Beautifully Broken


I was visiting a school in Grand Rapids to help onboard a group of teachers, watching them install the mobile and tablet application I’d been working on for the last few months, in this case Apple devices specifically. When we got there and realized they were all still running iOS 6, I knew it would be an interesting day. After staring at the progress sliders for what felt like an eternity, I watched their faces as they were presented with entirely different looking screens for the first time. They were being thrown into the deep end of a pool they had just gotten comfortable dipping their toes into.

As much as I love flat design, there is something to be said about skeuomorphism and its lack of ambiguity. A slider looked like a physical slider, a button looked like something you should touch. And as absolutely ecstatic as I was to burn all of the heavy gradients and textures and throw myself into the challenges of depicting things in the simplest and most minimal sense, I still couldn’t help but recognize the enormous learning curve it presented for others. I watched as four out of five teachers finally finished installing the app, launched it for the first time, and promptly and confidently denied the use to allow access to the camera roll, rendering the application completely useless as it was, you know, a camera app. Oh boy, I had failed them already.

At the end of the day, we are only human. Our users are only human. In my opinion, it is when human instincts come out and are fought for that the best designs are created. I love when people at work get upset about something, or argue about something, or challenge others on something. I build off of their passion, and I love knowing that I’m not working with a group of robots. We all have our breaking points.

I think one of the best reminders has been my opportunity to write error messaging. Sounds simple enough, right? “You ran out of usage space, fool” or “Sure you wanted to delete every video in your library? Because that’s what you just did.” Yes, I eat up catchy and humorous advertisement lingo. I sometimes like to pretend I’m a cast member on Mad Men. But what about technical writing? What happens when someone is dependent on your verbiage, when the meaning has to be intentionally intentional, literal, and most of all, helpful? It’s a whole different ballgame. You can’t rely on wit. You’re no longer selling someone on something. They bought it, and are now trying to use it successfully.

Working on the tutorials section of presented similar challenges. I was designing for people that were either excited and curious to learn about our products, wanted to quickly see if our products did things that were useful to them, or were flat out enraged that they couldn't figure out how to resize a callout on their own and were now embarrassingly resorting to our tutorials to figure out how. That’s a lot of emotions to deal with. I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone, and I definitely didn't want to discourage anyone. I wanted them to feel a sense of accomplishment without feeling patronized. I wanted it to be easy to navigate without feeling dry and boring, like a stale section of an old library.

This is one of our biggest challenges as designers, designing for the situations in which things have gone…unexpectedly. In which users are being presented with an error, or an important confirmation, or have simply found themselves in a place they did not intend to be in, a temporary roadblock. You are reaching out to them when they are scared, hesitant, angry, impatient or confused. You can either make things worse, or you can give them a sense of clarity. I like to think of it as the technical opportunity to give a non-local directions, or a friend a fist bump for hanging in there. It’s design moments like these where I want my work to say, “I gotchu, I’m only human too.”     

Samantha NovakComment