Not simplicity vs. obviousness, but past vs. future

I’m no designer, but now that I’ve been thinking through a few concrete design problems in a project that I hope can change how we listen to music, I’ve come to realize a few things.

When John Gruber and Federico Viticci talk about simplicity vs. obviousness and discovery vs. frustration, I think they’re describing a sticky, problematic period of flux in UI and UX design (one that will continue to repeat itself, forever). For any user, between the user’s current set of capacities and a perfect understanding of how their device and its apps work, they’ll encounter a learning curve. They have to become acquainted with a new way of interacting with a device. Consider the delicate art of learning a musical instrument. It is certainly awkward and definitely frustrating; it takes forever and puts many new demands on you and your muscles. But you just have to look at how painful and monotonous violin practice is in order to understand how good of a job today’s designers are doing at cluing you in to their inventions. In Viticci’s terms, they’re really good at helping you discover what their app does – but the frustration comes later, and inevitably.

So from where does this frustration stem? There’s a pretty intractable problem with all digital interfaces: once you establish them, every single user who currently uses your app/OS/hardware device becomes a reason to not change it, because the user might get confused. Jaron Lanier calls it lock-in, I think. And it’s a big problem – but not for the first version. It takes time, and you’ll encounter it soon enough.For example, when Word changes something, it messes with people’s minds. Engineers think: “Better leave it as it is (but we’ll just add this little thing here).” Then the problems just keep compounding. Soon, you’ll be desperately flipping through tabs and menus and all sorts of crud that has been added ostensibly for your benefit.

I guess the thing that becomes apparent, while digging and scrolling and mouse-hunting for some long-lost feature in Excel, is that designing a familiar, obvious, non-frustrating user interface is only non-frustrating and obvious at first. But as features creep in, as versions iterate, it becomes more and more apparent that the obvious thing is not a permanent thing, because the obvious thing was only obvious thanks to some other thing that had been around previously. Microsoft Word started as a digital version of the printed page. Its functions are, to this day, organized primarily around printing manuscripts and papers and whatever else you might want to get your printer to spit out. But a lot of what we do with text on computers has nothing to do with printing. I haven’t printed anything since graduating university. When I need to make a note, I use Evernote. When I need to store a file, I put it in my Dropbox. But when I need to get someone at work to edit an article, I use Word. And then I e-mail it across the internet to a blogger, who then painstakingly reformats it for her blog. If that sounds odd – as though this Word document is just a container for things that could be handled far better – then you might be right. Technically speaking, Word’s .docx files are closer to .zip files than anything else.

When designers take old, familiar designs and build up a new experience off of them (whether superficially and visually, in Apple’s Find My Friends iOS app, or more fundamentally, like with Word), it’s called skeumorphism. But no matter what its implementation, skeumorphism eventually cracks under the stress of the future, which is really digital and not at all like the concrete artifacts that preceded it. All of this stuff is just… well, it’s bunk. It’s old. It couldn’t guess what we were going to do in the future. Even the stuff we made digitally over these last couple decades is now obselete. Next time you find a song in your iTunes library by searching for it, think about why there’s a library in the first place, or why it’s even organized by album. Think about what people will think when touch is suddenly the “old way of doing things.”

If I could guess what we would be doing in the future, I would guess that we’d be doing the same tasks we are now: we’ll still be writing, and editing, and sharing information. We’ll still be listening to music, discovering, sharing. We’ll still be taking photos, sprucing them up, and sending them to our friends and family.

So what will all that look like? It will always look different, and it will always be changing, and we will always be frustrated, and there will always be a hint of the past in there somewhere (whether you call it skeumorphism or ‘familiarity’ or what). But we ought to know that our frustration isn’t just with the app that is trying to make our experience better. We ought to know that we will be frustrated because whatever can be developed to respond to the needs of the end user, it will always necessarily lag behind what is possible. The frustration we feel is from our old practices stumbling on the new, unusual terrain opened up by technological progress, and that is a feature of the interactive landscape that will only keep growing. We must always be learning in the future. I mean, we should always be learning anyway, but while there’s not much you can hide behind now, there will be even less familiarity and stability in the future. Worse still, for every new frontier opened up by technology (and let’s keep that term as broad as we can), a new expectation is levied – and sometimes the demands are far greater than the demand to learn how to operate the newest app, or operating system, or device. Sometimes, health care or financial decisions ride on our ability to work within the interfaces and technologies offered to us. Soon, a lot more may be expected.

It is up to designers to make these demands as moral, as clear, and as attainable as possible. Even if new experiences might be frustrating (and I think that’s just what learning feels like, most of the time), they need not be damningly inaccessible to all but the youngest and the brightest. If you’re anything like me, you want people to use what you’re making not simply for the sake of growing your ego, but because you really and truly want to make something better. Let’s make sure we remember that ‘making something better’ doesn’t just mean making something more useful, with more features, and so on. It means making things that are responsible for, and respectful of, what the humans that use it will feel when using it.

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