Does anyone else read a movie plot on Wikipedia while still watching the movie, simply because you don’t have the patience to watch it to the end? I don’t think I am alone in this. I have an awful attention span, like most people with an active smart phone and social media habit. One of the downsides of on-demand entertainment is that I can chop and change as soon as a show fails to engage my attention, although I even do this when I go to the cinema. If anyone has tried to secretly check their phone in a darkened movie theatre, knowing full well how many people will be annoyed by the glint of a lit phone screen in their peripheral vision, you will have realised these three things: people are very sensitive these days, you have no attention span and you have forgotten how to live for the moment.
It’s not like this is a new phenomenon. Some people used to read the ending of a book without following the narrative as they should. There is a quote from the 1989 movie ‘When Harry Met Sally’, when Harry says ‘When I buy a new book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.’ And that did used to be a dark side because, in addition to trying to get a jump start on your imminent demise, any real book lover would have seen that behaviour as an insult to literature. If an author could spend all that time writing a book and getting it shortlisted and featured in your favourite bookstore, the least you could do is read it to the end, as the narrative intended.
So the question is, are we becoming less able to concentrate through no fault of our own or are we just becoming brats? We could add this to the other social perils being blamed on our current day digital habits (anti-social behaviour, online bullying and echo chambers of intolerance, to name a few). Then there is the obsession with constantly optimising our lives due to an increasing ability to monitor our own behaviour with health trackers, data dashboards and real-time everything. Have you ever watched your Uber driver navigating the wrong way to your street while you are overcome with annoyance at already being a mere 5 minutes late? Become disproportionately annoyed if you don’t hit the exact amount of steps you wanted to on your health tracker?
The reality is that digital societies now consist of hoards of people saying ‘we want now’ and going elsewhere if they don’t get it straightaway. A great saying from my childhood was ‘I want doesn’t get.’ It was meant to teach children to ask nicely and not always expect to get something simply because they want it. I’m not sure we could teach our children this lesson today because most of us can’t lead by example. So, with this in mind, how do we design for these demanding customers? How do we design experiences to satisfy our ruder selves?
It’s no secret. Just use the 10 usability heuristics Jakob Nielsen created back in 1995 while imagining yourself at your most demanding:
1. Visibility of system status
What the hell is going on? Where am I and why is everything taking so long?
2. Match between system and the real world
Get to the point. Just tell me what I need to know in everyday language.
3. User control and freedom
Argh…I need to undo this…how?
4. Consistency and standards
Why does everything keep changing? Are you trying to confuse me on purpose?
5. Error prevention
Why didn’t you tell me what to do so I didn’t make that mistake?
6. Recognition rather than recall
I can’t believe that this doesn’t work the way I’m used to other things working and that I had to figure it out for myself!
7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
I use this all the time so why aren’t you remembering anything? Until my mother tries and you assume she knows how!
8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
Get all this rubbish out of my way and only show me the stuff I need.
9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
OMG, I need instructions to understand your instructions!
10. Help and documentation
Why can’t I download more information to learn more? What are you trying to hide?
Isn’t it amazing that Nielsen’s rules still apply to the way users want to navigate any experience, even though our digital habits have changed? In truth, these rules have been around for long enough for all businesses to have upgraded their products and services to meet clear customer expectations. Today’s users are more demanding and less tolerant of anything less than perfection. Today’s customers have run out of patience.