Over-engineered UX in consumer devices

Some thoughts on over-engineered user experience in consumer devices, and why they might frustrate users expectations.

Introduction

When I bought my first PC, it proved to be a very frustrating experience. It came with a number of bundled games on CD-ROM, and I thought all I needed to do was place them in the disc tray and the game would run. Coming from the background of running games on a console, I was trained to think of the PC, which is essentially a professional device, in a dumbed-down way. I genuinely did not even possess the concept of installing a game from a CD-ROM to a hard drive.

Regardless, my expectations had already been set so I arrived to the PC with a bias as to how it should work, then grew annoyed and frustrated when these expectations were not met. This is a common pattern that good User eXperience (UX) design should try to solve.

Mobile devices

Just as the console dumbed-down my expectations of how a PC should work, so to are the mobile computing devices like smart-phones and tablets. These user-friendly consumer devices have edged out the PC as the general purpose computer for web browsing, email, playing games or other media consumption. Their ease of use timed with the growth of mobile data networks have decimated PC sales in the consumer market, especially desktops, pushing the PC back to it's former role as a professional device only.

"Their [mobile devices] ease of use timed with the growth of mobile data networks have decimated PC sales in the consumer market"

Usability failure

That is why I was genuinely surprised to be confronted with major usability issues recently while setting up a smart-phone for a friend. Just like my frustration in the past with the PC, it stems out of a device not meeting the expectations I have as a user. I expected a smart-phone these days to be, well, smart, and easy to use. If I need to follow the tutorial videos included with the device, it has failed the usability test. The same can be said for looking up manuals or online help forums: if the device is intuitive and user friendly I should not have to do this.

Complexity

"In an engineer lead organization, UX will suffer and it will show in the products."

Engineers love complexity, because they equate that to flexibility. Having lots of ways to do the same thing gives the user a lot of flexibility, but with that flexibility comes complexity and confusion: most end users would be happy to have one simple way to do one thing.

In an engineer lead organization, UX will suffer and it will show in the products. The engineering mindset (maximum flexibility) is at odds with the typical end user mindset (simple and intuitive). For that reason, you should not engineer your UX but instead design it, and make it as intuitive to flow through for an end user as possible. These are design goals, not engineering goals.

John Collins

I have been writing about web technology and software development since 2001. I am the developer of the Alpha Framework for PHP, and the five.today personal productivity app. I love open source, technology, and economics.