UI/UX Lessons from a toddler
I don’t have any kids apps on my phone. I want my phone to be as boring as possible so that it remains intact for its intended purpose — for me to kill time on random content. The funny thing is, my almost two year old still finds the device fascinating. Out of all the colorful toys and hyper-interesting gazillion-button toys, he likes to play with two things in particular — our phones and utensils in the kitchen — two things with no dash of color or ‘features’.
I have been watching him interact with the phone and learn its language (his method is simple and effective —
Touch everything and see what happens
— by the way this is an excellent life hack ‘most’ of the times). I began to see patterns. Patterns that are common to excellent apps with excellent user interface.
Pattern #1: Simplicity pays. The Whatsapp example.
I’m a big user of whatsapp. It helps me connect with people I love and care about — in a no frill but easy-peasy manner. Now I know why I (and everybody else) chose whatsapp.
<This is what my son has been doing with whatsapp lately:
He sends half-a-headshot to almost everyone that shows up on my whatsapp’s home page. I’ve posted the pic with one such interactions with my mom. But there are other horror stories too — for example, once he sent 17 such creepy pics to a whatsapp group I’m a part of. (I squirmed into a ball when I discovered this)
Why? Remember the mantra? — touch everything and see what happens.
So on Whatsapp, the first thing he touches is: the record audio button at the bottom— nothing happens because you have to hold it to record. Second time, target missed and he touches the camera button on its left — BOOM! a selfie is clicked. The audio that accompanies it (camera click sound) was awesome. He wants to do it more. That explains the 17 iterations.
So the lesson is: Whatsapp has made it really easy to communicate with people you love. One click photo share. One click audio share. Good call to action buttons (though IMO, the audio share button takes a user a couple of tries to get a hang of it — which in an of itself isn’t a bad thing).
Pattern #2: Simplicity pays a lot. The android v/s iOS example.
<So here on the left is my phone (there — I said it: I love Android). Notice the cracked screen?
That’s what happens when users get frustrated. My son was trying his mantra again — repeat after me — touch everything and see what happens.
After a while, when only apps will open up, it got boring pretty soon.
On the other hand, my husband has an iPhone. To a toddler, the biggest difference (I know someone who will cringe in his grave reading this) between the two phones is this: a physical, round, pretty tactile — BUTTON. He’s abused the button many times.
And, that is where the beauty and discoverability (yes I just coined this word) of iPhones lie. Important things are easily discoverable. There is plenty written about iPhone’s intuitive UI so I will just write what new perspective I discovered. So when he kept on pressing the button — the multiple screens manifested (all open apps). To a toddler that is 10 more minutes of fun. To an actual user, that is easy discovery of how to swap between multiple apps/screens.
So the lesson is: Apple has made interacting with phone a lot easier. Not everybody wants all the features in the world. Android is feature and customization rich (yes, I geek out on customization. I have a bit of a rebel in me) but not everyone cares for it. As a corollary, that is one of the reasons how Google ate some of Microsoft Excel’s market share with Google Sheets. This study found that a small % of users made use of the bling (all the super sophisticated data analysis tools) that Excel offered. Google sheets then went on to make things amazingly simple for the rest of the mango folks (mass users).
Pattern #3: Simplicity, did I say it enough? Our app example.
My son taught me a bunch of stuff — the very first lesson is to have a screen lock.
However, more importantly I thought I’d put my learning into practice. I’m working on an app these days that helps you discover things your friends love and recommend — automatically. You can read more about it here.
I’m no designer and don’t have a budget for one either but I appreciate the craft. So I copied design best practices and designed the initial UI of the app.
I showed one of the screens where I wasn’t seeing expected engagement from users to my son and wanted to observe what could be improved. As suspected, he implemented his mantra (touch everything and see what happened). All things happened but what I wanted the user to do.
As a side note, the screen shows you details about an app (much like an app store) and user can look at reviews from friends, screenshots of app etc to finally make the decision to — download the app. (I wish I had the old screenshot but unfortunately, I don’t). Below is the new screenshot.
So the change I made was this: Changing the call to action button and simplifying the content layout.
I wanted users to proceed to installing the app they looked at but the old install button was crummy — lost within the content and without a good color contrast. And the content layout was distracting which was getting in the way of my goal.
I changed the button to a circular icon (look at the bottom right corner of the image on the left) which looks raised and has a sharp color contrast (loved this aspect of Google’s material design guidelines). I saw great results — this was the place where my son would now click all the time. While we are on buttons, read this amazing post on how such a small thing can yield big benefits: Buttons in UI Design.
It also translated to almost 100% increase in my goal for that page (of downloading app) from our beta users. I’m sure there could be a lot that I can improve beyond this, but I am happy with the progress we are making and things we are learning.
So the lesson is: Find one (and only one) most important thing you want your users to do — ‘the goal’. And make that stand out from everything in the app. some call it — call to action. Use high color contrast, visuals, cool logo, symiotics, subtle animations or strategic presence.
Finally, I want to leave you with this thought:
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann
It is easy to read about and understand the power of simplicity but very difficult to implement it — saying it from experience. It takes time, effort and a whole lot of thought. The results however, are spectacular.
Another subtle lesson I gleaned from observing my son was — Social Proof. Remember I told you in the beginning about my son’s fascination with utensils and mobile phones? — the reason is because people are attracted to what commands others’ attention — more specifically, other people that mean a lot to them. I know, a big assumption here that I mean a lot to my tantrum throwing toddler ;).
Both my husband and I like to cook and both of us take our phones everywhere (to places where we don’t even take our son.. haha). So naturally our son too finds these object hard to resist. Products becomes viral in part (in addition to being stellar at solving problems) because you listen to and associate with people who matter the most to you; and by association, the products they use become your default too.