Familiarity breeds… comfort

Everybody knows shortcuts, right? Of course not. My folks have no idea what they are, but it doesn’t stop them getting things done. They often follow what we might call, the scenic route. It takes a bit longer, but they get there in  the end. This is their learned behaviour. Even though the icons in their software highlight what the shortcuts are, they still don’t use them. This could be in part because the labelling is not clear enough, but it might also be that they have no inclination to learn them.

Even if learned behaviour is more complicated, a user will normally tend towards it due to familiarity and even loyalty. This is a hard pattern to break.

When asking a user to change their behavioural patterns we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions:

  • Will the new pattern really benefit the user, or are we implementing it to appear ‘cool’ (insert whatever adjective here)?
  • If the new pattern is going to be useful, how do we get the users to adopt it?

Often the user will need to be invested in the product in order to invest their time in learning. Why, after all, learn a new process that you’re only going to utilise once or twice. Consider if your website/application is for one off use, or returning users.

Accept that not every user will change their behaviour. You may have a mix of novice users and advanced users. In which case, it might be enough that your advanced users adopt.

Carefully consider how you present the new pattern/feature. The interface should make it clear via style, placement and/or labelling.

So, now you’ve got the user to notice the new behavioural pattern required of them, they’ll use it, right? If only it were that simple! Now you’re up against ‘momentum behaviour’. Jakob Nielsen describes momentum behaviour as follows:

Sticking to a chosen approach, even after looking at a better option.

So, even though you’ve made your new process really clear and appealing, it still might not be adopted. This is because as users, if we’ve done something in the past we repeat rather than create a new pattern of behaviour. Even if our learned behaviour is more complicated we may tend towards it due to familiarity, and comfort.

Ultimately it comes down to cost and gain. Does the the gain of using the new process outweighs the cost of learning it? And this will depend on how often the user interacts with your software, and for what purposes.

The moral of the tale? Be careful asking your users to break their learned patterns unless there is something very real for them to gain. If they invest time in learning something that has little gain, they will not be happy users.

There’s more information about Behavioural Momentum on Wikipedia. It gets a bit (OK, a lot) sciency, but it’s really fascinating stuff.





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A few words on complexity.

Living with Complexity

I’ve just read a great book called ‘Living with Complexity’ by Donald A. Norman. You should read it. It rocks! Here’s the TLDR if you don’t have the time:

“If only today’s technology were simpler! It’s the universal lament, but it’s wrong. Don Norman writes that the complexity of our technology must mirror the complexity and richness of our lives. It’s not complexity that’s the problem, it’s bad design. Good design can tame complexity.”

That’s what the dust jacket says. And here are a few takeaway points from me:

Simplicity is a mental state, highly coupled with understanding. Something is perceived as simple when its actions, options, and appearance match the person’s conceptual model. That’s right: something is only complicated if you have trouble understanding it. Complexity is necessary. Complexity is what we require of our technology today. Complexity is an opportunity that can be embraced when users and designers find harmony. A great Experience Designer can increase the perceived simplicity of a product. It’s all in your head!

People might very well desire more capability and more ease of use, but we should not equate those with more features and more simplicity. What people want are usable devices, which translates into understandable ones. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity, to turn what would appear to be a complicated tool into one that fits the task, one that is understandable, usable, enjoyable. Absolutely! We require our mobile phones to be complex – if your iPhone could only make and receive calls that would be no good. And even then, you’d want to know who was calling you, or who you were calling, so then an address book is required. What if you miss a call? A voicemail service is required. And then when we think about text messages, we want autocorrect, auto suggest, auto complete. Do we want to know if the message has been delivered, if it has been read? And that’s just phone calls and text messages. Then we require a high quality camera, internet access, apps, maps etc etc. It’s all pretty complex stuff, but you wouldn’t say your iPhone is difficult to use. It’s a breeze. And that’s where great Experience Design comes in!




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