Wednesday, February 14, 2007

How much control should our users have?

User control vs. ease of use ...

"We all know Featuritis is bad, but what about User Control? Is more always better? The notion that a user-centric focus means putting users in control of everything--their software (and other tools), their learning, their conferences, the companies they support (the now-over-used "community")--is pervasive. But even when users do have the expertise to make good decisions, do they want to?

In some scenarios, of course. But when applied with abandon, user control can mean user suffering. In the 80's, the big thing in education was Learner Control. With hypertext tools came CBT programs and learners were finally put in charge of their own paths through material. The learner was empowered! Just one problem: most people pretty much suck at making sound learning decisions, especially when they don't already know the material. So, the era of more-is-better-for-learner-control was over.

Then in the 90's -- Whoo-Hoo! Interactive Movies! Interactive Television shows! Interactive Fiction! Outside of rare novelties and a few good story-driven games, most of us would rather leave our storytelling to Steven King or Steven Spielberg, thank-you. A huge part of the point of movies and novels is to be swept into another world--a world we do not have any responsibility for.

Worst of all, though, is the ongoing trend toward more-is-better for the products we purchase. More choices, more options, more control. In the book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz looks at how the overabundance of products today makes buying even toilet paper stressful. We shut down when we're faced with too many choices, even when those choices are about relatively simple things.

Yet we expect people to make decisions over some of the most complex things, regardless of whether they have any knowledge or training in those areas. I look at product checklists and comparisons for electronic devices and think, "WTF are they talking about?" I have no idea what this thing-with-the-check-mark-next-to-it is or why I'd want it. And we don't just agonize before we choose, the vast array of possibilities has us agonizing afterwards as well. Second-guessing ourselves, continuing to check reviews, etc. Like we don't have enough stress.

And in software programs, especially, we expect users to choose their workflow configurations way before they have the slightest idea why they'd care. Or we give them ten different ways to do the same thing--so each person can do it in the way that best suits them--when the new user just wants to do the thing -- not grapple with the cognitive overload of ten ways to do the thing they still can't do.

How much control should users have?

Obviously this is a big "it depends", but the main point is to focus on the relationship between user control and user capability. As user capability (knowledge, skill, expertise) increases, so should control -- at least for a lot of things we make, especially software, and especially when we're aiming not just for satisfied users but potentially passionate users. The big problem is that we make our beginning users suffer just so our advanced users can tweak and tune their configurations, workflow, and output. [For the record, I'm a big fan of splitting capabilities into different products, or having a really good user-level modes--where you use wizards or simpler interfaces for new users, etc. Yes, they're often done badly, but they don't have to be.]

The simple rule we so often forget is:

The amount of pain and effort should match the user's perceived payoff.

In other words, the user has to think it's worth it. Yes, another "duh" thing... but if it is that "duh", then why oh why haven't some of the biggest producers on the planet taken it to heart? How come I still can't tune my Denon receiver? Or adjust my home thermostat properly? How come I find myself in hotel bathrooms staring at the shower faucet, wondering how annoyed the front desk will be when I ask them to help me take a bath. How come I can't turn off automatic Capitalization in Word? (trust me, it's not as simple as it seems...)"    (Continued via Creating Passionate Users)    [Usability Resources]

User Effort vs. Product Worth - Usability, User Interface Design

User Effort vs. Product Worth

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