Experience design is rocket science

Back in January I posted an assertion that customer service isn’t hard to do. Sometimes I leave people wondering why I get paid a nice salary to pontificate on this stuff as it’s all pretty easy and largely the articulation of common sense. It’s the same argument I used to hear when telling people about the ‘obvious’ results of academic psychology studies. It’s easy to start believing this stuff and even though certain designs and designers are lauded for their pursuit of the obvious, others are called out as snake oil salesmen. Krug‘s done a nice line in books that make it plain how simple this all is.

This week, however I read two important posts. The first being from Harry Brignull, Senior UX at Brighton’s Clearleft. In his posts (slides and notes) he explores the mistakes he and the team made on the way to delivering the successful app experience for The Week. It rang true to read of his frustrations as blindingly obvious interface and navigation elements were wilfully ignored by apparently stupid users. How I nodded along recalling my recent experience with Treejack when my simple and straightforward site architecture for a major British institution was exposed as confusing and muddling one to users in a 500-person remote test. The second post, far more important and sobering, was the analysis of the last moments of Air France flight  447 (Popular Mechanics and Telegraph articles). With the recover of the various voice & data recorders a clearer picture of what happened on the flight deck emerged but, crucially, why the pilots behaved the way they did in the face of apparently obvious warnings and information has proved both incredibly complex and rather contentious.

This is where cognitive psychologists, engineers and really incredibly talented people are earning their crust. Analysing, exploring, experimenting and evaluating the hugely complex elements at work when we interact with systems. Our irrationality and unpredictability are being explored in light hearted ways as we persuasionists are asked to design new campaigns and digital experiences but when these forces work against us in catastrophic ways it causes us to pause and remember our colleagues and peers’ role in solving these riddles.

I might not be designing an error-proofed flight deck any time soon but I think it’s about time I stopped underselling our value quite so much. The work we do is complicated and rewarding, whether it’s saving lives, producing a digital magazine or shifting some more products. One of the final persuaders for me to transition from psychology to HCI was James Reason’s book Human Error and my course under Dr. Phillip Quinlan at York where we explored a variety of complex scenarios leading to catastrophic human error. Understanding the part designers had to play in helping us protect us from ourselves was a strong motivator. The book still sits on my shelf and I would heartily recommend it to anyone in this business.

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