As designers, some of our goals in analyzing the user experience needs of our apps, websites, and software is to streamline the product, find places to make the process easier for users, and guide users to complete their task with minimal hesitation.
But is there a UX tipping point where we’ve created an experience that is too easy? A UX “uncanny valley”?
If you’re unfamiliar with the uncanny valley, a Wikipedia article notes that “the concept of the uncanny valley suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers.”
I joked on Twitter that the final destination of UX is to put the “next” button immediately under the cursor as soon as a user does an action. How giddy would something like this make our clients:
When Microsoft first introduced its search engine, Bing, to rival that of Google, this was one of their commercials:
While I thought these were funny commercials — and I understand the point they’re trying to make — the thing that struck me was the tagline. It’s not just a search engine, it’s a “decision engine.” Gah! No! I want to decide for myself, thank you very much. I do need to look at all this stuff. Even though I’m probably going to find the bulk of the information I’m looking for in the very first few links, at least it’s comforting to me just to know there are other options there.
I propose there is a UX uncanny valley, where there’s a point in the process at which things seem so easy and so automated that users will start to abandon ship.
The Illusion of Options
My mother-in-law was spending time with my infant daughter, and we were playing with her little activity table, which is an obnoxious light-up, noise-blaring device that’s supposed to help with her sensory development. There are two volume settings: loud and louder.
My mother-in-law raised the question, “Why would anyone choose the louder setting?” Barring any hearing-impairment issues, I assume the real answer is to give parents the illusion of control. As a user experience professional, you might say, “We’ve tested this toy with 1,000 parents, and 100% of the time, parents opted for the lower volume setting. We recommend making the process easier for them and eliminating the higher volume setting.”
However, imagine there was only one volume at the lower setting. Parents would still ask for the choice even if they will always and forever choose the lower volume.
How often have you heard that before: A user says they do something, but, in actuality, the opposite is really the case?
Here’s another example: There’s story out there that when cake mixes were first introduced to the market post-World-War II, housewives rejected them because they were too simple. Merely adding water was not enough to make the baking process feel authentic, and women felt guilty for the convenience and lack of effort. And, so the tale goes, creators of cake mixes left out the dehydrated eggs and encouraged bakers to add their own fresh eggs. Housewives felt more involved, their worth was re-established, and — ta-da! — the cake mix industry started thriving.
I will admit that’s an oversimplified story. There’s even a Snopes article that notes “Eggs didn’t save cake mixes… exactly.” But the psychology behind the story is true. There just wasn’t enough involvement for women to feel satisfied with the ease of cake mixes.
More complication = better user experience?
Outwitting the User
Here’s another layer to the story. A little UX-inception, if you will. As a Bon Appétit writer explains, “A contemporary survey learned, however, that though people said they were more likely to buy mixes that required eggs, they were actually more likely to buy those that didn’t. But eggy or eggless, cake mixes were charging forward into a wide open field of postwar prosperity.”
So, they said they wanted to add eggs, but in the end, they didn’t. How often have you heard that before: A user says they do something, but, in actuality, the opposite is really the case?
There is a sense of security in knowing that you’ve chosen a lesser of evils.
As a designer, we’re trained to think, “Oh, they are liars! This is what they really do, so we need to focus our design around that.” It doesn’t matter what they said they wanted; it only matters what the actual action is. But when you take away the option they rarely go for, you suddenly have dissatisfied users.
So how can we help guide users to do what they want to do without offending their sense of independence? Here are a couple of ways to jump over the UX uncanny valley:
1. Don’t be afraid to show the unnecessary options
Google Maps, for instance, will show you several route options even though users will likely go with the suggested option. There is a sense of security in knowing that you’ve chosen a lesser of evils.
2. Be transparent about how you arrived at the best course of action for your user
In this case, Wikibuy, a browser extension that checks coupon codes for you, animates the process of elimination so the user knows why a code was picked for them and that a thorough search was conducted.
Obviously, every project is different. You have to use your discretion as a designer to design what’s appropriate for the task at hand. But, too many times, designers do UX “by the book.” We’re told to listen to user’s actions rather than their words, study the choices they make, and make it easier for them to arrive at the conclusion we want them to get to.
But sometimes our users want to arrive at the conclusions themselves, and we have to show them the options they want to eliminate (even though we already know the action they’re going to take).
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