Friday, March 04, 2005

The Question and Ducklings

Ah, "The Question." You UXCentrics know which one I mean. You're in a meeting with a Client talking about great UX and UCD and enthusiasm rises. And someone asks, "Could you give us a list of sites with great user experience?"

I don't like The Question. Not because there aren't any outstanding sites to mention, but because it can suck the creativity out of a team. Great examples of UXCentricity are not a panacea to what's ailing a design team. They're not even a good source for great ideas. The best ideas come from within—from a project team obsessed with their own users. Other sites are for other users. Why look there for answers?

The Question has a subtle undercurrent: If a site is successful (say an Amazon or Yahoo!), it's often assumed that the UI and UX is superb. I beg to differ. I'm a big Amazon customer and I'm reasonably pleased with SBC Yahoo!—but I don't see these as paragons of UXCentricity. Those sites are successful for other reasons than UX.

Which leads to another corollary of The Question: "If people are used to Amazon, Yahoo! and so on, shouldn't we adopt a similar UI and UX?" This raises the spectre of emerging de facto standards—"best" practices created not by interaction designers consumed with meeting the needs of their site's audience, but by popularity. This—in the immortal words of a wise end-user I once met—expects tool users to be tool makers. Choosing to design a site a certain way because users are "used" to it elsewhere is abrogating your responsibilities as a designer, your responsibilities to your specific audience. And it slams the door in the face of potentially groundbreaking innovation.

I was reminded of this today when reading Peter Seebach's latest Cranky User column at IBM developerWorks where he discusses the baby duck syndrome—"what happens when users judge new and upcoming systems by comparing them with the first system they learned. This means that users generally prefer systems similar to those they learned on and dislike unfamiliar systems." A choice quote:
This leaves vendors with a serious problem. If you preserve interface compatibility for a long time, users are comfortable, but you end up stuck with an interface which may not be quite as eye-catching as you'd like. (The question of actual usability, it seems, has been completely ignored by the major players in the field for some years.) On the other hand, if you change it significantly, you give all your users a chance to stop and think whether, now that they have to learn how to use the computer all over again, they'd rather learn to use yours or someone else's.
Yes, baby ducks must follow their mommy ducks in order to survive. But there comes a time in every duck's (and user's) life when it's time to grow up and discover the wonderful delights of the big world around them.

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