Twitter founder Ev Williams gave a talk in 2013 in which he explained that he saw the internet as “a machine to give people what they want” and identified the two keys to success as being speed and cognitive ease.
This isn’t new. Steve Krug in his seminal work Don’t Make Me Think (2000) covered exactly the same ground and it’s not hard to see the influence of his and similar theories of interaction design behind the success of a lot of the current behemoths of the internet.
These services have undoubtedly been incredibly successful in allowing people to interact with them and get “what they want” without the need for deep technical knowledge of the internet and how it works. This has meant the opening up of these experiences to a far wider range of people, people who may otherwise not have been able to approach or gain from these technologies.
So as designers our job seems to be to remove barriers, smooth out interactions and try and give people the most seamless possible experience. We strive to make things obvious and remove the need for explanation so people can understand our products quickly and use them with as little thought as possible.
But what do we lose in this process? What gets hidden?
Users create mental models to help them understand the services they use. These are usually only as good as they need to be for the users to achieve their goals. So part of the “cognitive ease” we seek is in not requiring those models to be too complicated. However, the more simplistic the model the less it reflects reality and therefore the less it is transferrable out of the specific situation in which it was created into a wider context.
But not everyone wants to understand everything, and neither should they. The point is that we should be enabled by our mental models but not restricted by them. Actually rather than just clearing a nice and easy path for users the job of interaction designers is to make decisions about the mental model they want the user to have, to make sure that model is easily acquired and is just accurate enough to enable but not to restrict.
It surely suits the likes of Twitter and Facebook that that model is incredibly simple, even to the point where it restricts the ability of the user to meet their needs elsewhere, but should that be the goal for every service online?
With Pararchive we haven’t planned to build in the facility for users to upload their photos (or audio or video) to the service itself. This is partly because it is a bigger problem than a project this size can aim solve, but also because it isn’t the problem that this project is seeking solve. However, it’s clear that this is something which is going to prevent us from creating the kind of seamless experience that is available elsewhere.
Rather than see that as a problem however, I think it’s more useful to take the opportunity to explore how we can design and experience in which the mental model we create for users is slightly closer to reality. We may not hit the far end of the spectrum in terms of speed and cognitive ease but in doing so we can aim to give our users a more accurate understanding and thereby not shackle them so closely to what we’ve built here.
Looking back at Tim Berners-Lee’s original principles for designing the web there’s much in there which we have already baked into Pararchive from the beginning but I think the key phrase which jumps out at me now is this:
“a critical property here is that the system tries to do one thing well, and leaves other things to other modules”
Some internet services have found that in attempting to generate the most speed and cognitive ease it’s “better” for users if one service does everything for them. They have been incredibly successful in doing this. However this isn’t the only approach and (I would say) it is not the way which best fits the web or most benefits the wider community. TBL’s principle is one of the things which has made the web so powerful and there’s a certain honesty in not attempting to hide that from users and in designing a service that encourages and allows them to understand it.
This is not to say that things should be unnecessarily difficult, but just that there could also be ways of exposing users to the mechanisms of the service in a way that is useful (even beautiful) and that sometimes, in the right context, it’s OK to make them think.
See also: Seamful design