Have we made a monster? April 25th, 2016

For some time now I’ve been questioning the impact of the experiences I’m part responsible for making available.

As experience designers we focus on the creation of simple, meaningful and engaging experiences.

The business that commission our expertise usually care little for this side of an experience. Instead their aim is to convert a user to a valuable entity - a paying customer, subscriber or an engaged repeat user to enhance their KPI of choice.

Ultimately we are manipulating circumstance and behaviour, often to the long term detriment of those we intend to support.

This is not in itself a bad thing and as described by Don Norman, designer or otherwise “we all continuously manipulate the environment, the better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, arrange and restructure: all of this is a form of design.”

Where performance metrics such as time on task or more arbitrary funnels are the means to measure success the shorter the time and higher the number that pass are almost always considered better.

These KPI rarely standalone often being associated with adoption, satisfaction and advocacy or the current favourite Net Promoter Score. These together are unlikely companions. Experiences that are successfully frictionless, where little or no thought is required to complete any given task deliver short term benefit, pandering to our expectation of instant gratification. Admittedly when immediacy is delivered, these experiences are truly amazing.

Here the amazing part has little to do with the ‘digital’ element of the experience. Instead the strategic background processes and partnerships that fulfil the transaction, picking and dispatch of the product are all aligned to make this happen. Considering ecommerce, with delivery times from 13:57 (that’s minutes and seconds) as reported by Shutl expectations are already set far beyond what most organisations can in the mid term achieve.

Without need to pause for thought or consider the implications of our choices there is little chance of creating a space where engagement can take root.

Where we successfully remove all friction dissatisfaction can and does set in as we have little or no invested interest in long term repeat usage, advocacy or promotion.

Worst still frictionless experiences make us stupid or act in ways that otherwise would not be our normal behaviour.

When considering the design of industrial notification systems where catastrophic results could occur from not acting on notification or becoming aware of developing situation friction, inconsistency and challenge ensure that the correct action is taken at the appropriate time.

An example of this would be the continuous alarm in a nuclear power plant where it’s observed that the silencing of an alarm when danger is present is acted upon faster than one that is triggered as a warning. Think, how many times have you stayed at your desk for maybe a few minutes when a fire alarm sounds rather than leave the warmth of the office to stand in the cold!

Similar behavioural techniques when applied to a public environments also show results. Having removed the monotony of driving through London’s streets Kensington High Street now has little to no street furniture, as a result its a safer place as driving now requires concentration.

These mission critical and public safety systems seem little different to the expectation of a customer engaged with a digital service. Whilst using such services right there in the moment whats being attempting is mission critical. Buying those shoes, placing that bet, choosing that new phone, right now there’s nothing more important. So why not make dam sure nothing can go wrong and that everything is well understood?

Both persuasion and behavioural manipulation at some point get discovered. Often the result is dissatisfaction having committed to a service that is ultimately not 100% transparent or quite what it seemed. I’m sure we can all recall a time we’ve felt this way be it having been persuaded by a headline offer to only find that the promotion was accompanied by inferior quality or lower volume.

How to resolve this situation? Here’s something maybe a little crazy let’s be transparent and return to the mantra of usability over persuasion. We might just kill two birds, the first increased satisfaction and recommendation whilst also improving conversion from increased levels of trust resulting from transparency of price, service or delivering on a promise.


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I'm Adam Fellowes, I spend my time building trust, inspiring loyalty and improving digital services that customers want to use time and again, find out how...

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