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Illustration by Geri Coady

Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by Design

Ever had a moment on the internet when you’ve been forced to stop and think about what you’re doing? Maybe you’ve been surprised. Maybe you’ve stumbled across something new. Maybe you’ve come to see things in a different light. I call such experiences meta-moments: tiny moments of reflection that prompt us to think consciously about what we’re experiencing.

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Take Google. In the early days, its clean white page helped distinguish it from the pack. While its competitors tripped all over themselves telling you how great they were and how much they had to offer, Google’s quieter strategy seemed bold and distinctive. “Our search experience speaks for itself,” it suggested. No need for spin or a hard sell. Over the years, as Google has continued to develop its search technologies, it has managed to retain that deceptive surface simplicity. I love that its minimal homepage has stayed intact (in spite of incessant doodling). Encouraging a thoughtful moment remains central to Google’s design.

Yet the prevailing wisdom within user experience design (UXD) seems to focus on removing the need for thought. We are so eager for our users to succeed that we try to make everything slick and seamless—to remove even a hint of the possibility of failure. Every new service learns about our movements in order to anticipate our next move. Each new product exists in an ecosystem of services so that even significant actions, such as making a purchase, are made to seem frictionless. The aim is not only to save us time and effort, but to save us from thinking, too.

Steve Krug’s seminal book Don’t Make Me Think! may have helped to shape this approach. This bible of usability is an undisputed cornerstone of UXD. But it can be taken too far. In fact, Krug himself has unofficially rechristened the book Don’t Make Me Think Needlessly! In doing so, he acknowledges that there are times when thoughtful interactions online are worth encouraging. While we shouldn’t need to think about where to find the search tool on a site (top right, please!), we should, of course, be encouraged to think before we purchase something—or, for that matter, before we make any significant commitment.

It’s a question of courtesy, too. When asking for deeper attention, we should feel confident that we’re not wasting people’s time. What we offer should more than repay them for their efforts—though there aren’t many moments when we can guarantee this.

I’m currently working on a project—an online version of a medical self-screening form—that has a valid reason for making users think. Success will involve making sure that users really understand the meaning of each question, and that they take the form seriously—that they take the time to answer honestly and accurately. My teammates and I find ourselves designing a slow experience rather than a fast one.

But what slows people down and makes them more thoughtful? And what is it about a particular design that makes people really invest their attention?

Laying the groundwork for thoughtfulness

In my experience, there seem to be three main strategies for encouraging meta-moments.

Roadblocks

Inbox by Gmail makes you think by confronting you with a barrier. You can’t just try the service. You have to be invited. You can request an invitation (by following the instructions on their site), or a friend can invite you—but you can’t get started right away. Anticipation and excitement about the service has space to gather and develop. And it does. In its first few weeks, invites were going on eBay for $200.

This strategy certainly worked on me. Within moments of landing on the page, I went from being slightly intrigued to a state of I-must-have-it. Following the instructions, I found myself composing an email to [email protected] requesting an invitation. “Please invite me. Many thanks, Andrew,” I wrote, knowing full well that no one but me was ever going to read those words. Why hadn’t they simply let me submit my email address somewhere? Why were they deliberately making things hard for me?

Something clever is going on here. Adding a barrier forces us to engage in a deeper, more attentive way: we are encouraged to think. Granted, not everyone will want or need this encouragement, but if a barrier can create a digital experience that is noticed and remembered, then it’s worth talking about.

Putting up a “roadblock,” though, seems like a risky way to encourage a meta-moment. Stopping people in their tracks may make them simply turn around or try another road. For the roadblock to be effective (and not just annoying), there has to be enough interest to want to continue in spite of the obstacle. When I encounter a paywall, for example, I need to be clear on the benefits of parting with my money—and the decision to pay or subscribe shouldn’t be a no-brainer, especially if you’re hoping for my long-term commitment. iTunes’s micropayments, Amazon’s “Buy now with 1-Click,” and eBay’s impulse bidding all represent a trend toward disengaging with our purchases. And in my own purchasing patterns, things bought this way tend not to mean as much.

Smartphone apps have a similar impact on me. Most of the time, it seems that their only aim is to provide me with enough fleeting interest to make me part with a tiny upfront cost. As a result, I tend to download apps and throw them away soon afterward. Is it wrong to hope for a less disposable experience?

In-app purchases employ a kind of roadblock strategy. You’re usually allowed to explore the app for free within certain limitations. Your interest grows, or it doesn’t. You decide to pay, or you don’t. The point is that space is provided for you to really consider the value of paying. So you give it some proper thought, and the app has to do far more to demonstrate that it deserves your money. FiftyThree’s Paper, my favorite iPad app, lets you have a blast for free and includes some lovely in-app promotional videos to show you exactly why you should pay.

Roadblocks come in many shapes and sizes, but they always enforce a conscious consideration of how best to proceed. Navigating around them gives us something to accomplish, and a story to tell. This is great for longer-term engagement—and it’s why digital craftspeople need to shift their thinking away from removing barriers and instead toward designing them.

Speed bumps

Speed bumps are less dramatic than roadblocks, but they still encourage thought. They aim to slow you down just enough so that you can pay attention to the bits you need to pay attention to. Let’s say you’re about to make an important decision—maybe of a legal, medical, financial, or personal nature. You shouldn’t proceed too quickly and risk misunderstanding what you’re getting yourself into.

A change in layout, content, or style is often all that is required to make users slow down. You can’t be too subtle about this, though. People have grown used to filtering out huge amounts of noise on the internet; they can become blind to anything they view as a possible distraction.

Online, speed bumps can help prepare us mentally before we start something. You might be about to renew your vehicle tax, for instance, and you see a message that says: “Hold up! Make sure you have your 16-digit reference number…” You know that this is useful information, that it’ll save you time to prepare properly, but you might find yourself getting a little frustrated by the need to slow down.

Although most of us find speed bumps irritating, we grudgingly accept that they are there to help us avoid the possibility of more painful consequences. For example, when you fire up an application for the first time, you may see some onboarding tooltips flash up. Part of you hates this—you just want to get going, to play—and yet the product seems to choose this moment to have a little conversation with you so that it can point out one or two essentials. It feels a little unnatural, like your flow has been broken. You’ve been given a meta-moment before being let loose.

Of course, onboarding experiences can be designed in delightful ways that minimize the annoyance of the interruption of our desired flow. Ultimately, if they save us time in the long run, they prove their worth. We are grateful, as long as we don’t feel nagged.

In spite of the importance of speed bumps online, we tend not to come across them very often. We are urged to carry on at speed, even when we should be paying attention. When we’re presented with Terms and Conditions to agree to, we almost never get a speed bump. It’d be wonderful to have an opportunity to digest a clear and simple summary of what we’re signing up for. Instead, we’re faced with reams of legalese, set in unreadable type. Our reaction, understandably, is to close our eyes and accelerate.

Diversions

Online diversions deliberately move us away from conventional paths. Like speed bumps, they make us slow down and take notice. We drive more thoughtfully on unfamiliar roads; sometimes we even welcome the opportunity to understand the space between A and B in a new way. This time, we are quietly prodded into a meta-moment by being shown a new way forward.

A diversion doesn’t have to be pronounced to make you think. The hugely successful UK drinks company Innocent uses microcopy to make an impact. You find yourself reading every single bit of their packaging because there are jokes hidden everywhere. You usually expect ingredients or serving instructions to be boring and functional. But Innocent uses these little spaces as a stage for quirky, silly fun. You end up considering the team behind the product, as well as the product itself, in a new light.

Companies like Apple aim for more than a temporary diversion. They create entirely new experience motorways. With Apple Watch, we’re seeing the introduction of a whole new lexicon. New concepts such as “Digital Touch,” “Heartbeat,” “Sketch,” “Digital Crown,” “Force Touch,” “Short Look,” and “Glances” are deployed to shape our understanding of exactly what this new thing will do. Over the course of the next few years, you can expect at least some of these terms to pass into everyday language. By that time, they will no longer feel like diversions. For now, though, such words have the power to make us pause, anticipate, and imagine what life will be like with these new powers.

The magic of meta-moments

Meta-moments can provide us with space to interpret, understand, and add meaning to our experiences. A little friction in our flow is all we need. A roadblock must be overcome. A speed bump must be negotiated. A diversion must be navigated. Each of these cases involves our attention in a thoughtful way. Our level of engagement deepens. We have an experience we can remember.

A user journey without friction is a bit like a story without intrigue—boring! In fact, a recent study into the first hour of computer game experiences concludes that intrigue might be more important than enjoyment for fostering engagement. We need something a little challenging or complex; we need to be the one who gains mastery and control. We want to triumph in the end.

Our design practices don’t encourage this, though. We distract our users more than we intrigue them. We provide the constant possibility of better options elsewhere, so that users never have to think: “Okay, what next?” Our attention is always directed outward, not inward. And it—not the technology itself, but how we design our interactions with it—makes us dumb.

UXD strives toward frictionless flow: removing impediments to immediate action and looking to increase conversions at all costs. This approach delivers some great results, but it doesn’t always consider the wider story of how we can design and build things that sustain a lasting relationship. With all the focus on usability and conversions, we can forget to ask ourselves whether our online experiences are also enriching and fulfilling.

Designing just one or two meta-moments in our digital experiences could help fix this. Each would be a little place for our users to stop or slow down, giving them space to think for themselves. There’s no point pretending that this will be easy. After many years dedicated to encouraging flow, it will feel strange to set out to disrupt users. We’d be playing with user expectations instead of aiming to meet and exceed them. We’d be finding little ways to surprise people, rather than trying to make them feel at ease at all times. We might tell them they need to come back later, rather than bend over backwards to satisfy them right away. We might delegate more responsibility to them rather than try to do everything for them. We might deliberately design failures rather than seek to eradicate them.

How will we test that we’ve achieved the desired effect and not just exasperated our users? Usability testing probably won’t cut it, because it’ll be tricky to get beyond the immediate responses to each set task. We might need longer-term methods, like diary studies, in order to capture how our meta-moments are working. Our UXD methods may need to shift: from looking at atoms of experience (pages, interactions, or tasks), to looking at systems of experience (learning, becoming, or adopting).

It will be a challenge to get people behind the idea of adding meta-moments, and a challenge to test them. The next time we create a design solution, let’s add just one small barrier, bump, or quirk. Let’s consider that the best approach may be a slow one. And let’s remember that removing needless thought should never end up removing all need for thought. Putting thought into things is only part of a designer’s responsibility; we also have to create space for users to put their own thought in. Their personalities and imaginations need that space to live and breathe. We need to encourage meta-moments carefully and then defend them. Because they are where magic happens.

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