Before I begin this article, let me set something straight. I am not saying robots aren’t awesome — they totally are. Robots are amazing. However, beyond comic book robots, there is this discourse between humans and robots. Robots are ‘near human’. We as humans have this fascination with robots. We play with them as toys, we make them in our own image. We have even developed robots with emotional states, that mimic, that care for us.
Robots, though, aren’t us — despite being near. Digital experiences feel created for them, they feel like appealing to a ‘near human’. Consider error messages, hardly human in their approach. There is no connection to the digital experience, no humanity in interactions. Errors are normal, a part of digital life, but how they are dealt with is a great example of how we lack humanity in our interactions online. For example, this is a real error message:
“Could not upload “125425c_200_s.jpg”.
Server said: OOPS: child died
Error – 162 PORT:failed
The error message is saying a child died. Whilst that’s for programming a term, if you don’t know that’s a very emotive error message. The other day I found this example:
I was being faced literally with confirming if I was human. This struck a chord with me. Whilst it may seem funny to do this, I’m sure they chuckled in the team. Proving you are human and not a robot really doesn’t make a welcoming interface.
Facebook recently had a rather interesting bug it managed to kill according to several users. Bugs happen, but imagine if you are visiting the profile of someone you’ve lost touch with only to find the memorial message wrongly applied. This has a lot of emotional impact on the user.
This feels like a missing part from a lot of the experiences of those creating digital experiences — understanding humans. Whatever you are doing, understanding humans is important. It’s important for a designer, a coder. For anyone creating an experience for humans.
Do you know what this is?
Yes that’s right, picture number 3 in a lot of UX articles… but seriously, it’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is a problem with this, though. This is meant to show what you need to be a happy, healthy human. The issue is this may be only the needs of a very specific person, it may not even be the needs of Maslow. Our needs, our wants, our goals — they change.
Even the concept of a ‘user’ is troublesome. Whenever you are talking about the user, remember the user isn’t you. This isn’t about your headspace, your worldview. We also can’t rely on thinking that humans come in models that only use an interface in a particular way. We don’t come in neat boxes. We are varied, diverse, and often unexpected.
Take an example of someone using a device one-handed. Your first thought could be they are physically one-handed. However, what about someone holding a baby, maybe they are using their iPhone while cooking? Think about how many times you’ve used a device one-handed — it’s fairly often. Do you also always use interfaces with 100% attention? I know I don’t. So why do we test with 100% attention? Why do we test in perfect clinical situations that are artificially wrong?
Fluid experiences that adapt to lives lead to the longevity of a product. Humans change, our needs are constantly changing. Beyond our needs, we function in different environments. Nobody has a consistent life and all too often when we create experiences assuming they do. Ask yourself, does your life run to such a timetable that you can predict every second or does life happen? We need to create experiences that adapt to the users — that aren’t rigid and fixed.
Have you ever lost your keys? Or maybe your wallet? What does it feel like? There’s this fog of frustration that descends over your brain. As you retrace your steps this sets in. Your worldview becomes panic as each step tracked fails to find it. I lost my wallet the other day and only found it when I wasn’t blinkered by frustration hours later. We don’t cope well with frustration and we can’t interact well with digital experiences in this state. The problem is, a lot of online interactions cause exactly this mindset.
IFTTT recently changed the word recipes to applets. Now, on surface this may seem confusing, perhaps though they had user research behind this. The issue was compounded by them changing their UI also. This was just too many things at once. Just like things vanishing, this also provides frustration. To cap it all, there was an ‘ironic’ url of /wtf. This may seem cute, but if I’m clouded by a frustration fog, I’m not going to see the funny side of this. I’m potentially just thinking a joke was being made from my negative experience.
One big thing lacking in our digital experiences is respect. Respect is a drive and value to every human. Just like in real life, in a digital one — respect should be central to everything. It’s crucial to be respectful to users, of their time, their space, their everything. They are valued, they are choosing to interact with your experience.
Respect comes in understanding also the patterns of behaviour humans use. Iowa State University once had a form that showed no respect of a very common pattern — the use of an asterisk for required information. Forms are unfortunately an easy way of finding lack of respect. From reset buttons found in easy clicking reach to forms so long that a user needs several cups of tea to complete them. Yes, there are extensions that can save form contents but these are accessible to only a knowledgeable few. Most users don’t use Chrome extensions.
“Are these animation details keeping the micro-interaction clean, or are they hosing the user experience, muddying the waters and adding to cognitive load?”
Another area of lack of respect is animations. Too much animation in the form of micro-interaction festivals, this shows a lack of respect for the user’s time. Yes, it’s cute and amazing we can do animation; but when it takes too long it becomes unusable. An overly animated shopping cart is not usable, it’s a shopping cart not an animated feature movie.
Isaac Asimov wrote the Three Laws of Robots — a fictional but often adopted real guide. In writing this, I began to think about how these could be converted to creating interactive experiences. There is a need to create experiences that allow us to be the best humans, not the worst like currently. What would the Three Laws of Designing for Humans look like? The language used follows that of Asimov:
- An interface may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. – harm is emotional.
- An interface must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law. – it should just work.
- An interface must protect its own existence as long as such a protection doesn’t conflict with the first or second law. – it shouldn’t just vanish or disappear.
Maybe if we started following these rules a bit, the experience of using things would be that little bit more human. Maybe we wouldn’t have vanishing interfaces that caused friction. Maybe there would be more respect for all users.
When we design for humans not robots we make experiences that connect. That are powerful, matter and cause less stress. I absolutely don’t believe we go into creating wanting to cause stress, but we do when we don’t design for humans. We have create a web that brings out the worst nature in us. That’s no place anyone wants to be, but we are forced. The simplest of tasks brings frustration.
The good news is, we can change this. We can design for humans in all our variety. Create changing experiences that cause delight not stress. We can make the digital experience a little more human with each experience. This is powerful and adds up. Let’s design for humans, not robots.
Tammie works at Automattic as a User experience designer within the theme team. She has a varied background including psychology, design, front end development and user experience. She is a contributor to WordPress both for design and themes.