When designing technological interactions, more often than not, we are designing virtual social interactions. And social interactions are about communication. And a key aspect of communication is body language but let’s call it non-verbal communication (nvc) as it’s a bit more inclusive of things like tone. And communication is conducted by individuals guided by conventions. And I know you’re not supposed to start sentences with ‘and’ but who cares because it’s a grammatical convention that doesn’t really matter any more and certainly not in such an informal context as blogging.
I’ve previously stated that User Experience Design addresses the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ when it comes to system requirements which traditionally focus mainly on what – ie the data, content and functionality in principle. (UX of course takes this further with information architecture, content strategy, and so on). If we liken the ‘what’ part to verbal communication then the ‘how’ part is equivalent to nvc, the positioning, the gestures, the tone, even the clothing. How many systems and websites do we come across that can meet our needs but it’s like dancing with someone who has two left feet or dealing with someone who is socially awkward – like the boys in IT. I’ve worked a long time in IT which allows me to make mean cracks like that…
Problems in system design arise for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s not a real interaction and most people are not used to modelling virtual interactions in technology to produce something that makes sense. The other, on the web anyway, is the desire for organisations to stand out and be different – and breaking conventions as a consequence. I once worked on a project with a design agency who had designed a site for another organisation with the navigation on the right. Interesting, I thought, for right-handers you don’t have to work across yourself. But that’s nonsense, we mostly read left to right. And everyone else does it on the left. It wouldn’t work. We’re not looking for logical here, we’re looking for understanding. It’s the same when you see a site or web application with the logo on the right hand side, the search at the bottom, the content not grouped appropriately, the clumsiness of redoing or undoing something, etc. As usability legend Steve Krug says, conventions are your friends.
The point of the nvc analogy is to always remember how something is conveyed. Is it clumsy? Is it awkward? Can they understand it? Do people get it? Should we try it out? All the usual questions you might ask about, say, a presentation, a best man’s speech, an email, or whatever. Or is it the abominable ‘training issue’ which you can’t afford online – so dump it in Help/Frequently Unhelpful Questions. It’s best to try to think of systems as modelling human interactions and to know when it’s time to stop reinventing the wheel.