Friday, March 9, 2012

Communicating and miscommunicating with products

A while back, I was out of town.  On my way back from the restaurant where I had dinner to my hotel, I had to cross a busy street.  There was a button on the corner to press to get the “Walk” sign to light up when it was safe to cross.  I pressed the button.  It flashed when I pressed it, then went out.  I pressed it again.  It did the same thing.  After the third press and flash, I just waited and a minute later the Walk sign came on.

Why did I press the button three times?

To answer this question, we need to think about human communication for a moment.  The psychologist Herb Clark has a fantastic 1996 book called Using Language.  In it, he starts by describing the best form of communication for people.  We communicate best when there are a small number of people talking face-to-face in real time.  Conversations are like a coordinated dance.  Even when you are not speaking, you are giving feedback to the speaker by looking at her or nodding or smiling.  This kind of feedback helps the speaker know she is being understood.  And if you don’t understand something, you can immediately cut in and ask for clarification.

Herb Clark goes on to say that the chances for miscommunication go up as you get further and further away from this ideal situation.  So, talking on the phone is harder than being there in person, because you can’t see the person you are talking to.  A lecture is harder than a conversation, because it is hard to stop the speaker in mid-sentence if you don’t understand something.  Reading something (like a blog entry) is harder than a conversation, because the text was written a long time before you are even reading it. 

One reason why emails can cause so much trouble, is because it is easy for people to misinterpret the tone in an email and take seriously something that was meant as a joke.  In a normal conversation, it is easy to look at a speaker and get a sense of whether they meant a comment to be taken seriously, but in an email or text that information just isn’t available.

What does this have to do with crossing the street?

We also communicate with the products and devices around us.  We expect them to behave like good communicators.  When I pressed the button to cross the street, the button flashed.  That was the button’s way of saying, “I hear you.”  You see this when people are pressing elevator buttons when a light has blown out.  If you press the “up” or “down” button on an elevator and it does not light, then you end up pressing it again a few times, because you are not sure that the elevator heard you.

When I was trying to cross the busy street, the light only flashed, it did not stay on.  So, it felt as though the button was telling me, “I heard you, but I’m ignoring your request.”  And so, I pressed the button again, as if I was insisting that my plea for a “Walk” light should be heard.

When you get frustrated with using a product, chances are it is not communicating with you properly.  You expect a product to answer you when you ask something.  If you press a button on a device or a website, you are asking for information.  You want an immediate response that you were heard and that your request is being taken care of.  You generally like to get some kind of communication about how long the request is going to take.  The progress bars on websites are good at that.

In the end, the designers of websites, products, and devices need to pay attention to the way that people communicate to make sure that they communicate effectively.  These designers need to think about that ideal form of communication that involves a small number of people communicating together at the same time and to use that to put together an effective interface that tells users what they need to know.