Why we should think about thoughtless acts

“Thoughtless acts are all those intuitive ways that we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking.“

Jane Fulton Suri
Leader of “Human Factors” group at IDEO

It has been said numerous times that good UX is invisible. A difficult statement to explain to the layman (as are all things UX) until I came across THE BOOK. Thoughtless Acts. A fascinating study of how people react to their environment. In the words of author Jane Fulton Suri: “In daily life we make interpretations about the stuff around us all the time – how it might work and what we can do with it. We develop an exquisite awareness of the possibilities and sensory qualities of different materials, forms and textures. Understanding these intuitive interpretations might be a significant source of insight for designers.”

A physical metaphor for our intangible practice

We spend hours as UX designers deliberating the clickability of a button or the placement of calls to action. If there is one thing I’ve learnt over the few years I’ve been involved in the industry, it is that the largest part of UI design is based upon knowledge of how users expect solutions to behave. But is this a dangerous assumption? In other words, are we assuming that some interaction models are set in stone? What can we learn by actually observing people in their everyday life… outside the context of being OUR users?

We sometimes forget our users are people

Now now, before everyone gets upset, I’m simply saying that we forget our users are people with more going on than just our designs / solutions / applications. Of course how they use our interfaces are of great importance. We can learn so much from material interactions and behaviours in the “outside” world… and this requires not only observation, but questioning why people do the things they do, in a certain way, using certain objects. It’s called affordance. Humans observe the environment in terms of its possibilities for action.

Why we should notice these acts now

With the creation of various platforms and devices, designers have to adapt. Based on my own experiences, the introduction to touch interfaces forces you to rethink behaviour models. No longer can we rely on the old slogan of “that’s what the user expects it to do”. Now is the time to recreate the interface and behaviours. And there are a few big guns claiming to do exactly this.
Microsoft comes to mind with their Windows 8 Metro styling for touch and the latest buzzword, the NUI. The Natural User Interface is a concept based more on gestures and how we would physically interact with objects. Sounds good right? BUT – I have personally seen an iPad user get frustrated using a Windows tablet device. Despite this being a Windows 8 touch device, and the app being beautifully styled, there were predefined expectations on how it should behave. And these expectations were based on how an Apple device would work. Which prompts the question: Should we all just do what Apple does (not that we can, due to strict copyrights). IS there no more room for innovation in interface behaviours?

The short answer: There is always room for improvement. Of course we need to continue reinventing, and redesigning, and redefining… based on a comment from Fulton Suri there is a middle ground: “The world doesn’t need a unique design solution for every creative adaptation we see…we should look for patterns that point to a universal need. “ p.167

So, redefining the interface within universal expectations… that’s not difficult at all!

To finish, I would like to challenge all of you to look for Thoughtless Acts as you go about your business. It’s the best Baader-Meinhof experience I’ve had in a while. But don’t just notice a thoughtless act. Examine it; ask yourself why it’s happening. You might learn a few things about people in general.