Enterprise Playability, Gamification, User Experience

Getting Lost in the Software: Context, Part 1

contextI’m a great driver. Well, I’m a pretty good driver. I’ve had some accidents, but they were all a long time ago. In the last millennium. And that’s like a thousand years.

But that’s not the point. I’m a pretty good driver, but I’m a bad navigator. I get lost. I rely heavily on GPS and Google Maps and Apple Maps and that weird navigation app in my car. I get turned around. I come up over the rise expecting to see the ocean in the distance, but I see downtown.

It seems to happen suddenly. I’m driving along, on streets I know, doing fine. I take a turn one block too early, and end up somewhere new. I don’t panic; I keep driving, looking for a new route back to familiar territory. Then suddenly I realize I have no idea where I am, or even which direction I’m headed.

The story gets boring fast: Google Maps saves the day, and I get back on track. But that’s not the point either.

This is, obviously, all about software. About user experience. About that point we have all gotten to in a UI where we suddenly don’t know where we are, which direction we are headed, or how to get where we want to go. But in software there’s no Mekhi Phifer Google Maps. Well, OK. There is. But that’s not the point.

The point is that people get lost in software. They lose track of where they are, how they got there, and how to get back on track. They push a button, submit a form, click on a menu, and suddenly things change from comfortably familiar to new and confusing. People hate that. I hate that.

It’s all about context. When I’m driving around town I am always — either consciously or unconsciously — looking for familiar things: streets, buildings, hills, lakes, oceans, mountains, Starbucks, whatever. These are my reference points. My context. I know where I am because I recognize that Starbucks. It’s the one without a drive-through. I hate that.

Context, that collection of familiar reference points that keep us from feeling lost, is sadly missing in a lot of software, especially enterprise software. It is often difficult to determine the following:

  • Where you are
  • Where you came from
  • Where you are going
  • How you get there from here

You know you’re lost in the software when you’ve just clicked on something, and suddenly everything familiar has gone away. Maybe a screen popped up in front of the screen you were on. Maybe something on screen disappeared. Or maybe you found your way into a new section of the software, but don’t know how to get back.

So you keep driving. You poke around, you hunt through menus, you even try right-clicking, because then you get what’s called a “context menu,” which should give you context, right? Yeah, no. You quit and restart the software. Sometimes it works, and you find your way. But all the while you’re wondering what happened, and you’re not sure exactly how to avoid it happening again (or what to do next time).

The problem is a lack of context. When there are not familiar reference points, and no indicators of which way to go next, getting lost is inevitable. Software lets you down by not giving you what you need, by not telling you what you need to know. Software could be so much better.

Let’s go off-road for a moment, and talk about video games (because that’s what we do; that’s all we do). Video games have a tendency to get context right. In most games it’s easy to find your way. The sign-posts are clear, the visual queues tell you exactly where you are, and often a game will actually push you in the right direction. Many games even talk you through the hard parts. They’re like Google Maps that way. I love that.

Think about it. How many times have you started a brand new video game, and within minutes or even seconds of starting the game, you can figure the following:

  • This is you
  • That’s your friend
  • You are here
  • Your friend is over there
  • You want to get over there
  • Here’s how you get there

And, while we’re at it, you quickly figure these out, too:

  • Here’s what you have
  • Here’s what you can do with it
  • Here’s what you want to get
  • Here’s what you’ll need to do to get it

In typical enterprise software there is no you, there is no friend (not even a co-worker), and there is rarely any indicator of where you want to go or what you want to do. There is only:

  • Here’s a menu
  • Here’s a widget

So we get lost. We all do, eventually. Not just the pretty good drivers, like me.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Enterprise software could, in fact, get so much better. The solution is to learn from video games how to show your users where they are, where they want to go, and how to get there from here.

In the next few posts on Enterprise Playability we will discuss how to show your users where they are, where they want to go, and how to get there from here. Some of the ideas will include modern improvements on the breadcrumb trail, knowing where your users are going before they do, and literally installing Google Maps in your software.

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