Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ambiguity and Usability

I've been thinking more about Milton Glaser's discussion of ambiguity in Da Vinci's The Last Supper and wondering what it tells us about user experience on the Web .

What particularly struck me is the idea that by adding ambiguity to his painting, da Vinci ignites our imaginations, appealing to our brains' desire to solve problems. In so doing, says Glaser, the painting affects us more deeply than it would with a more simplistic approach. It engages our brains in such a way that we actually see and experience more in and of it.

I recently ranted about an argument that some sites (particularly banking) have become so easy to use that people aren't paying attention to ads, promotions and other "monetizing" elements. In response, some are apparently proposing that sites be periodically redesigned expressly to trip up their customers' mad dash to get their work done. That's a bad idea, of course, and it's where the slope gets slippery. The next thing we'll hear is advice to build in bad usability.

My first response was to suggest that those poor, struggling financial sites ask their customers what they'd like—what would interest them, what solutions the sites could offer to make their lives easier. "Give them content, services and resources that are compelling!" I raved.

But Glaser's article has me thinking in another direction. Can we do a Leonardo? That is, can we use the brain's fascination with ambiguity to improve our users' experience, better facilitate their accomplishment of goals and (at the same time) interest them a bit in other services we offer?

This goes beyond ensuring that a site is "merely" usable (although that remains the bottom line). It would mean stretching the definition of usability. Is "usable" enough? Is it enough to make sites easy to use—or are we making them so easy that we lull people's brains to an idle state? Put another way, are easy-to-use sites less usable because they don't spark our brains into enough activity?

I'm using the interrogative because I don't know the answers. Maybe it's something that Kathy Sierra and those those brain-obsessed folks at Creating Passionate Users could explore for us.

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