Monday, September 17, 2012

Wondering if Users Have Bad Instincts

(Not the quoted audience member!)
"We live in a synthetic world. What we think is commonsense may not be common sense". This was another audience comment at the industry panel on UX and Psychology sponsored by the San Diego UX Speakeasy group.

I have heard and read endless commentaries and articles about our modern technology-enhanced culture - good, bad, indifferent. Almost everyone seems to agree to some extent that modern society is too cut off from the natural world. Sitting on one's behind in front of a computer or TV for hours on end isn't healthy for an endless set of well documented reasons. There is an entire movement to try and counter what has come to be called Nature Deficit Disorder. The movement was started by Richard Louv who posits that it is seriously problematic not to get into the outdoors and connect with living breathing ecology - the less we do it, the less our children do it, the more mental and physical problems result.

The audience member was trying to say that our common sense understanding of things, including software and hardware, is based upon instincts evolved for a non-synthetic world. i.e. the Natural World. Which we have little regular contact with. He claimed our instincts are based upon interactions with non-natural things. To be blunt, our instincts are wrong.

There is an important psychological hole to the argument that our instincts are purely evolutionarily evolved and not at all influenced by our present lives and environment. Plenty of research would yes, there are evolutionary instincts and yes, there are instincts based upon our experiences. As this is not an academic publication, I'll spare you the references.

Running with the theory a bit more though: What would this mean for psychology and those of us in high-tech who work with users? Well, it could mean that you don't trust your users. Their instincts about what they want and need are inaccurate. Hence, the developer/designer knows best. "You may not like the way this feature works, but trust me, it is in your best interest to get used to it". User adapts to the system, system does not adapt to user. I'm not comfortable with that approach at all. It's egotistical, don't you think?

Anyway, why would this line of reasoning only apply to users? Developers and designers are also evolved home sapiens, who, following this line of argument, also possess instincts and cognition based upon a non-synthetic world. Thus, according to the theory, what they perceive and believe would be no more accurate than their users. Different perhaps, but just as flawed. I find this so fatalistic (and frightening actually): we might as well all throw in the towel.

No one on the industry panel was a proponent of the "our instincts are wrong" argument. In fact, Gema Almilli, an Experience Planner at Red Door Interactive, made a very strong point of talking about the importance of providing users with desirable, engaging and delightful experiences. Delightful doesn't come from being compelled to go against all your instincts. Gema even drew upon the notion of game-ification: what are the psychological principles that make a game enjoyable? What causes people to connect with their online activity and want to go further? How can these psychological principles be extended beyond the world of games?

There is a middle path. We, users, developers, designers, do spend far too much time (imo) disconnected from the natural world. Our psychological health can only improve with time spent reconnecting to the environment. We are surely influenced and deceived by things we see on TV and the Internet. However, instincts usually have something important to tell us if we listen to them. Our mind is trying to tell us something - hey you! hey!  Someone on LinkedIn, commenting on my previous post, claimed that it was impossible to "become" the user. Not sure I agree with that either, but in both that case and this situation, working hard to understand and validate the users' perceptions is the right way to go.

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