Humans & wires

Some time ago, I read a great Newyorker article by Atul Gawande, where he talks about the impact of solitary confinement on humans. Part of his story is description of experiments on monkeys, done by psychologist Harry Harlow, where newborn monkeys were taken from their mothers and put in ‘company’ of surrogate mothers, made of wire (photo above). Monkeys were provided with everything they needed for survival, like food and warmth. That didn’t help them to later become a functional members of monkey society. Namely, what they lacked was a stimulation — contact or, interaction — necessary for turning them into sociable beings. They remained weird throughout their lives (and Dr. Harlow was seriously reprimanded for his experiments).

While this story is interesting in its own right, it got me to think about something completely (?) different. I started thinking about human-computer interaction, and how most of us spend most of our time with grid-like interfaces not unlike the above, and how we conduct a lot of our social interaction with a machine. And that’s all totally fine, of course, because we were not brought up by the internet, but (hopefully) by flash-and-blood mothers. Still, those who spend way too much time with the webz or video games or programming are deemed to be “nerds”, and as such, almost by default, slightly “socially awkward.”

Which leads me to the conversation that I had with my friend Michal (who is, besides being a great Experience Designer and one of the smartest people I know, also a very nice person). I have asked her how she, as an UX, thinks about the problem of designing for the continuous interaction on the website — i.e. how she prevents user drop-off points (ensuring that people spend more time on the site, click more, and return later). That’s, in a way, a relationship-building. There’s quite a few of design tactics to prevent user drop off, like “we don’t have what you are searching for, but here’s our most popular topics” for example, or narrowing down search categories so users don’t cut themselves off, or some navigational stuff to prevent dead-ends. And then, of course, there’s always a BACK button. (which makes me think how awesome it would be to have back button sometimes in human conversations, like ooops … back!) In interpersonal conversations, instead, people go through a sequence of gestures, and when we talk to other people we are careful to sustain the conversation. When someone says something stupid, we tend to look another way, as in pretend that we didn’t hear it, or try to smooth it out by saying something else.

Well, we don’t behave like that when we interact with a website. Even despite the UX design efforts like the above, we just leave, or get angry, or laugh at it, and sometimes even yell. We lose patience in a mili-second. We don’t have time for that crap. Sometimes we even conduct some irrational behavior when we don’t get to see or do what we want, like repeatedly hit our keyboard, abruptly turn the computer off, or walk away and to punch the wall (i made this last one up). In short, we behave like psychopaths. I can only imagine how would that behavior fare in a live, human-to-human interaction. Someone does not respond quickly enough, and we hit them. Fun times.

So now, Michal knows a lot about user behavior, and she claims that becausethey are interacting with a computer, users are going to be a hell lot less tolerant and patient than when they are interacting with another human being. If we interact with a teller in a bank, we are — and have to be — more patient; when we interact with a site, well, much less so. Then she said something very true: “the social pressure is on the website.” What a truly awesome reversal of roles.

This post was first published on April 24, 2009