Anyone that follows this blog knows that I’m an unrelenting advocate of building great user experiences. Whether on the Web, mobile or desktop software, great user experiences enlighten, flatter and elevate users.
As technology continues to accelerate forward, it’s become even more critical to mask away the complexities of how things work and to just make them work. Period. Thanks to the likes of Apple, user experience isn’t "something we should think about" anymore. It’s a key differentiator. A better-designed anything will win.
A hallmark of strong experience design is to take things away. To only reveal – almost magically – what the user really needs at a given point in time. Taking this to its end, an odd sort of irony emerges. To build a great experience, you in fact take control of things. The net result is less freedom, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While it’s ok to interact sometimes, a great experience feels a bit like you’re on a sort of pre-scripted ride. You almost feel like you’re gliding along.
Now let’s really take this to its end. What is the greatest user experience possible? How does it feel to be shrunken down to 1/100th your size and dropped into a world built by the greatest designers around? What if the experience appealed to not only our intuition but our aesthetic sensibilities? What if it seemed to present a world that magically seemed one step ahead of us? What would that world look like?
Well, it would probably look something like this:
The above is the town (or fictional town) featured in The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s beautifully realized world where Truman (Jim Carrey) is thrown in from birth into the ultimate reality show where everything is perfectly constructed (or "designed" if you will) for Truman. The film documents Truman’s struggle with this perfectly situated place where nothing out of the ordinary happens. Throughout the film, Truman can’t bear all this sterile perfection around him. He longs for more. He finds himself suffocating underneath all that pristine predictability and longs to escape into anywhere else.
See here’s the thing: human beings have a problem with perfection. We all think we want it. We sort of strive for it. But when we get it, we sort of die a little. We stop moving. We grow restless. We get depressed. We tried this already. It’s called the 1950’s. The outcome of our weak little attempt at a Utopian vision was…well…the 1960’s. We ran towards chaos and mayhem and drugs and rock & roll and creativity and disorder.
The Human Web
Humanity began casting its reflection about twenty years ago and it is the World Wide Web. It’s messy, beautiful, disgusting, inspiring, offensive and glorious all at once. It was conceived without limitation or boundary and the whole of the world poured itself into it. There’s a lot of crap on the Web, but from that mayhem incredible things have emerged. Amazing voices, images, tools, applications. Twitter. Facebook. Basecamp. Google! Google rose out of that swamp.
Apple’s Evil Ways (Or Not)
I’m not going to sit here and deride Apple for offering us a .5 inch thick version of suburbia. Apple is a commercial entity that realizes that the Web is a big, bad, confusing and sometimes dangerous place. A place littered with filth and scams and all sorts of mayhem. To the detractors that bitch that the iPad is "closed," all I’d say is: "I hear you. Don’t buy one. Go build your Ubuntu box or whatever else you want to toy around with."
The iPad is a beautiful, inviting piece of engineering. To use Apple’s words, it’s "intimate" and "magical." It’s…I dunno…comforting in a twisted sort of way. Seeing Steve Jobs settle into a lounge chair and cradle it sent signals of casual submission. This thing is about passive consumption, not exploration.
Growing up in New York, I was always dumbfounded at the big Red Lobster and Olive Garden in Times Square. I would ask myself: why would you travel to the greatest restaurant city on earth and go back to Red Lobster? Eventually, I came to understand that most people aren’t explorers. Most people just want what’s familiar.
But thank God for the explorers. The amazing achievements we have in technology today – including Apple’s – are built atop the discoveries that arose out of those swirls of chaos. The iPad isn’t for the explorers. It’s for everyone else. Thankfully, there are many places to go to scratch that itch. You can take a cab downtown away from Times Square and find yourself at a dive that serves the best Indian food in town. Thankfully, the more adventurous among us have options.
What is a bit disheartening is that Apple is evolving into more of a leaf of the ecosystem rather than a node. It represents this pinnacle in design and engineering but is laser-focused on it’s own sustenance and growth. Google, for all its faults, buys into the ecosystem and feeds back to it. Apple doesn’t. Again, this isn’t meant as a judgment towards Apple. As a commercial entity, they can do whatever the hell they please. They’re filling a very real need out there. They built a beautiful and relatively safe place for people to go.
We should all take Apple’s lead in caring about and building great experiences for users. Apple is not evil. They build great experiences. They built a beautiful place for people to go. What the world needs isn’t less Apple but more Apples. More enriching experiences. More options. More beautiful places to go. The Web is capable of anything…including hosting beautiful places to go. Apple isn’t scary. Having only one Apple is scary.
The iPad will undoubtedly be a world class product. Nobody doubts that. Still, after a few hours of a pristinely designed experience, we’ll hit that Web browser. Thank God for the side streets leading out of Times Square. Because in the end, we will venture out. We always do.