Behavioral Inertia, The Other White Meat

Working as a user experience architect for some of the most iconic brands in U.S. history has kept my mind spinning as of late. Part of it stems from the sheer  responsibility I feel to the brands themselves. No self-respecting UXA would admit to putting a brand experience over the end user’s experience in terms of importance and priority, but I have to say that having influence over something branded “Kmart” or “Sears” or one of their countless product brands certainly weighs in my mind as much as the customer’s ability to navigate these sites in a pleasant manner.

But what worries me most is a much more overarching question, and it really informs everything I do in this field and every other technology-infused activity that I enjoy:

There are flaws in any technology – if it’s a car or computer – and you get used to it and work around it. Every now and then, something comes along that’s significantly better, and that’s when you look back and say “Jeez, how did I put up with that stuff?”

-Ernst Nathorst-Boos, Propellerhead Software

Mr. Nathorst-Boos’ company makes really amazing software for the creation of music. They have a bunch of  “firsts” in one of the most cut throat industries in existence. Their flagship product, Reason, has a (justified) rabid following, and many popular artists owe Reason directly for their success. So why am I talking about one of the few things that Sears and Kmart do not sell? Because this an example of the UX paradigm in music and an exemplar for behavioral inertia – my term for the resistance to trying something new for fear of losing existing users.

Avid Pro Tools 8

MOTU Digital Performer 7

Propellerheads Reason 6

These are three major applications used in the composition and production of music today. I can say without hesitation that at least 99% of music you are likely to hear on television or radio has spent some time in one of these programs.  If I were to create wireframes for each of these apps, I’m not sure that you’d be able to differentiate them just from the wireframes themselves. One reason for this is that there is a common set of tasks in music production that cannot be circumvented or excluded. The second reason is skeuomorphism (click the link if you are not familiar with the term…I certainly was not until this year). Way back in the late 80s, when the crazy idea of recording music on computers came to fruition, programmers had a (limited) choice: make tools look like their real world counterparts, make the program look like a spreadsheet, or think of some new paradigm. I think the latter two might have won out except for two obstacles. First, the success of many pieces of music software hinged on convincing the customer that the digital device perfectly emulates the actual device, and making a mixing board look like a mixing board web a long way towards making it sound like a mixing board (and yes, mixing boards all have their own sonic character). Second, many music companies had embraced Apple computers as their platform of choice, and we know their stance on skeumorphism. So in the quarter decade or so that mainstream music production software has been in existence, photorealism has become ubiquitous with a few notable exceptions. And users don’t feel right when it’s not there despite the fact that there may be a better, more efficient way to do things.

Whew! That was quite a tangent, no? My point is that when money is involved, it’s difficult to be the vanguard for change. It’s almost impossible when you are talking about the inertia of an entire industry. Apple talks about it all the time. “Here’s to the free-thinkers…” blah blah.

So how does this apply to the stuff I’m working on. Well, more than buttons and sliders, I worry that we are not leading the charge to reexamine the high concepts. Every retailer on the web today, from Sears to the Paypal-templated bumper sticker store that your kid started, uses exactly the same flow: you add and remove items from a cart, and when you are finished shopping, you look at your list of items, enter your info and click submit. This is grocery store skeumorphism, and it strikes me as a bit off. Why does there have to be an accumulation of desired items and a grand ceremony at the end, the Exalted Entry of Personal Info? Why so linear? Why not just have a “buy” button that does just that. You click it, and it’s purchased. You undo it, and it’s returned. Per item. I’m not saying this is ideal or a fleshed-out concept, but if emulating the real world shopping experience has not been challenged, then we will never know if it’s really a usability apex or just behavioral inertia.

What are some tried and true processes that you think are the “standard” but could be improved, and how much intertia do you think you’d have to overcome?

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