A user interface is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it isn’t very good.
That’s a pithy little turn of phrase that speaks to a critical concern for technology deployment. The user experience is of paramount importance. People are not patient. If an action takes more than a fraction of a second, users get distracted. If users have to search for the right button to click, they get frustrated. Technology that is frustrating won’t be used. Technology that won’t be used isn’t worth the investment. Design isn’t about how something looks, but how it works.
Design thinking has rightly become central to the tech world. A premium is placed on user interfaces that are clean and intuitive. Clutter is the enemy of clarity. If users aren’t able to navigate a product successfully, the first question should be about product design rather than user error.
Yet the idea that technology should be intuitive can go too far. Returning to that clever comparison between a user interface and a joke, think how few jokes are universal. Some straightforward physical comedy is accessible to everyone, but most jokes require context and end up being audience specific. Jokes don’t translate well because of the norms and nuance that make a good joke funny. Good jokes have depth.
It’s entirely possible to create an intuitive single-purpose technology. Many smartphone apps are examples of software that is intended to do one thing well. But as soon as we start wanting depth, we encounter tradeoffs. Buttons, menus, and settings proliferate as we develop a more customizable, feature-rich offering.
Exhibit A for a clean but powerful user interface is Google—a simple box, type some words, click a button. In less than one second, Google has ranked 60 trillion web pages in terms of responsiveness to our queries (something it does 3.5 billion times a day). More often than not, the web page most relevant to our search terms will be among the first options presented; only 5% of people click a link on the second page of results.
We click on the best match. Then what? How do you find the location on the web page that contains the text relevant to your search? According to Google’s search anthropologists, 90% of us skim down until we find the applicable section of text. Only 10% of us know how to use the Find function in our web browser to locate text within a page.
Find is a great feature, and an obvious one once you know it exists. But not until then. If 90% of the population can’t figure it out, it doesn’t qualify as intuitive. The fact that it’s not intuitive isn’t necessarily evidence of deficiency. Find-in-page could absolutely be made a prominent part of the browser interface. But so could many other features. A streamlined user experience means making difficult choices.
Most people are surprised to learn that Google offers two six-week courses on how to use Google. There are many ways to perform better searches using operators, punctuation, symbols, and filters. To understand what that depth looks like when translated into a user interface, Google “Advanced Search.” You’ll discover that considerable depth is added at the cost of simplicity.
None of this is to impugn Google, which delivers a streamlined user experience sufficient for 99% of the population. But Google also retains functionality and depth that rewards power users. Offering both is the way to cut the Gordian knot of tradeoffs between usability and depth. This triumph, however, doesn’t change the fact that those of us who need the deep functionality must learn how to use it.
Thinking about Google this way should also give us pause in considering other technologies we use regularly. Isn’t the basic functionality of Word about as intuitive as it gets? Open a document. Start typing. Text appears on the screen. Don’t most of our frustrations with Word emerge when we start to produce more complex documents?
Word isn’t a single-purpose app. It’s a word-processing ecosystem. All those buttons along the top ribbon are apps—targeted solutions to specific problems. But, as on our smartphones, how many Word apps do most of us really use?
Not many, because we’ve never been trained. And because of our pervasive belief that training should be unnecessary; technology is supposed to be easy.
Today’s technology is easy, as long as we don’t need it to do too much. Most people are fine with a standard Google search or using Word for simple typing. Legal professionals are not most people. The searches we run—think legal research, due diligence, e-discovery—are complicated. The documents we produce—motions, contracts, exhibits, e-filings—are complex. We actually need to work at becoming proficient with the basic technology tools of our trade.
Because our expectations are misaligned with our reality, we underuse the technologies intended to support us—matter management, email, document generation, spreadsheets, and such. The tools we have are powerful; they are also deep. Using them as intended means actually taking the time to learn how to use them as intended.