Don’t Make Me Think

Photo: Marco Ranieri

I climbed out of my car in the parking basement and noticed Joe in the far corner, seemingly mesmerized by something on the wall. I strolled over to check what was up.

“Hey Joe. What’s up?” I said, breaking the spell.

“Er, hey..” he jerked.

I noticed he was looking at a switch on the wall. A few moments of silence followed.

“So, the boss sent me down to check whether this thing was on or off,” he began, “and, you know — I’m not sure.”

I turned to focus on the switch. It wasn’t the most complicated interface I’d ever come across: an up/down switch with the switch in the up position, and the word OFF exposed below it.

“Here’s the thing,” Joe muttered, “the switch is either telling me that it’s currently OFF, or that I’m required to flick it downwards to get it into the OFF position. I just don’t know.”

I smiled and prepared to offer my rescue, but paused when I realized that he had a point. My doubt started to set in as I stared at it. Is this stupid thing on or off right now?

After a few more minutes the only thing that Joe and I agreed on was to not mention the conversation to anyone in the office.

The story illustrates a broader UI (user interface) design problem: passing the need to think on to the user, rather than doing the thinking during design.

In Steve Krug’s classic book (from which I’ve respectfully borrowed the title of this post) he mentioned the understanding continuum. All things exist on a continuum from ‘Obvious to everyone’ to ‘Truly obscure’. Sometimes we get locked into perpetuating the Obscure for a number of complicated reasons, but we should be edging ever closer to Obvious at every given opportunity. Usually far more than we may think we need to.

If your UI even vaguely resembles an airplane cockpit, you’re doing it wrong — John Gruber

Let’s throw down a few UI design basics:

1/ Know your customer. People arrive with a goal. Do you know what it is? Clear the path between users and the reason they’re there. The interface should help people achieve their goal, not hinder it. Start your development by designing the interface based on the goal users want to achieve, then proceed into the back end workings.

Knowing our customers doesn’t simply mean building what they say they want. Users don’t always want things for very good reasons. We should rather be trying to understand why they want it and then taking that insight into design.

2/ Obsess over patterns and conventions. There are conventions for everything under the sun. If you’re not sure what they are then find a strong reference. Check Facebook or Amazon for web references. Don’t reinvent anything, because then you’ll be taking on the additional burden of having to educate users before you can engage them. If you own a smart device you’ll know that a toggle switch typically displays a color when it’s on, for example.

3/ Keep it simple. Less is more. Continually ask how can this be simpler? Figure out how to guide users without using words. Include some testers who have no context and check whether they intuitively know what to do next.

You have one of these in your home

(For some reason there are industries that remain resistant when it comes to interface design and UI. Healthcare, for example, has suffered fatalities due to poor interface design.)

4/ Be consistent. Adopt a pattern and stick with it. Good UI introduces unspoken standards which users intuitively see and understand even if they cannot articulate them. Rather adopt a mediocre pattern consistently than a brilliant one inconsistently.

Most people use interfaces incorrectly,

or at least differently to how they were designed to be used. They muddle through. They try something and it doesn’t explode, and they somehow manage to achieve something close to what they hoped for, so they repeat the sequence forever. If we can reduce their need to muddle on the first interaction then we’ll create healthy and efficient patterns which will persist.

Finally, you think so that they don’t have to. As the product person your role is to think intensely about the interface design challenge. Focus on the customer and the goal and ruthlessly strip away anything that doesn’t nudge them towards it.

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References: Steve Krug, Jonathan Shariat