Digital Etiquette: What if your feature was a person?

I recently read About Face by Alan Cooper, a must read for all interaction designers. The most captivating part of the book for me was about digital etiquette.

We typically use the word “etiquette” to describe expected human behavior. Table manners is a classic example of etiquette. It dictates how we use our utensils, how we chew, and how we carry conversations during a dinner party. The thought of using the same word to describe software behavior was at first strange to me. I never thought that software also needs to have proper table manners.

Unlike our relationship with forks and knives, we treat and respond to our gadgets like people—according to The Media Equation. If we want a smooth interaction between humans and software, Cooper argues that we should be concerned with our digital products’ personalities and behaviors, or etiquette.

What type of person will your software be?

Good digital etiquette delineates software to behave like a considerate human being. Software should be concerned with the goals and needs of the user. To deliver that level of consideration, software needs to remember user preferences and predict user actions.

With the amount of data we are now able to collect on users and with the progression of artificial intelligence, many software applications have introduced features that can predict our needs and provide appropriate assistance like never before. Though the intentions of these features are noble, not all of them live up to the bar of good digital etiquette. Here, I’ve assessed the digital etiquette of four mobile features. They range from being a helpful assistant to being a rude person.

A useful feature: Assisting with communication

You are in middle of a meeting and your mom calls you. You reject her call, and the trusty iPhone gives you the option to send a text to your mom that says something along the lines of “Hey mom, I’m busy! I will call you back when I have time.” This may have been one of my favorite features when I first got a smartphone — the phone is damn smart! It exemplifies what a thoughtful human assistant would do: tell your mom you are in the middle of the meeting. But why does this feature feel so considerate and helpful?

There are 3 reasons:

  1. the feature shows up at the right time,
  2. the need to use it is urgent, and
  3. it is not intrusive.

Instead of explaining how this feature meets those criteria, I will explain by showing 3 examples that do not meet them — given that, I believe, the original intent of these features were to help users meet their goals.

An annoying feature: Showing up at the wrong time

I added the Sephora loyalty card to my Wallet app — an Apple app that stores my loyalty cards, movies passes, credit cards, and more — to keep my wallet light. When I was adding it to Wallet, I selected the “Suggest on Lock Screen” option. This feature detects when you need to use a certain Pass, based on time or location, and display it on your Lock Screen for easy access. I used this feature for my flight ticket from San Francisco to Toronto. The ticket sat on my lock screen while I was in the San Francisco Airport so I had quick access to it whenever I needed it. I thought this would be a very useful feature for my Sephora loyalty card as well. Oh boy, was I disappointed!

Whenever I’m near a Sephora store, the card pops up on my home screen and does not go away. It may not be as annoying if I rarely pass a Sephora, but I’m always passing one. (It’s right outside the closest subway station to my house.) This thing would pop up all the time, ALL THE TIME! It felt like that really annoying salesperson who follows you around the moment you walk into the store. The worst part was I couldn’t get away! It follows me into the subway!

If this feature was designed to help me find the card easily when I need it, it should only show up when I’m inside a Sephora store — ideally when I’m waiting in the checkout line. If this feature was designed to be an ad, then congratulations, it achieved the same level of annoyance as pop-up banners.

An ignorable feature: Assisting a nonurgent need

Lately, Inbox —Gmail 2.0 that does more than send and received messages — has been giving me auto-generated responses to help me reply to my emails faster. Most of the suggestions are contextually appropriate responses. It is impressive how far natural language processing has come. Regardless of how advanced the technology is, I don’t usually find these responses useful.

Comparing to the Call Rejection Text Message feature, the main flaw with this feature is that there is no urgency for me to respond to an email right away. If I didn’t have time to write a response, I can respond later. Unlike phone calls, it is socially ok to respond late to an email. Inbox was trying hard to be helpful when I didn’t need its help. It reminds me of my mom telling me to put on more clothing because she worries that I’m getting cold. I would ignore her because I’m not cold and I don’t need to put on clothes.

I think Inbox should leverage its natural language processing to help us stay organized rather than to communicate. We don’t use email for fast communication, we use it for important electronic documentations and detailed information exchange. I know Inbox is already helping us stay organized; it suggests to-dos based on the content of the email. But Inbox can leverage other Google apps and take it to the next level. In this example, my friend is asking me if I’m free on Wednesday night to go to dance class. Instead of asking me to pick between messages like “That works for me.”, “Good for me.”, or “Sounds great to me.”, Inbox should check my calendar to see if I am available Wednesday night. It should tell me “You are free Wednesday night!” This saves me the trouble of having to open my calendar, check that I’m free, and then return to Inbox to respond to my friend.

A rude feature: Just too intrusive

My boyfriend and I snapped a few selfies with souvenirs he bought from Mexico. As soon as we took our first selfie, Messenger—Facebook’s messaging app—sent me a notification that said “Send the photo you took to [boyfriend’s name]?” We paused our selfie mode, stared at the notification for a second, and discussed the potential algorithms behind this. You know that really rude person who likes to cut you off in the middle of a conversation just to talk about him or herself? That was Messenger!

Later on when I opened my Messenger app, there was a dialog on top of the app prompting me to send those selfies to my boyfriend. Unlike the notification, the timing and display of this dialog was very well done. It was subtle, yet it was the first thing I noticed when I opened the app. It did not significantly disrupt my use flow. Without the push notification, the dialog by itself would be a considerate and useful feature. As I open the very app I would use to send the selfies, the app predicts my needs and show me a dialog to assist me.

Is your feature a helpful person?

When designing new features, we run wild with ideas. We want to flex our creative muscles and leverage the latest technology. At the end of the day, we should ask ourselves, what if this feature was a person? What type of person will it be? Will our users find him or her helpful? The answer to that last question should always be yes.