The words metaphor and intuitive are often used in UX. They are the metrics we use to judge the quality of a solution. But is this quality really as universal as we might like to believe?
Let me introduce you to my mom. (Insert random “yo’ momma” joke here)
Some years ago I needed a file from my parents’ computer sent to me. I called my mom (my dad wasn’t home) and asked her to send the file. As my mom isn’t the most avid user, I knew I would have to guide her through the process. No biggie, I thought.
The conversation went like this:
Me: OK, so you go to the desktop and open the mail client.
Mom: I am at the desk.
Me: No, not the desk, the desktop on the computer.
Mom: Where is that?
Me: Click on the little icon on the bottom of the screen next to where it says “Start.”
Mom: Internet Explorer?
Me: No, the next one.
Mom: Which button do I push?
Me: The left one.
Mom: Nothing happens.
Me: What do you mean nothing happens?
Mom: Well, a small window pops up. Is that the desktop?
Me: No, you are right-clicking. You need to click the left button.
Mom: But I am!
We go back an forth for several minutes, with me trying to convince her that she is, in fact, pushing the right (wrong!) button. Then, suddenly:
Mom: Oops! Everything just disappeared and now there are only small icons. What did I do wrong?
Me: No, that’s it! You did it right. That’s the desktop.
Mom: OK, but I pressed the right button.
Me: Hmm…weird. Well, anyway, open your mail client—that’s the icon I showed you, and double-click the left button.
Mom: OK, but nothing happens. That little box pops up again.
Me: Mom, I am telling you, you are clicking the right-hand button. You need to click the left one.
Mom: But I am! It’s just really difficult.
Me: What do you mean difficult? You just double-click the left button!
Mom: I know, but this is not behaving like it used to.
Me: What do you mean?
Mom: When I go up, it goes down, and it’s really difficult to double-click with my thumbs.
(Short confusion, followed by blink of light bulb flashing on.)
Of course, now I realized what was going on. She had the mouse upside down!
I talked to my dad later that night and found out what had happened.
Instead of the mouse cord going behind the desk and into the back of the computer, it was plugged in at the front of the desk, into the USB port on the front of the computer. The mouse had been pulled around but she didn’t intuitively get that. She thought that this was how it had been before, and that she just didn’t quite understand. Mind you, she had used a computer before.
My mom is not stupid, yet she was unable to do some of the most basic tasks in navigating a computer. She is certainly not the only one. The latest Facebook glitch (read the comments) made it painfully obvious that there are many other people who might use computers but lack the holistic insights of the digital natives.
Metaphors as a tool for intuition.
In UX we often ask ourselves whether our design is intuitive, i.e., can the user figure out how to do the things we want them to do on their own by the visual clues and design patterns we provide?
We go to great lengths to ensure easy understanding. We make the button look like something you can press. We always make sure that the navigation is prominent and follows certain nomenclature. We use desktop as a reference, windows, pull-downs, accordions, etc. We call them metaphors, but very seldom do we question whether those metaphors are as intuitive and universally understood as we assume.
In the case of my mom, there is obviously little connection between the physical desktop and its digital counterpart. To her, the metaphors we use are nothing more than words—words that get lost in the stress of trying to navigate through an environment she doesn’t really understand.
To my mom, there is no connection between the top bars in MS Word and Outlook. The convention of almost always having File – Edit – View – Help, wrap around the functionality of any given application is completely lost on her.
And my mom is not the only one. There are millions of people who can’t find their way around a computer unless they are told specifically what to do. The second they step off the well-known paths, they are, quite literally, lost. This was made rather obvious when hordes of Facebook users complained about the new log-in procedure.
I have often compared the experience of the noob with dropping a geek into the wilderness of the African savanna with the wrong map.
As non-natives, we are forced to try to follow the map and instructions we are given of this strange and unknown area. As long as the map matches the territory we are fine. But if the map is wrong, what do we do? There are no metaphors from the urban jungle that we can take and apply. The map doesn’t prepare us for what we meet on our way.
The environment is completely alien and we fail to navigate it intuitively. Not because we are stupid, mind you. We simply lack the experience of a native.
What separates digital natives from non-natives is that the former understand computers holistically. Whatever the digital natives encounter, they can typically quickly figure out what to do by nature of having a better understanding of the environment.
Noobs in the digital space don’t understand things holistically. They barely understand the basics. They lack any cognitive surplus to provide themselves with an overview of the environment they interact with.
Which brings me to three observations:
Intuition is learned.
Something is intuitive not because it’s universally understood but because we have learned the meaning of it from a holistic point of view. This requires lots and lots of experience and, for that matter, trial and error.
Metaphors are only meaningful in retrospect.
Don’t count on the physical-looking button to be intuitive just because it’s a metaphor from real life. Once you tell someone what a specific element means, they will most probably understand it, but not because of the metaphor itself.
There are no Bablefish in UX
Designing products and services is like speaking French. Not everyone understands it. Comprenez-vous? The noob might pick up a word here and there, but they aren’t, by any metrics, comfortable with participating in the conversation.
This all leads to the following conclusion:
Intuitive interaction is for experts, not for noobs
Understanding something intuitively really means that you understand it holistically. If you understand it holistically, you can fill in the gaps. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make your design intuitive or improve on it—not at all. Just understand that you are doing it for the natives, not for the noobs.
So let’s stop obsessing over whether something is intuitive and start obsessing over whether it’s understandable. That is going to be the topic of my next post.
Let me know what you think.
Note #1: As always HackerNews has some great comments with regards to my article.
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Facebook and Twitter seems to be unbeatable and companies are feeling the pressure to establish themselves in the social space to get a piece of the traffic pie. But is the price of traffic really worth the trade-off?
Whether you’re a newspaper, publicly traded on the stock exchange, small start-up, governmental organization or an NGO you have most probably seen the writing on the wall. Social is here to stay and you better get into the game. Yet many organizations find themselves struggling to understand what it really means let alone what to do about it.
The knee jerk reaction often is to consult some sort of social media expert and the advice is just as often to create a Facebook fanpage, Twitter account, YouTube channel ( from now on TwitYouFaboo) and write a blog, preferably WordPress (yeah yeah, gross exaggeration).
These gigantic ecosystems contain large parts of at least the western demographics that most organizations is trying to reach online. After all you have to dance where the music is playing right?
Although it’s not necessarily wrong advising companies to establish themselves in these ecosystems, it’s not necessarily complete advice either and here is why.
Best practice is bad practice.
Some of the arguments you will normally hear from SM experts sound something like this:
- Use social networks to de-portalize (made up word) your content .
Burned by the failures of the “If you build it they will come” generation of sites, many companies are now putting their content out to where people actually are.
- Use de-portalized content to create traffic to your site.
By deportalizing large part of their content companies and organizations are turning fans or followers into visitors and thus into potential leads.
- Leverage the success of existing social networks to establish a platform to communicate your brand to interested users.
Because these social networks are so huge, it can be beneficial and tempting for most institutions to piggy back on their success.
- Monitor the influx of traffic and try to convert it.
If you succesfully manage to get people to visit your landing pages, your sign-up forms and your branded experiences, you can monitor which campaings or what content is successful.
- Use established features (like, re-tweet, promote, share, recommend) to promote your content thus increase traffic.
Because Facebook and Twitter have created several popular social features that can be used to boost your content maybe even allow it to go …. viral. It’s popular to use some of their metrics to get a piece of the traffic.
Sounds about right? But the devil is in the detail. Keep in mind that consultants will advice you to do what they can sell, not necessarily what you need.
Let’s try and take a different view on this.
- If you are not paying for the product you are the product.
Nothing is free not even Facebook. If someone is offering you a service you don’t have to pay for, it means that they are charging someone else by selling your content.
- You are adding content to a platform you ultimately don’t control.
It’s always dangerous to be too depending on a platform that might or might not be in business, change their TOC or evolve into something that don’t represent your brand properly.
- You have to keep creating content to maintain traffic but it’s hit and miss.
Although seeding your content is important and more organic than doing say a TV ad, it still has one major problem. You might know what content of yours is successful, but you will have a much harder time figuring out why. Most of the really important data belongs to the social networks.
- You are adding much more value to existing social networks, allowing them to use your data to benefit your competitors.
Mind you. A place like FaceBook is called a walled garden for a reason. Google is not the only one who is being kept from mining their data. It applies to everyone and yes that means your organization too. While you get to know some things about your fanbase or your group members FaceBook knows about all fans and all group members and everything else. The value you get back is dwarfed by the value you provide.
- You are missing valuable metrics to truly create relevant content.
FaceBook and Twitter monitors metrics that are important and relevant to them. That doesn’t mean that they are important to you. Not all metrics are relevant to all organizations. Chances are that by relying too much on other networks available metrics, you forget to look at which ones are important to you.
- Not all features that exist in social networks apply to your specific situation, thus making it crucial to develop your own functionality.
There is a lot to be said about the features that you get out of the box when joining many social networks. But most of the features are built to provide companies with an infrastructure that is viral. I.e. it might allow you to generate a lot of viral traffic, but it doesn’t mean that it’s spreading for the right reasons.
In other words, there are many dis-advantages and a lot of factors to keep in mind. One possible illustration of the problem could look something like this:
As you can see problem is that most if not all of the value that is created based on your users interaction with your brand resides within Twityoufaboo’s ecosystems and won’t be leaving. Because most companies are so eager to generate traffic for lead generation, they basically assimilate to Twityoufaboo’s terms, leaving a ton of valuable data behind. And in a world where data is becoming increasingly valuable that that means you are getting poorer.
Now you might say ”so what?”. TwitYouFaBoo is providing a platform for organizations to communicate from. The value that these companies get back is some of the knowledge about the profiles of the people that choose to follow them or sign up for their facebook fan page etc.
And yes you can take that approach and be satisfied with primarily generate traffic for lead generation, but know this. It’s not making your organization smarter, only more dependent. So if you care about smart, you should care about this.
Taking the leap into the social game is not simply a matter of being present on the right platforms. Deportalizing content purely to generate viral effects or traffic or to interact with your target demographic is just not enough. If you want to build you company for the years to come, you got to start adding value to your own ecosystem.
From traffic generation to value creation.
Before we get into a possible approach I want to spend a little time explaining an often overlooked but fundamental part of what makes social networks so powerful.
Every social network have some sort of master feed. This feed consists of a number of feed items. Each item represents some sort of event triggered by one or more contributors. It can be an uploaded picture, a comment, a blog post, a status update, a wall post, tweet, video, up vote, like, down vote, a new member joining, two people connecting.
Any feed item that get’s posted will be added to a “master feed” and any interaction around this event will be used to enrich each item with meta data, thus adding more and more value to the master feed.
It’s this master feed that is then used to create all sorts of graphs and profiling. It’s that master feed that is so valuable. Not so much in it’s entirety but in the way the data is contextualized related to each user, group, fan base, age, demographic, civil status, gender, nationality, living situation and so on. All of this information allow for very targeted and specific profiling to take place. Whoever are able to harvest that kind of data for their organization is going to have a very powerful ecosystem indeed.
Any organization that is serious about using social media should be serious about how they build value within their own ecosystem. Serious about having their own master feed with their own enriched feed items based on their own metrics.
This doesn’t mean it should disregard being present in other social networks. Any organization who think that using social featuresBut instead of adding value to an external platform it should start harvesting social networks for valuable data to help them inform their own internal platform and therefore content.
So instead of putting the value of your efforts into other “master feeds”, make sure that you create your own.
The content that you publish whether internally or externally is now also informed by both internal and external data all collected into your own master feed. You have build a dynamic ecosystem, a learning environment based not only on external metrics but with it’s own unique metrics. You have created unique value, value that only you poses. Isn’t that worth aiming for?
As I have already made a case for here I believe that the future of any company who wants to stay in business is the ability to establish their own ecosystem. Many companies seem to be under the impression that if they aren’t on Facebook or Twitter or some of the other usual suspects then they are doomed. There might be some truth to it if you believe that those 600 million or so on Facebook are the only group of people you need. Just keep in mind that the internet have almost 2Billion users, there is still plenty of reason to establish your own ecosystem without sacrificing presence on Twitter and Facebook etc.
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