Being useful: A short introduction to proactive UX design

Recently, I have been noticing a big shift within a couple of big companies that I worked with in cooperation with MING Labs, a design studio here in Berlin. All of them are slowly noticing that their digital solutions might be easy to use and all, but the usage either drops over time or they notice that people don’t really use them at all. At this point they reach out to companies like us to help them solve the problem. The first question we then ask internally is: Is this actually useful?

I noticed that in pursuit of new, cool and shiny solutions, as well as things design teams love to tinker with, like better usability or more beautiful design, internal teams of our clients often forget about the first commandment of user experience: usefulness. Being usable or beautiful is easy, being useful is hard work.

Enter proactive experiences — in short, designing your app to be proactive means that you employ empathy and a ton of user research to boil down to a solution of one simple problem: how to help people who use my app solve their problems as they appear? For a while now, I have been thinking about this concept of “personal butler”, an app that not only tells you what went wrong well enough for you to understand, it also lets you solve those problems on the fly. Let’s say you’re working with a railway company app — being proactive means you don’t only tell them their train is going to be late, it’s about showing them alternative routes of getting there if they’re in rush. There are two things to get this right: being aware of the context and your design being modular enough to be able to rearrange itself on the fly to suggest solutions.

There are a bunch of great “personal butler” solutions around these days, with Google Now and Nest thermostat being probably the most known and most prominent examples.

Being useful vs being a creep

For as much as I do love Google Now in my Nexus, with all the data that Google has on me, it totally fails at crossing the border between incredibly useful (“Mariusz, you should leave in 5 minutes to catch the subway for that meeting you have at twelve”) and being a total creep (“Mariusz, here’s the route idea for that record shop you randomly googled for several times a while ago”). Remember kids: before you go all out on trying to be useful, please, please make sure you don’t come across as a total stalker. It’s a very fine balance.

The future of user experience

I think that apps that understand what situation you’re currently in and how they can be useful to you are the future of user experience. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that — I see more and more companies approach designers asking for help designing such solutions and “Her”, the Spike Jonze’s famous movie was a proactive experience designer’s wet dream. People need these kinds of apps and they will love you if you can provide.

How “Her” made me hopeful about future of technology

We just came back from the cinema, where we watched “Her” that premiered in Poland yesterday. It’s going to be a “just after” post, where I want to share my thoughts and ideas after seeing the movie. I’ll try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, go see it first. Because, you know, spoilers may happen.

First of all, I went to the cinema full of expectations — a lot of people I knew who seen the movie already were all about how great it is. Obviously there was a decent-sized group of skeptics as well, but these were mostly people who are not into technology and/or are not actively trying to build new technology. The skeptics usually dismissed the film as something nerdy, out of this world and not possible at all.

I can’t disagree more.

First of all, “Her” is like a porn movie made for user experience designers, especially the ones like me, who dabble in emotional UX design. It touches a very important moment in technology — which might be in reality really close or really far away — where a bunch of very smart people removed the “interface” part of user interface and made the experience so seamless it feels like you’re talking to a human being. There’s still the wearable earplug interface part to it (and that awkward gesture thing Theodore does on his table to boot up his stationary screen), which might not happen if wearable tech will be sewn into our jackets or into our dog’s collars, like people touting the awesomeness of “The Internet of Things” are trying to do (which is slightly scary by itself).

As you can imagine, with experience being incredibly seamless, the OS becomes a friend, rather than a tool. This is a wet dream of every experience designer geeky enough that I know, and it leads to a very important questions that we, as experience designers should answer when designing and building such experiences — what happens if you make experience so seamless, average user won’t be able to tell it apart from human (except the obvious aspects of not being carbon-based and not having a body)? What will happen if people who use our products would start befriending and even falling in love with it? Can we avoid that? Should we put in some kind of locks on taking the experience too far or let people just roam free with it and see what happens? What if — because the experience is indistinguishable from the one we have with a fellow human being — we start treating technology as human? What if — in the process of learning — the technology grows beyond the point where we can control how fast and in which direction it’s growing?

In “Her” the technology finally outgrows humans. In a good way. Instead of going for the sci-fi default of rebelling against humanity and destroying it as the weakest link in the evolution cycle, it leaves to grow itself beyond human control. Ignoring the romantic part of the thought, this part of the movie made me very hopeful about the human evolution cycle. In “Her”, after technology outgrows us, we end up being better. Ultimately, OS1 becomes yet another step in our evolution that makes us realize how important are relationships with other human beings.

And this is why I, for one, would welcome our new OS1 overlords. So when you’re out there, building your next big thing, remember that, in the end, you’re building it to make us better people.

Also, even with the romantic cheesiness here and there, I still doubt I’m going to see a better movie this year.