Oh, the agony

Oh, the agony. Count is already having a bad day, and then on top of everything else, he has to remember how to video-chat?

I think most of us find this relatable. What’s going on from an user experience perspective?

Bad interfaces make good days bad.

Some days everything goes right. You wake up just a moment before your alarm, so you can smack it off before it makes a peep. The sun is up, and birds serenade you as you sip your coffee and enjoy your perfectly toasted bread. The radio is playing your favourite song, traffic is all green lights, and the parking spot next to the entrance is open and waiting for you.

You stride over to the entrance, swipe your security card and — declined? Check the card, nope, it’s definitely the right one. Swipe and — no. What’s going on? Swipe, swipe, sliiiide, tap? Tap-tap? Still no? What the — C’mon. You were early this morning. You were going to get so much done, you were on such a roll, what in the name of —

The day is young. It was so good until it wasn’t. When things are going well, we have more patience to make room for when something small happens. When things are going well, it takes more “bad” to tip the scale. But when that scale is tipped, it lands hard. Our good day was impacted by our bad experience, and we noticed.

Bad days make good interfaces bad.

Then some days everything goes wrong. Your alarm doesn’t go off. Everything is late and getting later. The toaster is working in slow motion, the pants drawer is suddenly sticking, your keys are two feet away from where they should be, it takes three tries instead of two to unlock the car, does anyone know how to drive these days, of course they started construction today, the damn potholes are getting worse and the seatbelt isn’t snapping up properly and —

When your user is tired, anxious, and ever more frustrated, every little thing seems to get in their way — and your product is no exception. Even if you could see the dominoes starting to tip all you could do is wait your turn.

Your product performs well. The data and your users agree. People come and go with ease, achieving what they came to do, and it hums on.

But when external factors get involved — a bad day in this case — things can cloud over. We aren’t at our best when we’re having a bad day. Our emotions gain momentum, and the world slows down. It isn’t long before we don’t know how to say “It’s not you, it’s me.” Our bad day leads us to blame even good products for our bad mood.

Bad memories make good interfaces bad.

When users start using your product — a key swipe, an phone app, enterprise software — they’re starting a long-term relationship. The relationship might consist of daily interactions, monthly events, or you might only meet on an annual basis — but there’s a good chance they’ll encounter your product more than once.

Each of these repeat interactions is coloured by our user’s past interactions and affects interactions yet to come.

Encounters that involve bad moods stick with us, and the memory of these bad moods affects our future behaviour and perceptions. If we have a bad memory associated with the last time we used a product — whether it’s a fault of the product or whether we were having a bad day — we’ll anticipate a bad experience the next time we go to use it.

Additionally, studies have found that when strong emotions are tied to memories, they enhance the recollective experience. In other words, while we remember neutral experiences like a bland grocery list of events, we relive emotional experiences*.

Our brains are also tuned to confirm what we already believe. If we anticipate a bad experience, we’ll look for information to confirm our expectations. When past experience tells us that a product is going to create a headache, we’ll instantly notice when something doesn’t go right — which we’ll use to justify why we anticipated a bad experience.

Even if we’re having a better day — or if the product has improved by leaps and bounds — we’ll still get anxious at the prospect of having to use the product at all.

What does this mean for user experience professionals?

When you’re creating a product, remember that you’re developing a long-term relationship with your users. Don’t start things off on the wrong foot. It’s harder to repair it later.

Even after making a good first impression, remember that you need to support your users every successive time they use your product. Are you supporting them when they’re having a bad day? What’s your plan for the use case that doesn’t follow the “happy path?” Your intuitive interface passed 95% of your usability tests, but when everything is going wrong in someone’s world, they can easily fall into the 5% that doesn’t.

When nothing goes right — in your user’s day or in your product — provide a ladder to get out of the hole before they’ve dug themselves in too deep. Plan unsexy help features. Create how-to tutorials that walk users through user flows — even those that pass your testing with flying colours. Put a toll-free help line number in the corner of your intuitive interface.

There’s always a use case that didn’t occur to you. One day your design isn’t going to work for someone. Instead of blaming them — or yourself — provide a way out.

Because good interfaces can make bad days good.

With thanks to Quinn Keast.

* Source: How (And Why) Emotion Enhances the Subjective Sense of Recollection, by Elizabeth A. Phelps and Tali Sharot, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 17, No. 2, The Interface between Neuroscience and Psychological Science (Apr. 2008), pp. 147–152