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Making a Timeless User Experience

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In: Columns > Wide Open

By David Wertheimer

Published on October 15, 2002

Providing good user experience takes more than drawing handsome icons for people who don't read. One has to think in all directions to properly define smart user-centric design, then, apply those decisions in a timeless fashion.

An analogy

By way of the audio department:

Fifteen-year-old Jim walked into the Panasonic service center wheeling a circa-1977 stereo with him. He brought it to the repair area and set the stereo on the counter.

"Can I help you?" asked the woman behind the service desk.

"Yeah," Jim said, with a hint of indignation. "This stereo doesn't do anything I want it to."

"Well, this seems like a very old stereo-"

"So? It's got everything a stereo has: a disc player, a tape deck, all the buttons. But none of my stuff works on it."

The service rep was confused. "Like what?"

"Well," Jim said, "There's this big platter here, but I put CDs on it and nothing happens."

"Um, sir-"

"And," Jim continued, "there's a stop button but no start button, and this arm thing doesn't move unless I do it by hand. And even then all it does is screech instead of playing my music."

"Sir, that's a record player," the woman said.

"I know! And I want to play my CDs on it but they won't play."

"CDs are different from records."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we call a collection of music a record, but it's a different format. Records are large, vinyl platters, not shiny plastic discs like CDs. You play them by putting a needle on them. Thomas Edison invented it."

Jim was perplexed. "So this plays discs-"

"Records."

"-Records. But not CDs."

"Right."

"It's a completely different thing."

"Right."

"I guess that makes sense. When did they stop making records?"

"Oh, they still make them," the woman explained, stretching the limits of her customer-service job description to keep her customer satisfied. "Just not many of them. Some people would really like this record player. But it's different from a CD player."

"Okay," Jim said, quietly content with the realization that this was way beyond his interest level, and his CDs wouldn't work no matter how well he understood the matter. "Now, about this tape area."

The woman behind the counter couldn't help but smirk. "I can tell you right now it's not going to play your cassettes."

"You mean these?" Jim pulled two Maxell XLIIs out of his pocket and placed them on the counter. "Why don't they fit?"

"This stereo has an 8-track player. It's a different kind of tape. They were around in the 1970s until these other tapes," she said, pointing to Jim's mix tapes, "got more popular. Then the music industry phased the 8-track out."

Jim was now thoroughly lost. "So you're telling me I have a disc player that doesn't play my discs and a tape deck that doesn't play my tapes."

"Well, yes," came the reply. "They play discs and tapes, but other kinds."

"Man, what a waste. How does this stuff get to be so confusing?"

"Sir, I would assume the stereo works overall; the speakers and wires are in good condition, and the radio seems functional."

"You mean this knob with the moving bar and the numbers is a radio?"

This is the user experience

User experience and user-centered design aim to minimize confusion on the part of the user. Not every user experience will mirror Jim's antiquated stereo frustration, but the basic tenets apply: Provide guidance; advance and age with grace; make things as self-explanatory as possible.

The anecdote above could just as easily apply to usability and standards, but it proves a vital point in the world of user-centered design. Often lost in the rush to advance is the need to remember those who, inadvertently or otherwise, get left behind. And for them, the user experience is a mess.

Standardization is obviously and undeniably a good thing. Compare the ease of buying a new telephone--same basic 10 buttons, same cords, regardless of brand--to the aggravation of finding an instant messaging program that seamlessly links a disparate network of individuals. Which is the better experience? The one that takes care of the details in advance. Protectionism, a lack of standards, and indifference toward backward and sideways thinking can create Byzantine systems that interfere with the user.

This is where user-centric design matters. To some, the word "design" may not apply perfectly to a phone jack, but the theory is certainly true: by creating an industry-wide standard, and making it easy to identify and implement--those nice cords with the click! when inserted properly--the "user" has a relatively simple experience.

Note that in the telephone world, the many advances in technology, from memory to call-waiting to different degrees of cordless phones, have not altered the basic underpinnings. This is an essential component of good design: Making sure the same experience stands the test of time. Few industries do this. Poor Jim up there has all the latest software but none of it works on his hardware.

Situations like this exist in both positive and negative fashion across the computer world, and the positives are a delight, even when used sparingly. For example, Mac OS X has a mode that runs old OS 9 software; Internet Explorer renders pages developed in old formats like HTML 1.0. Providing this access makes users relax and work comfortably, knowing their problems were largely solved in advance.

Consumer sophisticates

An important corollary to this discussion is the sophistication of the consumer. What must Jim know in advance, and what is self-explanatory in the design? Those telephones all look and work the same way, but to someone who has never made a call before, what is supposed to happen first?

Attention to detail won't hold everyone's hands, but it will simplify the experience for users of all levels. Good design, too, can come in many forms, from easy-to-understand user interfaces to plain-language error messages.

In more clichéd terms, one can't build the third floor of a house without maintaining the second floor and the staircases. To forget this is to turn a user's old Web browser into an online version of Jim's old stereo.

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Related Topics: User Experience, Web Design

 

David Wertheimer is the owner of User Savvy, an Internet usability and strategy consultancy. He lives and works in New York City.

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