Why So Serious?

7th Apr 2012
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I was on a SouthWest flight this one time, and just as the plane was lining up on the runway, the flight attendant came on the intercom and said that we're all going to play a game of "Catch the peanuts". As the plane was accelerating on the runway, the attendant who was sitting at the front of the plane dumped like a 100 bags of peanuts in the aisle. As the plane accelerated, the bags of peanuts slid through the aisle, where we "caught" them. I even managed to get a couple extra for the passengers sitting next to me in the middle and window seat. Most fun I've had on a plane. Ever.

Different story: I feel mildly stressed when I'm entering my password on any website. If I enter it wrong, I'm worried it will scold me with a bright red error message. It takes me back to my school days, like seeing an exam paper full of red ink from a teacher’s pen. Why do websites do that? Why are the error messages in red? Are they trying to scold me? The experience of entering a password feels like a test: "Do you know what the right password is? Only then do you get to go ahead. And if you get it wrong...."

These two scenarios are so different. In the first one, the airline has managed to turn an otherwise stressful experience of traveling in a cramped seat slightly pleasant. On the other hand, something as simple as entering my password manages to cause mild cognitive stress, especially if I have a feeling I don't remember what the damn password is.

All products must live by the cardinal rule of pleasing the user. Using the product has to absolutely be a pleasing experience. It should leave the user happier. You know how they say "The Customer is always right"? I think the equivalent for software products should be "The User is absolutely, undoubtedly, goddamned right."

The reality, however, is quite different. Many products tend to be very functional, not paying any attention to what the user’s state of mind is. Is the product helping the user achieve what he wants to do? In a pleasing, helpful way? However, many products confuse professional with strict. When ends up happening is products end up looking serious, distant and disconnected from the user. Products should be fun and engaging to use.

Google’s approach to products is a good example. The Google doodles are beloved and widely adored. Google has gone to great extents to make them fun, adorable and even cute. Remember the pac-man doodle? Or the musical doodle? Or the submarine you could navigate? When you search for "recursion", Google comes back and asks "Did you mean recursion?" Asking Google Maps for directions from Japan to China results in Google suggesting you "Jet Ski across the Pacific Ocean".

Making your products fun and adorable has benefits beyond just the obvious. Firstly, it builds enormous user loyalty. Many, many users use Google because they love that experience of serendipitously seeing some fun, sometimes interactive logo. And once they see the fun logos, user satisfaction scores are actually higher than without. Think about that for a second: Users think Google's search engine is better after seeing the interactive logos, even though the logos have no bearing on the search results. There's a second, more significant benefit: When things go wrong, users are much more likely to be forgiving and understanding, because they feel like they have an emotional connection with the product. When Gmail has gone down, the response in the blogosphere has been significantly milder than what Microsoft experiences when Hotmail is down.

Coming back to the problem with passwords: There's many nicer ways to handle the user typing a wrong password. Twitter's mobile site helpfully says "Typing on your phone stinks, we know! Double-check your username and password and try again." And it's not in the annoying red color I hate so much. Ubuntu's lock screen shakes (I find it very funny :) ) when you type a wrong password. This one video game actually apologized to me when I typed a wrong password: It said "We're very sorry, but we couldn't recognize the password. Would you like to try again?". And I was like "Sure, no problem".

That made me real happy.

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