Shaping Experiences

December 4, 2012

Usability didn't start with the web. There are more than a handful of real life unusable things. Some examples are -

  • Elevator buttons: when I press the wrong floor why can't I "un-press" my mistake?
  • Toilet doors: why does one open in and the next out (the doors should all open outwards). Furthermore - why wash your hands when you must touch germ-ridden door handles after the fact? If there is ever a need to have automatic doors, or a foot handle door - here it is.
  • Smoke Alarms: How hard would it be to make the "hush" button easier to hit with a broomstick? How many people have these things installed within arm's reach?
  • Ah yes, the alarm button in the elevator. In our apartment building elevator, it's the lowest button, so it's the first one that all toddlers learn to push.
  • Baggage carousel - after a full flight together, people can get very violent at the baggage carousel, when you need to excuse yourself into the circle when you see your bag, run the risk of injuring someone getting the bag off the conveyor. If there was a way to create order and space around the carousel, maybe even a situation where people actually like interacting with each other instead of just wanting to get their suitcase and go. The plane is usually seen as a place for opportunity to meet interesting people. Why not expand that experience when you must wait for your baggage anyway…?

All of the above examples are lacking good usability because they were not thought about in terms of human-product interaction. It is ultimately experiences, not things that we are designing. The primary function of a product is to engage us in an experience.

Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. I will use the Telephone to describe my thoughts. The telephone uses technology to keep us connected with the outside world. The classic 'typical' telephone is designed in the same manner for all users. Do you think that the telephone is a good technology for all people? Is it working, is it doing what it should do?

I don't think so. The telephone is built around conversations. So if you have a story to tell, it's very nice to have a telephone. But if you don't have any stories to tell anyone, it becomes a bit problematic. The function of a phone is to make a call - we don't question that function. But now let's think about the experience that goes beyond the core function: people might use a phone because they want to feel close to someone; however, they don't have anything to say to that person. That experience is harder to achieve with a phone. With a phone I feel I have to tell stories, but I might not have them. The only thing I want is to feel closer to you. Feeling close is also a type of communication, a type of experience. If we were to design a phone with that experience in mind, we might come up with a totally different product.

When I design, I think about how I want someone to feel when using my product. What other methods do people use to feel close to someone far? In this way I am able to look at people's needs, but not the need in the sense of making a call, people don't need to make a call; they have a need to feel close to somebody, or they have a need to be popular, or they have a need to help each other, or they have a need to compete with others. But they don't have a need to make a call. The call is just a way to achieve their goal.

For example, when I am on a business trip and I feel lonely at night I call my husband. The reason for the call is to reveal my loneliness. The telephone is only instrumental to that need.

And this is completely different from a situation where I am bored, and I want to be stimulated. I might give all my friends a call. Again, I pick up the phone, but the experience this time serves a different goal.

Whether you break up with your spouse after 10 years or order a pizza, it's always the same telephone. You pick it up, you punch in a number and that's it. The product doesn't feel different, it's always the same.

So how can we change that? What if, for example, you had something like Skype, but it was always on, connected to someone special, so you didn't have to make the choice of making a call. It would just always be there in the background and if you choose to look at it at the same time the other person is looking you create a new connection and you can start talking and touching each other.

What would happen over time? Maybe the people on both sides of the screen will start to eat meals together; play together, etc. You can message each other by putting post it notes on the table where the other side can see them. What about drawing together, when one side starts a drawing and the other side can complete it?

Can you see the difference between this and a telephone call? It shows that a simple reconfiguration of technology might lead to a completely different output. You don't initiate a conversation in this case, the conversation is initiated by chance.

When we think about design, we need to remember it's not about having fancy new technologies; it's about all the details, how you arrange your product makes a difference. Whether you put it on the table, whether you have it always on, etc. All these little things matter and will have a profound effect on the experience you want to create.