3 MIN READ

The flaw in our app design

We’ve recently been conducting research into medical apps for our clients and I’ve noticed a striking trend. As we’ve undertaken user research sessions, we’ve noticed real annoyance with the apps amongst users. This is sometimes because of bugs or glitches – what we might call usability flaws – but more interesting has been the frustration of users with the impersonal nature of the systems.

In recent years we’ve seen a huge shift from technology being inanimate or animated-only-by-the-user, to increasingly independent, responsive, intelligent devices. This change is turbocharged by a revolution in data science, machine learning and AI; driverless cars are no longer a fantasy and Google’s smart-reply technology analyses our messages to provide quick response suggestions.

However, whilst new tech and AI seek to give computers and apps human, emotional intelligence, technology is not personal and we cannot engage with it like we do each other. Despite vast improvements in their capabilities, they remain flawed and inhuman. Human interactions are flexible and personable, infinitely responsive and often emotive. Conversely, interaction with an app is limited, constrained to its capability and design.

Some of the apps we’ve tested have driven our participants nuts because they are unhelpful – for those of us who remember Little Britain, they are computers that ‘say no’. When they are not certain, they baffle or stall or provide arcane technical messages; this is a ‘personality flaw’ in our systems, which come across as impersonal and unhelpful. We need to design them to be supportive and helpful, despite their uncertainty.

A more ‘humanlike’ system would be one that feels human to the user. In a good way. It has a personality. It communicates warmth as well as words. It is able to provide support beyond direct instruction. It collaborates with the user, rather than just instructing or directing.

Apps are easier to use and engage with when they are more personable – I wonder whether the systems we develop and the user interfaces that are intrinsic to them are as ‘humanlike’ as they can and should be. Not machinelike, not computerlike, not even Godlike. We need to approach app development with consideration of a system’s likeability and personality, to design apps that help.

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