Imagine you’re sitting in a car. Imagine the kind of seat you’re in. Are you seated low or high? Is this an SUV or a Tesla S? What color is the interior? Imagine all of these elements within this car from the buttons to the speedometer. Now, press the power button, grab the mouse and drive forward. If you’re a person who’s every driven, been driven in or ever seen a car, this probably sounds absurd. If it happened in real life it might even anger you. You, probably, know how to drive. How dare this car not have a steering wheel.
Driving a car is based on a particular interface. This interface was developed over years of exploration during the early days of the automobile. Most early cars used a joystick type interface known as a tiller, earlier cars (road locomotives) had two levers (so it might feel more like steering horses.) Even once the steering wheel was introduced by Panhard in 1895 it wasn’t what we would consider a “steering wheel”. And the first production car, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, used an alien looking upright wheel with a handle to steer.
The interface had to evolve. But think about it, the car interface was the first interface mechanical designed for the average person. It represents an evolution from skilled labor interfaces of a factory to intuitive, human interface design for everyone.
Fast forward to our modern age and we have interfaces everywhere. We have these amazing machines that do anything we want them to (with the right application.) Their interfaces are mutable and, often, designed by a variety of people, for a variety of tasks. Yet we still believe that there is a “right” interface. We believe that there is a perfect blend of visual cues and intuitive timing of information that will allow people to learn an interface instantaneously. This simply isn’t true.
You’re not alone if you struggle with learning an interface. If it includes more than three or four options at launch it’s often too confusing for the average person in their busy day. But once people learn the interface, which humans are shockingly talented at, we begin want options and features that allow us to accomplish any task we can think of. This means as product designers we have two options.
- Provide all the features, buttons, options, whizz-bang dohickeys that people can imagine they want
- Make the product simple and open enough that users don’t ask it to do more
The truth is, both will get your deep loyalty and here’s why.
The first option is best exemplified by the Bloomberg Terminal. The Terminal is the trading platform for the world. It is the interface responsible for moving more money than any other interface on the planet. Its users take tremendous pride in their ability to use the Terminal… and they should. The visual interface, the look and feel and the visual cues that help us navigate an application, haven’t changed much since the 1980s. With it’s orange text on black background, anyone in the User Experience industry would say it’s an ugly interface. But they have something that few other companies have: loyalty. There are over 30,000 commands in the Terminal. It takes a major commitment to learn them all. But the pay-off is faster trading. The traders and analysts who use the Terminal take so much pride in their ability to use it that they have built traditions around it.
“When a Terminal users reaches an expert level of skill, they can use the system without needing their mouse. Many of these guys then take their mouse and hang it over the back of their chair. They leave it there to show others that they have mastered the Terminal. It’s a, sort of, right of passage.”
So while the Terminal is a black screen with orange, white, green and red text in a menagerie of boxes and windows across two to four monitors, it makes the user feel as though they have access to all the World’s knowledge. By taking the time to learn a challenging interface these users know they are skilled labor. If Bloomberg were to suddenly make the interface dead simple, they would have a revolt from the thousands of loyal customers who invest so much of their time learning the system.
In contrast, Instagram does a few things exceedingly well. It allows users to take decent photos and it allows them to share those photos with anyone. While this isn’t access to all the World’s knowledge it is access to much of the World’s photography. (Photos being powerful products for communication, Instagram is providing a version of “all the World’s knowledge”.) From average people sharing photos about their weekend to the Chechen President, Kadyrov, using it for geo-political image making, Instagram has become a multi-purpose tool by focusing on doing a few things well.
“It’s actually a very useful thing,” Ramzan Kadyrov said of Instagram in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Monday. “I now have the opportunity to monitor public opinion in real time.” - Guardian UK
The trend towards simplicity of interface requires a high level of open-endedness. The difference between these two styles of interface comes from the ideas themselves. One tries to solve a functional problem, “How do trade stocks faster?” the other solves an emotional problem, “How can I take better photos?”. By solving the broader problem, the interface can be open enough to allow for multiple uses. By solving for the functional problem the interface can become a honed tool. We need both kinds in our society. But each requires a specific kind of focus and total dedication to their respective interface philosophies.
For the functional application, Bloomberg shows us that if you achieve the core functionality your users will learn any interface.
For the emotional application, Instagram teaches us that users will develop their own uses for your simple interface.
From cars, we learn that steering wheels create the best kind of loyalty, functional and emotional.
For any car fans who happen to read this. Yes, I did simplify the interface design issue quite a bit. It wasn’t just the steering wheel that evolved, it was everything. But I hope you’ll forgive the over simplification and I hope I didn’t simplify it too much as to lose my few fans (do I have any really?).