Why I hate the substitute spinning instructor, and what the heck that has to do with design

As interaction designers, it’s natural for us to pick apart the failings or successes of every website and electronic device we see and apply that knowledge to our work. But every day, we’re faced with countless products, services, and even people that provide us with positive or negative experiences. Gaining an understanding of what makes each of those non-digital experiences good or bad also exposes patterns and commonalities that we can draw upon when it’s time to design.

Not long ago I found myself growing increasingly annoyed and frustrated with a substitute instructor for my regular spinning class at the gym. To keep myself from leaping off my bicycle and strangling her, I spent the class analyzing what worked so well with my regular instructor’s approach, and what made me so crazy with the substitute’s.

Setting aside the fact that the regular instructor is a Brazilian Adonis and the sub was a perky size 0 cheerleader type, I identified that the substantive distinctions in their styles were tone and frequency of communication. My Adonis is the strong silent type; he speaks only as much as is necessary to guide our action on the bikes, using a tone that conveys respect: You have shown up for class, and are therefore self-motivated, driven, and capable of pushing yourselves to your appropriate limits. He lays out the plan for the training, cranks up the music, and lets us get in the zone. The sub, on the other hand, yammered over the music non-stop throughout the class, reminding us to breathe (gee, thanks!), stressing that we came here for a workout, and regularly demanding that we give her 10% more. Excuse me? I don’t even like you - I’m not giving YOU 10% more of anything!

As luck would have it, back here at the studio, I’m working on a business application that will be used primarily by workers who are relatively new to the job. (Advancement at my client’s company happens quickly, so just as users get good at what they’re doing, they get promoted and no longer have to perform the work that the software supports.) Knowing that the application we’re designing will need to guide users through their work, and keeping in mind my recent experiences at the gym, I made sure to ask users about the qualities they appreciated most in their human mentors. My design partners and I then took care to embody those personality traits in the visual and interaction design of the application. (For a nice list of factors that affect the perceived personality of an application, see Martijn van Welie's blog post Brand behavior in interaction.)

So the next time you find yourself particularly delighted or disgruntled as you move about your daily life, challenge yourself to figure out why — it just might help you hone your design skills.