Friday, November 20, 2015

Every new feature comes with a cost. (Shlomo Benartzi)

One of my favorite bugaboos is something I like to call “additive design.” This is where your original design – whether for a website, an app, some software, or whatever – starts out nice and clean and simple.  Gradually, however, things get added to it, and added to it, and added to it … until it falls apart.

Now, this can happen after rollout … or before. For the former, this is just a typical evolution over time. There are new features, or new content, or new audiences, and those need to be addressed somehow.  Unless the possibility of additions like these were considered beforehand – i.e., unless you sought to make your design scalable from the get-go – these things will tend to just get tacked on, oftentimes rather willy-nilly.

Something similar can also happen before the product even sees the light of day as well. In this case, though, it’s usually a failure on the design team to prioritize, or to push back, or to keep the big picture in mind.

Now, what really gets me about this sort of thing is the fact that only rarely do people ever even bat an eye when it come to this stuff. In particular, no one ever seems to wonder if, by adding whatever-it-happens-to-be, there would be any particular effect on what’s already out there, or on the user’s overall experience.

And it’s not just the gestalt of the thing. As an example, edge cases often come up in reviews (from legal, risk, compliance, IT, QA …). Now, that’s a topic in itself, but what the typical solution is is often to add some help, or put in an extra radio button, or throw in a link, or add another option to the menu.

And what that can lead to is a screen that was formerly nice and simple and easy to process becoming one that is just a big jumble. I realize the team’s heart is in the right place, but they just don’t realize that all that “help” might come as a cost. Perfect example of unintended consequences.

To be a little concrete here … I once worked on a project team that took a simple date field and turned it into 2 date fields, some instructions, and a help link. And all of that stuff was simply to address what might happen – i.e., edge cases. Sigh …

As usual, Nielsen Norman does a much better job of explaining this than I ever could. Check out their analysis of those new-fangled soda machines right here.

Shlomo's not really a usability guru, but does seem to have developed some appreciation for the field in his book The Smarter Screen