Before all our technology was prefixed by smartness, we just smacked the TV, radio, and washing machine when they stopped working. We hoped that by hitting the device we’d communicate how desperately we wanted it to keep working.
Back then, we wanted to communicate with and influence the technology a lot more than it was capable of communicating with us.
That may not be as true anymore.
We live in a time of algorithmic feeds, and mobile applications predicting our behaviour based on past interactions. Now, technology influences our actions more than we influence its actions.
Communication between us and the technology we use has increased in resolution. And this increase in resolution, in some ways, has largely been made possible by good design; specifically, designing machine-human interactions in ways that mirror how humans communicate with each other.
Think back to the time when you last logged into a new app.
I recently installed Notion on my mobile phone. It asked me to log in using an email ID I wanted to link the Notion account with.
I found this quite similar to what happens when I visit a gated society. I am usually asked to click a picture and be allowed entry once a visitor pass is generated. At other times, it is the good old way of entering my name and other details into a physical register.
But this is just one example, and I’m sure you can easily find many others where a digital interaction was designed based on a pattern of interaction that already existed in the physical world.
And this design choice has to do with establishing familiarity in the minds of the users.
In the initial stages, app designers are familiar with how communication generally works, and make an attempt to replicate that in the journeys they design.
Make the app a go-to for specific behaviour by making it as seamless and frictionless as possible.
For example, I'm sure the team at Swiggy is spending thousands of hours cumulatively, just thinking about how to design a user's journey as they go about using the app when they order food — just to make ordering food on Swiggy second-nature for its users.
In contrast, let's take the example of the IRCTC website to explore what non-user-friendly design means for a customer’s journey.
Look at the screenshot below. If you’ve ever used the website or the app to book a ticket you will most likely relate to the discomfort expressed.
The job of booking a ticket is a very specific one. Repeated experiences of failure while using the app evoke the same helplessness that one felt before hitting the TV or radio back in the day. You feel disempowered because of the app or website’s user experience. The friction in the communication between you and the app makes you wonder,
“What were they thinking?!”
But this is exactly the juncture at which good communication design can change the fate of a product or service.
The missing ingredient that makes all the difference: Empathy.
When you smack the TV or feel moved enough to log in to your inactive Twitter account to raise a complaint about a company, you’re doing it to get rid of the irritation that using the product has caused.
Stated from the product's perspective, it wasn’t successful in understanding you as a user, and your needs well. It lacked empathy for you and your problems.
So what can a business do about this? How can they possibly think about resolving the discomfort?
Originally designed by Dave Gray, customer empathy maps are a methodology that product managers, designers, and engineers use to enhance their understanding of their customers’ needs. They provide an easy way to visualize different facets of a user’s mindset while using a product.
To simplify, empathy maps help chart what a customer might say, think, do and feel. They give a peek into the customer’s experience of using the app. Visually, here’s what an empathy map could look like:
Apart from covertly adding or removing features based on the numerical data that apps throw up, interacting with customers in real-time might be necessary if the goal is to reduce friction in communication.
At every point in their journey, a user has a set of questions they have in their mind around what to do next or how to do what they want to do next. The difference between a good user experience and a bad one then is that the former communicates the answers to these questions as and when they naturally come up in the user's mind while the latter doesn't.
Let’s go back to the case of IRCTC and make a sample empathy map.
The Says quadrant typically includes a direct quote from the customer that is gathered either during or after your product’s use.
“The IRCTC app is not letting me log in.”
The Think quadrant involves a bit of forecasting from a business end to arrive at the reasons why a customer relies on your product.
“I don’t have the time or energy to wait in queue at the ticket counter.”
The forecasting is a necessary step prior to the user interviews because a user may not be as direct, aware or truthful about what makes them use the app. It may also be difficult at times to distinguish the Think quadrant from the Says quadrant because, for a user, the difference may not be obvious. It is then the onus of the user experience design team to distinguish between the two, and arrive at insights that help them build better.
The Do quadrant involves understanding the difference between how a flow is designed, and a flow is experienced.
"It is telling me my username is invalid. But I'm certain this is the username and password I used to book tickets just a month ago. Let me refresh the page and try again."
A user is the sole determinant of how useful your app design is. Understanding how the app is used may be the key to knowing if a feature stays, gets modified, or is removed.
Finally, the Feel quadrant is a way to understand the overall sense that using your app gives the user.
"I feel anxious and annoyed while using the IRCTC app. It throws up random errors and doesn't tell me how to resolve them."
If you think about user experience as a conversation between two humans, your product interface now becomes a tool that facilitates that conversation.
Consequently, the way you design your interfaces is the way a natural conversation or interaction between a consumer and service provider would progress in a real-life setting.
Empathy Maps help you figure out what conflicts or struggles can occur while having this conversation with users through your app.
Once you know these, you can design your communication better to resolve them.