Don’t Count Taps, Count Stresses

Last fall, Luke Wroblewski posted an article about “Requiring Less Taps in Mobile UI,” detailing a concept for “fluid touch gestures” that would help reduce the number of taps required to perform certain actions.

The new gesture concepts he talks about are interesting, and he’s not the only designer concerned with limiting touches.

But I’d like to posit that “fewer taps” is a poorly stated goal. Our goals for user experience can’t be limited to reducing one specific pain-point. If we do, we run the risk of increasing another pain-point, just to reduce the one we’ve honed in on.

We have to look holistically at our interfaces and think “in what ways can I make this easier?”

What Else Are We Looking to Limit?

So if taps are one good thing to limit, what else might we want to limit?

Apple, both in their own design and design guidelines, talks about inconsistent design “fatiguing” users. While this may conjure up images of people putting down their phones in favor of a nap, it’s a good metaphor. We want to limit inconsistent design.

Google, on the other hand, is famous for focusing on site speed, and rightly so. They’ve posited that “users’ flow is interrupted if pages take longer than one second to load.” And pretty much any user can verify from their own anecdotal experience that something close to this is true.

Really, there are any number of pain-points we want to limit in our design and development, and we really have to keep them all in mind. Otherwise, we could end up targeting improvement in one area at the expense of another.

So instead of looking at any of these things in a vacuum, here’s a generalized rule:

Limit Stresses

You can think of any of the above examples — too many taps, an inconsistent design, a long page load — generically as a stress on the user.

If we group them all together, we keep the real goal in mind: limiting user stress, thereby increasing the chance the user will take whatever action is intended by our products.

If it helps, you can even quantify it. Count the number of stresses you’re inducing in any given user flow.

To do this, you can apply Google’s 1 second rule very broadly:

  • Every second a view or page takes to load is a stress
  • Every tap is a stress
  • Every second spent looking for a hidden navigation item or CTA is a single stress (so 2 seconds are two stresses, and so on)
  • Every time you have to pull out your phone in the first place is at least one stress (Hello Apple Watch!)

Consider the Entire Experience

If we’re counting stresses, when does the counting start? It starts from the moment the user has a desire to complete the action we believe our product can help them with.

Take a weather app. There are many actions to be completed with weather apps, but let’s use the simple “what’s it like outside?” desire.

Traditionally, you might pull out your phone, open a weather app, and see that information. Not too bad in terms of stress.

But consider these newer alternatives:

  • You look at your Apple Watch, and the current weather is one of the “complications” showing on the watch face.
  • With your Android phone nearby you ask aloud “OK Google Now: What’s it like outside?” and it reads back the weather to you.

These options eliminate the stress of reaching into a pocket or bag, pulling out your phone, entering a passcode, and then opening up an app.

If we’re counting stresses, these experiences are winners.

And of course, notifications do a great job of skipping a few steps, providing rich experiences to users on phones outside the walls of apps. In fact, the goal of certain notifications, such as the location based suggestions of Foursquare, is to give you the right information before you even ask for it.

Notifications can serve as serious stress elimination when they work well. When they don’t, they might provide stress when you’re not even looking to complete a task (I might count that as a stress count of +2!).

Similarly, there’s a growing number of “invisible apps” — these are apps that try to convey their information without having any interface of their own beyond the platform they’re on. They may exist solely as SMS bots or notifications. Millions will attest to slackbot’s stress reducing qualities.

Limit Stresses, Slay Giants

The ability of an app to fulfill a single purpose in as few stresses as possible could end up being its secret to competing with a seeming category killer.

Take the app Dark Sky, shown here. This app defaults to a home screen that shows you weather in detail in the coming hour.

Compare that to the popular app from The Weather Channel.

Here’s the user flow for getting from home screen view to weather in the upcoming hour on The Weather Channel app:

Seems like Dark Sky has eliminated about three stresses in finding out the weather this hour: it eliminates the two swipes needed to get to the hourly info (+2 stresses), and there’s no wondering where the hourly weather is within the app, or if the app even offers this information at all (at least +1 stress).

But let’s make matters a bit more complicated: when Dark Sky first hit the scene, there was a good chance that you had The Weather Channel app already installed. So the Dark Sky value proposition involved the stress of downloading a new app.

The good news for Dark Sky is that downloading is a one time stress investment, leading to fewer stresses for users down the line.

Supposed category killers, like The Weather Channel app, often have a whole host of useful features to solve problems within a given category. But as the list of features for these apps grows, some of them will end up getting buried behind the stresses of taps, swipes, and hamburger menus. There are only so many places on a screen you can place shortcuts to features.

Honing in on single task fulfillment like this can also lead to enhanced features around that given task. As shown above, Dark Sky offers a whole lot more information in its upcoming hour weather view than the Weather Channel.

If you can offer fewer of those taps, swipes, or stressful moments of “where IS this feature?”, you can slay the giant category killer, at least in regard to winning users for performing a specific task.

This is also the reason so many popular apps are unbundling. Facebook feels that they can help you send and receive messages with fewer stresses in a stand-alone app than when that action is buried in another app.

There are a number of benefits to decreasing stresses. Intuitively, you already knew this. But it can be a useful exercise to literally count the number of stress inducing moments in a given user flow, and see if there aren’t ways to holistically reduce them. At the very least, it can be a great tie-breaker between two UI concepts.