Should Technology Follow Human-To-Human Communication Rules?

What do we expect when we communicate with technology? Do we expect that the technology will communicate with us following the same rules as when we communicate with other people? The answer is yes, and I explain the implication of this in this video excerpt from my Design For Engagement online video course.

Below the video is a summary of what I discuss in the video.

When people interact with each other they follow rules and guidelines for social interaction. Here’s an example: You are sitting in a café and your friend Mark comes into the café and sees you sitting by the window. Mark comes over to you and says, “Hi, how are you doing today?” Mark expects you to interact with him, and he expects that interaction to follow a certain protocol. He expect you to look at him, in fact to look him in the eye. If your previous interactions have been positive, then he expects you to smile a little bit. Next, you are supposed to respond to him by saying something like, “I’m fine. I’m sitting outside here to enjoy the beautiful weather.” Where the conversation goes next depends on how well you know each other. If you are just casual acquaintances, he might wind down the conversation, “Well, enjoy it while you can, bye!” If you are close friends, then he might pull up a chair and engage in a longer conversation.

You both have expectations of how the interaction will go, and if either of you violates the expectations, then you will get uncomfortable. For example, what if Mark starts the conversation as above, with “Hi,how are you doing today?” but you don’t respond. What if you ignore him? Or what if you won’t look at him? What if you say back, “My sister never liked the color blue”, and stare into space. Or perhaps you give him more personal information than your relationship warrants. Any of these scenarios would make him uncomfortable. He would probably try to end the conversation as soon as possible, and likely avoid interacting with you next time the opportunity arises.

Online Interactions Have the Same Rules — The same is true of online interactions. When you go to a website or use an online application, you have assumptions about how the website will respond to you and what the interaction will be like. And many of these expectations mirror the expectations that you have for person-to-person interactions. If the website is not responsive or takes too long to load, it is like the person you are speaking to not looking at you, or ignoring you. If the website asks for personal information too soon in the flow of the interaction, that is like the other person getting too personal. If the website does not save your information from session to session, that is like the other person not recognizing you or remembering that you know each other.

Designers tend to spend a lot of time on “macro” design — layout, color, grids, navigation, as well they should, since those are important. But it is often the “micro” interactions that determine whether or not a product or website is easy to use. Can you fill in the form quickly? Does the label make sense? Is the button in the right place? Did you just get an error message that is undecipherable? Sometimes the micro interaction design doesn’t get as much time or attention, and it is very possibly the micro interactions that are defining the user experience of the product or service.