Does Your UX Have Good Manners?

In our last piece, we spoke about the importance of a product having a ‘personality’ that guides its development and design, and shows up in the overall product quirks and experience.  This time around, we want to expand on that idea and think about your UX’s politeness.  This doesn’t mean that your UX needs to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because as we’ve discussed before, good design generally disappears into the background–you’re not supposed to notice it, unless you really reflect on it.

welcome screen for a Saas app
‍‍There’s a reason it’s called a welcome screen.

Same goes for your product’s politeness or hospitality: like any good host, your good hosting shouldn’t be fully understood unless it’s compared against a bad host.  So what do good manners even mean in the context of a product’s UX?  The user experience is manifested in everything from the click through to the layout to the arc of the product-user relationship.

server space underground
‍‍No, not this kind of web hosting.

If you’re thinking about your app or site from the perspective of a host, it helps to think about what you appreciate in a good host, as well as what your target users like in a good host.  Are they high-powered executives?  Then they probably want things to be extra-efficient, and don’t appreciate quirks that don’t have an explicit relationship to the bottom line.  And they want to feel like the hospitality they’re receiving is both lux and professional.  

Are they college students?  Then it’s not time to make your hosting stuffy and old.  What you need is the UI/UX equivalent of a beanbag chair and maybe a few toys.  Give them a sense of play.  Whoever your users are, good hospitality for them means making sure they have what they need, but that they don’t feel annoyed, like they’re an imposition, or overly demanding.  They shouldn’t have to ask too much to get the things they need (or in UX terms, they shouldn’t have to search or click too much).

rude and polite keyboard
‍‍Not actual keys, but you get the idea.

Just like product personality, product hospitality is what makes an app or website more inviting, and to be honest, less off-putting (as if it were built exclusively by machines, and not for and by humans).  You’ve got to keep in mind that people want their lives to be easier and more functional, in other words, but they still want to feel in control.  

Some tech theorists jokingly refer to the ‘uncanny valley’ as a design place you want to avoid.  You don’t want the product to reach that uncanny, ambiguous space between human and not-human.  This is in part why, for example, Siri’s voice sounds technical, instead of like a human woman’s.  It helps signal quickly that it is indeed a machine that you’re talking to, and doesn’t veer into that valley.

You don’t want the user to feel like the product is overstepping the human/creation boundary.

Similarly, whether or not you’re designing for a voice recognition or voice app, you want to make sure to test that the boundaries of the product-user relationship aren’t strained.  Recently, FastCo Design ran a piece about ways that principles of Japanese etiquette and hospitality can inform our UX design. One of the principles is known as furumai, or ‘the attitude of the host and guest’.  

Essentially, it means that a good host knows when to use formal interactions, versus casual ones, and how to toggle between the two.  Think about how you might sign off an email to your boss versus your mother–a simple exercise, but a pared-down version of what this principle looks like in practice. 

woman in suit vs woman in casual jeans and shirt
‍‍Clothes are another way people manifest furumai, though for your UX purposes you can think about this as visual design.
siri being asked what she is wearing
Siri understands good furumai.

FastCompany offered the example also of a user who was trying out the navigation app Waze for the first time.  Just a few uses in, the app suddenly asked her if she was going home, and the user was scared off for a while.  You need to think about the relationship arc you’re building with your user, and be careful not to reveal how much data you really do have immediately.  It’s a good way to keep those user-product boundaries distinct and also build a stronger, long-term relationship with that user.  Save some features or add-ons for later down the road.

‍Perhaps an inappropriate question for an app you’ve only known for a few days.

Another hospitality principle FastCo writes about is ‘understatement’.  This one is best understood through a real-life example.  What happens when a host is overbearing and fusses over you at every moment?  You feel uncomfortable, and most of all, unwelcome.  Part of good hosting is slowly transitioning into the appropriate balance of the guest’s independence and freedom and tending to their needs, since they are new to the environment.  

How does this translate in a UX context?  For one thing, it means you don’t want too many guiding buttons or instructions.  Your user should feel comfortable using your app or site largely using their intuition.  They should feel supported by the overall interface and design, but if you need a manual to use your product, it’s likely not good UX.

Hospitality and personality are the aspects of UX that it’s particularly great to have a consultant’s eye on–they can’t be fully understood or learned from manuals.  Just like someone who’s been in the hotel business for years might know a little bit more about what guests need, UX consultants tend to know more in advance what digital users need.  They can help you get at the intangible and overall picture of what will make your UX polite, elegant, and above all functional

About the author:

Janani B.

Janani has a Master's in Design Thinking and writes frequently about UX, design, psychology, and other topics.