Lessons in #UX: On Discoverability and Learnability, where Apple doesn't "just work"

Lessons in #UX: On Discoverability and Learnability, where Apple doesn’t “just work”

A couple of months ago the New York Times features a very interesting article discussing the newest features that were being added to Apple’s iOS devices. More an op-ed than a news story, the piece interviewed developers and end user of some of the features, and made the case that the features… well, aren’t easy to use or find. Here’s the key quote:

“A lot of people will think it’s their fault, and it’s really the designer’s fault. People want apps to be easy to use.”

Apple isn’t the only one who gets dinged – Google also gets criticized for it’s confusing (and now-abandoned) Google Plus social service.

Putting my UX designer “hat” on, I can see that the issues detailed in the NYT piece is two-fold: First, the new features are hard to find and that lack of discoverability is reducing use – which in turn impacts developers who try and plug into and monetize these features (A similar problem exists with the Apple app store – finding apps using just the category navigation is laborious). I think the best example of this, and one not mentioned in the article, is the 3D Touch feature Apple rolled out a couple of years ago, where people reveal app options by pressing and holding down on the icon of the app – because there is no visual cues, many users never even know the functionality exists.

Second, many of the new features described (once found) are not that easy or obvious to use. This is also impacting adoption, and increasing user frustration. A good example is the Apple Watch UI, which has had a major redesign of it’s interface to respond to some of these issues. For a company that has famously claimed their products “just work”, these type of issues should not happen – or they should be rare.

This is not saying that my company (Microsoft) doesn’t have similar issues… It’s a challenge the product team faces with each new release of Windows and Office, and it doesn’t always successfully solve these problems. However, Microsoft has never had the level of braggadocious marketing and messaging Apple rolls out on a regular basis.

What are the root causes of these two issues? Well, it’s something that people at my company knows very well – “featuritis.” Apple’s facing a big challenge when it comes to their iOS devices… The products are mature, and (in my opinion) feature complete. How do you make people buy new versions of the same product they have, a product that (ironically) “just works” fine? You add more features. And you can’t completely redesign the UI every year, because that will throw a steep learning curve at many of your users not to mention annoy the power users who have become quite adept at the existing interface.

So what should Apple do? What should any company do when it comes to this problem? Here’s some suggestions:

Design an extensible UI architecture

When the product or application is first being designed, make sure that the foundational UI architecture can stretch and scale to support future features. A good way to do that is to not put artificial limits on navigation options, as well as making sure that the “design language” leveraged is easy to learn and aligned with standards users are accustomed to. This is easier said than done, especially when you have a rushed production schedule… but this “firm foundation” will allow you to build out a much better long-term experience.

Have a clear simple use case for every feature

Who is the new feature intended for? What problem or task is it trying to support or solve? Having a clear use case, one that can be describe in a simple sentence, allows you to develop a feature that makes sense to the laymen user and add value. “With this feature, you can order pizza using emojis” is a simple, somewhat clear use case… but it doesn’t make a lick of sense. How is this better than using a saved order or a quick menu?

Finally, any use cases defining a new feature should be researched with users to confirm they are truly “helping” the end user.

Align new functions with similar (existing) ones

By grouping “like features” this helps user discover new ones, because they will be trying to accomplish tasks aligned with the new functionality. It’s as simple as that… You can also add a quick “NEW” indicator next to the new feature that links to a small description.

Don’t be afraid to kill a “bad” feature before shipping

Many writers use the phrase “kill your darlings” when editing their work – in order to make a story or an article tighter and more effective, you cut out the fat… even if those words, sections or characters may be the author’s favorites. Designers and product managers should think about new features the same way – if they don’t work, then cut them out. It’s better to renege on promises to users than to ship a feature that is ill-conceived and leads to a bad experience.

Tell users what’s new

This one is obvious, but Apple tends to roll out OS updates with very little online-help or documentation. Only a couple of screens at start-up detail new features, and even then the detail is sparse. The best way to do this is (as noted above) is to flag the new feature with some indicator, and then link to information about the new feature… preferably video, which shows how the new functionality works.

So there you have it – five suggestions on how to make your features discoverable and learnable. I hope these ideas can help… and hopefully Apple will leverage similar ideas to make their products better for all users.