Are digital product designers over protecting users?
What we can learn from outside our industry.

Creating interfaces that rely on overloading users with tooltips that hold their hands throughout the experience, is not only evidence of bad practice, but it is teaching our users that this is an acceptable and expected experience.

If confronted with an interface that expects some light work of the user it elicits fear and swift abandonment, ‘What do you want me to do? What if I break something...I’m scared.’

"I believe good user experience isn’t exclusive to digital interfaces or platforms."

With digital experiences evolving at an increasingly rapid pace there has been a relatively small amount of time to ‘onboard’ a generation to the strange new world of digital interaction. But I believe good user experience isn’t exclusive to digital interfaces or platforms.

Designers have been designing User Experience for years without labelling it as such. I find it incredibly frustrating as a trained Graphic Designer to have disciplines segregated into buckets of either a ‘Visual Designer’ or ‘UX Designer’. The blurred lines between the two confuse me.

Graphic Design is a practice of systems that guide its audience through an information architecture. They achieve this by using visual devices (Graphic) with an underlying structure based on logic (Design). That to me covers both the Visual Designer’s role and the UX designer’s role. So why are we separating them?

Sure, information we are designing has changed rapidly from static imagery and type to information with endless options of navigation and interaction, but the principle is the same. As designers we want to make it as easy as possible for our users to consume the information we are providing, so we guide our audience through the experience with considered design choices. It is the same with digital devices as it was for the printed page.

Yes, sometimes a little handholding is inevitable, but rather than grasping the user’s hand firmly to keep them on our desired path, why not create a safe environment for them to explore and learn from their experience. This will lead to richer, more personal experiences for the user and may reveal a side of your product that you never knew existed.

"...it is unlikely that my user error will result in the bars coming off and swiftly introducing my face to the kerb."

In my opinion the best way to learn something is getting stuck in and having a go. I’m sure I am not alone in my curiosity led methodology. I used to take apart bicycles to see how they worked, then piece them back together one component at a time. Granted, this was with varied success — but with digital products it is unlikely that my user error will result in the bars coming off and swiftly introducing my face to the kerb.

Despite the painfully steep learning curve of my amateur mechanics they taught me the majority of what I know regarding bicycle engineering. I learnt each time I took apart and re-assembled my bike, and it allowed me to move forward.

Video games have been applying these ideas successfully for a while now. They start by giving the player some clearly defined set of abilities and constraints. They then give them a safe environment to test these new skills comfortably before ramping up the difficultly and consequence of failure.

Some of my favourite games of recent time apply this method brilliantly. Firstly there is the fantastically simple and addictive Dots — Developed by Playdots, Inc and Published by Betaworks.

On the surface Dots is a simple enough with plenty of technique and advanced gameplay mechanics for those willing to push the boundaries and explore themselves. Essentially however, it is a game about connecting dots. Before I am able to do much else I am presented with the following screen.

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

Great! This is all very simple with very little for me to get wrong or get lost with. It’s simple but it also sets up the tone for the game. So what happens when I press Ok? We get the following screen.

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

There are no instructions here. But in the preceding screen I was told that ‘Eventually, everything connects…’ and I know this is a game about connecting the dots, so I am going to try and connect these dots.

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

I am now given feedback on what I have done. It would seem that as I am tapping and swiping between the dots, they are connecting together. Not only that but I am filling a progress bar around the screen as I do so. I’m petty confident this is what I should be doing...

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

Success! I have just learnt the core mechanic of the game and I did so without needing any handholding. I was presented the task that was needed of me in the simplest possible way then rewarded when I had accomplished it. This felt like my success, something that I had achieved. The app didn’t tell me what to do, it gave me the tools to do it — a safe space with little to no consequence — then confirmed that I had nailed it. This has now been bookmarked in my brain as how the game works. I’m primed and ready for a challenge, let’s ‘Go’ for it.

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

I now feel comfortable testing what I have learnt as I know the basic mechanics of the game; this allows me to push further to see what will happen. I could have joined the four dots in two groups of two, that would have also been fine. The app didn’t tell me to try connecting all four dots together, that was a leap of faith. But allowing me that room to experiment, and the safe space to do so meant I had little risk in trying it. This lead to a greater sense of achievement on my part, I had learnt a new mechanic all on my own, with no help from the application. I felt super smart, which allowed me to tackle the next stage in my stride.

Dots – Developed by Playdots, Inc and published by Betaworks.

Nice. It looks like I have learnt everything I need to play and I also learnt a sweet Charles Eames quote along the way.

What is so successful about Dots is that while we learn upfront the mechanics needed to play the game it also presents us with the seed of experimentation. The game didn’t tell me what to do, it just allowed me to figure that out. So now going forward I have to assume the responsibility that there will be times were I will need to think for myself to succeed.

Another great example, again a game, is the beautiful Limbo — developed by Playdead. The game is a stunning example of great game design, my favourite being the start. As the game is loaded for the first time this is what you are treated with...

Limbo – Developed by Playdead.

The first time I played I stared at this screen for a good while. I had been numbed by other games into thinking that there would be some kind of tutorial level. Nope. After a while I thought the screen must have frozen, so naturally, I wiggled my game controller’s sticks in frustration. To my surprise the inanimate lump in the centre of the screen awoke. I then found out I was in control the entire time. I explored my surroundings, testing out buttons and the controls – there were no button hints offered.

Limbo – Developed by Playdead.

This whole experience could have been shorter. The game could have told me right away to move the stick to move my character, but that would have been weak. Instead I discovered the mechanics for myself, I built a relationship with the character and the game through discovery — something that is essential to enjoying this game to the full. What’s more I also discovered that this game would not hold my hand, I would have to fend for myself and the experience would be the richer for it.

Granted, both of these examples are games and we are talking about digital product design. But games are products themselves, and they thrive and fail on user interaction. If a game is un-intuitive and over bearing with how it educates it’s players, it quickly starts down the road to frustration, and then abandonment. This is a lesson that has been learnt over decades in the game industry. We should take these learnings and apply them. I’m not talking about ‘gamification’ but rather teaching people, and allowing them to occasionally learn from their mistakes.

"...provide them a safe environment in which to explore..."

Experiences like the ones above stay with players and critics alike, living on for years beyond their completion. Have a quick search of the titles I mentioned and you can see for yourself. I am suggesting that we learn from these techniques and approach our digital on boarding experiences in a similar way. Give the user the basic rules/mechanics of the world you have created and provide them a safe environment in which to explore and learn these paradigms you are introducing.

I have recently tried to apply these ideas in my work in digital product design, most recently in my work with Kindeo, an iPad application targeted towards an older audience. The application helps users record their memories through the iPads camera. The app already had a strong design language and was built on the idea of spacial design — which itself leads to an easier reading of an interfaces layout through strict rules of relative spaces (find out more from Pasquale D’Silva and his article, ‘Spatial Interfaces’). Kindeo tasked me with helping their users find their way to record and upload their first video on the service.

Now, as I alluded to earlier, ‘on boarding’ a user to an unfamiliar interface can quickly become a mess of pop ups and tool tips. The concern was that users weren’t saving videos, and therefore were not motivated to share their stories — which is one of the key user stories for the application. I wanted to try out the ‘levelling up’ approach that is so familiar to anyone who has played video-games — give the user a limited level of abilities and a safe place to practice them before adding layers of complexity as they progress.

The following is what I proposed — it was an exercise in deciding when to introduce functionality to the user, to maximise the knowledge retention of how the interface worked.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

We join the journey after the user has created a profile by submitting their email and creating a password — a pretty linear affair. Now we arrive at the core of the application, the first meaningful interaction between Kindeo and their users. We greet them with warm, welcoming copy guiding them to what we want them to do, but the important thing here is there is only one thing to do. With only one button/Call To Action on the screen it is clear what they need to do to proceed. They have also just completed the sign on process using similar buttons, that were introduced on the splash screens right at the start. So we can be confident that they know this is a button and as it’s the only option, it is key to their progression.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

On pressing the button the user is shown a whole new screen. New screens can be intimidating. With this being a core screen for the app it is important that we get the first impression right. We have used the copy on the left to introduce the user and then tell them what is required to succeed, but really they could ignore this copy altogether as there are only two possible actions on this screen – one more than the previous, remember, we are ‘levelling up’ here.

So with the button in the top left labelled as ‘Home’ and there only being one option on the right, we have created a pretty safe and secure place for the user to explore, whilst limiting the odds that they are going to do something un-expected. They either tap ‘Home’ and discover that is how they return home, or they tap on a category to continue their journey...

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

Thankfully, for us, they decide to tap on the Family category. They are taken within the Family section to choose a question. They are now presented with three questions to choose. Considering that the ‘Home/Back’ button was already introduced we are now dealing with only three ‘new’ options – ‘Levelling Up’. Still the consequences of these actions are minor. If they tap on any of the options available to them they will, at worst, learn how to navigate around the application.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

Again, luckily for the purposes of this article, the user decides to make forward progress. This is the first instance where I have allowed myself a pop-up. Privacy is becoming an increasingly important concern, especially for those un-accustomed to technology. So giving a clear reason to why we are about to access their camera is important enough ask that they acknowledge the alert, through a confirmation action.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

So onto the recording screen. This is can be uncomfortable and unusual for the user. They will be looking at themselves in the device camera, potentially for the first time. It is important that we are both re-assuring but clear with what we want them to do, so we only provide two possible actions here — to ‘back’ out or to ‘start recording.’ Both buttons are explicit in what purpose they serve.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

So we are skipping ahead a little here, but for the purpose of the example the user has successfully recorded their video and returned to the list of questions. What’s more we have rewarded their achievements with unlocking the rest of the questions. We have guided them through recording their first video, and subsequently through all the navigation paradigms we are using to do so. Therefore we can now let them explore the rest of this section with confidence that they now what they are doing and can navigate their way around the application.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

Looks like they have managed to navigate themselves back to the topics screen all by themselves, success! They should also notice that the topics are now fully unlocked and free for them to explore by themselves. But again, for my own devious, selfish agenda I am going to ask that they take us back to the home screen.

Kindeo – Designed at Hive.

Ah, what’s this? The home screen has changed, or ‘levelled up.’ We have the same CTA that we know (Record Video) but now there is something new! Now we don’t know what ‘Kindeo Family’ is quite yet – without reading the copy above – but we are pretty confident in the abilities and knowledge of our user. We have taken them through an entire journey so I am willing to let them take the first step into this new area.

So as a new user they have; navigated through a key user journey, learnt the basic navigation principles of the application and been introduced to the idea of progression within Kindeo. Of course this could have been explained in a video, or through a multitude of pop-ups but as I am sure we can all admit, we rarely read those, and even if we do they can be quickly forgotten. By taking the user through the actual process and by ‘learning by doing’ we have built a strong foundation of learning that the user can build upon going forward.

So what have we learnt?

If digital products accommodate appropriate affordances, allowing audiences to make mistakes and learn from them, those lessons will become firmly cemented in their consciousness. Furthermore, they will build on their experience and become increasingly comfortable, pushing your product to its limits. If the user acquires the digital equivalent of a scuffed knee from time to time, that’s fine, as long as they can get right back on the proverbial horse. Of course this theory should be applied with a healthy dose of common sense.

When needed we should explicitly explain the consequences of an undesired action. To re-use the metaphor — if coming across any bright warning labels or warranty stickers whilst performing amateur bicycle surgery I would proceed with considerably more caution. I would be meticulous in my actions, noting any changes I made going forward.

This applies back in our digital product arena. If you are clear when the user is wandering into ‘high consequence’ territory then they can take ownership of that responsibility. This means they will have a more vested interest in not making the wrong move — after all, we gave them fair warning, it’s on them.

"...a blank canvas or paint by numbers?"

If we, as designers, signpost the way through our user interfaces then we are creating an expectation that all interfaces in the future will do the same – effectively numbing our audience to bad products and bad design. Not only that, but we will become increasingly lazy ourselves. Instead of challenging our designs to allow users to explore and be free we will guide them down a linear path to what we want them to do — hiding unwanted ugly situations behind a veneer of pop-ups and tooltips. Sure, this is a solution, but then there is little user experience involved in that. What sounds better — a blank canvas or paint by numbers?

By striking the right balance between wrapping our users in blankets and giving them the keys to the source code we can provide the users with an engaging experience that they are a part of rather than audience to.

For me personally user shaped products are by far the most exciting product stories and it is part of why I love doing what I do. If the user behaves exactly how I want them to, where’s the excitement or challenge in that?


Words & Pictures — Jack Sadler