This all started 25 years ago. I grew up in a house my dad built in 1979. A small, 1400sqft rambler. And since my dad built it for himself, I think he cut a few corners…
See, there was this transition from the dining room to the kitchen where it went from thick carpet to very thin carpet (carpet in a kitchen, right?). So to do that, there was a hidden “tack strip” where the thick carpet was joined to the thin carpet. There was no aluminum/wood transition, it went straight from one carpet to the other.
Well, if you stepped right on the transition, there were a few hidden places where you’d step on a tack that stuck up, essentially stepping on the pointy end of a small nail. So for years and years, I lived with this fact.
Every time I walked from one room to the other, I had adapted to the danger and accommodated it by not stepping on the transition – so much so that I didn’t even know I was doing it. It just was a fact of “nature” that you don’t step on the transition. Here’s the great part – it was such an ingrained behavior after all those years, if my stride was off for whatever reason, my body would instinctively react and I’d stumble and trip reflexively to avoid that transition. Even subconsciously my brain would not allow me to step on the transition.
Instead of fixing the tack strip I just learned to accommodate it, and eventually it became so habituated that the accommodation was just instinct. The idea of fixing the tack strip wasn’t even a consideration, and why would it be? “I’ve already adapted with a series of behaviors that let me effectively avoid it.
Methods of Adaptation
Adaptation is simple – it is behavior that arises from the external pressures, demands, or stimuli that require an organism to adapt to it. They can be active conscious adaptations, or passive subconscious adaptations. We all do it; it’s valuable and an essential part of evolution. The problem is when in the world of UX design, we force our users to adapt to bad things. More on that in a bit.
First, let’s get on the same page about some terms. These are all based in behavioral or cognitive psychology, so strap on your propellor cap (there are lots of footnotes!):
This concept was largely popularized by Jean Piaget1, a landmark psychologist and researcher. It is roughly defined as “modifying some of their mental structures to meet the demands of the environment.” For the purpose of this post, let’s call it “working around the problem becomes the answer” and it can apply to positive or negative demands.2
This is essentially “getting used to the stimulus and ceasing to notice it.” While it might start out as a strong motivator that elicits a behavior, repeated exposure lessens the effect so much that eventually the behavior is extinguished. In essence, you “go numb to it.“3
These things happen all day, every day, to all of us. A pothole on your street you drive on every day? Eventually you just swerve around it without even realizing that you’re doing it; you have adapted. Or maybe it’s some damage on the asphalt that makes it bumpy for a mile or two – you just no longer notice it because you’ve driven it so many times that that is just “how it is.” That is habituation.
Some Psychology of Experience and Design
Let’s apply this to UX and UI design. If you have a process that is confusing, difficult, or poorly designed, your user will try to figure it out to the best of their ability. If there are things they don’t understand or are just too difficult to deal with, they come up with some sort of workaround.
Workarounds = Accommodation
Bad design inevitably leads to workarounds. Your users experience a painful flaw in your system – hardware or software. Since decades of computer usage have habituated us to just expect and accept that technology will be difficult, your users instinctively seek workarounds for anything that seems broken or too complex to figure out what the designer intended. Suddenly people are doing silly things like:
- Printing to a PDF instead of to a printer, since the program never seems to print right. The print driver software is able to be configured to print properly, but the settings are buried inside the configuration UI. So instead of trying to print from a native application, they print to a PDF and then print THAT file from Acrobat or Preview, since that works every time.
- During a lengthy email or posting to a comments thread or message board, the user copies and pastes their writing into a text file so that it is saved, since it’s just expected that if they hit the back button or if the browser/tab closes, or if the form hangs on submission and errors out, their writing will be lost. But thankfully it’s pasted and saved in the text file, right?
- Wifi won’t connect when you wake your computer from sleep. So you just disable the Wifi, let it sit for a minute, and then reconnect to your wireless network by typing in the SSID again manually, entering your WPA2 password, and hoping that the computer connects.
- Here’s one I deal with daily: I go to plug my Macbook Air into my Thunderbolt monitor – but for some reason, this always fails to recognize my keyboard. The only way to get the keyboard to work is to reboot the machine. I do this every day when I come home from work (that’s my accommodation/workaround). And no longer do I complain or call AppleCare, I just do it instinctively because this i “how it works” now. It’s broken, I want to use my computer, so just mindlessly go through the (ridiculous) reboot procedure every day.
- Photoshop has a problem where the brush cursor of a specific size disappears at a certain zoom level. This is a real error. So instead of complaining or even being bothered, your workaround is to just not use that brush size or zoom level. Workaround and habituation.
These are all real examples. And yet, most of them don’t bother the people they perpetrate. It’s just “how it is” and we don’t expect a better experience anymore. The designers and creators of these “things” just let the painful flaws slide, since the user’s behavior of workarounds and habituation are a part of the UI itself. The brain and your perception of reality is the ultimate interface, right? Let it do the heavy lifting! Hmm…
A Forgotten Piece of the Puzzle
There’s an important piece missing in the story above – in dealing with the dangerous tack strip, my dad also developed a way to adapt to this situation. Since his “users” weren’t complaining any longer about the tack strip, he accommodated that behavior by not even thinking about trying to fix or prevent it the next time. Suddenly the “designer” of this feature, joining two carpets together, thinks “This is great, apparently I don’t have to worry about fixing tack strips since it appears it’s not a big deal.”
See, the thing is, as bad design is introduced (be it an interface, a feature, or a whole product), having the users adapt to it just increases bad design! Bad design reinforces and begets more bad design.
So each element of bad design and pain in your product/site/feature that go unresolved, they reinforce bad behavior in both the user (who adapts to them) and also the designer (who perpetuates them). This is the thing that is never talked about and so often missed, so I’m going to make it really big:
Poor design and UX trains the user to workaround the pain, and trains the designer to keep putting in more painful things!
And thus the positive feedback loop of bad design is complete.
Another landmark scientists and behaviorist would be so proud of most software and hardware designers. BF Skinner made accomodation and habituation famous with his “Skinner Boxes” during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Pigeons were kept in these boxes with a series of levers. One gave food, others gave an electrical shock. The pigeons quickly learned which was which, and eventually would only use the levers with food. This is how animals learn behaviors, through positive and negative feedback. And here we are today, stuck in these poorly designed Skinner Boxes we call software/hardware/websites. Only we’re here voluntarily and don’t demand that the levers be removed.
Skinner would be proud of how well designers have trained us.