Users use, bosses win, and it's better if we treat users like bosses.

Like a boss

Now I don't mean "boss" in the "supervisor" sense. I mean it in the internet meme sense, which traces its roots to The Lonely Island rap as parodied by Saturday Night Live. (It's SNL, so can be slightly NSFW), and in the sense of someone in charge, confident, and getting things done.

I first had this thought while writing about weapon interfaces in scifi. I noticed a lot of them have two different targeting crosshairs. (Called “reticles” in the biz.) One shows where the bad guy is and the other shows where the weapon is currently pointing. The job of the hero is to turn the weapon to the bad guy and pull the trigger. That works for the narrative, showing how he saves the day, but on reflection, it doesn’t make real world sense. If the system knows where the bad guy is, why doesn’t it move the weapon there for the hero and save him the troublesome and error-prone task of aiming? Why can’t he let the computer do what it’s clearly good at, and let him do what he’s good at, which is making the ethics call of whether to fire or not?

Screen cap from Firefly Season 1 Episode 1 "Serenity"

The answer is this interface convention emerged in the late 1970s and 80s, when the notion of computers was still new, and thought of as either evil characters or dumb tools. Most technology then fell under the “dumb tools” category. It's appropriate to call users of tools “users” because that's pretty much what they're doing: Using the tool to accomplish a task.

But it's the 2010s and we don't really have to think that way anymore. Processor speeds are increasing exactly as Moore predicted, technology is largely ubiquitous in the Western world, and software is getting mature enough to presume more of the work while being more intelligent about it. Let me share some examples.

Writing (like a boss)

Early writing technologies, like typewriters, were tools. Word processors separated writing and reviewing from committing to paper. With the addition of spell check features, we had a really smart tool but, when they became automatic, we began to be able to concentrate on the sense of our writing and let the software help with the detail. This was even more so when automatic grammar checking became available. With the addition of templates and mail merges, users went from using writing tools and more about managing the flow of writing.

From pushing a pencil to crafting ideas

Playing music (like a boss)

Similarly technologies ranging from gramophones to record players were all tools to unspool grooves of sound. The advent of CD players and iTunes gave us instant non-linear access and more music in much smaller places, but were still tools for playing. Pandora, and more recently iTunes Genius, are letting music listeners provide the system a few songs they do like, and thereafter manage the flow of music.

From placing discs to enjoying music.

Searching (like a boss)

Card catalogs were an early technology for providing search-like access to the information spread out in space in the stacks of a library. Once information exploded on the internet, Yahoo!, Google, Bing, and its ilk made the task of searching easier, but still similar in concept: a tool for finding something. When Google introduced Google Alerts, users could set up topics of interest and let the information come find them. The Google+ Sparks concept takes that one step further by making it easy to begin conversations around shared topics of interest. Again, searchers went from users of a tool to managing the flow of information around topics of interest.

From flipping cards to managing interests

Designing (like a boss) (for bosses)

So technology is getting smart enough to begin to act as low-level servants for us, letting us manage the flow rather than pressing “carriage return,” loading wax cylinders, or flipping through drawers of cards. How does an interaction designer begin to make use of this? The good news is it’s just a few tweaks to your existing process.

During research you can ask questions of your interviewees to uncover what tedium they face. One question we commonly ask is, “If I could hire an assistant for you who is incredibly fast and efficient, what would you have them help you with for your work?” Note the answer and ask yourself how close software can get to exactly that. Of course you’ll need to understand how these tasks fit into your user's goals, but their answer to the question could be excellent fodder for your design imagination.

During scenario development, you can also pause to ask yourself: What work are we having them do? How can the system do that for them, or help them so that it no longer feels like work? Can we just do it for them, let them know, and provide tools to manage the results? A related pattern we employ at Cooper in many projects is providing “smart defaults” for options, and then letting our personas see and correct the system if those smart defaults are wrong.

But the best news is you’re already doing the most important thing towards treating users like bosses, as a result of reading this article: Think about technology differently. Shift your perspective from an industrial one of making tools and into a modern one of giving your users a promotion and helping them get things done.