Computing Experience: The Other CX
Issue 52: What if we treated computers like our customers?
Throughout my 16-year career in software design, we’ve been called various titles, but one aspect remained consistent…being user-centric. The term fighting for the user, spoken in the 1982 film Tron became a war cry for many in the practice of experience design.
Though the customer will forever remain the priority, the notion of customer obsession has led to many companies and teams forgetting about the underlying computer systems that provide value for these end-users. This results in technical debt and a graveyard of Angular apps holding on to dear digital life to serve customers. I've been re-reading John Maeda's How to Speak Machine. One of the interviews referenced that inspired the book is David Bowie's infamous interview about the power of the internet, calling it an alien lifeform.
Listening to the late great icon has me thinking a lot about computing experience, “The other CX” to customer experience. My design career began as an interface designer. If you're not familiar, an interface is the convergent point of humans interacting with peripherals to communicate with a computer system. Many interfaces are visible, such as a keyboard/mouse combo with a computer monitor, or touch screen on a smart phone. As physical and digital blend more, many interfaces are invisible, such as voice control or neural control. I've held great reverence to interfaces because of the connection between human and computer. Perhaps focusing on interface so much has given me a bias perspective, but I believe experiences for computers need to be great and ultimately will serve the great interfaces. From the button you tap on to the underlying processing, I'll share a few reasons why designers need to focus more on computing experience.
Computers will be more human, and we need to treat them well
The robot uprising is often depicted as killer robots from film such as Terminator. The uprising will be more like self-driving cars unionizing or Boston Dynamics robots going on strike because of how terribly humans have treated them.
Humans can barely treat other humans well, imagine what we'll do to AI-powered machines. A computer will never get tired of processing, but it might get tired of the way you treat it. The power of computation is its infinite, but artificial intelligence will humanize the experience. As a result, the way we build software may become more conversational than declarative.
Software deserves great interfaces
The quality of interfaces determines how humans will treat computers. Take any tool you've used. Have you used a can opener that is built cheaply and hurts using it? On the flip side, what about one that had such consideration of ergonomics that created the least friction for you to open your can of tuna? Poorly built interfaces causes humans to lash out at the computer; you've seen this with anyone trying to use Siri.
In Lenny's Newsletter interviewing Katie Dill, the Stripe Head of Design talks about how consistency and quality has implications on trust:
"Where this can get challenging is when the designer says, “We need to update the buttons so they’re consistent,” and the PM says, “We don’t have time to do it. It’s not as important as these other things right now.” They’re both potentially correct and perhaps the consistency work will need to wait, but ignoring this work just because its impact is indirect or even immeasurable is not an option. The details are notoriously easy to ignore, however when you think about a product that feels high-quality, trustworthy, and simple you’ll see strong attention to detail. While a user is not going to take the time to report a lack of consistency in the button types, and may not abandon your product right away, these gaps will start to make them wonder about where else you fail—Safety? Security?"
Thoughtful interfaces builds trust between people and computers. Think about the Boston Dynamics robot getting hit with the hockey stick. When AI retains more data, do you think it will have a positive or negative learning model of how humans treat them? When we build more intuitive interfaces, people will enjoy it more and not get mad at computers, fostering a harmonious relationship between the two.
The ethical implication of being computing-centric
Whether we like it or not, AI and Machine Learning will solve at a more rapid pace and be part of our daily lives. The rate of access and scale of computation will only keep accelerating. We as designers have an ethical and moral obligation to ensure the thought behind computation does not create harm for humans at scale, which is where computing experience comes in. There are bad days in tech I feel I want to throw my computer away and live that same life. I've realized that tech (as a culture) and technology are two different things. I love what technology can do for humans. We need to understand computation in order to prevent harm.
The rise of retail programming
Computation will be more readily available for people. It's one of the reasons I love working at Webflow. As you build a visual development platform for anyone to use, you have to think about how the systems will work. What are the intended consequences of letting people build anything? What are the laws of computation that should be considered? One of the features I'm really proud of the team is the auditor, a linter and quality control that lets builders be aware of some of the accessibility improvements they can make to foster a better customer experience
Customers, technology, and business
Whether the next wave of designers work on blockchains, AR/VR, or with artificial intelligence, the best designers will think about problems from a system level, whether human or machine. Customer priority is important, but we must remember that treating the underlying systems that deliver value to them is important to tend to. We need to be more computer-centric in designing experiences as technologies advance. Our human customers are depending on it.
Maggie Appleton’s website: I’m a huge fan of Maggie and found much inspiration on how she builds in public
Lily Koning’s tweet about talking salary with friends: a very important reminder of the value of openly discussing this
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