Ever noticed how the numeric keypads on a smartphone and calculator are actually inverted? Me neither! It was only until I read about it on Medium that I realised how oblivious I was. The article, though technical, piqued my interest because it brought to my attention a very interesting insight -
..the design was definitely user-centered but not user-friendly.
And suddenly, I began to question my entire design career. Why are user-centered and user-friendly different? I’ve been using them interchangeably all along. Moreover, most people around me have been doing it too. Are we all wrong? The answer – Yes and no.
When something is user-friendly, it is very easy to use and understand.
When something is user-centric, it has been designed keeping in mind the user’s goals, tasks, environment, habits, behaviour and any other factor that might influence his actions.
So, it’s fair to say that user-friendliness is a subset of user-centricity. But does this mean that every product that has been designed with the user at the center is extremely easy to use at first? Let’s find out.
I didn’t have to search very hard for this example because it was sitting right in my living room, assigning chore after chore to me. My mother and her beloved iPhone X. When the coveted product first arrived at home, she was overjoyed, at first, and then utterly confused.
“Where is that circle button that exits the app?” she asked.
“Gently swipe up and you’ll navigate to home.” I replied
“Then where can I see Wifi and torch?”
“Just swipe diagonally down from the right corner”
“It’s not happening, this phone is spoilt. Return it!”
It was only after a full week and many screaming matches that she got accustomed to all the gestures on her new device. But, if you look at her now, you’d never believe that the woman was having trouble with turning the phone on. So, is it reasonable to conclude that the iPhone is not user-friendly? Not entirely. When products are complex and are built to perform complex actions, there is always a learning curve. Watching my mother use her phone like a pro and accomplish digital tasks faster than usual proves that the iPhone was definitely user-centric and over time, it became user-friendly. It all hinges on how long it takes an average user to get acquainted with the design.
Think back to the time you encountered a really complicated-looking machine. For me, it was a swanky microwave. It was designed with close to 25 buttons, equipped to do everything from heating my food to eradicating poverty. But I just couldn’t get myself to learn how it worked. Here was a well-endowed product that could rival any cooking machinery, definitely built keeping all the user’s goals in mind – but it simply wasn’t user-friendly. Could I have spent 2 weeks with it and then learnt to operate it flawlessly? Probably. But a microwave, whose primary function is to heat food, should not require more than 2 minutes to figure out. Moreover, a product only merits a huge learning curve when it improves the overall experience or boosts efficiency. The microwave did neither and alas, found itself rotting into oblivion.
Now, why do user-friendliness and user-centricity matter to us? Well, because we’re ALL users, but only a few of us are designers. In the words of design veteran, Don Norman, “Designers know too much about their product to be objective judges: the features they have come to love and prefer may not be understood or preferred by future customers.” And that is why we need well-informed, conscious users that will guide us toward the right solution. When customers understand the deeper implications of design and demonstrate a willingness to learn, that is when the world, at large, prospers.
And while that happens, I’ll be busy teaching my mother how to click a photo in the portrait mode. Wish me luck!