Favor the Familiar
When designing experiences, favor what users already know.
Michigan J. Frog was unlike any other frog. He sang. He danced. He was destined for stardom. In Warner Bros.’ 1955 cartoon, One Froggy Evening, a construction worker freed Michigan from a time capsule buried within a recently demolished building’s cornerstone. Upon reaching the open air, the frog stood and sang, “Hello my baby, hello my honey. Hello, my ragtime gal. Send me a kiss by wire. Baby, my heart’s on fire.” The construction worker gasped in amazement as Michigan, wearing his trademark top hat and matching cane, pranced across the lid of the time capsule, which moments before had been the frog’s boxy prison.
The construction worker fantasized about the riches he could earn by having Michigan perform in front of adoring crowds. But, as he would soon learn, the frog refused to perform for anyone other than his rescuer. Every time the construction worker would show off Michigan, the frog would simply ribbit and croak. No singing. No dancing. No adorning crowds.
How often have you felt the same? “Users are going to love this idea,” you say. “They have never experienced anything like it before.” You eagerly build out your product, feverishly crafting every exquisite detail. Thoughts of grandeur race through your head — your product will be celebrated. Perhaps even taught in schools. You polish. You finish. You release. And… nobody uses it. Ribbit.
Why does this happen? We create a new product, desiring to make something different and innovative. But we must ask ourselves a critical question: do users share this desire?
Our familiarity with products can lead us astray. We have a cognitive bias, where we sometimes believe that everyone knows what we know. This “curse of knowledge” was first described by Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. Although their research pertained to economics, the curse of knowledge affects everything from classrooms to mobile apps.
Place yourself in the shoes of a novice user. Pick any topic unfamiliar to you — for instance, aerospace engineering, rail transport, or constitutional law. If you visited a website about the topic, what would you expect to see? What makes it new or different?
Chances are, when dealing with unfamiliar topics, people neither recognize what is typical nor do they desire something different. After all, new experiences are inherently different. How can users want the unknown? When designing experiences, our expertise can blind us from the needs of users, as they may have little to no knowledge of what we have created. Our desire to innovate outpaces a user’s need to merely catch up.
Our desire to innovate outpaces a user’s need to merely catch up.
Users adopt technologies according to a bell curve. First expressed by Everett Rogers in 1962, a small fraction of users — about 2.5% — adopts new technologies initially (see Figure 8–1). They are innovators. Over time, these innovators lead to early adopters, which grow to early majorities (34%). To reach the early majority of users, we must first cross a chasm.
In Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore, the author describes the challenges of adopting high-tech products. Whereas early adopters may accept risks, early majorities are far more pragmatic. They buy from market leaders. They want proven reliability. They resist all else. Acceptance may take years, sometimes only occurring after several failed attempts.
Dropbox serves 500 million users today; however, Palm introduced file syncing in 1997. Spotify currently values at $30 billion; yet, Xerox PARC experimented with music streaming in the mid-1990s. Apple’s iPad Pro is emblematic of mobile computing; nonetheless, GO Corporation pioneered a pen-based tablet in 1987.
From Palm Pilots to primordial iPads, people often resist new experiences. But, over time, these products and services grow increasingly commonplace. New becomes familiar.
Familiarity takes many forms. In The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, James Gibson describes his theory of how creatures see their environments. For example, the environment could be a swamp, and the creature, a frog. Weighing less than an ounce, a common frog will happily sit on a lily pad. The pad holds the frog’s weight, whereas the water surrounding it would not. We can describe the lily pad as “sit-able.” It affords the ability to be sat upon by a frog. Gibson calls this ability an affordance.
In 1998, Don Norman wrote about perceived affordances in his groundbreaking book The Psychology of Everyday Things (later renamed The Design of Everyday Things). He described how design affects our perceptions and interactions with objects. For example, a chair is “sit-able” based on its design: a chair mirrors the proportions of a human body, including the shape of its seat, the width of its arms, and the height of its legs.
In the years since, affordances and signifiers (i.e., cues) have become the primary means through which digital experiences are understood. We view an interface (see Figure 8–2) and wonder what is “click-able,” what is “scrollable,” and what is “swipe-able,” as we wade through a morass of toolbars, sliders, check boxes, tabs, accordions, tooltips, dropdown lists, breadcrumbs, carousels, toggles, radio buttons, text inputs, and links. An interface that is easy to use is often one that is easy to recognize. Familiarity shapes its contours, as prior experiences inform new ones.
Familiarity creates both restrictions and opportunities. It imposes a boundary but grants us a common reference point at which to begin an experience. It is the comfortable known, instilling us with the confidence to pursue the unknown. Like frogs hopping from lily pad to lily pad, we must trust the landing before we leap.
This post is a chapter from my new book, UX Fundamentals for Non-UX Professionals: User Experience Principles for Managers, Writers, Designers, and Developers.
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