Personal and Practical Goals

Personal and Practical Goals

Earlier in this chapter, I stated that the essence of good interaction design is to let users achieve their practical goals without violating their personal goals. Homo logicus, and their apologists, usually find it embarrassing to look too closely at personal goals, so they avoid it. However, the distinction between personal goals and practical goals is critical to success.

I'll use my colleague Ted as an example. He just sent me email complaining about his new television set. He spent an unpleasant hour reading the manual so he could properly set all of the TV's various parameters. He suggested to me that the TV should have provided an on-screen dialog box to step him through the procedure instead of forcing him to read the manual. His solution is fine as far as it goes, butóhe is not a designeróhe naturally tackled the problem the old mechanical-age way: by focusing on tasks. The on-screen dialogs would simplify the task of setting parameters, butóby examining his goals insteadówe use a different approach, which gives us a remarkably better solution.

We start by assessing Ted's goals, and it's always best to start at the top. Obviously, we know that Ted wants to watch TV. He just paid lots of money for a new set, so just as obviously, he wants to be able to take advantage of all of the set's nifty new features. These practical goals are directly related to the task of setting up a new TV set.

But we must never forget that Ted is a person and, as such, he has strong personal feelings that can also be expressed as goals. Ted does not want his new possession to humiliate him; he does not want to be made to feel stupid. Ted does not want to make mistakes. He wants to have a feeling of accomplishment, the sooner the better. He wants to have some fun. These personal goals are vital. From an interaction designer's point of view, they are more important than Ted's practical goals.

Ted's complaint wasn't that he couldn't watch his new TV, or that he paid too much for it, or that he couldn't take advantage of all of those nifty new features. He complained because the TV set made him feel stupid. He didn't say it using those exact words because just saying "It made me feel stupid" makes one feel stupid, but that was clearly his meaning. While interacting with it, he accidentally made mistakes. It took him more than an hour after he plugged it in to have any sense of accomplishment. The parameter-setting process wasn't fun.

While meeting Ted's practical goals, the product's interaction violated Ted's most important personal goals. The specific qualities that make Ted's new TV set a classic example of a new, high-tech, dancing bearware product are not the way it achieves his practical goals, but the way it fails to achieve his personal goals.

Armed with the knowledge that Ted's personal goals are sacred, here's how we would design a very different interface for the TV. First, to quickly give him a sense of accomplishment, we must make certain that the TV works well the instant it is plugged in. It doesn't have to do everything, but it has to do something and do it well. Clearly, putting Ted through the parameter-setting process first fails this instant-gratification test. The software engineers see all parameters as equal, so they lump them together. But we can easily assume some parameter settings, letting the TV do the basic stuff, and delay the need for other, advanced feature parameters until later. We have to unlump the parameters. This is not a technical problem, just a simple reshuffling of interaction priorities.

Our design now fits the definition of a success: Ted could take the TV out of its box, plug it into the wall, and immediately relax in his easy chair to channel surf contentedly, having achieved most of his practical goals without violating any of his personal goals.

Notice that although he doesn't have to achieve all of his practical goals at once, he must never find any of his personal goals violated. This difference also illustrates the complementary notions of designing for and providing for. The interaction-design solution must provide ways for Ted to achieve all of his practical goals, but the design must strongly emphasize ways for Ted to achieve his personal goals.

The Principle of Commensurate Effort

Of course, after a while, Ted's desire to fully achieve the practical goal of taking advantage of all those nifty new features would begin to assert itself. But by then he would have spent many happy hours with his new set, would be familiar with it, and would be willing to invest more effort. It would now be harder for the set to humiliate him, his tolerance for its interaction would be greater, and he would have a more precise understanding of exactly what he wants it to do.

It is a proven human trait that people react emotionally to computers (more on this later in the chapter). Because people interact with computers, they naturally regard them as somewhat human. Ted is willing to put more effort into configuring his TV because he feels that the TV has put effort into making him feel good.

I call this phenomenon the Principle of Commensurate Effort. People are willing to put effort into tasks because they feel that it is a fair exchange between equals. In other words, users are willing to invest extra effort because they know they will get extra rewards for it.