When I design an application, I'd like to believe that every aspect of the user interface contains data that helps solve a real business problem. Otherwise, it's hard to justify why a given detail is there. But, the reality is, as user experience (UX) engineers, so much of the data that we present doesn't directly pertain to the needs of the business; rather, it draws on the softer, more subjective side of information architecture. But, are there ever unseen negative consequences to including this so-called "fluffy" data?
As sentient beings, we build mental models based on the world around us. For better or worse, we do this no matter how much - or how little - information we actually have at our disposal. The same is true for our users. When we design an application interface, each detail, each description, each metric contains information. And, each piece of information works to change the story in our user's mind. But, if that information can't tell the whole story, can it work against the business?
Consider the following user interface widget:
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The photo (that's me!) is an avatar. And the green dot, that indicates my "online status." The avatar is easy to understand, making the application more personal; but, what does the online status indicate about me as a user? Technically, it relates to when I last interacted with the system. But what does that mean from a business standpoint?
The answer to that question is highly contextual. If the application requires people to be online all the time, the status indicator can speak to the user's attendance. But what if the application doesn't require the user to be online all the time? This is where it gets interesting. This is where the user gets to build a mental model based on limited information.
As a thought experiment, imagine that I'm a designer and that my job requires me to be at my computer half the time and simply "at my desk" the other half of the time. When I'm using the computer, I'm interacting with the application. When I'm "off" the computer, I'm doing work the builds towards subsequent interactions (ex, sketching workflows on paper or talking to clients). The important thing to consider here is that I'm technically working the whole time.
Now, if the application has an online status indicator, it will show me as "online" half the time and "offline" half the time. If you accept that I'm actually working the whole time, what does the online indicator tell other people - like my boss - about me? Logically speaking, nothing. But remember, humans are great at building something from nothing. If the information is there, it will imply value; and if it implies value, it will be consumed by someone's mental model, no matter how ill-advised.
Is it possible, then, that having an offline status could color me in a negative light? And if so, is it also possible that such a negative light may build up a residue of resentment in my boss or my coworkers? And if so, could it even go so far as to weaken my position in the company over time?
I don't think that requires a huge mental leap. But, even if you can't take it to that logical end, I think you can easily imagine someone looking at the user interface and thinking:
Hmm, it's only 2pm - why isn't Jane online?
At the point, the seed has been planted.
When designing an interface, it's easy to fall into the trap of making it pretty first and then justifying it second. But, when we include fluffy data that doesn't help solve an actual business problem, not only does it add noise but, it may lead to unintended consequences. Remember, if the data is present in the UI, your users will assume that it means something. And, occasionally, that "something" is negative.
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