Recently, I experienced something magical. At work, of all places.
I noticed the scribbly handwriting on the TextEdit app icon is the transcript of the “Here’s to the crazy ones” speech from Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” commercial. I’ve used TextEdit, an unglamorously basic word processor for years, but never noticed that detail before.
I had a moment. And my task, writing a to-do list for my workday, seemed slightly more epic.
As an interaction designer, I live for these moments. And I try to incorporate surprise, delight, even fun into the business systems I design, knowing such extras can make tedious or frustrating interactions a tiny bit better.
But while clients usually love these details, they rarely make it into the final product.
When budgets and time are limited, it’s easy to understand why joyful little details, unique transitions, playful animations and easter eggs are the first things cut from a project: They seem nonessential in our minimally viable product culture. After all, no one needs a globe icon displaying your actual location on the planet to complete a task, so the interactive icon gets demoted down the list, to be implemented after the standard barrage of usability requirements “if there’s time.”
It’s awesome that more and more businesses, concerned with the usability of their internal systems, seek out experts like designers and design researchers to ensure that the system interfaces are logical, easy and comfortable to use. But logical, easy and comfortable is a low bar.
“We’ve been designing usable interfaces, which is like a chef cooking edible food. Certainly we all want to eat edible foods with nutritional value, but we also crave flavor. Why do we settle for usable when we can make interfaces both usable and pleasurable?”
With their thoughtful design and care, consumer apps are often the best mix of usable and pleasurable. Designed for people as individuals with interests, personalities and desires, apps like Nike+ and Aviate work well, dovetailing with and enhancing the vibrant lives of their customers.
Business systems don’t do this, mostly because they don’t have to. Employees most often have use the software their bosses and businesses provide, so they can’t choose the apps or systems that best fit their lives. As such, these systems are built around business requirements and generic “user-stories,” not the needs of full-fledged human beings. Business systems mistake people for workflows.
People aren’t workflows. As Nathan Sinsabaugh describes,
“The work me carries the same stuff as the home me: hopes, goals, strengths, weaknesses, anxieties, and insecurities. I’m interested in a whole lot more than tasks.”
Software should be usable and business systems should support required tasks. But designing for delight, motivation or joy doesn’t detract from usability — it augments it.
Consider one of the most basic user interactions: passwords. Limiting access to private systems and documents, passwords are an essential feature of most business software. But passwords are a pain to remember and everyone has typed in the wrong one, forgotten what they picked, or bungled the keystrokes (I’m looking at you, CAPS LOCK).
Usability standards require clear messaging to indicate when a password is incorrect, so most systems just display an arresting error message, almost always in red. From a strictly usability perspective, this makes sense: The system needs to inform a user what went wrong and how to fix it, and if it’s red, it will stand out. Contextually, this is baffling. Logging in is the very first interaction someone has with a software system, and forgetting a password is common and so frustrating — do you really want to greet a visitor with the bright red message that they’re doing it wrong?
Apple’s solution to this problem is one of my favorites: When a password is input incorrectly, the window shakes side to side as if to say “nuh uh!” It’s a little interaction that let’s you know what you need to know, that your password is wrong, while using charm to mitigate the frustration that comes with it. Even though the system was telling me I messed up, the first time I saw this, I grinned. And while the surprise of the interaction has worn off with time (* shakes fist * damn you, CAPS LOCK), the muppet-y animation makes me not want to throw my laptop against a wall. I take a breath. I retype. I log in.
Similarly, when you forget your Pinterest password the reset email comes from firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s a tiny, unobtrusive detail in the password-reset process, but it makes it just slightly less awful.
Ideally, we’d get rid of passwords all together, but in the meantime, the new app Knock unlocks your laptop when you knock on your iPhone, adding an element of fun to what, for most software, is something to get through as quickly as possible.
These examples consider the emotional and physical context of an interaction, not only a set of business requirements or workflows. They are designed for the whole person, not just the user. A forgotten password isn’t a five-alarm fire; it’s an inevitable inconvenience. A screaming red error message is unnecessarily insulting. The interaction should encourage and guide, not frustrate and chastise.
Interaction designers, especially those working in business software, strive to ensure the products and systems we create are appropriate for their contexts and, of course, usable. But there’s value in designing systems that holistically meet the needs, beyond business requirements, of the person in front of the screen.
We can create motivating, engaging business systems or settle for software that’s merely usable. We can make apps people would choose to use or ones they have to endure.
In the spirit of the holiday season, give your employees software designed for who they are: people, not workflows. Give them comfort and joy.
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