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The User Experience Gap

Here at Balsamiq, we hear a lot of stories about people using our application to build great user experiences. We are so proud to be a part of the UX revolution that has taken place over the last ten years. There's no doubt that many of the websites and applications that we use regularly are now more tailored to specific user goals and configured around the way actual users work. In keeping with our belief that we love the problem more than the solution and that life's too short for bad software, I wanted to write about some areas where the problem (i.e., hard-to-use software) still exists.

Every once in a while I'm reminded that there are still plenty of products out there that are in need of some serious UX love. So many companies "get it", yet there are still stragglers, especially in certain industries whose products are not traditional computing devices. There seems to be a line that divides desktop and mobile experiences from those in the rest of the digital interface world. And once you cross that line things get ugly, fast. I think that these realms represent the next frontier of UX opportunities for those willing to brave the waters.

Selling the Sizzle

My most recent reminder was at the gym. The elliptical machine I was using had a very modern component to it, the console that tells you how fast you're going, how long you've been going for, etc..
Elliptical machineFancy!

This machine has an LCD display with a touch screen. Cool, right? As a UX designer, though, I view everything through the lens of user experience. I was struck by what a bad UX this was, despite all the modern technology underneath. There's just way too much going on here. Remember, I'm moving my legs at 4-5 MPH while using it, which has quite an effect on the rest of my body. While it boasts a list of impressive features (a virtual trainer, the option to change the image I see that tracks my progress, etc.), I didn't see anyone around me with anything but the default settings. The screen is washed out and hard to read, and it's very hard to tell at a glance how to do what I want to do.

Contrast this with another exercise machine I've used in the past:

Older exercise machine
More usable

This one has quite a bit to it as well, but I would argue that it offers a much better experience.

The main problem with the first machine is not with the user interface design. There is an order to the buttons, there is a fair amount of consistency, and the buttons are adequately sized given the constraints of the screen. My guess is that there was a deliberate attempt at user interface design here. But what's missing is the user experience perspective. A user interface designer asks, How do I arrange all of these buttons in a logical way?, whereas a typical question in the user experience designer's toolbox is, Why are each of these buttons here? Are all of them really necessary?

For instance, do I really need a "virtual trainer" and the ability to change the wallpaper? And, given that market analysis has determined that the target price point necessitates a cheap LCD screen, how readable will this screen be in various lighting conditions and how well will it respond to touches from sweaty, jostling fingers? Did someone intervene and think about the experience of using this screen?

It seems that nobody thought to say, "Just because we can, doesn't mean we should."

This is a classic example of technology-driven design and "featuritis." My guess that the design discussion went something like this:

Dilbert cartoon© Scott Adams - Original image here

This cartoon is from 2001, when this scenario was commonplace. Though it clearly still exists, the frustration this way of thinking caused has led to a user-centered design culture that is now at least represented, if not respected, in many software firms. It is a fundamental paradigm shift that focuses less on individual features and more on holistic tasks and goals. And it typically requires full-time roles dedicated to understanding and designing the "experience" of a product, separate from those who will be actually building the product.

Many companies outside of software and web development firms don't yet have these roles. This is problematic because the people who build digital products like the exercise machine screen are often not representative of the people who use them. There is a problem on the purchasing end as well, particularly for items like these. It is frequently the case that the people who buy the products are also not representative of those who use them. Feature lists can be used as the "sizzle" of the steak, though the consumers ultimately care most about the taste. Gym owners aren't savvy enough to pick the machine with fewer features.

Looking at this year's model of the same exercise machine, the trend is continuing. Now you can browse the web, play games, and, tweet and update your Facebook status while running (more sizzle). There are also even fewer physical buttons, just a big touch screen. And here's the description of the new "LFconnect™" feature:

Easily choose your favorite websites through your LFconnect account and they will be instantly available at login.

Do people at the gym really want another login and password to remember? And do they want to spend time configuring the treadmill while at the gym over their lunch break? Will gyms now need to employ technical support staff?

Car Interfaces: Unusable at Any Speed

Unfortunately, the exercise equipment industry isn't the only category of products that have been left behind in the UX revolution. The feature-laden user interfaces found in car dashboards in the last five years mirror the trajectory of the treadmill UIs described above.

I won't dwell on this (as others have covered this topic before), but, suffice it to say, most automotive interface user experiences are just bad. They are still in the early days, akin to the first smartphone era circa 2006, where more and more technology could be crammed into a small space for relatively cheap. And the UI design is there, but, again, it's the UX consideration that's lacking. Here's an image of such a UI:

Toyota's Entune SystemToyota's Entune System

Another example is a screen that shows a list of traffic incidents nearby. Yes, this is relevant to me as a driver. But what I really care about is: how long is it going to take me to get where I want to go? and is there a better route than the one I'm on now? And extra non-driving related features such as weather, stocks, and sports scores make it harder to find the functions I actually do want.

Let's look at some of the reviews of the Toyota Entune mobile app, the companion app for the dashboard experience.

Toyota's Entune System
Entune app reviews

I love everything about this car EXCEPT Entune!

I feel ripped off big time.

Are these the experiences people should have in a product they just paid tens of thousands of dollars for?

More Examples from the Next Frontier

Here are just a few more products calling out for help, though there are many more.

Kiosks and Self-Checkout Machines

The other day I was at a supermarket with Ben Norris and the self-checkout machine didn't recognize the bar code on what he was buying, so he tried typing in the bar code himself, at which point, seeing his frustration, the employee assigned to the self-checkout machines came over and took over, knowing that Ben wasn't going to get where he wanted to go.
The employee using the assist modeThe "Assist mode" screen
He'd seen this problem before and knew that anyone who hadn't been trained on these machines wouldn't be able to figure it out. It happened a lot he said, quipping, "these are the reasons I still have a job."

Smart Watches

And now the "smart" watch flood is beginning. Here we're going to see UIs taken from other products applied to a new device, poorly (at least initially). With smartphones we had the infamous "if you see a stylus, they blew it", and now:


Why is everyone fixated on Apple building a television? It's because the current experience of watching internet programming on your television is terrible. The UX is awful. I recently spent 2 hours trying to figure out why my parents' "smart" blu-ray player wouldn't play their Netflix movies. The Samsung "smarthub" experience is much like the treadmill: Lots of options for things I don't care about (more options to change the wallpaper) and a lot of steps and difficulty for the things that I do care about. Alan Cooper posed the question: "What do you get when you cross a car with a computer?" (Answer: a computer with a motor and wheels.) Today, crossing a TV with a computer yields a computer with a remote control.

Closing the Gap (No Experience Left Behind)

Yes, user experience is a buzzword these days, but I would argue that it is far from a fad.

Looking a little deeper, what we call user experience design is really just traditional design principles applied to digital products. Good design has always been about thinking about the user of the product and the way they use it. Dieter Rams designed great experiences long before the term "user experience" existed; it's clear that his products are not just pretty, not just useful, but considered. Design is about solving problems, and user experience design is really just a shorthand way of stating that something should be designed around the user's goals and their psychological, physical and contextually-defined limitations.

The lesson of the UX revolution has been that the products with the best user experience win. Those industries that are still competing on features alone should be on guard.

Why has Apple been so successful? Because they figured out early on that it's not about features as much as it is about solutions. They think about conveniences, like pausing playback when you pull the headphones out of your music player.

Inevitably, these user experience gaps will close. It is starting to happen already. Some manufacturers of existing products are catching on and ramping up their UX expertise while smaller, nimbler, and/or more UX-aware companies (Tesla, Square, Roku, to name a few) are emerging to take on the markets that the UX laggards once had a stronghold on.

Suggestions for Companies Seeking to Prosper in the UX Economy

What if your products are the UX equivalent of a pre-iPhone smartphone? Where should you start?

First off, on our own site, you can read Craig Willis's story about being promoted to product manager based on first-hand knowledge of his product's usability problems. Or, read about Yarone Goren's firm which helps companies create a UX vision for their products. You can also build up your UX skills in-house via UX Apprentice and other sites that teach the basics of sound UX methodologies.

Then, start wireframing your ideas (using Balsamiq Mockups, or whatever suits you best). Test, iterate, refine them. Work low-fidelity, technology-agnostic first. Only then think about which technologies can help guide you to your solution, and start building. Remember that, though not always true, the best UI is often no UI. Usability does not come from adding a touch screen and UX is not a verb.

But, even before that, learn to say no. Many bad experiences come out of not being able to decide on which features are most important and therefore just including them all. This is not what your customers want from you.

A Call to Action for UXers

These industries represent a huge series of UX opportunities. As members of the UX community, let's not limit ourselves to websites and mobile apps. Does the world really need another photo filter app? If you really want to make a difference as a UX designer, go where UX is lacking. This will also add longevity to your career as you carve out your own niche within UX. Seek out bad experiences in the world and ask yourself, "could I make this better?" Be the Tom Joad of user experience.

Do this by approaching companies that don't get UX and convincing them to hire you, even if that makes you a UX team of one. Don't expect it to be easy or for change to happen right away. You may have to start out as a UX guerrilla, and you may spend more time educating your teammates about UX than designing award-winning experiences. But this is how it starts.

Many of us got into UX because of our own frustration with poorly-designed technology. Now, each day a new product comes out that has a screen that didn't have one before. There are many UX mountains yet to be ascended, many UX lands yet unexplored, many UX roads still unpaved. Go forth.

Do you have examples of products that have been left behind in the UX revolution? Do you have ideas for how some of these products could be improved? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

Leon for the Balsamiq Team

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Comments (9)

  1. “if you see a stylus, they blew it”

    And here comes Apple Pencil…

    John Locke
  2. Sadly, I’m sure that many of these companies start out wanting to focus on great products, but at the end of the day, it’s about marketing and revenue.

    The sales people want to say it has a gazillion features and they want to place it on a comparison grid somewhere to say why their product is better.

    These extra features (the Samsung Galaxy S4 comes to mind – control browser scroll w/ eyes, hover over to page next, etc) are usually half baked, and don’t work well. But hey, marketing gets to put that in an ad where it’s simulated and works perfectly.

    I think this is why we typically see better products from startups with little money (with a few exceptions of course) with a focus on a great product and experience.

  3. Pingback: Release: Retina Support, new Mockups for Google Drive UX, big myBalsamiq improvements, and MUCH more! | Mockups Product Blog | Balsamiq

  4. @Cloves, definitely. Thanks. I chose to focus more on products with digital user interfaces in this post, but most of the same things can be said about other experiences out there.

  5. Great article!

    “Looking a little deeper, what we call user experience design is really just traditional design principles applied to digital products. Good design has always been about thinking about the user of the product and the way they use it.”

    But “user experience design” can be applied to any kind of product or service, not only digital.

  6. @Leon, I still see a diluted approach to user research and user testing in the field, even with evidence of the great impact that it can have. I still see product managers who are all about the features and the thinking that their own opinion and feedback is enough for iteration, spending time on user testing is many times out of scope and discouraged because of time constraints and the overall effort of seeking testers.

  7. Awesome article Leon. I for one can speak from the front line of fitness equipment UX because I was there. I did exactly what you mentioned by engaging my local equipment manufacturer here in town (Johnson Health Tech) and pointing out the need for some serious UX overhaul on their entire line of high-end equipment. In less than three years I was able to evolve a monstrous console down to a simple touch-screen that followed a few basic rules:

    Keep it simple (more is not better, it is just more)
    Keep it relevant (I don’t need ipod controls when I am setting up my workout)
    Make it accessible (can I operate this while running at 5 mph?)
    Make it visible (can I see the screen, is the contrast maximized)
    Keep it safe/does it feel safe? (make sure the treadmill does not take-off without you)

    As the “UX guy”, I was constantly fighting to “keep things off my UI”. Marketing would always want just one more feature and it was my job to make sure it was going to add value to the experience and not just add another button. The end result was a very nice experience that was not overwhelming to a new user while offering advanced features for more demanding users. This universal console was then expanded to the entire cardio line and adapted for the lower end vertical market as well.

    You can take a peek at it here:

    On a side note, I love your picture of the LifeFitness console with the “cognitive band aid” taped to the lower left corner. That console was way too busy for my taste too and a good model for what not to do. I also really liked the pure simplicity of that Precore console and the prominent green “quick start” button with the core controls (speed and incline) right there front and center. What really struck me was the nice tactile response you got from those large mechanical buttons (much better than membrane domes like the LifeFitness has.) Great design.

    Now if only Johnson had bought into my suggestion to add the tactile feedback (force feedback) feature to the touch screen…

  8. @Gary, great point! User Experience is not just about the design phase. There is a lot of other work that should be done as well, like user research and user testing. I think that’s one of the key things lacking in many of the products listed above.

  9. You know I maybe be a little wrong, but maybe considering the researching and testing with the user would be a very good idea as well. It just seems to be missing, maybe it’s lost in the gap. 😉