Oct 4, 2016
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Apple’s all important UX lessons

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Apple's iPhone 7 may yet be a success, but that doesn't mean it deserves to be.

This week I came to the conclusion that I have officially gone mad. Either that, or the entire world is mad, and I am in fact sane (which, in terms of probability: 7.4bn to 1 just doesn’t add up. So it must surely be me who is mad whilst the world is sane). Here's the evidence for my supposition –you decide which, or what it is.

As is now customary, the month of September saw Apple launch its latest ‘must-have’ gadgets and upgrades. As you, me and a stray aardvark in some distant land know by now, the September headline Apple news for 2016 was the launches of the iPhone 7 and IPhone 7 Plus. (Additionally, the September event focussed on an Apple Watch system upgrade, as well as release of new IOS and Desktop software).

Like A.A. Milnes’ Tigger, product managers bounced up and down the Apple sales stage, pointing to a giant screen showing glimpses of animated messaging, intuitive photo and storage management and simpler music store interfaces.

Like virtually every previous Apple product launch, much of the gadgetry was introduced via slick Apple-esque videos voiced-over by Ilford–born Johnny Ive. Mr Ive’s rehearsed dulcet tones (minus any heavy Essex accent) delivered the impression that the latest release of Apple tech was tenderly designed to be exceptionally beautiful and sublimely user-experience friendly.

I’ve crooned along to videos showing slivers of black plastic, specially buffed up and perfectly studio lit. Device lenses glistened, close-ups of linen-white packaging led viewers to fantasize that technology in general had become so advanced and assured that even Apple’s HQ was probably located in a serene corner of a faraway spacecraft sterile of human confusion and worry. Everything in Apple-land was meticulously designed to improve the very experience of human living.

Take the latest iteration of the iPhone. Its dark-chocolate ice-cream body carried a dual-lens camera which promised to mimic what photographers call ‘bokeh’ (the blurry background in the out-of-focus parts of an image). Gone were any sockets for traditional wired headphones. A pocket-sized Apple-white plastic cocoon – so smooth, you would want to lick it – cradled a set of diminutive, yet powerful wireless ‘Airbuds’.

With so much to drool over, I was hoping the event would climax with an announcement of MacBook Pro upgrades. Yet nothing followed the main course. Instead, the ‘sales-show’ was abruptly closed with a 15-minute performance by a singer whose face was cloaked by a striped wig crowned with a giant chiffon bow.

Everything is clinically perfect in the Apple-experience zone

Driven by the flimflam and bemused by the bow worn by the singer, on the phone’s public release – a week later I went along to a London-based Vodafone store (my telecoms provider).

“So tell me all: What’s so great about the new iPhone?” I asked the manager.

“It’s the iPhone7” the manager answered.

“Why would I want it?”

“Because it is the seven.”

“How does it compare to the iPhone6 plus?”

“There’s wireless headphones and a new camera,” he answered smearing the dual-lens with his fingers.

“Isn’t it supposed to have a ‘bokeh’ facility when you take portraits. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘portrait’ mode.” I pointed out.

The manager shrugged.

“About the wireless headphones, won't they fall out when running?”

“Yeah, a lot of people are worrying about these new cuties. Some think that kids could swallow them. Mind you they come with a cable attachment for old-school earphones”, he said.

“So what’s the actual benefit of losing the old earphone socket?”

“Look mate, I’ll let you into a secret: seventy per cent of people ask for the iPhone 7 just because it is the iPhone 7. Now, according to my screen, it will cost you two hundred pounds down and an extra twenty–five every month on your current plan. Can I sign you up?”.

“But explain to me, why would I actually need the iPhone 7?

“Because… it is the I Phone 7. Or if you want to go for the top of the line, the iPhone 7 Plus. Both have with this shiny black finish (nice eh) but we haven’t got any covers in yet.”

At that point, I gave up.

A couple of weeks later Apple’s launched their new IOS followed by desktop systems. Beyond anything that did not actually require any thinking on my part (like a simplified iTunes GUI) when it came to some other features, the official instructions were, to say the least, meagre. Whilst Apple published lots of superficial marketing waffle on its site, operational setup details were mostly left to consumers to figure out.

Many of the operating system’s new features neither appeared on my screen nor worked on my MacBook Pro (late 2013) edition or my iMac 27-inch. (Making me wonder if omitting to announce any new laptops at the September show had something to do with the fact that many laptops, and even more desktops out there (including mine) couldn't at the time use all the new interface’s features.

My options in dealing with all this was, either to wait for weeks to get a workshop appointment at a local Apple dealer (my preferred Apple store – in Regent Street, London had been closed for at least five months) or glean what I could from geeky ‘experts’ on YouTube.

From a user’s experience, not instinctively knowing how everything worked made me feel like Sia (the singer at the Apple event) wearing that giant wig and bow– blind and awkward.

I stare at GUIs – therefore I think I am

In the wider world beyond Apple’s core products, user experience in general is being taken for granted, with ordinary consumers struggling to make heads or tails of it all. In attempting to streamline everyday experiences many brands are actually turning what was formerly quite straightforward, into real-world nightmares.

Common examples:

  • Trying to get customers to buy online when their viewing on mobile devices, but having payment pages that are neigh on impossible to navigate on a mobile device, whilst also being agonisingly slow to load.
  • Having to remember hundreds of different passwords (out of paranoia that everything online can – and will eventually be hacked).
  • Parking bays that no longer accept simple coins/– only ‘pay-by apps’ – which in turn often ‘forget’ payment details).
  • Having to ‘run’ an Olympic hurdle chase over countless “please press number for…” phone options to get through to an actual person on a helpline service – then suddenly being cut off – with just one hurdle to go.
  • Having to speak very slowly – in a very quiet room for an automated helpline to understand who I am and what I want.
  • Job sites which either refuse to read uploaded résumés, or worst still: muddle all the text.
  • Devices that refuse to link to each other.
  • Sites that don't recognise their own gift cards and certificates codes.
  • No real people to contact (speak to) on contact forms.
  • FAQs which only address infrequently asked questions.
  • Airline sites which increase the cost of your chosen destination each and every time you look up a flight.

User (person) GUI experiences: A psychological primer

1. People (not ‘users’) prefer to keep thinking and working time to a minimum

Instead of just describing things, show examples.

Pay attention to the design practicality of objects on screen, page, or device. If something appears clickable make sure it clicks.

Only provide features people really need. (Conduct user research to understand what they need – as opposed to what you alone want).

Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People have cut off points

People can only look at so much on-screen information or read so much text at any one time before losing interest.

Make information easy to scan.

Use headers and short blocks of info or text.

People prefer short line lengths, but read better with longer ones. It's a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important to you!

3. People Crave Information

Dopamine is a brain chemical which makes people seek… sex… information…food… Learning is dopaminergic. Having more information makes people feel that they have greater choices. More choices cause people to feel in control. Feeling in control makes people believe their survival odds are improved.

4. People make mistakes

People make mistakes. (Even UX designers).

Make tasks easy to undo.

If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.

If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show how you corrected it – and how they can prevent mistakes from reoccurring.

5. Human memories are complicated

People constantly reconstruct memories. That's why when it comes designing UX, it’s better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.

Memory is prone to misinterpretation. Don't force people to remember details from one task to another, or one page to another. (This also affects remembering passwords).

In fact, people can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The "7 plus or minus 2" rule is an urban legend.

6. People are social creatures

For thousands of years, people have used technology as a social tool.

People look to others for guidance about what they should do, especially when they are uncertain. This is called ‘social validation’. (A great reason including ratings and reviews on sites).

Acting as one (known in psychology as ‘synchronous behaviour’) people bond. To get people to fill out forms, offer an incentive first before asking them to complete out the form. (Not the other way around).

When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called ‘mirror neurons’). We are programmed to imitate. So if you want someone to do something, show someone else doing it.

7. Grab attention

People are paying attention to originality. If you make something different it will stand out. However, people often miss changes in their visual field. (Known in psychology as ‘change blindness’).

Exploit the senses to capture attention (colours, fonts – make fonts appropriately large and legible).

Use grouping to help focus the eye. (Things that are placed closely to each other are believed to ‘go’ together).

On the other hand, people are easily distracted. Avoid flashing objects on the page or self-playing videos. (Unless you actually want to distract them – as in video advertising – which is increasingly being shown not to be as affected as it once was).

8. Little things lead to bigger actions

Most mental processing occurs unconsciously. Encourage people to commit to a small action (for example, sign up for a free membership): They’ll be more like likely to go on an make a bigger commitment, such as upgrading to a premium account.

9. People build mental models

People ‘carry’ subconscious mental models regarding conducting tasks (paying bills, asking for a kiss, ordering on Amazon, Tweeting, using Apple Pay at the train station…).

In the majority of cases, your UX has to reflect their mental model.

Metaphors such as, "This is just like writing with a pen" helps people understand a conceptual model.

(More in my book – Brand Psychology)

Human (‘user’) experience has become synonymous with just one small aspect of an interface with a brands communications – GUIs alone. We have forgotten that at its heart, real user experience is practised throughout a brand journey – from distribution to packaging…. a friendly smile at a check-out to a human voice at the other end of a sales support line which can ‘think away from a script’.

Worryingly we have arrived at a ‘mad’ state of living, where technology expects people to instinctively understand it – rather than it being designed to understand us. Consumerism has reached a bizarre tipping point where we are not simply willing, but actually take a sense of higher life purpose in rushing about from one digital marketing soundbite, or video snippet to the next in a dizzying dash to invest in user experiences like the latest iPhone – simply because it is.

Read on: SmartInsights

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