I have discovered that I may have lost work to more dazzling portfolios. This concerns me, but not at the potential loss of work. It concerns me because the people hiring UX designers are often looking for “rock-star” portfolios. I won’t even get into the fact that “rock-star” implies to me: ego that exceeds talent, focus on the irrelevant or unimportant areas of strength, and the idea that being great at one thing presumes that talent automatically spills into another area (particularly one that seems unrelated or tangential at best.) The focus has become more about visual, marketing and sales impact at the cost of a good user experience.
Here’s what I mean. My work should, in the end become invisible. I first became aware of this back in the days when I did a long stint as a commercial photo retoucher. I had started doing this in the days when you used a real brush or airbrush. The advent of Photoshop allowed a lot of people who were software savvy, to do retouching professionally (I’m excluding the ‘at home’ enthusiast and focusing on people who were paid to do this professionally.) Most had little or no formal training in the arts. These were the technicians who made everything look perfect. In fact too perfect. This level of perfectionism often looked ridiculous and while it seemed to make a product or person look great, it also tended to make the consumer mistrustful of the imagery. My approach was to make something look as good as possible but still ‘real’. This meant subtle ‘flaws’ would remain. There is no such thing as perfect skin. Skin has a texture to it. It is one of the things that makes people look human and not plastic. There are many other aspects to it, but you should get the idea from that. I remember defying anyone, who hadn’t seen the original photo, to detect the work I had done (excluding fading effects to allow type overlays and even then – if the image design and layout allowed it – the work may not be obvious, if noticeable at all.)
In terms of the UX design of a product, I feel my work should also be invisible. In fact, that is a large part of measuring a high quality user experience. When a user buys or uses a product, they don’t want to be amazed by the interface. Rather, they want to use the product for what it was intended. Great looking buttons, backgrounds and cool layouts look good on a shelf and in the paradigm of a salesman who is selling a product’s impressive set of features.
This is not a simple subject. Different products need to be assessed by who is using them, including the size and diversity of that user base. If the base is small and specialized, then less emphasis is needed on the new user, who is a subject matter neophyte in the task area in which the product focuses. If you were designing a user interface for a tablet based readout for a system of ECG’s for a hospital situation, then the learning curve you want to avoid is accessing the information in a useful way to someone who already understands it. If you were dealing with a broad-based audience, like users of a OS for a computer (desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile) then you have two separate primary issues to first consider.
First is the new user. They will not be wanting to access databases, analyze multiple forms of input, or deal consciously with multitasking paradigms and scenarios. They will want to do simple tasks and do so in a way that is unimpeded by distractions and questions. If they have a smartphone and want to call Mom, they want to talk to Mom. That’s it. They don’t want a cool dazzling or innovative way to do it, they want only to do it. If it happens to be innovative in its ease, then that’s good, but the innovation should not draw attention to itself. The user will recognize the innovation after the fact, when they realize that the old way took more steps.
Second is the existing or experienced user. This group can be subdivided into two groups, (the group that used the previous system and the group that used an alternate or competing system.) Here the user interface needs to smoothly get the user to complete the task without inhibiting them from completing it by changes in the mental mapping they currently have that comes across as cognitive dissonance. This can be done by simply ‘doing it’. (e.g. the Apple iOS elimination of the [Save] button.) Here, when the process is completed without error and the user has accomplished what they want with fewer steps. When considering the experienced user who has switched from another platform, there is going to be a certain amount of cognitive dissonance anyway, so the job of the UX designer is to reduce it. This can be done with a number of cues, guides and even templates before one gets to the area of tutorials and training.
Another aspect of making UX invisible is when the product has many features and there are many different sets of users who use specific sets (sometimes with great detail and efficiency) while completely ignoring other significant sets of features. (e.g. The person who only uses a food processor for slicing and chopping vegetables, or the Photoshop user who only uses it for creating bitmap paintings.) These users must be addressed, since these use cases are typical for the product. The products in these cases have many features/uses, but there is no typical user who uses most of the features. In fact there are many users who not only have common but limited use of the product, any one of these subset cases may also accomplish a common result in different ways with the same product.
The users of any well designed user interface and operating system, are usually completely unaware of how much is going on in the background to complete a task request. This is part of the very idea of a good and invisible UX process.
I can think of the instances in the past where I failed to convince that ‘dazzle distracts’, especially in the business world. But this was usually in the case where someone high up had an unflinching myopic view of the success of another product, without considering the complete context. I actually remember an executive hold up an iPhone (about 5 years ago) and say that our products should work as simply and easily as this. We thought this was a great idea, until they wanted us to accomplish it with less than .0001 percent (that’s literally accurate) of Apples design budget and 20% of Apples timeframe.
So, I feel when someone wants a dazzling user experience from me, then they should be talking to marketing and not me. That is often counter to my job.
I want my end users to say things like this:
“I used to be unable to do this because I didn’t know how. Now, I still don’t know how and don’t want to know, but I can do it and that’s what I want.”
“I never thought this could be easy.”
“Look what I can do now.”
“It’s the only one I can use.”
“I’m always discovering more things I can do with this.”
“Now I can’t go back to the way I used to do it because I had no idea how tedious it was.”
I don’t want to hear this:
“It looked great in the store, but after I got it, it was so annoying.”
“All I wanted to do was this simple task and after three [unsuccessful] tries, I deleted it.”
“Coolness” should not come from how the product looks, but come afterwards when they’ve used it for even a little while. But like all things UX, it’s easier said than done.
On a final note and caveat, I’m not addressing games, pure entertainment products and some children’s products where visual dazzle may be a significant if not primary attribute to the user experience.