Breaking Habits

I just sat down with my wife and took her through Google docs. She wasn’t too happy about it. I tried to find some old copy of Office I could plonk on her new computer, but when that search was fruitless, Google docs triumphed over forking out more cash for (yet another) copy of Office.

On the first introduction to Google docs, there was a lot of kicking and screaming – what do you mean it can’t do that? How do you do this? That’s just stupid, why doesn’t it work like Excel? I knew this pain was coming, but I persevered because I knew that everything she wanted to accomplish could be done in Google, for free, and live permanently online (which was a bonus as the day before she accidentally deleted her entire My Documents folder – yes, she works in tech).

Sure enough, after a few weeks of working through and learning the new software, she is very content with her move online.

It interesting seeing this process first-hand, especially if you develop UIs (as I do now and then). A function that accomplishes an existing task in a different (but more efficient) way is normally loathed by the user. Especially if the efficiencies are ‘under the user radar’ – by that I mean small enough to not be individually noticed, yet in aggregate, meaningful.

When this happens you are trying to break a habit. Which is hard. Habits drive a considerable amount of our behavior because they are short-cuts we don’t need to think about. When you are forced to change a habit, you weigh the effort in changing against the perceived usefulness of the new approach. If the effort seems too much, you see a lot of kicking and screaming.

This is why you have to be careful with user feedback. Users want everything familiar, not necessarily better – because they don’t want to have to change their habits.

Sometimes you need to push through this barrier to a better place. Sometimes. It’s a fine line between functionality that improves the experience but breaks a habit, and functionality that’s simply different and annoying to users.

Either way, I suggest you try not to test too much on your wife.

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