On User Conditioning and OS X Lion

It’s time for another look at two of my favorite tech industry companies and their respective approaches to a user-centered design problem: how to get something adopted by millions of people who have existing expectations for “how things work”?

In the left corner we have Google, search giant and recent social network-cum-everything company. In the right corner we have Apple, widely acclaimed leader of industrial and user interface design, purveyor of things with few buttons.

Both companies have a history of tackling the aforementioned problem, which in a nutshell revolves around user conditioning: the act and process of getting users to behave according to patterns of your choosing, optionally changing any existing behavioral patterns they may have. Note the sternness of this: it most definitely goes beyond user education, in that it rarely sets the goal of the user being more well-informed, and focuses instead on getting the user to be better off—although “better” is defined by those doing the conditioning and may not, in fact, mean better off to the user.

However, our two tech companies are not in the business of alienating as many people as possible, hence their approaches to user conditioning both have the goal of delivering a better long-term experience for the user. Note that their respective beliefs in what a better user experience is may still differ.

With the just-released new Mac operating system, OS X Lion, Apple has reversed the direction of scrolling content within windows to match how we interact with content on touchscreen devices. In essence, where pre-Lion we would scroll the viewport around the content—scrolling down moves the content up—now in Lion and on iOS alike we scroll the content itself whilst the viewport stays put: scrolling down simply moves the content down.

On Twitter, much of the buzz around Lion has revolved around this switch. People are used to their scrolling behaviors; after all, they’ve used them in one and only one way since the 80’s—or whenever they started using computers. It’s understandable that this complete reversal of (mental and physical) muscle memory doesn’t appeal to everyone. But although Apple have helpfully provided a toggle in the System Preferences that allows you to return scrolling direction to pre-Lion days, it’s unlikely they will ever reverse their stance on this matter. To them, there is no question as to which way is the “truly right” way: scrolling should scroll the content, just like how we interact with objects in the real world.

Now recently, I’ve been having repeated arguments over a certain user conditioning that Google has employed in their Google Calendar web application. Frequent and heavy GCal users no doubt see this as a non-issue, perhaps even love it especially, but every time I use it I feel friction and resistence to the conditioning I experience. I’m referring to doing a single click inside the calendar view—day, week or month, it’s all the same.

In Google Calendar, a single click anywhere inside this view—which occupies about 80% of the entire page—creates a new popup dialog that asks you if you want to create a new event at the time or date you clicked. Mind you: this is a click just on white, empty space. What Google are saying to you, the user, is this: every single pixel within a day’s visual area is a button representing an “Add new event” control.

The age-old convention of controls being represented by buttons—however they’re implemented and styled—is being spat in the face. In Google parlance, a button control is whatever they think is most fitting for whatever interface they happen to be designing.

Whilst I personally consider this to be a highly questionable design practice to live my professional life by, I think I have a certain appreciation for it. I believe, but have no evidence whatsoever to back this up, that the designers at Google made this decision to optimize and strongly encourage the process of making new events in a calendar. This is an easily defensible decision with which I won’t argue (beyond what I’ve said so far). No doubt they had some numbers indicating that people made more events this way.

If this is indeed the reasoning Google’s designers used, then the user conditioning comes into play in simply making it impossible for you to change the interaction model of Google Calendar to work any other way. It’s very much an “our way or the highway” approach, so you better get used to it.

This is actually perfectly fine. Sometimes we are better off trying to encourage (mostly) everyone to use one and the same method of interacting with our products, rather than trying to cater to the wildly varying expectations and desires that people have. Simplicity, in the long run, has a tendency to overcome many such challenges.

But I think there is more legitimacy to Apple’s conditioning, if for no other reason than that they’ve done this many times before, and in almost every case they have set the standard that would later be adopted by the rest of the industry. Think about it: Apple conditioned us to forget about terminals and command-line interaces. Apple conditioned us to forget about floppy disks. Apple conditioned us to forget about parallel ports and adopt USB. And now Apple is conditioning us to rethink the way we scroll our content, but also, the need for disc drives and physical media.

All of their acts of conditioning have helped Apple’s bottom line in some way, but they have also been made with a more long-term vision in mind. Command-line interfaces are not for all but very few of us. Floppy disks had outlived their usefulness; same for parallel ports. Physical media are slowly dying off thanks to more efficient and less environmentally-unfriendly online distribution. In a nutshell, the tech industry has benefited at large from the things Apple conditioned us for.

But user conditioning is not a goal to set too often; resistence and friction breed unhappiness. That said, sometimes it can be employed for very good reasons—as long as you consider the long-term effects of your decisions.

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