–Tristan Plank is a guest contributor and the Lead Human Factors Researcher and UI Designer at HF Designworks in Boulder, CO.–

Products with Personality

One of the most significant factors affecting satisfaction with an interface is the personality we assign to it. Every user brings personal experiences with them when they use a system.  It is these experiences that blend with the designed aspects of the UI to form a characterization. We then project a persona onto the systems we use…and an identity emerges. Sometimes we like these identities: they can be helpful, slick, and beautiful. They can become our friends and confidants as they possess our valuable information. Sometimes we even miss them when their “new personalities” are released, whether it’s a simple update for our phone interface, or an overhauled OS design.

At other times, UIs feel more like a bully pushing us around, or the snooty know-it-all correcting our every move. Paul Miller of The Verge recently demonstrated this curious personification process in his rant about condescending interfaces, an opinion piece that provides an entertaining case study on UI design.

Priorities: Usability or Visual Design?

My first reaction to Miller’s rant may have fallen closer to indifference than sympathy. But after contemplating the various grievances, the condescension that Miller perceives from his OSs illustrates some design elements that could improve future interfaces. For example, Miller presents a valid point about animated transitions in the current Mac OS (the “Genie effect” animation). The slick and entertaining genie animation offers no real utility whatsoever.  It actually slows us down and could easily frustrate a pragmatic user. The “genie effect” illustrates the importance of remembering that usability must always remain a priority. Miller drives this point home when he brings up the “transgression of the century”: the overt metaphors of physical desk calendars and address books in Mac OS’s Lion. In this case, graphic design elements have actually precluded usability and ease-of-use has been compromised (see the Ars Technica article cited by Miller for an exhaustive discussion of these counter-functional features).

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In these cases, I understand Miller’s frustration. But the condescension aspect is still foreign to me. Maybe it’s just a different way of assigning adjectives, but this is a perfect example of a personality being projected onto an interface based on the user’s prior experiences. What I perceive as impractical, Miller views as condescending. There is a large difference between these two descriptors. One is an observation of how well the elements in an interface work together; the other is an outright attribution of the interface’s intent – a personality characteristic.

Other elements that Miller describes as condescending simply come down to preference. He appears to have an absolute aversion to rounded corners, gradients, and bevels, and perceives these elements as mocking his abilities as a user. However, this is hardly the norm. Some users prefer faux 3-dimensional windows with shadows and curves to the sharp edges and 2-dimensionality of Windows 95, for example. This illustrates another design element that can be critical for the acceptance of an interface: customizability.

 An Eye to Customize

Customization can alter the personality a user projects onto it an interface. Miller demonstrates this without saying it: he mentions his switch in Windows 7 to the “Classic Theme” (see: Windows 95). “I really like it. It feels right.” Suddenly, all of those condescending shadows and patronizing soft edges are gone, and he feels less hostile towards his interface. True, there isn’t such an easy solution to Lion’s regress into physical metaphors of calendars and books, but some of Miller’s other complaints can be assuaged easily enough. Remember that “Genie effect” for window transitions? You can switch it to a more practical minimizing/maximizing animation (“Scale effect”). There are also a multitude of customizability options for the Mac OS that can drastically increase one’s efficiency (Exposé, Corners, Spaces, the Dashboard, Mission Control, gestures, and Launchpad, to name a few). Taking advantage of the custom features of an interface is more than just increasing your efficiency and personalization of your system; these tinkering options are an embedded ability to change the way users interact with and perceive the interface. The result can be the emergence of a whole new persona – maybe one that is a little less demeaning, and a little more amiable.