Mobile interfaces that adapt to your skills

Or how your knowledge could help in defining the user interface of a mobile app through passive customization.

I was writing down some thoughts on first-time user experience (FTUE) in Mobile Apps when I first learned about Philips Battin’s research in FastCoDesign ,see “The Next Big UI Idea: Gadgets That Adapt To Your Skill” . I strongly recommend the read as it illustrates the current situation we are going through in the UX commercial arena really well.

I do agree with the extensive research on adaptive user experience and completely support the idea of creating a learning process progression where users stay inside the flow zone as they learn all the functionality of let’s say, a TV set. This could be seen as a FTUE walk-through tutorial where users are invited to discover more and more possibilities and branches of the system as they complete simple and sequential tasks inspired by video games. While I definitely think this learning flow is great and necessary for users, I also think we are missing an important point when designing user experiences for digital platforms.

Every new gadget, app or interface comes with a complete set of rules that needs to be understood and mastered. This learning process could be easier if the interface followed standards that the user already knows, if there are real world analogies or if the interfaces behave as users would expect based on their previous experiences. In any of those cases the learning process always falls to one side; the user. Now considering the amount of new apps coming out every day; dealing with different UI metaphors, frameworks and gestures on every single app can be an overwhelming task.

Months ago I started using apps that followed the then new minimal UI trend portrayed later on by the article “the best interface is no interface”. As an interactive designer myself, I completely understand the desire to create an App where content is king and the user interface is either minimal or non-existent. There are tons of different user inputs on mobile devices that can trigger actions in Apps without using a traditional button for it. Apps like Clear, Rise or Solar have almost no UI elements and they do a fantastic job.

However as we strive to create the most effective interface for mobile apps we need to find the balance between a UI that is understandable for new users and at the same time functional for expert users.Minimal interfaces sell the promise of a smooth, future proof experience but sometimes they slap you in the face with a learning curve that needs to be mastered. This is not a big deal when using a single app but it could be if we used several or if we wanted to perform a really specific action inside one of those.

Take the classic futuristic UI from Minority Report as a reference, now imagine Tom Cruise drunk, trying to set up an OOO email. It's not an easy task unless he has some visual clues, or a nicely improved Siri to talk to!

Here is the issue. Good design is meant to satisfy the whole spectrum of users regardless of their expertise. While apps with minimal UI can satisfy expert users right away, they still come with a pretty extreme initial learning curve. On the contrary, Apps with an excessive UI are easier to understand for new users but don’t take advantage of user expertise in order to give more relevance to its content and less to the UI.

So far new users’ tune-ups have been addressed through initial tutorials and walkthroughs. This tries to ease up on the initial learning curve by bringing users up to speed when using an app. On the contrary, expert users’ needs are a different story. The traditional UX flow hasn’t been designed to take advantage of users’ expertise. Normally an App proposes a framework, more or less innovative, and the users either understand it or go through a tutorial until they master it. In any case, the app remains stiff and unalterable to user experience. The App industry is utterly ignoring users’ expertise and therefore it may be neglecting what could be a great step forward in terms of user experience. It sounds quite dramatic but by ignoring the experts we are downgrading the user experience.

Why aren’t we taking advantage of users’ expertise when accessing content?

Mobile apps that use a minimal UI and are gesture-based are great! They are meant for expert users who can embrace them. But what if we could target both new and expert users in the same app by adapting the experience to their needs?

Here is an idea!

Visual affordances on Adaptative UI

New users opening an app for the first time need help understanding what is going on. What’s what and how the framework functions. At this stage of the user experience an icon may not mean anything to them unless it comes with text.

For instance imagine you don’t know anything at all about Twitter and your experience starts by using its iPhone App. At that point seeing an icon like # or @ without any text would mean nothing to you! Less than nothing! It’s just confusing! On the contrary for an expert user, with previous knowledge of the service and its language, that would be enough.

Continuing with Twitter as an example, as a new user I would like to always see the top and bottom bar in the UI when using the app. However as I get used to the service I would probably appreciate it if both the top and bottom bars disappeared when browsing tweets. So like the Chrome App or NY Times normally do, maybe we can hide those controls when the user is clearly scrolling? If that’s too adventurous for a new user it could be something the App only does when it detects the user has spent up to X amount of time on it. This way content gets more and more relevant as the users’ expertise increases.

Visual affordances on non existing UI

Another take on this could be to offer visual indications according to the user’s expertise when using gestures on mobile apps. Let me explain this better. Gestures normally encapsulate actions that have no visual representation on the UI. We hide parts of the UI so the interface is cleaner and that’s ok as long as the user is aware (think Tom Cruise!). However as we are trying to target the whole spectrum of users, gestures with no visual UI represent a big leap in the learning process.

A good example of this interface is Rise for iPhone (beautiful app!). The visual interface of Rise is minimal, and that’s beautiful. I can focus on what matters and discover the functionality by naturally interacting with the app. Rise has a slideshow tutorial that covers all the functionality of the app and shows up when using it for the first time and when it detects the app hasn’t been used in a while.

I’m not a big fan of tutorials and I partially agree with articles like “If you see an UI walkthrough, they blew it” . While I really liked Rise, learning how to activate and deactivate the alarm took some effort to get used to.

What if we could target both new and expert users by showing a visual clue in the UI that would fade out as users master the action? By doing this a new user will understand right away that there is something happening on that side of the screen and would be tempted to explore it. This visual indication would be clearly indicated at first, BUT it will fade out as the app is being used more and more, getting to a point where it would disappear. If the app is not used for a long time it would just be a matter of starting the cycle again.

Summing up now

Getting back to the beginning of the post when I quoted Philip Battin’s research on “gadgets that adapt to your skills.” I think user knowledge shouldn’t limit what users can do with your system by hiding capabilities during the first time user experience. User knowledge should, on the contrary, determine how the interface is presented, first highlighting capabilities and then as the user becomes an expert, elevating the content over the visual UI. By doing this we are covering the experience of both new and expert users while promoting content over visual UI according to their knowledge.

The previous examples on Twitter and Rise are vague attempts to explain how this approach could be implemented in real apps but there are many more possibilities out there.

What do you think?

I would love to hear your thoughts about it. As a creator and a visual designer I always try to craft experiences - tools, apps, you name it - that are relevant, where users are engaged by its content, functionality and delighted by its subtle animations, design and interactivity. I discuss with peers on a daily basis about what the user will understand, if they will infer which action to do or how to access some section. Because time is always a constraint in the Advertising industry, the focus is always on the first time user experience so that the product can be sold. This is ok but, don’t you think we are getting away with a solution that’s not helpful for long term user relationship? Since products are no longer design to last, Is this the result of a planned obsolescence on the digital field?

Pd. Some illustrations that didn’t make it!