The Interface That Gives

I was chatting to a mate recently about the maelstrom of expectation management that burdens most parents in the lead-up to Christmas.

“Yeah, both of my girls have two-page Santa lists!” he said. “I keep telling them that Santa is too busy to get everything on the list. Do they really need all that stuff anyway?”

Kids are just so dang needy these days—or rather, they can be demanding and “wanty”.

We often find ourselves designing user interfaces that act like wanty six-year-olds—all lists of “stuff” the system “needs” (read: business requirements) and not enough focus on giving back to the user.

Sadly, this is often the case with large corporate information systems that are usually steered heavily by business requirements. Sometimes the organisation needs to capture certain information and the user becomes slave to its gimme gimme attitude. Users end up enduring system tantrums when the right information isn’t entered or required fields aren’t filled.

The user interface as a demanding six-year-old

It isn’t just corporate systems that act like McChildren—often the websites we design are wanty, too. We still see, for example, shopping sites that want us to sign up, log in and connect our social networks before they’ll allow us to add products to a cart.

We sometimes think of the reciprocal give-and-take relationship between system and user as a form of Return on Investment (ROI).

Given the choice, users will only use a system if they see that the value they will receive (the Return) is greater than the effort (the Investment) they need to put in to using the system.

A mathematical equation: customer satisfaction = perceived value / effort required

Consider Facebook. Say what you will about the interface, Facebook gets that ROI equation right. It delivers significant value for its users and they can keep up to date with their family and friends’ activities at a glance.

On the Investment side of the equation, once you are set up, all it asks is that you open the app in your phone and swipe down the page a few times, scanning as you go.

Minimal effort. Significant value.

A chart shows that Facebook delivers considerable perceived value for the relative effort required.

What does it look like when we get it wrong?

Think about submitting your tax return online. Paper tax returns are a confusing, lengthy and frustrating chore for many people as it is, but online, the security requirements, browser compatibility issues and vestigial back-end legacy system constraints make the user experience awful in many cases.

The effort (and associated stress about screwing something up) is huge, and the value? Well, I guess you aim to avoid a fine by submitting on time.

A chart shows an online tax return demands a large effort for minimal perceived value.

You know you’re a long way from delighting customers when your main value proposition is “avoid a fine”.

So, how do we improve this situation? How do we balance out the “giving” vs. “taking” parts of the ROI equation?

To some degree, we are already doing it. By designing more efficient and usable user interfaces, we are reducing the effort required of users, but I think we can do more.

The interface that gives

I think we should design interfaces that deliver greater value to users before asking them to invest so much effort.

A few years ago my team designed a system for a government department that needed to track and address child abuse and neglect. For caseworkers, this was very difficult work—in addition to the harrowing nature of many of the cases, the workload was extremely high. In these situations it’s hard for staff to think of their administrative and record-keeping activities as anything other than a burdensome distraction from the “real” work of interacting with kids and families.

The legacy system required high effort and delivered low perceived value. Due to the episodic nature of many abuse cases, children drift in and out of the system over many years. Sadly, caseworkers often last less than 5 years in their role before moving on to other, less stressful work. Together, these two factors mean that cases move between caseworkers on occasion. Structured handover is vital, but in emergencies the ability to quickly understand an often-lengthy case history is absolutely critical.

In designing the replacement system, we did everything we could to make the interface as efficient and usable as possible in order to lessen the effort requirement.

Then we went a step further. We designed this screen…

A screenshot of the ICMS user interface, showing case summary information highlighted in purple and red

The key innovation was the column of purple tiles down the left side of the case summary screen. The tiles show how deeply the department needed to engage with a family in response to child safety issues at each episode. A purple tile in the left column indicates an initial contact with the family, the centre column houses more serious contacts and the right column is reserved for long term case management activity in response to severe child safety concerns.

Previously, when taking over a case or returning to an older case, staff had to wade through dozens of pages of records in order to build an understanding of the particular case history.

With this new design, caseworkers could quickly get a feel for how many episodes of involvement there have been and how serious they were. Most importantly, we delivered this to user, before they asked for it and without requiring any additional work of them. By being a little more “giving” before asking for user input, we built goodwill and demonstrated the important relationship between their good record keeping and the system’s ability to provide information to help them make decisions.

Caseworkers didn’t have to assemble complex reporting criteria or bounce in and out of the detail of all the episodes of departmental involvement in order to get a quick understanding—we reduced the effort requirement.

By designing systems that give first and then ask for input subsequently, perhaps we can build the kind of relationship with our users that we hope for with our kids around Christmas time.

Illustration by Matthew Magain

Matt Morphett

Matt Morphett

Matt is a digital product strategist with a strong focus on User Experience.

For over 15 years, Matt has been analysing, designing and deploying various forms of interaction between people and technology—including web-based systems, business applications, mobile devices and media rich solutions. Matt has designed solutions for burgeoning start-ups, complex multinational organisations and as part of sophisticated IT programs.

Matt speaks regularly at national and international design and IT conferences. He has published academic papers on design methods and blogs occasionally at ixd101.

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