Lessons in UX: Create rituals, not designs

I was privileged to be able to speak at WebVisions Chicago last month, and had a great time talking to a packed audience about future interaction models (And I didn’t embarrass myself, so that was a good thing). I was also able to attend several other presentations at the conference, and was totally blown away by one in particular.

Kelly Goto, who runs a design and consulting firm in San Diego, had a phenomenal panel on user research, and how we need to shift our emphasis away from “tricks” like gamification and focus on understanding users more. By identifying the emotional landscape that exists through research we can then better reflect that in our designs and offerings. To many of you reading this, you may think “Of course, Duh!” What made Kelly’s presentation so good was the passion and rich materials she used to make her point… And, sadly, after seeing several presentations about UI design ver the past few months it was refreshing to see someone reminding designers that users should always be our core focus.

If my presentation was a base hit, Kelly’s was a base-clearing grand slam home run. I love sitting and marveling at a true thought leader like Kelly… it motivates me to try harder, to raise my game.

There was one key point she made that was the trigger that made me write this piece… she said that instead of striving towards designing screens or cool interactions, we needed to focus on creating rituals. Rituals are incredibly powerful, and Kelly was absolutely right in focusing her attention on it. Rituals (and it’s “little brother”, habits) are reflections of who people are… and creating an experience that becomes a ritual, not a task, is a huge opportunity to add value to people’s lives.

Take weight loss, for example. The reason why so many people do what is called the “dieting yo-yo” (losing then gaining back weight) is because they either take shortcuts to lose weight (like diet pills) or adopt a “plan” that they have to follow that is hard to embrace and maintain (Atkins, Weight-Watchers, etc.). In the former, the shortcuts don’t work because there is no “magic bullet” to weight loss. and in the latter case many dieters fail because they don’t change themselves, don’t “internalize” the approach… And the dieter returns to his or her old patterns.

Now imagine producing a diet application that understands factors such as this… an app that aligns with people’s lifestyles. One that works with mobile devices, is simple to understand and use, and provides positive reinforcement and “rewards.” An experience that helps people make the right decisions but doesn’t judge or criticize… One that becomes a new habit for users… that replaces the old habit of unhealthy living and eating.

That’s just one example, and if I invest some more time I can probably think of a half-dozen more. This is a hugely powerful idea, and aligns completely with the process of user-centered design.

A slight tangeant, but one that reinforces my point: A couple of weeks before I saw Kelly speak I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Alice Cooper. Yes, THE Alice Cooper.

We talked about golf.

Yes, golf. You see, Alice used to have a very bad drinking problem… one that almost killed him. A friend saw what he was doing to himself and gave Alice the best advice he ever got: Take up golf.

Alice tried it, and was able to replace one bad “ritual” (drinking) with a much more healthy one (puttering around). Which, in the end, is what this idea is all about… How researching users can help us understand their rituals and help us create new ones.

New rituals that add value and, maybe, years to people’s lives.