Tuesday, April 12, 2005


familiarity: design criterion or design variable?

The usability versus emotional engagement debate I been discussing recently in many ways mirrors some of the debates about globalization. I don't wish to debate whether globalization is a good or bad thing, as that is a very complex issue. But if one looks at the rhetoric of the debate, one sees some people complaining about everything becoming the same around the world. Sociologist George Ritzer has called this the McDonaldization of service. Other people, mostly business opinion leaders, argue that customers are demanding uniform levels of service quality, which is driving the use of standards across the world.

The two camps in globalization have radically different assessments about the intrinsic value of uniformity. The globalization debate reminds me of similar point made about interaction design. I saw somewhere article showing the home pages of several US financial institutions. The author pointed out how similar the pages looked, not just in layout, but imagery, showing very similar smiling faces neatly dressed.

For design, a key question raised by these debates is: should making a design seem familiar be a goal of the design, or should we question if the design needs to appear familiar to users? Is familiarity a goal of a design, or a variable? The traditional usability approach would be to focus on cognitive friction, and would argue that a design should appear familiar to users, so they don't need to learn something need, and can easily accomplish their tasks. Usability skeptics will argue that people want variety to make the experience emotionally richer.

What neither side considers explicitly is the temporal element: both the time the user has to do something (situation dependent), and their prior experiences. I'll illustrate this by returning to the globalization arena. When I first visit an unfamiliar country, I often find getting my first few meals very stressful. I am hungry, perhaps jet lagged, and don't know my way around yet. My stomach says "eat" but my brain is overwhelmed. I might walk in a restaurant and be totally confused. Is there a menu I can see, or do I need to read a blackboard, or even just know certain standard local dishes that aren't written down? Do I pay first, order at the counter and sit down, sit down to order, ask for a bill and pay at my table, or pay at the till/register after eating? At this point I'm not feeling adventurous, and may decide to eat at an more formulaic restaurant in the beginning. After I get my bearings more, and am not food and sleep deprived, I'll become more adventurous. I may learn to enjoy the local idiosyncrasies of food ordering, and take back found memories of how special the experience was. Alternatively, I may never quite "go local", and find service too slow or making menu choices too fussy. I won't want to burn time figuring out the Byzantine customs of local eating when there are exciting sites to see.

My need for variety is highly variable, and so conversely is my need for familiarity. Time related issues are one aspect affecting these needs, and there certainly other issues involved as well. People are probably more inclined to want to try variety following becoming familiar with how something works, but it is not automatic. Despite certain marketing rhetoric about fickle customers constantly seeking novelty, some people are happy to stick with old favorites. The challenge for emotional design is figure out what are more universal needs of people, instead of just personality differences.

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