Two Brain Droppings

Dropping #1:

Whenever we work on a UX project, we always think of pleasing the end user. But it often happens that the users aren’t the ones paying for the project. And the users’ desires and the check writers’ desires often don’t coincide, and sometimes even conflict.  So: how do we please  the user, while loosening the purse strings held by the check writer? You would think that calculations for user productivity would carry the day, but often that isn’t the case. There’s a whole lot more emotion tied up in it than you think. I call this the “third-party problem”.

One company has solved this problem brilliantly: American Girl Doll, launched in 1986 by Pleasant Thiele Rowland, now owned by Mattel. An 18-inch plastic doll, which couldn’t cost more than a buck to manufacture, sells for $100 because of the marketing stories woven around it.  And the customers flock to it.

Parents, stretched by mortgage payments and orthodontist bills, won’t cough up that kind of money. Mattel solves this third party problem by marketing the dolls to grandparents, who will pay almost anything to please their grandkids. My parents gave my girls Nelly (Irish immigrant) and Samantha (wealthy family employing Nelly), at ages 6 and 8. My girls loved them for about 5 years, then as they approached teen age, gave them away to younger friends.

My parents loved to see my daughters play with their dolls. They especially enjoyed taking them to the American Girl café, where the people tables also contain doll tables, and the girls can get their dolls’ hair done in the salon. And the accessories! The $85 foosball table is cheap compared to the $150 bowling alley or the $215 radio-controlled car. (The tie-dye T-shirt set only costs $25. If only it came with a Grateful Dead CD. But that’s so 20th century. Sigh.)  

More than just the fun, the dolls tap into the grandparents’ dreams for their girls. They think the dolls encourage the granddaughters to learn about American history, and to emulate strong female characters like Addy, who with her mother escaped slavery and ran north to freedom on the Underground Railroad. If I live long enough to have a granddaughter, you can bet your ass I’ll be giving her Luciana the astronaut, $48 flight suit and all. Though I may have to draw the line at the $785 space habitat.

You see? They’ve managed to snag even a cynical bastard like me, for a granddaughter I don’t even have. I haven’t yet figured out how to generalize this solution to the third party problem, and it may be a non-emulatable unicorn. But think very carefully about the relationship between the check-writers and the users when designing your project.  

Dropping #2:

I slammed today’s Skype a couple of months ago, arguing that Microsoft fails to understand its utilitarian role in its users’ lives, burdening it with counterproductive bumpf while ignoring important aspects of its most basic functionality. Lately I’ve been forced to use it for conference calls, and I find its animated emoticons extremely annoying. For example, when I select a new person for a contact, Skype displays an emoticon inviting me to  “Say hi with a wave” (Figure 1). The static display below does not convey the annoyance of that inane creature blinking its eyes, waving its hands, and  moving its mouth – constantly, forever, as long as you have it on the screen. (I won’t inflict that on you, dear reader. You’re welcome.)  It’s like a five-year-old rushing home from kindergarten waving a finger painting – “Mommy, look what I did! Can I have a cookie?” Your mother might care, because you did it and she loves you, and then again she might not, but I guarantee no one else does (except maybe your grandparents, who might reward you with more American Girl Doll accessories, see Dropping 1 above).

Figure 1
Emoticon from Skype
This static view does not do justice to the annoying animation

And when I’m on a Skype call, a throbbing heart in the lower right of my screen demands my attention, offering more emoticons for me to add to the conversation. In 2020? Seriously? It’s not just annoying, it’s potentially dangerous. Sending a throbbing heart to the wrong person at the wrong time could get me fired.

Motion attracts a user’s attention. It’s used to signal conditions that require immediate action. Violating this convention is crying “Wolf!”, lowering the signal-to-noise ratio of the universe.  Whoever is in charge of Skype needs to re-read Donald Norman’s superb book The Invisible Computer.

Has Microsoft forgotten Clippy? At least you could turn off that vile, Gollum-like creature, but these chirpy things you can’t.  Since Microsoft insists upon emoticons, I will say that their prevalence in Skype makes me feel like this: image-2 . And to its authors, particularly whoever decided it was non-removable, I say image-3

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