The Good and Bad of Good UX

As part of our practice of experience design at RS we’ve developed a keen interest in behavioral psychology and economics. How and why people make decisions informs our understanding of how to create effective experiences, helping us do better work.

Interactive designers are always after better ‘usability’. Usability is a term often used synonymously with user experience, and of late it’s basically boiled down to a quest for simplicity in design.

This ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ approach has lead to a number of market successes, and more and more often I run into examples where products and services are successful despite not really doing what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes mind-­bogglingly so. The world is littered with comparatively inadequate products and services that people stick with because they ‘like’ using them -­ but is ‘liking’ something so important?

Let me provide a broad example. A few years back, project management tools began breaking open the world of Software as a Service. Most of them can be divided into two categories -­ complex, comprehensive tools;; and simple, user-­friendly tools.

For the most part, the comprehensive tools feature oodles of project-­management capability accessed through a horrendous interface, and by contrast the user-­friendly tools provide a toolset inadequate for managing anything more complex than a yard sale. You’d think that no company would ever opt for mere user-­friendliness when business needs have to be met.

And yet they do.

Here’s the thing about the simple, user-­friendly ones: people love them. LOVE them. They talk about how their business couldn’t run without them. Forget that they don’t track a single business input or output, some simple online management tools have come to be seen as indispensable.


In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman sums up the research by himself and Amos Tversky. The two of them spent a lot of time over the past few decades testing people’s decisions in different situations, and trying to understand why people occasionally make choices that seem illogical or poorly thought out. You know, decisions like buying a project management app that doesn’t have any project management capabilities.

I won’t delve too deeply into the book (if you haven’t read it, I think you should pick up a copy) but in it, Kahneman describes two kinds of decision making processes. He calls them System 1, and System 2.

System 1 is the fast, intuitive thinking that we use most of the time. It is simple, effortless, and draws on our experience to look for quick solutions to problems.

System 2 kicks in where System 1 starts to fail. It’s time consuming, expensive, and generally we resist it.  It’s all math, and critical thinking, and research. Psychologists know that System 2 requires measurably more energy than System 1, so if System 1 can pick something to avoid all that effort, it will.

To me, this model provides at least part of the explanation. The design of a product can suck people into believing that it’s a better fit solution than it should be. Making the product easy to adopt can prevent other options from being considered. Users build up the momentum of familiarity, and can end up satisfied with a solution that doesn’t fit all of their needs.

To me that’s a remarkable idea.

I had always considered Usability to be one box of a decision matrix, but it turns out that Usability can prevent the decision matrix from being used at all.

I’d love to hear your thoughts?

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