Predictability needs to be cool

I don’t think I have met anyone who wants to be predictable. All of us nurse hopes that we are special, different or, at least, noteworthy. Some of us are convinced that we are unique and our daring originality should be constantly celebrated. None of us, though, want to be ordinary. Neither do we want our work to be exactly what was expected. We are human after all and these ambitions are the energy of progress and imagination.

This energy causes problems, however, when it comes to digital products and the content that fills them. Digital products, like the stock market, are at their best when they are predictable. When they do what we expect them to do (repeatedly) and respond to our commands in expected ways (repeatedly) we are happy with them. When they are capricious and require attention to operate, we are frustrated and anger swiftly. I don’t believe I am the only person who has tossed my phone aside, vexed beyond repair at a poorly designed tool or app.

It is possible that we try too hard or in the wrong ways in our attempts to engage our users. Engaging experiences are the promised land of our digital world and we rightly try and offer them. I wonder that we are trying to engage at the wrong points. I am not sure that product design should be engaging. It should just be usable. Cunning design is less welcomed than simple design. Anything that requires though to be used is not working well.

In learning services, I have a hunch that problems arise when instructional design and product design bleed together.The convention of simplicity can be lost and users are left to figure things out for themselves. The content controls confuse the experience and then spoil the content itself. Or worse, tricks are introduced to draw the attention of the user beyond their interest in the topic or its treatment. The desire to engage can lay waste to the predictability of the tool and users are lost.

Standards are a great aid to predictability. Standards are not boring or old fashioned. They free the audience to enjoy the service on offer. Mental energy can be focused on the activity itself not on the journey to it. Thus, templates are our friends. Templates for courses, for content pages, for content itself and for the actions users are expected to take. They aid predictability for users and reduce design energy spend on utility. Standards and templates are our friends and we must love and respect them accordingly.

Books are quite predictable experiences and very reliable. They are standard content discovery and consumption devices. They are also as varied as the imagination that fills them. The stories in books can be wildly unpredictable but the books themselves are wonderfully easy to use.

Maybe our digital design needs to be more authorial? Focused more on the stories and less on the tools. There are many examples of great digital tools where the utility has been solved for us already, leaving us free to try and tell a  good tale.

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