Supportive Feedback in an Interface

Once we've worked on enough projects with a team, little quips pop into our head as we make early design decisions. “We need to make sure my grandmother can use it.” “We need everybody to know what's possible right away.”

There’s wonderful empathy in those statements. We want our products to serve everybody. Playing favorites with our users overvalues certain perspectives at the expense of others. However, it can be a slippery slope if we start thinking everybody should know how to do everything right away. I've tried designing interfaces like that, and they inevitably become a hot mess of buttons, links, and copy. Ironically, they aren’t easier to use.

I think we can take a more intelligent approach by building interfaces that are trustworthy and supportive experiences, experiences that reward experimentation. People learn by trying something and seeing if it works. That's how we learn to read, write, and play instruments. Unfortunately, most product teams aren't comfortable asking a user to experiment. That's backwards.

I understand the reasoning: you don't want to frustrate users. Frustrating interfaces can drive even the most patient person to become a raging inferno of expletives. The solution is to instead focus on why users get frustrated. Is it because interfaces don't react as they expected them to, or because interfaces don't give them context-sensitive feedback?

Doing something wrong sucks, but it sucks a whole lot less when you’re given a helping hand to figure it out. If we focus on context and emotionally sensitive feedback that rewards experimentation, we won't need to litter interfaces with every option under the sun. We can instead focus on the flow of the user and encourage their successes and their failures.