Do make me think | Neil Pawley

On the bus to work I used my phone to check my investment portfolio, send money to my daughter at University, and pay a couple of bills. I checked the news via the BBC App; looked at train times; browsed review sites to see if an album I plan to download is worth getting; and in the background ran a ‘bot’ to find a loan.

This was all completed in the first few minutes of the bus ride and in all those interactions I don’t believe I had to tax my brain for a single second. But in my demand for speed and ease could I have made a mistake, ordered the wrong thing or signed up for something I didn’t want? Most worryingly of all, in my haste might I have ignored some small print that potentially shares my personal details with characters I would cross the road to avoid on a dark night.

Through multiple digital interactions consumers have come to expect everything to be simple and that nothing should take more than a few seconds to complete. Has the simplification of online processes led to oversimplification? Have we taught consumers to complete tasks quickly, paying little attention to important and necessary information? As UX designers it’s our job to not only make interactions simple but to also make sure that we guide consumers through good decision-making, using design to highlight necessary and important information to ensure they understand the future implications of that decision.

Not every interaction should be over simplified.

Over-simplification and unrealistic expectations

At the start of the millennium Steve Krug published a seminal book called ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. This book helped set the direction for usability design for the next decade and beyond, and led to a transformation in the way businesses conduct themselves online with an essential focus on designing for user requirements, making processes simple and minimising journey time.

There’s no doubt that Krug’s thinking guided the UX industry and has resulted in improved interaction design: we’re more focused on task completion, and more efficient at moving users to a decision. That is a good thing. The problem is that this has sometimes led to over simplification that, in turn, has set unrealistic expectations, in the UK, for all online interactions. You could say ‘don’t make me think’ has been taken too literally.

Taking Steve Krug’s wisdom, but applying it unwisely, some companies guide consumers unwittingly into making mistakes and ill-informed choices. Short-term this helps sales, but long-term for brands it can mean lower customer satisfaction, potential loss of customer loyalty and legal repercussions. Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) is a great example of how consumers were led into purchasing a product without close consideration. The purchase process was simplified with the ultimate goal being to craft the proposition in such a way that it became a ‘no brainer’, and it succeeded. Only in retrospect and through the courts have consumers realised that they were misled. A great deal of these PPI sales were completed online.

In the end did the banks really cheat consumers, or were consumers too focused on completing the task quickly to bother reading the details correctly? Were informed decisions made, or was habitual behaviour recognised and capatilised upon by providers?

I’ve made it my career to observe and analyse online behaviour and I’m concerned with what I see. I often observe people ignoring important messages, focusing rather on instant gratification and reward. Comments like these are commonplace:

  • “I never give things like this as much attention as I should”
  • “Wow, I completely missed that!”
  • “Oh that, I never read those messages”

Phones have contributed to this as swiping and tapping have sped up completion of process and reduced users’ willingness to engage to an even greater degree. Information speeds past the eye with only the bare minimum of detail being digested.

As consultants or designers, we are all trying to make interactions simple, but maybe not everything is, or should be, simple. Sometimes processes are necessarily opaque. Over simplification can obfuscate the important, causing more problems than it superficially resolves. An aphorism commonly attributed to Einstein says: ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler’.

Interestingly, the simplicity of this statement belies the complexity that lies within. This is not a demand for simplicity, more a warning that there should be boundaries; that we have to understand where the line should be drawn. We must not add complexity where it isn’t required, but by the same token we have to ensure we do not over simplify where complexity is necessary.

Helping people make better decisions sometimes means designing complex interactions.

Designing for outcomes beyond speed and ease

The world seems to think that the only outcome the customer is interested in is speed, but there are other outcomes we should be designing for: confidence; a sense of control; the suitability of a product or service that users need. Designers need to recognise that the flow needs moments of reflection and focus. Making the user stop and consider their decisions may add time, but — done well — it needn’t detract from a smooth sense of flow in an experience. Essential information points should not be so easily glossed over or missed, but highlighted and featured as important points of reference.

There is a necessary complexity to many interactions, putting these processes online and on a phone changes the dynamic, but it doesn’t reduce the complexity, or the risk. They are complex by their very nature, requiring thought and consideration.

The question is how do we modify this behaviour without breaking the flow in a process we have worked so hard to establish? How do we add sufficient drama to specific statements to gain attention, consideration, and reflection without de-stabilising the control and confidence a consumer feels within that process?

There are three areas where we should be paying more attention if we want to get the right trade-off between speed and good decision-making:

  1. Placement: Important information is often relegated to a position on the screen that falls outside of the user’s field of view, or is located after the event where the consumer has already moved on to the next thing. Appropriate placement ensures convenience; it doesn’t take the consumer out of their way and delivers the message when it is most required, be it at the beginning, middle, or end of the process.
  2. Presentation: When task-focused and working at speed it is essential to help consumers recognise that something different is expected of them. Mixing important messaging too close, or in a similar format will ensure it is missed. This is the moment for theatre where colour, design and delivery can be altered to guide attention and signal an important moment in a journey. Sometimes a controlled shot of chaos within a perceived calm is required to ensure the right level of engagement is achieved.
  3. Message: The right tone, quantity and structure of message can make all the difference between something being perceived as hard-work or dull and something that is informative and helpful.

Setting realistic expectations from the beginning and offering succinct, well-structured copy, placed appropriately, and presented in a manner that attracts attention are essential. All will invite consumer exploration, build comprehension and control whilst maintaining flow, and pre-warning the consumer about consequences of action.

Dwell time, click through rates, and sales funnels are common metrics that help to shape sales processes with each tending to concentrate upon speed from beginning to end. Businesses need to start using metrics to better understand the levels of comprehension, confidence and control consumers have within a journey or decision making process. This will ensure consumers are not only using and buying services and products, but doing so while understanding choices and feeling confident that their decision has been the right one for them.

Of course, there are interactions and processes that should be simple with unnecessary distraction removed (paying a bill, buying a book), but there are also times when we cannot and should not diminish the complexity of a situation or a choice we are making.

It is our responsibility that we build comprehension, engagement, and moments where consumers are better informed and aware. We must educate and must ensure that not everything can be accomplished in seconds — some things should make us ‘stop and think’.


Originally published at www.foolproof.co.uk.

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