitful cleverness.

I have always loved magic. I’ve loved it because, even as a child, I have always known that it was not real. I knew the coin did not come out of my ear and I knew the rabbit didn’t form itself out of the ether inside the hat. You might be thinking, “Yes of course we all knew it was not real.” But that is where you would be mistaken. There was a time when most of us believed in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny, we did not know the rules of the world at that point, or rather, we knew the rules and the they said very clearly that magic bunnies and fat men coming down the chimney to give us toys were totally reasonable.

About a year and a half ago I broke my collarbone and had a lot of free time on my hands. I pulled out an old book of card tricks that’d been traveling around with me for years and decided to not just learn how the tricks were done but to perform them. Three weeks later I was at a friends party and mentioned that I’d been learning a few things and before I knew it I was shakily shuffling a worn deck of cards and cutting to the 4 aces. It was a bewildering experience.

The hardest thing to get over when I started to perform was that I was actually fooling people. Every time I performed a sleight I was absolutely sure that the spectators were on to me. How could they not be right? But thats the thing. Even clumsy as I was they were, for the most part, fooled.

After performing for a few months I started to notice that there were several distinct types of people. On the one hand there were those that would never catch on no matter how big a blunder I made. They were always amazed and couldn’t figure it out. On the other end of the spectrum there were people who, no matter how perfectly I thought I executed and performed a trick, would instantly catch on to the method. They did this either by looking in the right place at the right time and seeing the sleight or by crossing out all illogical possibilities until the trick became obvious.

For me there was a parallel here and I started to think of some of the UI/UX techniques I have used in the past as sleights or tricks. The ones it worked on were closer to the always amazed spectators. The ones who shrugged their shoulders and quickly moved on were the skeptics who don’t have time or saw through the allure of the sexy and simple signup form. The latter of these folks I tend to see more as power users. Though the process is simple and intuitive which is a bonus for many people they see it as dumbed down and limiting. Obviously this is highly dependent on the product but in the case of competition entries and portfolio editors it was always a crazy balancing act.

What I learned in magic is how to manage each type of persons attention. How to engage someone with some light tricks, banter and questions to gauge which end of the spectrum they were on before moving on to the harder material. What parallels are there in UI/UX design that can suss out a users needs and cater to both ends of the spectrum?

There are a plethora of devices to do this such as different operating modes, hidden features that must be actively shown and tutorials that can be easily skipped. One of my favorites that is not seen very often in web apps is shortcuts.

Shortcuts can be an ever present feature on a website. Basic users might not ever know they are there and be happy as can be. There are no extra settings menus or layouts/modes to switch between. But for power users who take the time to learn them they can speed along the process of creating a new blow post or rearranging photos. By giving the user more power and efficiency you increase the value of your application (web or otherwise) which will result in a higher user engagement. The more work someone is able to get done the more satisfied they feel and the more likely they are to return to your application in the future. This is not just an efficiency issue. By taking the time to learn the commands a user will feel obligated to make use of that knowledge and to justify the time taken to learn them.

It’s an extremely powerful tool that we don’t see nearly enough of but can result in much higher engagements and more long term users.

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