Last week, I was at a family reunion filled with fabulous, intelligent, talented people whom I’m glad to call family. One thing I noticed: as people pulled out laptops and iPads and smartphones, or discussed some of the current technological hurdles they’re facing in their day to day lives, there was still a lot of frustration and implied distrust of the hardware or software being used. It really hammered home to me that there’s still a long distance left between usable and intuitive. They were adding complexity and hurdles that didn’t need to be there, because they were used to a previous mental model that was more complex.
I work with software and computers every day, and have for years. Even a lot of my hobbies end up taking place on computers. It’s easy to take for granted the human-computer interactions I do on a daily basis, because I do them regularly, and generally even if it’s a new piece of software or hardware, it still behaves similarly enough to other software that I can get the hang of it pretty quickly. The thing is, even with the pervasiveness of technology these days, I am an anomaly, not the norm. Many people — highly skilled, capable people — simply don’t have that background and context for understanding, nor the time or interest to gain it. As far as I see it, this is a lot of what user experience design is all about: finding that line between simplicity and complexity, where people have enough detail to understand what is happening (at least a high level), but is still simple enough that they don’t have to invest cognitive energy to grasp how to use it.
Aiming for clarity is hard on its own, but what I was noticing is that it faces an additional hurdle: overcoming the complexities or mental models of previous designs. It seemed like a big problem in particular for older generations was that they’d fallen out of sync with what experiences were designed to be now, and were burdened with the expectation of complexity or failure from experiences in the past. It’s easy to say “oh, well they just need to retrain themselves,” but that implies they have the cognitive energy, time, and interest to do so.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep working on improving the user experience, but it is something to bear in mind when developing software or hardware. I have a few ideas on how to accommodate this, some of which may be more palatable than others:
- Evolving UX: Going with more iterative, minor changes rather than a large shift. This already happens some (depending on the software), and sometimes it’s unavoidable that multiple changes will need to go in at once.
- Documentation: Creating effective documentation can be invaluable for keeping older users up to speed on what’s happening. Three things I’d want to make sure to consider: keeping docs up to date to the current version of the software; keeping legacy docs for older versions; mapping the old user experience to the new user experience in change logs and within the docs themselves.
- Usability Studies of Existing Users: Doing usability research has definitely become more prevalent, which is a good thing, but I feel like tends to focus on how to attract new users, and doesn’t really give a lot of attention to existing users (I suspect at least partially under the presumption that once a user is committed to your product, they are less likely to take the additional effort to switch). It would be really interesting to make sure to include existing long-time users when doing usability studies. If considering retention of existing users isn’t on your radar, maybe you should reconsider.
Obviously, it’s impossible to please all of the people, and maybe more of this is already in progress than I’m aware of, but it does feel like we’ve got a distance left to go on learning to effectively clear out the cobwebs of past experiences.