Need a manual? Trade-offs in UI design

Yesterday I stumbled across this quote from Elon Musk that is at least two years old: “Any product that needs a manual to work is broken.” I’ve only seen it as a quote, without context, but I assume that his intent was that products need to be intuitively easy to use, and that their interface is instantly understandable by the user.

Taking the interpretation one step further: that the product’s user interface include elements that are familiar to the user so that they don’t need instructions on how to use it. I assume Mr Musk was talking about the Tesla: that despite the incredible innovation wrought in the car’s engineering, the interface for owners had to be consistent with what they were already used to driving.

Shifting gears to mobile, recent numbers show that a quarter of all apps are abandoned after only one use.  Could a lack of instant familiarity in the interface be a driver of app abandonment? Users download an app, open it, look for familiar elements, especially navigation, fiddle with those they find,  then decide if they like the app. Having a familiar interface promotes faster onboarding and gets the user to the core of the app sooner.

So if that logic is correct, shouldn’t product managers always stick to the  limited set of touch gestures determined way back when the first iPhone was launched? Why bother introducing new ones that will only hinder discoverability, confuse users, and prevent adoption?

To counter this train of thought, about a year ago, Josh Elman started a discussion lamenting the lack of “gesture innovation” and the lack of new unique gestures in mainstream apps. The discussion ended up being about the tradeoff between a desire to innovate and fearing that users won’t adopt the new gestures. Discoverability is the big challenge. Users may not be willing to invest their time to figure out just how a new app does what they expect it to do, and they give up.

So, as I’m facing such decisions now in designing my app, what to do? Play it safe and use every familiar UI convention I can, or think of new gestures and actions to challenge the user but make the app more interesting to use? Right now, based on the target demographics of my app, I’m leaning towards the former. Your thoughts?


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