On rainy Fridays I sometimes worry about stuff. Especially when I should be working on my edUi Conference presentation instead of looking for ways to procrastinate… Here’s this week’s worry edition:
Yesterday, I read Fred Beecher’s most excellent piece in Johnny Holland Magazine. The gist of the article is that the iPhone interface is hard to learn and use (space constraints, unfamiliar UI conventions, lack of consistency across apps) but that the device succeeds because it’s fun to gradually, through experimentation and play, discover all the cool things it can do. I thought this was a really exciting insight and I couldn’t agree more with the implications: that “experience design” is about more than “usability” – it’s also about providing aesthetic pleasure. As an analogy, think about the tactile and sensory pleasures of finely engineered products – the satisfying “thunk” of a well-designed car door. Of course, Apple is great at creating these experiences. The earlier clickwheel iPods were a little annoying to use from a UI perspective – overly linear, in my opinion. But the genius of the clickwheel is that you are petting it as you’re using it! You are conditioned to love it.
But there’s a whole world of interfaces that don’t need to be fun “experiences” at all – they just need to work fast and well. And this world is growing rapidly as more and more companies move account transaction services and customer service functions to the web. The trouble is that, as they are relying more heavily on the online channel, companies tend to invest less in offline (i.e. “human”) support for their products and services. It’s great that you can pay your ConEd bill, or sign up for new cable channels online, but God help you if something goes wrong – you’ll end up lost in an endless IVR loop, or waiting on hold for hours to speak to someone thousands of miles away who probably can’t help you anyway. Case in point, Whitney Hess’ recent bad experience with Apple customer service.
We’ve come a long way in our willingness to trust websites or other digital touch points with our most crucial transactions (still, admit it, you hesitate before making a large deposit via ATM, don’t you? Ok, well I do!). In fact, we’ve probably gotten to the point where most of us would rather interact online with our service providers (banks, cable companies, utilities, doctors? dry cleaners? auto mechanics?). I have pretty modest expectations when it comes to these kinds of transactions – they don’t need to be fun, it doesn’t need to be an “experience.” Just let me get in, get the job done and leave – anything beyond that is, quite frankly, pretty annoying.
I agree that experience design can be about creating fun, engaging experiences which, in some cases, raise our collective quality of life — or even, in the best cases help address social problems. But I worry that in the pursuit of this ideal we might lose focus on the nuts and bolts that got us here – just good effective, usable designs that help people get stuff done and get back to their lives. Let’s not, ok?