Building The Backdrop

Life on Automatic

They say that 80% of our actions are automatic–living life on autopilot. We follow well-worn tracks, shuttling to and from work, through meals. Even the decision points are often predetermined by our environment. We select an available option, but the set of choices was decided long ago.

Empty train tracks in a suburban areaThis morning I woke up early and packed myself an afternoon snack. It’s the season for Clementines, and with the box sitting there on the kitchen table I thought, “Gosh, that’d be a nice change–throw a Clementine in my bag and have it with my yogurt. It’ll be something new–a change of pace.” And so in the plastic bag it went, with the yogurt and the spoon.

Arriving quite early I headed up to the kitchen to put my snack away. As always, I opened the right-hand fridge, and found a space for the bag on the door–except ‘my’ spot was partly full, with another plastic bag. Containing a yogurt of my brand, and a spoon.

And a Clementine.

Now, what, do you ask, does this have to do with design? We’ll get to that.

Some day this week, I must have missed my snack–probably Wednesday, thinking about it–and so the bag sat there in the fridge, with its novelty, a Clementine, just like today’s novelty. I have no memory of packing that bag–and why would I?

In the scheme of life it’s meaningless trivia, part of the backdrop for my life–not the essence of life itself.

Designing the Backdrop

As designers, we get to create the backdrop for the lives of our users, at least that fraction of their life they spend in our domain. The backdrop contains all the things that aren’t necessarily part of the user’s task, but that shape their daily interactions.

From our perspective, it’s a theater set. From the back, it’s all screws and nails and staples holding the canvas taut, painted to look like bricks and windows. But the user’s the audience, and to them the backdrop is the setting for the action; it’s essential for providing context, orientation to the action, and atmosphere.

It’s a crucial part of the user experience, and one we pay varying degrees of attention to. The trick is to provide a supportive environment that lets the user focus on their work, while letting them feel at ease and able to concentrate on that work. This means providing a familiar, regularized experience that users can become accustomed to, such that they can simply reach for the tools they need–so that the interface becomes the work, and instead of thinking, “I spent the afternoon using iPhoto”, they think, “I spent the afternoon sorting pictures from our vacation.” And subconsciously, they feel like they knew what they were doing, and were able to get their work done smoothly.

Hotels are a great example of this:

Hotel roomIn so many hotels, leaving aside very high-end places, and oddballs like some Bed & Breakfasts, the experience is regularized. You have your door key, with rooms numbered by floor. You have the entryway, with the bathroom on left or right, and the closet right there with the “can’t steal me” hangers, the iron and ironing board, and the luggage rack. The TV faces the bed (or beds); there are overstuffed pillows on it, and a coverlet made of compressed 70s polyester, either plastic-feeling or fake-fuzzy. The window is at the end of the room, with a curtain that will completely fail to block light and a wheezy AC/heater that will roast or deafen you (or both).

Some of this is determined by physics and economics–it’s infeasible to have rooms with better window layouts, for example, and the bathroom/entryway is space-conserving and lets wet walls be shared by a pair of rooms. But those are only some constraints–the rest of the room is an embodied set of use cases, a century of refinement about what a traveler needs in a room.

And it’s familiar. When I was a frequent a business traveler, I could navigate new hotel rooms by instinct; one glance told me which of the two or three possible conventions they were following, and after that it was unconscious. I could focus on my task–preparing for the next day, resting–without having to fight the hotel room.

That’s valuable.

That’s an interface that has been winnowed down to the essentials, and satisifies the 80% case well. Sure, there are some extraneous objects (does anyone need the little plastic widget telling you to dial 0 for the front desk?), and some things for outliers (I would bet very few people actually use the iron, although I am one of them). But for the most part, most people can enjoy a mostly effort-free user experience.

So as you design your interface, think about how to make it recede–how to make it become part of the automatic part of your users’ experience. I’m not saying be boring or bland–delighting users is an excellent goal–and think about ways you can get out of the way.

(And I guess I’ll have two Clementines with my snack today. They’re small, after all.)

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4 thoughts on “Building The Backdrop

  1. When people have to make decisions, they get stressed. Thinking is hard work. Establishing a routine removes the stress.

    In terms of user interfaces, the patterns people establish in the learning stages will tend to continue for the life of their usage. Folks can become accustomed to bizarre rituals when they repeat them enough. In the other direction, learning a new program to replace an older one — even a new release of the “same” program — can be stressful because new patterns are needed to accomplish familiar tasks.

    • Yep. When we change an interface, we think hard about the bump (I think of it like a speed bump, but sometimes it’s a mountain) of effort that’ll be required to get people to learn new ways to do things–even if the new ways are vastly more efficient or less painful.

  2. Great thread! We’ve evolved certain ways of dealing with our environment for many reasons. We expect water to flow a certain way. We expect things that go up, to also come down. Part of why Apple interfaces are so intuitive to me is because of the physics emulations of how visual items should respond to my prodding (even though it’s human-made, and physics doesn’t necessarily have a correlate in my phone). We’ve learned, and adapted to how the world works. Thus, if we can tap into those learned intuitions with interface design, we might be able to cash in on that. It’s the mapping from “virtual reality” to reality, if that’s not too obvious or hackneyed. If visual items show a relationship between those two data items, and you can manipulate the visual items, then the response should also show that relationship, in a way that maps to how we operate in the world. For instance, think of two balls being tied together. How can you interact with them? How do they respond. Now thing of two related transactions in a user database that are related. How should we represent them, and how should they react when we click on them? Just riffing…maybe this is all obvious.

    • There’s a tension between reusing lessons from the physical world, and adhering too closely to them. The UX community is in the middle of a big conversation about this, triggered by Apple’s move toward highly skeumorphic interfaces (like the Address Book with its faux-stitched-leather look). I think the adoption of touch-based interfaces also brought it to a head, because touch is such a natural way to interact, and opens a bunch of new avenues/gestures/questions. Fun stuff.

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