Kevin Cheng  

Romancing the User Experience

February 11th, 2005 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Arthur (or Art) is a user experience professional in Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe. Rare enough that such a character would be featured in a novel, rarer still to find appropriate humour involved. In one scene, he asks a woman, Linda, to dinner and reveals his occupation to her. Linda’s response:

She rolled her eyes. “Not another one. God. Look, we go out for dinner, don’t say a word about the kerb design or the waiter or the menu or the presentation, OK? OK? I’m serious.”

I can relate to Art’s position as I’m sure many readers can. Bad interfaces are rampant and it takes effort to not comment on each and every one to your significant other or even just friends who were unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of that poorly designed ticket machine.

But what about Art’s feelings about Linda? It seems that a dinner with Linda would be a really bad user experience for Art all around. Not only does he have to suffer through poorly organized menus, he must agree to not discuss it. Yet, he will sit through voluntarily and he will shut up about the menu.

Romance, or indeed any human relationships, are not very usable. Ever see the fake remote controls to control the opposite sex? That’s a good user experience. One-click happiness. Wouldn’t it be great to just have 1-click Valentine’s and Birthday solutions? Yet even if we were offered such an option, we’d probably take the difficult, unusable choice instead. Why would we subject ourselves to this?

The most apparent answer would be that we’re dealing with Human to Human interaction, not Human-Computer Interaction. Computers are cold, calculating, not-reciprocal and hence, we don’t want to put in the effort to appease it. Humans form emotional bonds which make it worthwhile to go the extra mile (or click) whilst machines don’t form any bonds. Or do they?

The Tamagotchi, the most popular of the pocket pets that was a craze a few years ago, was the most obnoxiously high maintenance key chain you could purchase for $100. You had to feed it (often), play with it and even clean its excrements. Much like human relationships, though, people formed bonds with their pets and were willing to suffer through continuous abuse from this pet that gave what seemed like nothing in return. Similarly, many accounts about Sony’s Aibo dog relationship with their owners reflect a deep bond between them.

My impression then, is that the willingness to endure poor user experience or desire for good user experience, has nothing to do with whether the object is human or computer. Instead, much like other aspects of user experience, it’s task driven. If your task is a video game, which the Tamagotchi could be considered as, then your goal is maximum pleasure through completing challenging tasks (or in this case, tedious one). The same can be said for friends or significant others. Conversely, usage of a computer to chart graphs for a presentation is like interacting with your boss - you have to do it but you want it done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Given these parallels, perhaps user experience professionals can moonlight as marriage counsellors in the future …

5 Responses to “Romancing the User Experience”
Dave wrote:

Given these parallels, perhaps user experience professionals can moonlight as marriage counsellors in the future …

One of our greatest skills/talents is “empathy”-our ability to feel (usually the pain) that others are feeling. So we should hope.

Chris Moritz wrote:

Hmm… I’d never considered starting an therapy service. I wonder what I can bill for a heuristic analysis and competitive review of a couple’s relationship?

There’s wouldn’t be too much call for wireframes, but I’d have to quote a couple hundred hours to come up with a concept map!

Bob Salmon wrote:

<Public service announcement>

An Art <-> Linda type interaction

When my wife Katy was pregnant with our first child, we went to the hospital for the routine ultrasound scan. The sonographer took a still image that showed the baby’s head and then used a trackball to click a series of dots on the image to show the outline of the head. (This was all so that the head circumference could be measured and hence the baby’s age.)

Instead of having to exactly superimpose the first click with the last click (to complete the outline), she pressed a special button on the machine and it joined the last click she’d made with the first click.

I thought “that was really neat” but fortunately also quickly thought “but I don’t think Katy would appreciate that in the middle of this spiritual experience of seeing our child for the first time”, so I just filed it away to mention later.

A colleague in a similar position wasn’t so quick with the second thought, and his wife told him in no uncertain terms what she considered the relative merits of user interface design of hospital equipment and seeing her unborn daughter as a person for the first time.

Just thought I’d warn anyone who might ever accompany a pregnant woman to an ultrasound scan.

(BTW, it really is a magical experience, so if ever the opportunity presents itself to you, take it.)

</Public service announcement>

Bob Salmon wrote:

Sorry to double-post, but having re-read KC’s article I was reminded of what could be considered a later installment of my earlier saga.

An aspect of human relationships that suffers from a poor user interface is a new-born baby. Its only feedback mechanism is WAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGHHHHH! You need (but don’t have) a row of LEDs that indicate:

  • I’m hungry
  • I need a nappy change
  • I have wind
  • I’m bored
  • I just feel like crying. This “3 a.m.” concept of which you speak does not compute.

Alas, you never get this, but if you survive the first month or so then you are rewarded with a different feedback mechanism: the smile. Despite your chronic and severe sleep deprivation, it’s like the sun coming out.

Beth Martin wrote:

It’s a bit dated, and I can’t find the exact article I ran across recently, but a researcher has found a way to view videos of couples talking about mundane topics and determine how healthy their marriage is. Here’s a press release about it: “Marital researchers now can predict not only which couples will divorce but when they will split”

More recently, they’ve determined that 3 minutes rather than 15 minutes is sufficient to accurately predict whether the couple will divorce or not. Would that it could be so simple with user testing!

My husband was given, on two separate occasions, a copy of “The Baby Owner’s Manual.” It was quite helpful, and very usable, as well as humorous.


Leave a Reply


OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?