Please make me think! Are high-tech usability priorities backwards? Oct 10th, 2004
[Note: This is an updated and edited version of the original article that appeared on Design by Fire. This version was edited by Linda Jorgensen of The Editorial Eye and appears in the April 2006 issue.]
A few simple questions: Should designers be bound by some ethical mantra to make their work deeper, more thoughtful, and more complex rather than to aim for the lowest common denominator of a user base?
Should designers require users to think instead of allowing them to glide thoughtlessly through Web sites, software, or other electronic products ?
Should every control and widget be labeled explicitly?
Should every set of instructions be aimed at the most inexperienced user?
Should everything be so damned obvious all of the time?
To be even blunter: Is the push of professionals in the design and usability fields to make everything more obvious counterproductive to the world at large?
Before we explore that question, let’s take a step back and look at a larger issue that provides some context for this line of questioning.
A culture of quick ‘n’ easy
Many of us in the design field go out of our way to give people what they want, and what most people want from design these days is what they want from all the other things they consume: speed and convenience.
Consider grocery stores. Advancements in mass production and distribution of food have been so successful that most people have no idea what it means to slaughter their own animals or grow their own vegetables to eat. We dine blissfully unaware of the conditions surrounding our own means for survival, inherently trusting the beef we eat comes from cattle that were raised well.
Consider the automobile industry. Driving a car is even easier given how well crafted vehicles have become. Further, it’s a snap to pull into a gas station and simply fill up the tank, with nary a thought about the damage you are causing the planet and future generations of humans.
Consider our culture. Journalism? Movies? Books? They pander to our worst instincts. Television and print news sources favor sound bites over substance and critical analysis. Simplistic character arcs and blockbuster-formula plots favor exploitative sex and violence. One doubts the lasting value of media contributions in the past century.
We make things easy to use, do, digest and process, getting what we want regardless of the cost to ourselves or the planet. The question is when will it all come home to roost?
I am guilty of all I’m questioning; I fight being overweight but exercise rarely. I love to shop at the grocery store for meat, poultry, wine, veggies and snacks like everyone else. I think nothing of driving my car and consuming obscene amounts of gasoline every year. I love crappy reality television shows and read mindless fiction. I’m about as lazy as it gets in certain aspects of my life.
But should it be so easy to be lazy and pleased?
Wouldn’t we be better off if we had to work harder to get a steak? Or buy gasoline? Or to communicate important messages? To really be brutal about this little thought experiment, wouldn’t the gene pool be advanced if only those who think survived and those who fail to think fell behind?
Setting user priorities
Some of you may catch the pun in this article’s title, but I don’t want it to be misinterpreted. I’m not criticizing or attacking Steve Krug. I have a lot of respect for his contribution to the design and usability world. However, the title of his book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, suggests a major goal of usability that might be a dangerous approach to design in practice. Oversimplification might be diminishing users’ capabilities in attempting to make everything so obvious.
A more accurate portrayal of Krug’s thesis is also less glib: Designers need to use common sense. They need to resist a fascination with the arcane intricacies of their own work—intricacies that will foist unnecessary burdens on the people who will use a product Instead, such things as user interfaces and tools should offer straightforward utility.
However, the title of Krug’s book doesn’t say “use common sense and help users.” It explicitly says the goal of design is “don’t make users think”— an imperative that has been dispersed throughout the design and usability community at large.
When designing interfaces, my goals are to make a product work as efficiently as possible first for the repeat, more experienced user; then for the novice; and finally for inexperienced or infrequent users. That’s the order that makes the most sense when designing products that will pass the test of time.
Many times, though, I’m asked to reverse my approach – to make everything more obvious so inexperienced users are appeased first. I often find myself giving in to that request, even though I think it is the incorrect approach to designing sustainable products. Conducting my own informal inquiries in the design community yields that this now seems to be the common trend. If unchallenged, this trend in high-tech design could become be the equivalent of all the other spoils of modern advancements that, in many ways, largely hurt people over the long term.
How so? What if one equated the current trends in the usability field to the fast-food and junk-food industries which, in satiating people’s desire to eat large amounts of processed, cheap food made in minutes instead of sitting down to the dinner table to eat well-prepared meals slowly and with less stress, have contributed to the obesity crisis. In the case of software and the web, the goal of making everything so obvious and easy is contributing to their general lack of understanding of technology itself, which surfaces as a lack for how to use computers responsibly in everyday work.
How many times have entire companies been brought to a grinding halt because users don’t realize that clicking on applications inside email exposes them to harmful viruses? How many times have you seen someone click a link inside a fraudulent email aimed at getting users to enter sensitive personal information?
Using a computer shouldn’t be as hard as piloting a 747 jumbo jet airliner. And yet, if a computer truly becomes a primary appliance in our lives like the automobile has, a product that is relied on by large segments of our population to store and process mission critical and sensitive data, why shouldn’t we require people to learn how to use the machine appropriately, even to buy something as simple as a book?
The standard escapes – does that matter?
If Darwin came back with a vengeance to show us all a thing or two about how evolution really does work, a lot of us would more than likely be on the firing line. I know I would be. And yet, as a designer, I find myself buying into the mandate to design everything so it’s obvious—so people aren’t asked to take the time to learn or think about what it is they are using.
At times when doing this, I feel I’m pandering to the worst traits in people, promoting the uglier side of mass consumerism. Yet I still do it. I still aim for that low target. I still drink the “don’t make me think” Kool-Aid. These days, I find myself wondering: Is it the right thing to do?
The easy answer is that there’s obviously a balance.
But here’s the important thing to remember: Imagine sitting in your car. Now imagine signs printed with explicit instructions that explain every single control in your car – a sign explaining to you how to use the steering wheel to turn left and right, a sign reminding you to look in your rearview mirror, instructions pointing to the sun visor to protect your eyes during sunset, a bright LED sign that fed you reminders of all the things you had to do – so many signs that the windshield becomes a tiny porthole you peer through at a fraction of the road ahead.
At some point, designers have to recognize that making things too obvious, too explicit, or explained to the point of excess will invariably block out what’s most important for users: recognizing where they are, seeing what’s ahead and maybe anticipating what may be gaining on them.