My sister-in-law needed a laptop, and we offered to meet her at the Apple store. I knew that she had never bought a Mac before, and I assumed that she wanted our insight about buying one. I’ve been a cult member, I mean, Mac user, for 25 years. I assumed that she was looking forward to treating herself to something new.
Saturday at the Apple store? Depending on who you are, this is either bliss or hell-on-earth. For the kids at the game table playing on iPads, it seemed pretty good. For the teens picking out new gadgets with Dad in tow, well, good for them (not so sure about Dad).
My husband wandered off, dreamy-eyed, to covet the external monitors. For me, the sensory overdrive of bright lights and birch veneer was pleasant enough. Even the Apple associates circling like sharks* felt vaguely comforting. Like sharks, but vegetarian sharks.
We zeroed in on the laptops, and I rapidly ruled out the too-slim, the too-expensive, and the too-large. Although it would not be me who would go home with a shiny new toy, I enjoyed the vicarious shopping experience.
Because there’s nothing more fun than shiny new tech, right?
I prattled on for a minute or two, “You could get the 128 gig drive because it’s cheaper but honestly if I were you I’d go for the 256 gig because you take a lot of photos and if you’re not storing them on the cloud you’ll want ample local storage and I’d stick with this model because the 2.6 processor is really overkill for what you want to do because you use your laptop for email and presentations but hey it never hurts to treat yourself right?”
I paused to inhale, and one look at my sister-in-law’s grim and glassy-eyed expression was enough to remind me:
Not everyone has a positive relationship with technology.
For some people, shopping for tech is like being in a really expensive candy store.
For others, shopping for tech—or talking about tech, dealing with tech—is closer to dental surgery*. There will be anaesthesia, yes, and you’ll feel better when it’s over. But at best, it fills you with boredom, and more likely, with fear and anxiety.
Emotional relationships with technology
Imagine two users who need to fill out an online form.
The first user comes to your site, navigates to the page they need in a few clicks, enters information with no typing errors, and completes the transaction without hesitation.
The second user moves the mouse slowly, and after several clicks finds the page they need. They struggle to enter information for several minutes, hunting and pecking at the keyboard, possibly closing the form by mistake, and eventually clicking the button to finish the transaction.
How do you imagine these two users feel after the experience?
It is no surprise that the first user has a feeling of confidence that the transaction was successful and worth doing. Possibly they will have positive emotions; maybe they will recommend the site to a friend.
On the other hand, our second user is left with feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. Not only do they have a sour taste from the digital transaction, but the very act of navigating the web is a source of friction. The keyboard, the mouse, the browser, none of these are comfortable or enjoyable. This user probably describes him or herself as a "technophobe".
The first person's emotional relationship with technology is fairly seamless and comfortable. They know how to get what they want from technology. The second person's emotional relationship with technology is much more precarious. They fear technology and they don't trust it.
Assumptions and attitude
It always pains me to hear someone say, "I'm an idiot when it comes to technology". To use such negative language and to be so self-critical is a sign that technology is letting this person down, not the other way around.
When we design an interactive form or web application, we have to make some assumptions. We have to assume that the user has access to a fairly modern browser. We must design and develop with some confidence that the user can use a mouse, keyboard, and browser. We assume the user will enjoy our carefully designed interface and appreciate the balance of colours and typography.
But you know what happens when you assume things. It makes... well, you know the rest.
It's easy to forget that every user has his or her own attitude towards technology.
Attitude can create or remove barriers
A user’s attitude towards an interface, or towards technology in general (as we saw in the story above) can create or remove barriers to their user experience. For example, as a longtime and loyal Mac user, my attitude towards Apple products is positive and forgiving. I am likely to be an early adopter. I am willing to put in extra effort when it comes to changes to operating systems or hardware. My attitude removes barriers. The controls on my first iPod Nano weren't always intuitive, but I didn’t care: I was willing to put in the time to learn its quirks. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, is not a loyal Mac user. Not only that, she has no loyalty to any platform. Her attitude going into the Apple store is that technology is necessary but not a source of pleasure. At best, she feels no emotional attachment to it. At worst, she feels anxiety and frustration.
It's our responsibility as designers and developers to foster a positive emotional relationship between the user and the interface. It's our responsibility to question our assumptions and design for the attitudes of our users, not ourselves.
The good news is, my sister-in-law got through the purchasing process, and successfully navigated the transition from one platform to another. She is now the happy owner of a very nice laptop.
However unenjoyable she found the experience of shopping for the laptop, the experience of getting to know the new laptop has been extremely positive. She describes the whole event as being like getting out of a dysfunctional relationship with a bad boyfriend*. She had known for a long time that the relationship had soured and that she could do better. Her old laptop was unreliable, and they didn't honestly enjoy each other's company any more. While willing to try a new laptop, she had such a negative emotional association with technology, that she was reluctant to commit.
Our relationships with technology are a lot like our relationships with people.
Her experience with the new laptop is rebuilding and repairing her emotional connection to technology. Just like the really great boyfriend who follows a really bad boyfriend, the new laptop is reliable, friendly, and respectful. I may be personally biased towards the Apple user experience, but I think it's fair to say that the thoughtful, human-centred user experience of the operating system and the hardware played a key role in what is now her positive relationship with technology.
Guide and facilitate
Whenever we design a user experience, we have the opportunity to forge a postive emotional relationship between technology and the user (or strengthen a relationship that is already positive). We don't just get to be designers and developers; we get to be guides and facilitators.
If you could guide the user’s behaviour helpfully and patiently, their experience will be positive. They will navigate to the page you want them to read, fill out the forms you ask them to fill out, pay for the items in their cart, and sign up for membership with your organization. Guide their behaviour and voila, your users are more engaged, your customers are happier, and they associate your digital product (and your brand) with positive emotions and experiences.
The strongest relationships involve trust and respect. They can take a long time to establish and can be easily damaged. But with care, commitment, and thoughtful user experience design, they can also be repaired and rebuilt.
*Any opinions expressed here about sharks, dentists, Apple associates, or boyfriends, are solely the opinions of the author.