Design for the difficult

This is my tiny wrap up of uxcamplondon talk that I held at the Ebay Headquarters down in Richmond. My talk had the  inspiring title “designing for the difficult – because some things just aren’t simple”. Before I had my talk I had only a vague understanding of the concept. But I think I understand it a bit better now, so i decided to give you a rough outline of the concept.

The problem
The problem is quite clear, many applications (be it software such as word, excel, be it web-apps such as Ebay or Facebook) are quite well designed to get beginners up to steam, and also have some advanced features for the top of the end users. How someone goes from beginner to advanced users is still an hardly explored terrain, leading to many people stuck in the middle. To use a graph to explain the problem: If a new product arrives on the market some people will quickly ‘get it’ and become an advanced user, most people will slowly grown in to the functionality they need and become moderate users, and also a fairly large chunk will never grow out of the beginner state and or give up, or only use the very basic of functionality of the software. The challenge therefore is: how can we get as many users from beginners to moderate and from moderate to advanced in a way is most natural to the user.

Old answer – the manuals
Rtfm Write lengthy manuals, hundreds of frequently asked questions, and many pages on help. Although this is not a bad thing to do, it’s also not the best for two reasons:

  • Users don’t read for various reasons, but mainly because reading requires true effort
  • Developers and designers don’t like to write manuals (no statistics for this claim, so I’m happy to be proven wrong)

So the reading coin doesn’t work out for two reasons, no-one likes to read and no-one (almost no-one) loves to write help texts, faq and manuals when they know they won’t be read.

Old answer – the course, seminar, workshop
Sent the users of your software so lengthy and expensive help courses, where they will burn away their valuable hours and burn away valuable company’s cash. Although this method works, it comes with the down down sides, that it requires even more effort than reading and most times courses are more expensive than the software itself.

New Answers
I believe there are better methods to educate the user and there are several fields of which ux-designers can borrow inspiration and information.

  • Game design – is already working for decades on how to get users through their levels with giving them the right challenges at the right time.
  • Marketing – also has a long track record in how to get users to do something /anything
  • Education – Just as the classic examples of the book and the classroom, there should be a lot of information there on how to motivate people to learn new tasks.

Together with the fields above there are also two scientific areas that give a lot of ‘new’ answers: sociology and psychology both studying human behaviours and trying to come up more answers on how to keep the change > effect train running. Recently this whole field has got an incredible boost by both the further development of neuro research and the incredible rise of data mining

To me it seems no more than logic that ux field should learn as much as they can from those three fields of work, two fields of science and two incredible methods. Luckily this is already happening, but as far as I can see not in a very structured way.

To give you some links to sources where you can read more on this subject:


I’ve gathered quite a series of examples, but at the moment I feel it’s to early yet to state that it is anything beyond incidental anecdotes, but for those interested; have a look at my presentation:

Design of Flow

There are a few topics, that I want to write about the next times, I’ve already mentioned them in my previous post, but I’ll define them once more.

  • Goal based design
  • Flow design
  • Emotional / experience design
  • Play and fun as a way to achieve goals

They are all part of the same process, and describe our relation with technology, we create and use technology, not because we are such fan of technology an-sich, but because we want to get something done.

It’s important not to confuse goals with tasks, as Norman points out, tasks change with every update of technology, I used to write a letter with a pen, than I switched to typewriter, than I used Word to write it, and now I’m even using WordPress to express myself. So the technology, and tasks have changed pretty dramatically over the last decades. The goals however -to bring an idea across- is already the same for millennia. So by looking at how to get the most done, we shouldn’t focus on how to preform a certain task as optimal as possible. Instead we should ask ourselves (as creators and users of technology) how we can achieve a certain goal as easy and good as possible. (There are some nice books about order versus chaos, and how much wasted time there is spent on creating order in systems that function as well with a little mess)

Constructing Flow
A flow is a certain series of sub-task that together will form a finished task. Flow is where man and machine meet for the first time, the person want to achieve a certain goal and is using certain technology to reach that goal. (Or the other way around, certain technology can facilitate certain goals but needs users to achieve those). Flow is also the name of a state of being.

Most of us have experienced a mental/emotional state where all of our attention (or energy) is totally focused on an activity. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) named this state “flow,” based on how participants in his studies described the experience. (source)

To facilitate a flow therefore, a website should focus on delivering only those tools the user needs on that particular moment. You can already see the problem here, how does a website (that is most likely been build to support multiply goals by users with different flows) facilitate a user with the the flow that will work best on that moment. There are a few known solutions already, but all seem to have their down sides. To name a few:

  • A user can hide the non necessary tools (as WordPress does)
  • Depending on a predefined kind of user the interface will have certain features (Photoshop and Dreamweaver for example)
  • The Interface can learn from your actions (text input on the iPhone in theory) and MS Office 2003 (?)
  • Facebook and Linkedin (at least in the past) have a you are now on 30% do something to go to 40%

As you can see from the last example, both designer of the flow and user of the flow run in the same problems. The designer does not know what each specific user want to do at each moment, and can’t therefore not optimize that particular flow. And the other way, the user might know what to achieve but will not no what the most efficient way is to achieve the goal. From the list above, hide and move at own choice and being encouraged to explore the rest of possibilities seem to be the best solutions, since they don’t force the user to make decisions / or make decisions for the user without informing. Enable and encourage to play seems like the best solution. (And also why an undo function is so important (2)

Emotional design II

First lets find a place for emotional design, as far as I consider, we should keep it as far from the new age crap as possible, but we should acknowledge that we are humans, and we use a lot of emotional power to make decisions and not only rational constructed thoughts. Because the decisions made are not rational or well thought out, they are however real and can also be tested, just not as easy as just asking the question. Another point where we should keep design away from is being purely business (money?) driven, as a designer I would state ‘create great products that users love, and the money will come’. A good example where money focus will lead us appeared in an article on UxMatters. this article mentoined emotional design as a selling’ point beyond user experience design itself (or maybe not beyond, but as an important part of). The post is both worrisome as fascinating

By leveraging the science of persuasion in new and insightful ways and designing specifically to optimize the elements of persuasion, emotion, and trust, we can systematically influence customers’ online behaviour. (source)

Not only becomes a website a place where people can get a happy experience, you might also get the feeling that people are subconsciously forced to inhale whatever business has cooked up for them. It has quite an unethical feel surrounding it, than again, if it makes the people happy, why not. As appears in the comments, the blog post turns out to be one large commercial for a user experience company. Though, it touches some interesting points, where usability is not enough to create a good site.

Emotional feedback

The last point in this post (that is already all over the place) is the point Norman makes about how people are extremely well equipped for social interaction -and his chapter about how robots should have emotions- made me wonder how we could apply those ideas to web interfaces. The idea that interfaces can be more than just stating facts is slowly becoming common ground. Flickr keeps us learning different languages to say hello in, Wakoopa allows you to reach all kinds of awesome levels, and also the 404 messages of many website have become opportunities to engage people.

To end this rambling, here are some nice slideshows:

Social Networks, who are they

Lately I’ve spent some time in trying to map the ‘true essence’ of social networks, as always with true essence they refuse to be mapped. Here is my attempt though

There are (should be) three mayor components in any social network

  • Users – this might be members, visitors, creators, editors, (who knows even spambots), someone needs to be willing to do something though.
  • Actions – having user is not enough, a social network should also enable these users to do things, to alter the status quo, to change reality.
  • Objects – last there need to be things that user can preform actions on -to be visible in a digital world you will need to create, alter, reflect on media objects
  • Time

In other words we could state the goal of a social network is to ‘enable people to perform actions that will change what was there previously’

If you would be willing to follow my thoughts this would mean something for many of the current social networks out there, because it is NOT (only) about publishing (blogging, writing, uploading photos, uploading films) it’s fine if you want to focus on that, but don’t call yourself a social network. It is also NOT (only) about activity, displaying activity (twitter, friendfeed, facebook wall anyone. It is (here it comes) about the following three things:

Social networks should enable users to prepare, act, reflect:

Enable a user to see what is going on:

  • Enable a user to see what is going on (activity feed) (real time)
  • Enable a user to create, reply, act, do, take the action (publishing)
  • Enable a user to know what effect this action had

To enable this, social networks should rebrand themselves as social collaboration tools and focus on

  • Providing quick insights on what is going on
  • Making actions disturbingly easy
  • Provide an easy way to know what happened after you acted

You now might want to read more at Boxes and Arrows and read about Google Wave

And more important pleaes leave me your thoughts on what you think are important actors when we think about social networks