Being Useful: A Short Story About Proactive User Experience

Recently, I have been noticing a big shift within a couple of big companies that I worked with in cooperation with MING Labs, a design studio here in Berlin. All of them are slowly noticing that their digital solutions might be easy to use and all, but the usage either drops over time or they notice that people don’t really use them at all. At this point they reach out to companies like us to help them solve the problem. The first question we then ask internally is: Is this app actually useful?

I noticed that in pursuit of new, cool and shiny solutions, as well as things design teams love to tinker with, like better usability or more beautiful design, internal teams of our clients often forget about the first commandment of user experience: usefulness. Being usable or beautiful is easy, being useful is hard work.

Enter proactive experiences — in short, designing experiences to be proactive means that you employ empathy and a ton of user research to boil down to a solution of one simple problem: how to help people who use my app solve their problems as they appear? For a while now, I have been thinking about this concept of “personal butler”, an app that not only tells you what went wrong well enough for you to understand, it also lets you solve those problems on the fly. Let’s say you’re working with a railway company app — being proactive means you don’t only tell them their train is going to be late, it’s about showing them alternative routes of getting there if they’re in rush. There are two things to get this right: being aware of the context and your design being modular enough to be able to rearrange itself on the fly to suggest solutions.

There are a bunch of great “personal butler” solutions around these days, with Google Now and Nest thermostat being probably the most known and most prominent examples.

Being useful vs being a creep

For as much as I do love my Google Now, with all the data that Google has on me, it totally fails at crossing the border between incredibly useful (“Mariusz, you should leave in 5 minutes to catch the subway for that meeting you have at twelve”) and being a total creep (“Mariusz, here’s the route idea for that record shop you randomly googled for several times a while ago”). Remember kids: before you go all out on trying to be useful, please, please make sure you don’t come across as a total stalker. It’s a very fine balance.

Proactive UX is the future of user experience

I personally think that apps that understand what situation you’re currently in and how they can be useful to you are the future of user experience design. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that — more and more companies approach designers asking for help designing such solutions and “Her”, the Spike Jonze’s famous movie was a proactive experience designer’s wet dream. People need these kinds of apps and they will love you if you can provide.

Mariusz Ciesla

Designer that codes. Director of Something, Somewhere, Eventually. Definitely not a stack of bunnies in a trench coat.

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