Creating a Timeless User Experience

Oct 27 2009 by Francisco Inchauste | 22 Comments

Creating a Timeless User Experience

If we could tear into the fabric of time and look a decade into the future, what kind of experience might we find? It’s easy to imagine the technology would be much more advanced. Something out of a film like Minority Report with holographic touchscreens, or so advanced of an A.I. (artificial intelligence) that the application anticipates solutions without the user having to do much else.

In reality the kinds of products, websites, and applications that survive and continue to be effective are those that that focus on the user experience. The digital world evolves continually, but we need to manage this by making sure we don’t leave the people who use our applications and websites in the dust. In this article we will explore creating a timeless user experience.

Want vs. Need

I can’t count how many times a client has asked for something in the craziest timeline, smallest budget and at the best quality humanly possible. Clients today want it bigger, (or for a device… smaller), faster, innovative, sexy. They look at the competition and say "I want that." Everyone wants to tap into social media. They want an iPhone application, or to do something in Augmented Reality because they just read an article about it. At no point do throwing any of these items into the mix add up to better experiences.

Even something as simple as a redesign of a website "for a refresh" does not get you a good experience. Building experiences with buzzwords and features are a drug, and if Web and UX professionals don’t have a client intervention soon, more useless websites and products are going to crowd out what few good experiences there are. All projects should begin with this question: Do you know what the problem is, and does this (product, website, application) solve that problem for the people that will use it?

Attention! It’s a Limited Resource

Keeping our attention is harder due to the sheer amount of information, products, and applications being put in front of us daily. Choice is taken for granted, where quality is something that is rare to find. Remember when just having an iPhone app was enough to get attention? Now the Apple Store touts thousands of applications.

The applications for the iPhone that are now finding success are those that have focused on the experience and the people using them. It proves that first out of the gates without considering the user experience could mean first to fail or fade away into obscurity.

User experience Chart.As time moves on the technology becomes enough for users and saturated with competitive products. The experience becomes the differentiator and continues to add value. Image source: The life cycle of a technology by Nielsen Norman Group

So, what qualities make a great experience? I think a carousel ride can show us.

The Carousel Experience

A recent trip to the local mall with my son sparked my idea on "timeless user experience". He was very excited to put his dollar in and get a token for the ride and he really enjoyed it. I started thinking about carousels and how long they have been around. The experience that kids then had, are the same as kids today. This old piece of technology, in comparison to other options for entertainment available today, is very limited in functionality and features. Yet it still delivers a great experience.

The Carousel ExperienceCarousels (term for "horse ballet") have been around in the form we know them since the mid-16th century. Image source: Carousel on Wikipedia

How we can we apply this "Carousel Experience" to creating a product or web application? For one, it is an experience that places the enjoyment and desire for that experience first. The technology or delivery of the experience is not as important as the experience in itself. There is no question how it works (familiar). Finally it is focused and meets the user’s (in this case, children’s) needs. It doesn’t make candy or have embedded touchscreens. It simply does the same thing it’s done for hundreds of years.

Anatomy of a Timeless Experience

Experiences that are timeless stand apart from the rest. Most companies can create a solid Web application or product and make them usuable.  There are few that can move past that. You can breakdown the qualities of a timeless experience into three main areas:

Desirable

Simply making something usable is not enough. Something that does it a little better always comes along. Necessity is also somewhat based on context (I could argue anything beyond food, water, and shelter is an extra). An experience that creates the desire to use it because it’s fun, simple, or creates an emotional connection is priceless. If the basic product or service experience is not desirable you can’t add much to can change that.

Familiar

Striking a balance between the "familiar vs. fresh" as Jakob Nielsen puts it is important. As a Web or UX professional working closely your products, websites, or applications causes you to focus on the most detailed elements, which is not how the user approaches it. The typical person interfaces with your website or product much much less and is looking to accomplish a task. They search for those familiar features to get it done and get on with their daily life.

Focused

Creating a goal-driven statement of what a product or application does results in better product experiences. It meets expectations because it is focused on solving the problem it was created to address. There is power in doing one thing and it doing it very well. So many products and services try to do everything. Compare the Twitter experience to Facebook and it’s easy to see the difference. Twitter is clear on what it does, Facebook is cluttered and can’t seem to make up its mind on what it wants to be.

Two Timeless Tales

Sometimes a few brilliant products are able to squeeze out and prove that a timeless UX works best. The Flip and Mint.com are examples of successful experience-driven products.

Flip: Limited features. Unlimited experiences.

Flip: Limited features. Unlimited experiences.

The Background: In comparison to other big name video cameras from companies like Sony, the feature set for the Flip seems to fall flat. To name just a few features: A tiny screen (1.5 inches), no tapes or discs, no menus or settings. Even the zoom is nearly worthless.

The Experience: The Flip beats the competition where it counts: It simply shoots videos. There are no mistakes to be made, the interface is a record on or off button. It’s compact and easy to take everywhere. Plug it in and download to your computer (USB). There’s even software ready to go for easy editing or sharing on YouTube.

How it’s timeless: Doing more sometimes means less to people using your product if it doesn’t meet their needs. By creating a very focused set of features that it does very well, and making it a very easy and fun experience the Flip has taken 20% of the market share. I like to think that a timeless UX took 20% of the market share.

Mint: More money. Less problems.

Flip: Limited features. Unlimited experiences.

The Background: Mint came into the financial software market as an unknown startup, which is a very large hurdle when you are asking people to trust you with the security of not just their financial information, but every bank and credit card password. More established players like Intuit and most banks and credit card companies have been creating financial software and online experiences for years.

The Experience: Mint has been able to find success by redefining money management. Through a few clicks, Mint brings together all accounts into one place giving people a encompassing view of their finances. There’s a slick interface to manage budgets, and important updates are delivered to email or devices.

How it’s timeless: Taking an innovative approach and simplifying the experience of managing money and making it enjoyable has paid off for Mint, literally. As Peter Merholz from Adaptive Path put it: "Mint.com has 35 employees. Sold for $170MM. That’s $5MM per. That’s the value of UX."

Keep Fighting the Good (Experience) Fight

Web and UX professionals battle everyday for the qualities that make up the timeless experience. Unfortunately concerns like: being first to market, shareholder expectations (profits), trying to one up the competition, and many other factors result in complex, and run-of-the-mill experiences.

Websites and applications with a timeless experience are just that, timeless. They will continue to win the hearts and minds of the people who use them.

How do you create timeless user experiences? What are some important things to keep in mind when designing an effective user experience? Join the discussion in the comments.

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About the Author

Francisco Inchauste is a web and interaction designer whose work you can find over at his online presence – Finch. By day, he works as a UX specialist for Universal Mind. He’s written for various design weblogs such as Smashing Magazine. Connect with him on Twitter.

22 Comments

Tim Read

October 27th, 2009

This reminded me of a programme I saw on UK TV recently. It was an interview with the top Pixar staff, and what they said was that they went back to basics – that their movies are all about getting the emotional involvement of the audience. Forget all the whizz animation stuff; if you can’t get people laughing and crying then you haven’t got a good movie. What was even more telling was that they got the retired Disney hand animators back to create a new Disney movie, which was going to be of the same feel as Lady and the Tramp – which they felt was the last ‘real’ Disney movie! – *Thats* getting down to the timeless user experience for you!

h1brd

October 27th, 2009

I dunno if it’s just me but the first post image has a broken link, just a heads up ;) great post !

RJ

October 27th, 2009

Good read with some good points. It is always important to remember about the UX. It is easy to get caught up in the design or the bells and whistles.

curtismchale

October 27th, 2009

I have a few clients who are always wanting to move on things that just don’t make any sense for them. One client we’ve just started to put their site into WordPress from some proprietary CMS with horrid SEO. They just read an article on the mobile web and think that if we include mobile we’ll suddenly get millions of viewers. They only have one person on their site under a screen resolution of 800×600 and it’s the site owner.

I’ve managed to get them to hold off but I can see we’ll always be trying to go for the latest and greatest when it’s really not the best for the site.

Jacob Gube

October 27th, 2009

@h1brd: Nice catch, my fault. Updated the link. Thanks.

Ryan

October 27th, 2009

I’ve always seen the best interfaces keeping things simple with the 80/20 principle and designing for 80% of your users. It keeps everything simple and ignores any “power user” features that only a few will use.

kailoon

October 28th, 2009

Anatomy of a Timeless Experience > Familiar

Are you trying to say that the UI professional will only create something based on his research, which is familiar with what has already exist (where he get from his research). This is to save more time and then he can continue other projects?

I am not sure I understand this correctly :)

Cameron Baney

October 28th, 2009

Great take on UX. UX is a term often thrown around, but never really explained like this.

Francisco

October 28th, 2009

@kailoon:
What “familiar” means is when, for example, you are changing your site. You should not move too many steps away from the original (radical change), rather evolve it slowly. Otherwise it might lose the user. Or, for a new product (or site) keep in mind how a user thinks (your user research) and what they might look for to complete tasks.

For research there are many methods to discover who the users are and what they need. It does save time in that you don’t focus development effort on features that don’t directly work to solve the main problem.

Hope that helps.

Guillaume Thoreau

October 28th, 2009

Can’t agree more. Great article!

A Lui . Mobile UI/UX Designer

October 28th, 2009

Very nice article indeed. Shifting our focus back to the basics and improve what consumers already know is indeed a great advice that is rarely followed today.

At some point during the progress of our society, bells and whistles of new technology overshadowed designers’ skills in understanding and empathizing end-users.

May be it was because new technologies used to trigger a primal reaction that grabbed consumers’ attention upon which businesses could quickly turn a profit. Many, if not most, of the basic technology we rely on have reached a steady state. We no longer upgrade our PCs for each new version of Windows. We prefer the Wii not because of its GPU power but the freedom of movements that it bring. Yes, the Wii includes many technological advancements, but it was the right application of those technologies that makes it does wonders.

We no longer just want selections. There are too many of them. We want matches to our needs. Instead of looking for an opportunity to justify adoption of a new technology, why not look outside our offices and find out how we can meaningfully apply solutions that we already have?

Thomas

October 29th, 2009

Hi!
That is a good post. But one important thing is missing I think. To create a great timeless UX the interface has to be intuitive as well.
Familiar is ok but new device or whatever need new interfaces. They cannot be familiar but the user should feel as if he used it for years, just because it is so easy and intuitive to use.

Blue Sail Creative

October 30th, 2009

I just read this and it reminded me of an article I wrote on my website too. I have been reading The Fountainhead a lot lately and there are so many messages trickled throughout that book that should be revisited by the Web Community.

The Idea of self, the idea of being able to solve a problem…its so much more important than following what has worked in the past. Every website has a unique problem to address, which calls for a unique solution.

This is what I try to tell my clients when I consult them, don’t look as much as what is being done. Tell me what your looking for and I’ll solve the problem.

Jason Grant

October 30th, 2009

Timeless user experience is created by good solution to timeless problems.

For example, people are likely to always need to manage their money (more and more so as time passes) and they are also likely to bank with more than one bank, so Mint strikes it well there.

I think it is also very important not to focus too much on the ‘temporary’ and ‘fashionable’ user needs, as fashion tends to die out quickly, while it creates bloated UIs which confuse people and take attention away from the core purpose.

Amanda McNeill

October 30th, 2009

A fun to read post! I like the conceptual approach you take.

You may enjoy this article from Website Magazine reviewing usability tools http://bit.ly/32mqlQ

I am affiliated with usertesting.com but the article covers several tools.

Amanda

Markus

November 3rd, 2009

Wow – what an amazing insight “Limited features, unlimited experiences”… I think you can apply this to any good design whether its a camera, a laptop, a boat, a building, a telephone service…

Just extending that a bit, great UX is about the limited features that enable a limitless experience for your target audience – that’s what makes experiences insanely brilliant.

Nice, I really like this article Francisco.

Jason, you’re so right – much of what we do as people doesn’t actually change in the value we’re looking for, it’s how we get that value that changes as the experience becomes easier and more enjoyable. Take travel – years ago it’d be hours on the back of a horse, now you hop on a train or plane… but it’s all travel.

Markus.

mojitopl

November 4th, 2009

Welll I am a newbie webdesigner, so I can’t realy add something new to comments.. yet ;) But I would like to thank for this article. Reading it will for sure direct me to the right place.

Chuck

November 6th, 2009

I totally agree with attention being a limited resource.

Let’s be honest, today’s internet users have the attention span of an A.D.D. gnat, myself including. I don’t want to take the time to watch a video, screencast or page through a presentation. I want to scan the page for helpful information, proactively dive in at my own pace and quickly find the answers I am looking for to make a decision.

I like the less is less of approach at times.

Chris

November 10th, 2009

What you write about Flip cameras is spot on, now that you mention it. I have a nice digital camera that I hardly use. I am not one of these people who wants to open up the manual and learn how to use the camera effectively, so if there are too many options I get intimidated or, frankly, bored.

The simplicity of the Flip cameras is a huge selling point for me. As you mention, there are no mistakes to be made with this camera. You just point, record, and plug in. I love it.

tim

November 11th, 2009

When I look at sites like Mint.com or products like the iPhone I think “Here is a team that invested in real user research.” Yes, they probably also had great dev teams, but you can tell they really listened to users, found their pain points, and focused exclusively on fixing them in gratifying ways.

It’s hard to get clients to spend money on user research though, especially when their rationale is to build it first and let people tell them what works or doesn’t.
To some extent that is possible, but if something doesn’t work for users they aren’t likely to return and tell you about it.

That’s like asking someone to read the first draft of your book and tell you how to fix it. What if you wrote a science fiction novel, and then handed it to a Romance reader?

Craig

September 20th, 2010

Great article and definitely with most design, it is the simple things done well that seem to last, as well as gathering an emotional response always helps with creating that timeless user experience.

Masoom Tulsiani

January 10th, 2011

Great Article As a UI Consultant for startups in India, I can relate to this post.
What really baffles me, is the speed at which everything is changing. HTML5,CSS3, Javascript – all packed together.
Clients are getting demanding, they want the Dashboard they saw on the Apple site, the look-and-feel of the App Site they saw the other day.

Focus should be on the requirements, rather than joining the bandwagon of web 3.0 sites. A simple static 5 page website, can do the trick – Somethings should be left to the UI Expert to Decide :)

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