Users are not idiots

So I was riding the bus into work one morning, immersed in the spandexed power rock smashing my eardrums to pieces, when I noticed a young child reaching for my iPod Classic.

Being a nice guy, I obligingly handed it over. He grabbed hold of it with his snotty little fingers and, without a moment’s hesitation, started swiping away on the small screen above the obviously clickable click wheel.

My initial thought was obviously, “Silly boy”, but then I got to thinking, firstly, how interesting it was that his first instinct was to go straight for the screen, and, secondly, he had no worries whatsoever about getting stuck in and trying stuff out (unlike my computer illiterate parents, who are afraid to even click a button for fear that they’ll delete the Internet).

This brought home something I’ve been considering for a while now: that we need to stop assuming that users are idiots.

More and more people are beginning to embrace touch screen, the complex gestures that come with it and the exploratory side of interface design. Nowadays, a lot is simply ‘expected’ to happen; for example, on a tablet, you’ll automatically swipe at an image devoid of interaction hints to see if it takes you anywhere. It’s become a user instinct, instilled into us by years of gestural conditioning.

That’s why I believe we need to start giving users more credit and remove the implicit shackles that hold back interaction design to create new, interesting and wholly more engaging interfaces that truly make the most of the latest browser technology and multi-touch devices.

Microsoft recently released their new IE 10 browser, marking the launch with an impressive example of its capabilities, designed and built by Fantasy Interactive.

A super fun and engaging interface design that allows the user to explore, play and learn, showing off its multi-touch ability to manipulate sound, all wrapped up in a lovely creative… It feels rich and immersive; when I first started using it, I thought to myself “I’m not even trying to achieve anything here, I’m just messing around”, but, even so, I spent more time on the site than I have on some content rich (and probably all together more informative) websites designed to market products of a similar ilk.

But, of course, there’s a time and a place for indulgent abstract interfaces.

At one end of the spectrum we have things like this: the ‘go nuts, figure it out yourself’ experience, creating something that is meant to be explored. At the other end, we have interfaces where maximum conversion is imperative — where the one single most important objective is to get people to BUY! BUY! BUY! Here, removing implicit signposts and clearly labeled buttons would no doubt have User Experience experts tearing their hair out…

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t adjust our assumptions and give users the benefit of the doubt from time to time. Perhaps removing a label or two, adding some nice little interactions that reveal hidden delights, removing the clutter and allowing the beautiful clean designs space to breath… These ideas aren’t new, but, unfortunately, it still takes a brave client to sign this sort of thing off.

Teehan + Lax keep their website super stripped back at first glance

Still, I think we should always strive to encourage exploration and provide ‘experiences’, rather than just tools. Keep people intrigued, hint at (rather than always explicitly signpost) interactions and make it feel rewarding to discover more.

A great recent example of this is the WWF Together app.

Enjoyable for all ages, you can explore and interact to reveal snippets of information and videos about endangered animals. There are hints along the way if you’re struggling (but only subtle ones), and once you get the gist it becomes a joy to discover clever little interactive nuggets.

Our hands have an incredibly rich and expressive repertoire, capable of much more than just swiping and pinching. Basically (snotty fingers aside), all of us are that little boy from the bus: ready to explore and unafraid of getting it wrong. And, personally, I’m really excited about the prospect of designing some really engaging and gesture rich touch screen experiences in the future.