My two year-old daughter is already familiar with touchscreen devices.
She plays games on the iPad and Mummy’s iPhone. We think that’s great – along with being entertained, she’s developing fine-motor skills and familiarity with ubiquitous technology, not to mention the educational content of the games we download for her. (And before anyone calls me out as an irresponsible father, fear not, as she’ll spend far more time running around with a cardboard box and wooden spoon.)
Whilst watching her tap, stab and swipe her way through the apps and the iOS interface, I began to notice some interesting patterns that beautifully illustrated common User Experience design challenges.
My child is not wrong
When playing one of her iPad games, she would often attempt to hit something that simply did nothing at all. She would tap and tap away at it until she got so frustrated that she’d had enough and hit the physical ‘Home’ button on the body of the device, taking her back to the desktop where she would find a different app to play with.
Now, we could easily dismiss this as a small child’s inability to use the app properly – the user was at fault. However, it’s a cardinal rule of any right-thinking designer that if a user gets confused or struggles to complete a task, it’s not them we should be blaming – it’s us.
If something is hard for the intended user to operate, we have to face facts and accept that our product isn’t designed well enough for them. We need to make our interfaces and processes in such a way that achieving goals is intuitive and easily achievable. Otherwise, we’re failing the user and they too will hit the big ‘Home’ button and go somewhere else.
Flashy bright things
One particular game my daughter likes involves a particularly annoying cartoon character running down a path and collecting berries. The player swipes him left or right to help him avoid obstacles. She does fine with this for the most part, until a flashing circle pops up in the top of the screen, signifying that another character is talking.
The game is still going, the little whiney character is still running and the user needs to keep playing or they’ll crash. However, the flashy, blinking light is still there – and my daughter abandons her character and begins stabbing away at the circle instead. The character piles into a bush and the game is over.
What’s happened here is that the designers of the game have distracted the player from their key mission with an irrelevant or unrelated visual element.
Children are like magpies, in the respect that they are innately attracted to flashing, bright and noisy things. The reason for that is – we are ALL attracted to flashing, bright and noisy things. It’s just that as we grow, most of us develop the self-restraint not to run up and grab those things the moment we see them. Unless, that is, we’re online, at which point we devolve back into easily distracted children with a gnat’s attention span.
You can read plenty online about the lizard-brain psychology at play – but the key is that users are so very easily distracted. Sometimes, this can’t be helped – but if you’ve intentionally placed something on your page that inadvertently draws your user from the key mission – collect berries, find the appropriate navigation element, completing a purchase – then you’re essentially taking out your own legs from under you. Common examples I see are animated ad banners, auto-rotating carousels and (I’m sad to report) a spinning 3D logo!
If it looks like a lion…
Another key design lesson from these last two examples is – if something is supposed to be a button – make it clearly resemble a button. If something is not interactive – style it so that it’s also clear. Nothing annoys users more than clacking away at inert items that they expect to do something – and missing interactive elements that look inert.
I mentioned before that my daughter would play with Mummy’s iPhone, as well as the family iPad. She never uses my phone. This isn’t because Daddy is mean and keeps it hidden away. It’s because she’s tried it and it didn’t meet her expectations.
See, I have an Android phone – same size and similar appearance to the iPhone, as well as a somewhat similar interface. But, what sets it apart is the absence of any physical ‘Home’ button – my daughter’s ‘go to’ resort when she’s bored or frustrated with whatever app she’s using.
She’s tried my phone out and managed perfectly well until she needed to get back to the home screen – at which point, she began stabbing the plastic case where she expected a ‘Home’ button to be. Sadly, it wasn’t there. She tried and tried, looked all over the device, but eventually gave up, grumpily handed me back the phone and went off to find Mummy.
What’s happened here is the embodiment of a key User Experience theory – expectations are based on previous experience.
Her expectations of where a key navigational element should be are based on her previous experience with the iPad and iPhone. Now that she couldn’t find her most essential interface elements, she’d experienced what any of us do when our favourite piece of software upgrades and moves the ‘Print’ button.
We get confused, we’re forced to hunt, cognitive load increases, frustration may well begin and before long, we’re not playing anymore – we’re leaving. Often, we’re not coming back.
We can help the user’s transition through such changes – on-boarding messaging signposting any key function that may have moved (and highlighting anything else new the user might need to know), or simply researching what functionality is most critical for the user, ensuring it isn’t hidden away in any dramatic new ‘innovative interface’.
There’s a good reason why shopping baskets on ecommerce websites are most commonly in the top right-hand corner of a page – it’s where users expect it to be. If you want to be a maverick designer from the wrong side of the tracks and pop it in the bottom left – then you go for it. However, you’d better a) have a damn good reason for doing it and b) have a damn good strategy for informing the user that it’s there.
Top right-hand corner for a site’s basket is now part of the language of the user’s expectation. To move it is to require a user to unlearn something instinctive and build new cognitive bridges – something that users are hugely resistant to. Your reasons for doing this have to be better than “to stand out from the crowd”.
My two-year-old is not your User
Unless you are Pixar, CBeebies or the producer of animal-shaped biscuits, then you may well be thinking what possible relevance the actions of my daughter could have to you and your product design. She has limited communication skills, the attention span of, well, a toddler and has no disposable income.
This last point is of course completely untrue – she may not hold the purse strings, but she is the most powerful influencing force in our spending habits bar none, a point advertisers are certainly not oblivious to.
The point I’m trying to make is that it is only through close observance of your user that you’ll truly learn what you need to change to make them happy. Observing your design in real-world use can reveal often-unexpected insights into what works and what clearly doesn’t.
Also, whilst testing with users who match your intended audience is a given, there are often surprising insights that can be gleaned from considering other, more leftfield sources.
When it comes to the toddler factor – observing someone looking for the most intuitive, essential and visual elements helps to inform us about some hard-coded truths about User Experience and interface design.
P.S. As a final aside – throughout this article, I have blithely referred to a two-year-old using cutting-edge computing technology with relatively few problems. Whilst I of course will tell you that my child is a genius, we must also pause and appreciate an interface and product design that allows an individual who has only just learnt to walk to navigate complex user journeys with ease. If we can design to this level of intuition now, what will be possible when my daughter has a two year old of her own? We live, my friends, in exciting times.
P.P.S. She is also a genius.