Every interaction design decision has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are positive, but other times, even well-intentioned interaction design negatively affects the user experience.
It’s good to be aware of such interactions, and interaction designers can avoid costly mistakes by guiding users without micromanaging them.
Interaction designers can easily fall into two micromanagement traps:
- Slowing users down to prevent them from making errors.
- Requiring users to follow strict rules.
We can avoid these and similar mistakes by designing overarching systems that are flexible and promote exploration and experimentation. Systems that try to restrict or slow down users, even for their own good, will hurt as much as help.
Our interfaces should be helpful, but they shouldn’t get in anyone’s way or force anyone into anything. Let’s examine a few ways to empower our users by knowing what not to design.
Staying out of the way
As explained in Interaction Design Best Practices, all interactions have a cost.
Interaction design that’s intended to help less savvy users can hurt experienced users. Similarly, design decisions intended to protect users can actually prevent them from using your website or app.
By weighing all use case extremes before making design decisions, we can make better interfaces and help users use our products.
Photo credit: Salesforce IQ
A good example of a costly interaction design is the confirmation dialog:
- A confirmation is really useful to prevent the user from making a mistake and for confirming an action they’ve just taken. Unfortunately, it also completely breaks their flow.
- Most of the time, an interaction is purposeful, so the confirmation is an unnecessary step. It is helpful, though, as it reassures the user that they’re about to delete what they meant to delete or confirms that they are in fact ready to complete their purchase.
So what should we do?
Consider an “undo” system. Undo messages can be unobtrusive, and they achieve the same goal as a confirmation. They prevent users from making mistakes, and they can add non-invasive reassurance after a big action.
Google has this interaction pattern down pat. They’ve been doing it for a long time with GMail, but I particularly like how they handle it with their Inbox product.
Almost every action can be undone. Furthermore, the undo box is always in the bottom left, and it describes what you’ve just done, so you know if you really want to undo it.
This pattern has saved me a couple times, but for every message I accidentally archive, I purposely archive hundreds. With undo, not a single one out of those hundreds slows me down with a confirmation box, but I have a way to quickly restore anything I didn’t mean to move.
Another advantage to the undo pattern is that same interaction can apply to more frequent tasks like sending a message. Every action, if we want, can have an undo, but a confirmation on every single action would never fly. The confirmation pattern always runs the risk of slowing users down, which causes friction while using your website or app.
While this pattern feels pretty specific since it applies only to user error, the next example is a little more serious since it can prevent users from accessing your product at all.
Never force things
My mom always told me to never force anything. “If you have to force it, you’re doing it wrong.” This is very true for interaction design.
The example here is password rules.
An uppercase letter, a number, a symbol and a minimum length make passwords harder to guess and require more computing power to figure out. Strict password rules are meant to protect users from having their account compromised, but in reality, they usually make it harder to create passwords and harder to remember them. Some research even shows that they don’t even work as well as we think.
Most of the time, the reasoning behind password rules isn’t even explained, so users are frustrated that they have to comply to rules they don’t understand.
Password rules for godaddy.com
It’s safe to say that no sane person creates completely unique passwords for every different service they use. Even the savviest users (who aren’t using a password management app) use password “systems.” A lot of users use the same exact password for everything.
This isn’t the smartest thing for the user, but sometimes it’s the most manageable.
Forcing someone to follow password rules usually forces them to diverge from their password system. This means they won’t remember their one-off, rule-abiding password when they go to sign in again. The same thing goes for users who literally use the same password for every service. They’re forced to use something custom and surely won’t remember it.
- If a user is willing to accept less secure accounts in the name of convenience, that’s their choice. Deny them the choice, and they’ll resent your system and your micromanagement.
- A nice compromise if you must use password rules is to remind the user of the rules if they enter an incorrect password. It’s mindblowing how many websites and applications overlook this. At least they’ll have a better chance to figure out their one-off password.
- An even better solution is to suggest ways to make a secure password but allow users the freedom to create whatever password they want (whether it follows the suggestions or not).
- If you’re worried about security, consider two step verification or other security methods that are less intrusive and probably more secure anyway.
Google accounts require a minimum password length, but otherwise, they’re a great example of relaxed password rules. They make recommendations on what you should and shouldn’t use as a password, and they link to more information about why. In the end, though, they allow almost any password, and they give users the option to enable two step verification for more security.
Design for guidance and reassurance
Both of the examples we just discussed revolve around trust. As interaction designers, we try to help our users, but if we don’t trust the way they’ll use our product, we inadvertently discourage exploration and customization.
We should allow users to interact how they want to interact. Guide, but stay out of the way. That’s the ultimate way to promote engagement.
Guiding comes in many forms, but here are some things to consider:
- Salience, which refers to clearly and purposefully showing users what is most important. Humans tend to understand design exactly as it’s presented to them, so make it really easy for people to consume your design and take the right steps.
- Presenting content in scannable, digestible chunks.
- Hick’s Law (or Hick–Hyman Law), which says that as the amount of choices increases, the time it takes to make a decision increases logarithmically. Without some control and guidance, users will suffer choice paralysis.
Users aren’t stupid, but everyone appreciates guidance and reassurance. When guidance turns into control, however, and reassurance frequently gets in the way, users feel micromanaged and start resenting the product.
No one likes to be micromanaged – whether they’re beginners or power users.
Create more accommodating interaction systems
Hammers are made to drive nails, but people use hammers for all kinds of things. The same goes for products, applications, and websites. Therefore, interaction designers can’t possibly predict every situation for every user.
Photo credit: EventBrite
Instead of micromanaging every interaction, create good interaction systems. Good interaction systems:
- Make it easy to fix errors instead of trying to prevent them.
- Provide thoughtful and relevant defaults but allow customization.
- Don’t block a user’s flow but make help readily available.
- Guide users through content with thoughtful application of salience, Hick’s Law, and chunking.
- Provide hints, suggestions, and examples instead of forcing a format or process.
Do this right and users will feel empowered and encouraged to explore and interact with your website or app.
When a user can’t fail, he or she won’t be afraid to try things. The best way to learn what users really need is to let them explore and “bend the rules.” Accommodate rule-bending and unpredictable behavior whenever possible by keeping your interfaces flexible and forgiving.
For more practical interaction design advice, check out the free guide Interaction Design Best Practices. Over the course of 109 pages, the designers deconstruct 33 examples into everyday techniques for smooth interaction design.
Feature Photo credit: Frankensim