Translated from German
Stay Calm and Learn This
Software should convey a sense of calm. I, as a user, should know what I can do with it and what I can’t do. I always know what’s happening, where I am and what is next. Everything comes easily to me. I don’t get stuck, never feel lost or stressed out.
How do you get there? Maybe the product should be easy and intuitive to use? This phrase helps marketing, but not product development. Words like simple or intuitive are misleading here. They can be attributed to a solution in retrospect, but they don’t form a principle from which clear recommendations for action can be derived. The scope for interpretation is too great.
How about this: There is nothing simple, everything is learned. Everyone has to understand a software product and learn how to use it. They have to remember what they have learned, will forget things and relearn them. “Learning is work,” you will hear, “that sounds like stress, I have too much to do.” This is something we can work with. We need to reduce the amount of learning. I’d like to pick out three aspects that shape this effort.
The more complex the product, the more there is to learn. What do I need to know? What should I do? What can I expect? Every software product confronts me with different concepts and processes. We should keep their number as low as possible.
Simplifying things, or omitting them entirely, is a central topic of all product development, much is being written about it. The word focus is mentioned, we hear things like “Do one thing and do it well”1, “The Build Trap”2, “If you aren’t adding 10% back later you haven’t removed enough”3. We tend to agree with all of that and yet following through remains difficult. Do less, do it in a simpler way, yes – but how exactly, what to work towards? This question is too big for this article. I’d like to highlight one example for a guiding principle that fits our topic.
A good solution seems obvious in retrospect and often does not seem impressive. It seems self-evident, people shrug and say, “how else”. Suddenly, all those complicated approaches that one had struggled with for such a long time have vanished. The effort is no longer comprehensible to outsiders. Great! People should feel in control of your software as quickly as possible. Plenty of brain-cycles should be left to start developing their own thoughts on it. The long road and a complex field must not obscure that goal. This may all seem a bit exaggerated, but it does work: Look for a solution that does not impress, especially yourself, but seems as obvious as possible. The challenge should dissolve into thin air, leaving no lasting impression.
A software product should draw on conventions that I have already learned before and expect in my context. This can be anything, interaction, data formats, processes. The context may be the operating system and its interface. It can be a device, my workplace, my domain, or my culture. But where does innovation take place then? A fresh, new idea works best when it is given space. It belongs in the center, in the foreground, because it’s hopefully also a differentiator of your product. Around it, you should provide enough padding with familiar things.
We need to facilitate learning wherever possible. Concepts as well as spatial and temporal relationships should stay constant and recognizable. Some examples: Software should always tell me directly what I need to know. I should not have to interpret or search. Don’t assume that I will derive information myself; I may need your confirmation. Use the same terms for the same things. Reinforce everything I’ve learned, I should never have to question it. I want to be able to recognize software states instantly without having to constantly reorient myself. I want to find the same things in the same places, software behavior should always be predictable.
Usually, I have to learn not just one but several things. Where should I start? What follows after that? I will either not read instructions or forget parts of them, and learn by interacting with your product. We always learn or understand things in time and not all at once. Software should therefore direct my attention, my gaze, in clear steps from one thing to the other. First here, then there – avoid anything distracting.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 and showed the audience how easy and fun the touch display gesture slide-to-unlock was (see video), he not only shaped our first impression of his product. Good marketing teaches us the first lessons without us realizing it. Here: How the phone generally works, where to start, what slide-to-unlock means – which is already hinted at through text and animation – how to do that exactly, what follows next, and how easy it all is, boom! After that, everything is shown a second time. Product demonstrations are tutorials. Once we’ve learned something it soon appears to be simple. We use the word intuitive when we don’t notice us learning.
We learn faster and are more resilient to frustration when something is fun or enjoyable. The value your software delivers contributes to that. The time it frees up, the possibilities it opens up. But how exactly it does that is just as important. Quick feedback to interaction, animation, design, typography and color serve more than just a functional purpose. If a product is attractive to a particular audience, it further increases identification and willingness to learn.4 Software is not free of fashion and group dynamics. We also want what others like, and gladly accept learning effort and setbacks.
My expectations of the product must be accompanied. There will be things I don’t understand. I will disagree on the product scope. Always make your intentions clear. Seek contact with users, respond to requests, be transparent about goals and non-goals. We are more patient with software when the scope is clearly and consistently communicated, when the edges don’t constantly fray into promises. We are more forgiving when we know the people behind a product or see ourselves as part of its development story.
Context shapes our expectations in all areas. What do people associate with you and your brand? If you’re known for difficulties, it’s not easy to make improvements. People are already too annoyed to start learning something new.
For users, software is a learning experience. We use that phrase often for its gentle irony. But there is a truth behind it: An important aspect of user experience is indeed something like a learning experience. How learnable is your product, how eager is your target group to learn? It is precisely this interplay that influences whether we end up calling something simple, whether software even radiates some peace of mind. It should also answer the question why there is successful software that has poor interaction design – it’s likely that it gets the part on motivation right.
“Do one thing and do it well” is part of the Unix philosophy as a guideline for software. Today, you may also come across it in the context of consumer software or startup culture because of a similar quote attributed to Steve Jobs saying “Do not try to do everything. Do one thing well.” ↩︎
“The Build Trap” is a phrase coined by Melissa Perri, see her blog post and book “Escaping the Build Trap”. There, she doesn’t just talk about simplifying and omitting, but generally about getting away from the belief that only new features move a product forward. ︎ ↩︎
This phrase turns up in many places, even Elon Musk mentions it in a recent video where he highlights his 5 principles of product development. ↩︎
From a slightly different angle, research also describes the aesthetic-usability effect. This effect makes users “more tolerant of minor usability issues when they find an interface visually appealing“. Quoted from this article that delves into more detail. ↩︎