Originally published: May 14, 2009
Editor's note: Thanks to Marco Dini, you can now read this article in Italian, and to Leah Cohen for translating the article to Hebrew. If you're interested in volunteering to translate one of our articles, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, in a set of interviews we conducted with avid users of Netflix.com, the online DVD rental web site, we asked "What are the things you like best about the site?" Lots, apparently.
They liked how you didn't have to return the discs right away. They liked that there were no late fees. They liked that the selection of movies was great. They liked how the site's recommendations were usually really great films, that they otherwise would've never heard of. They liked that you could now watch movies online, without even waiting for the discs to arrive. It was easy for them to come up with benefits.
However, what we also found interesting was what they DIDN'T mention. They didn't mention how great the site's information architecture is, even though the designers have done a great job of organizing the more than 100,000 DVDs you can rent. They didn't mention the site's advanced use of Ajax, even though it creates a fluid and seamless set of interactions throughout. Nor did they mention the integration of social networks into the site, making it groundbreaking and creatively extending their business model.
While all these things are what the designers at Netflix work hard on every day, they go unmentioned by their customers. It's not because these aspects aren't important. It's because the designers have done their job really well: they've made them invisible.
When things are going well in a design, we don't pay attention to them. We only pay attention to things that bother us.
It's like an air conditioner in a conference room. Nobody ever interrupts our meetings to tell us how comfortable the temperature is. They don't even notice.
We only notice the conference room temperature when it is too cold or too hot. Or perhaps we notice if the unit is too loud or is leaking all over the floor. But when it's working perfectly, it becomes invisible.
The same is true with online designs. We attend to things that aren't working far more than we attend to things that are. When the online experience frustrates us, we pay attention to its details, often because we're trying to figure out some way to outsmart it.
Unfortunately, this is not good news for those of us who want people to know what we do. If we do our job really well, nobody can see what we're doing. It's only when we do it poorly that we have something to show.
Take this error message from American Airline's website that popped up when a test participant was trying make a reservation:
Ignoring the the reasons listed above, what is the user supposed to do next? Their reservation was actually processed. (They were about to select seats, but they'd already purchased the flight.) If they started over, as the message tells them to, a second reservation is made, which would create more problems.
There's obviously some issue with American Airline's servers that makes them confused in the reservation process. With some hard work and clever fixes, the problem goes away, never to be experienced by another customer.
Yet how does the designer who does that hard work get credit for their effort? It's possible we need to design a new type of portfolio -- one that helps hiring managers see what the design would've looked like, had it been poorly designed.
Not every Netflix customer we interviewed was delighted with the service. One new customer, who had a list of movies she'd been keeping, found it very difficult to add as a batch. She explained without seeing the site, in detail, each step she took and how frustrating the entire process was. She recounted the screens perfectly.
What makes a design visible is the frustration it brings. In the worst case, it forces the user to think about the design process and the elements on the screen. We hear, "Haven't any of the designers ever used this?" and, "Why did they design it this way?"
In our interviews, delighted Netflix users didn't talk about specifics in the design. They talked about the overall experience. "I used to stress out about late fees. Now I don't think about it. If I don't watch a movie for a few weeks, nobody cares. And I love how quickly each new movie shows up in my mailbox."
As a user becomes more delighted, their attentions focus on how it integrates with the rest of their life. We think of these integration points as a great experience. The design itself is still invisible, but the experience comes to the surface.
The path to an invisible design starts with eliminating all of the frustration. Techniques, such as usability testing and field studies, are great starting points for seeing our design through the users' eyes. The very visible, frustrating parts jump right out during these sessions.
When we spend enough time observing the users, we always get good ideas on what will delight them. (How much time is enough? Start with a minimum of 2 hours every other week, then increase from there.)
With every improvement to our design, the design itself should become more invisible. And as we discover new ways to delight our users, we'll see them focus on the deliverable.
Let us know what you've been doing to make your designs more invisible. We'd love to hear your thoughts on the Brain Sparks Blog.
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