Skip to main content

Are You a Design Illusionist?

As business analysts, we are often in the fray of designing.

Whether it’s a user interface, report or data fed from one system to another; business analysts create interfaces with human beings and systems. Our design choices impact users and other systems in a very real way. This power can go unnoticed even in our own minds.

Have business analysts become illusionists and pickpockets? Both these skill sets require some of the same sleights of hand. The illusionist uses the blind spots and limits of human vision to fool us. If you haven’t had an opportunity to watch the show called “Brain Games” – give it a whirl. It does an excellent job of explaining how an illusionist can fool our sight and point of view. For the pickpocket, it’s the distraction of a conversation, a tap, or a bump to set your mind off in the opposite direction of where you should be focusing while a sleight of hand takes your wallet.

Are we as business analysts playing a role of illusionist and pickpocket when designing our interfaces? Let’s look at interfaces (such as screens and reports) in a broader sense. An interface in my mind is the presentation or “stage” an illusionist would use.

We all believe we have choices and freedom. Everyone in the western world most firmly believes they have great freedom of choice in being able to do whatever is desirable, affordable and of course legal. You can go just anywhere and do just about anything. But when confronted with a system, website or application with a menu of choices, we fail to see how we are hijacked.

We rarely ask the questions:

  1. What is NOT in the interface? Or why are these my only choices?
  2. What is the purpose or goal of this interface? What is it used for?
  3. Why are these options higher or lower on the interface? More visible or less visible as other choices?
  4. Are these choice empowering me or just distracting me from doing what I need to accomplish?

If you have every used a search engine like Google or an application like Yelp, you get a sense choices are made for you and only certain things are being presented for your attention. I have been told the nearest restaurant or gas station is several miles away – all the while standing right in front of one! I usually chalk it up to “well they must not have gotten into the database yet” but now I’m leaning more to thinking I’m being fooled by the choices I’m presented.

Back in the ancient days at the dawn of computerized civilization – something like 40 years ago for you youngsters – computers were called mainframes. Mammoth monsters that would manage large amounts of data, electricity and generate a lot of heat. They required a forklift to move and had to be water cooled.

In those ancient days of computer myths and data Gods, there was but the humble green screen. To get to all the crap stored in that giant mainframe required you to issue the magic commands. By locating the secret words in the sacred text called “Command Line Reference,” you could instruct the mainframe beast to perform feats of great wonder. In other words, there was a giant three-ring binder with all these commands listed in alphabetical order that you were required to memorize and type correctly. The mainframe didn’t tolerate spelling mistakes, and there was no such thing as auto correct. No Google-like “Is this what you mean?” ever appeared on the screen. Even the help key which was supposed to provide assistance rarely did. This was the world of complete freedom from “the menu.” All the commands were in the book and available and granted they didn’t cover everything you wanted to do, but they did cover a lot of stuff you needed to perform. Yes, you had to memorize a boat load of command line syntax because the mysterious book appeared and disappeared as it desired, but you never felt limited rather you just felt a need to search for the right command.

Enter the age of the personal computer. For simplicity, the command line went away. The mouse was born. There was nothing more entertaining than watching grown men in a room holding the mouse with both hands tightly but gently trying desperately to get that arrow moving in the right direction on the screen. “This mouse thing will never catch on” they grumbled. Suddenly the command line was gone, and menus or buttons presented to us. These were your options. Your only available commands. It didn’t take long before I missed my giant 3-ring binder of commands that gave me all the power.

Over time we became to believe that only the commands we could see were the ones of importance. We would become less and less frustrated at not seeing the things we needed. We are restrained by choices of actions presented. Our perception came to be that if it wasn’t presented, it wasn’t available.

So let’s take this into the modern smartphone age. The other night friends and I were out at a restaurant having a great conversation. The restaurant was closing because it wasn’t that busy and the owner wanted to call it a night. We asked each other the question “let’s continue this conversation – where should we go?”. We all pulled out our smartphones pulling up Google, Yelp, and the other thousand apps on our smartphones looking for a place that was open late. This searching went on for 15-minutes or so. Now I can be a bit impatient with technology and frankly don’t always find it of much help in situations like these. I quit my search letting the others wade their way through the digital data flowing around with smartphones. Then I looked up.

A beautiful park lay right before our eyes across the street, and we didn’t even see it. We believed our only options to find some place were those our smartphones provided. Did those applications tell us about the park? Not one. How about that food truck with the fabulous desserts? Nope. Not a single one. Our illusion of having choices was broken. Sure we got a lot of options, but it was all about the pictures of the menu or comments from other people that distracted us from answering the exact question “Where should we go to keep talking?”. The menu or interface design didn’t answer our actual question at all. It created the illusion of choice by presenting a small subset of options. All said and done the park was bug-free which is a miracle in Minnesota some evenings. Dessert and conversation continued for hours in the street lamp lit park.

As business analysts or designers, it is easy just to limit user choices to a few as possible to send them down a well-defined and perfectly groomed path. But does that answer their question? How many times have you wanted to say “Siri – lead the way to a great evening with my friends!”. The response from Siri is, “I’m sorry I don’t’ understand what you are asking.”

There are a thousand paths to getting or achieving something. No matter how hard you try to make it simple, it just winds up being even more complicated. Or worse the real thing you need is hidden somewhere because someone felt it wasn’t’ important enough to warrant a button. Some of the best interfaces look very simple on the front end and have a rich set of commands just slightly inside of the interface. As a business analyst and designer, we need to give our users or community a rich experience with our application. Are we the illusionist – forcing users down only one path? Our accounting system has several ways in which to generate an invoice. From a customer contact screen, main menu, sidebar and I’m sure more options remain hidden in the accounting interface. As I watched the finance, customer service, and sales people utilize the user interface with the simple task of generating an invoice, I noticed something important.

Not everyone went about taking the same path.

Sales people always went to look at the customer inquiry screen first before generating an invoice. Individuals and their contact information were more important to them, and they would update it before moving on to creating an invoice. Customer service created invoices from the order screens as they were more focused on shipping products. Finance folks just clicked on the main menu option.

Know your users. They each have a story and a way of performing tasks that make sense to them. Think about their “persona” and what they need to accomplish. There is no single path to creating an invoice. Develop a list of capabilities and make sure they are not “hidden” from view. If it all doesn’t fit on a screen, find ways to expand the options for display when requested. Don’t fear including two buttons “Create Invoice” and “Add Invoice” which go to the same screen if it makes more sense to a broader audience of users. It is more about clarity for your users then consistency in terms.

What has a dinner in the park taught me? Smartphones are not as smart as we think they are. Everyone thinks they have choices, but don’t always see the most obvious choice because the choice is not presented in a way the user would understand. Question the choices presented and determine if they are the only choices.

Yes, I still miss my green screen terminal. CMD-1 key forever will mean “useless” help, and a blinking green bar on a black screen will always be a symbol of the endless possibilities to mistype ridiculously long string of text that doesn’t make sense to anyone. And that huge 3-ring binder filled with commands-a-plenty works damn good propping the door open.