Saturday, May 16, 2009

Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen

Recently, in a set of interviews we conducted with avid users of, the online DVD rental web site, we asked "What are the things you like best about the site?" Lots, apparently.

They liked how you didn't have to return the discs right away. They liked that there were no late fees. They liked that the selection of movies was great. They liked how the site's recommendations were usually really great films, that they otherwise would've never heard of. They liked that you could now watch movies online, without even waiting for the discs to arrive. It was easy for them to come up with benefits.

However, what we also found interesting was what they DIDN'T mention. They didn't mention how great the site's information architecture is, even though the designers have done a great job of organizing the more than 100,000 DVDs you can rent. They didn't mention the site's advanced use of Ajax, even though it creates a fluid and seamless set of interactions throughout. Nor did they mention the integration of social networks into the site, making it groundbreaking and creatively extending their business model.

While all these things are what the designers at Netflix work hard on every day, they go unmentioned by their customers. It's not because these aspects aren't important. It's because the designers have done their job really well: they've made them invisible.

The Better the Design, the More Invisible It Becomes

When things are going well in a design, we don't pay attention to them. We only pay attention to things that bother us.

It's like an air conditioner in a conference room. Nobody ever interrupts our meetings to tell us how comfortable the temperature is. They don't even notice.

We only notice the conference room temperature when it is too cold or too hot. Or perhaps we notice if the unit is too loud or is leaking all over the floor. But when it's working perfectly, it becomes invisible.

The same is true with online designs. We attend to things that aren't working far more than we attend to things that are. When the online experience frustrates us, we pay attention to its details, often because we're trying to figure out some way to outsmart it.

Not Great for the Portfolio

Unfortunately, this is not good news for those of us who want people to know what we do. If we do our job really well, nobody can see what we're doing. It's only when we do it poorly that we have something to show.

Take this error message from American Airline's website that popped up when a test participant was trying make a reservation:"    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

American Airlines - Usability, User Interface Design

American Airlines


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