Anyone who knows me will tell you that I read – a lot! I also have a habit of reading several unrelated books at once which sometimes gives me different perspectives on things (although it isn’t deliberate). I was recommended to read a usability book called ‘Dont Make Me think’ by Steve Krug and I have to say, it has some very powerful advice about how to make a web page (or any user interface really) in a way that people will find easy to use. I have also been learning to meditate since Christmas and so I have been reading about various related things such as Samsara.

Samsara is explained as the continuous cycle of suffering (aka stress / worry / anxiety) that we experience in our every day lives. It is the niggling feeling that we all have that there is something we aught to be doing, that we need to be significant and that we are inherently vulnerable (which is obviously true as we could just die at any given time – sorry).

I am lucky enough to be pretty intelligent and this was manifest when I was a child; I could read, write and add up when I was five and had a reading age of 14 when I was 9. Because of this, it at least felt like, there was a lot of expectation for me to do well at something. The problem is though, intelligence is just a tool. So, like having the best spanners in the world, you still need to spend the time and make the effort to learn to use them. As I have grown up and drifted from one thing to another this has really stuck with me and when I started to read about the idea of samsara I really identified this unseen (and patently ridiculous) pressure to do something that I am not sure what is.

I think there are a lot of generally experienced situations that equate similarly. From things like anxiety driven habits (if I dont check facebook something might have happened in the last 4 minutes and I’ll be behind on my friends collection of cat photos and the world will end), material desire (if I don’t have that expensive looking car people will think I’m a failure so I will drop out of society and live a life of shame) and OCD like behaviour (if I can’t put exactly £30.00 worth of petrol in my car I am a failure and deserve to be paraded naked through the streets with a giant sign saying “LOSER!”). I would say that all these could be looked at as aspects of samsara.

Now, if you read anything about usability you will quickly learn that people are extremely stupid and can’t read. Steve Krug gives a good analogy of people looking at a website as if it is a billboard on the side of a fast road – users glance around but really only see the most obvious things. Now, people generally aren’t actually completely stupid and often can read. But, they still behave this way so why? One aspect of usability is reducing mental effort; if a user has to work to find something on a page they generally just won’t. They could, but they won’t. This is why conventions like ‘Home’ being labeled ‘Home’, navigation structures and so on work; people know what to do so they don’t have to do any mental work.

Now, lets think for a second about this mental effort. Why is it that this is so painful to people? Imagine the situation, Jim has gone on to a website and he wants to buy a nice new yellow widget. He looks for the “Yellow Widget” button but he can’t see one. He’s pretty sure that the company who’s website this is sells yellow widgets because Google said so but when he looks about he can only see two buttons, one that says “Products” and another that says “Services”. Which is the right one? Products is maybe more likely but what if it’s wrong? If Jim clicks products and there are no yellow widgets then clearly Jim is suffering form some terrible mental deficit. So, just in case he finds out that even though he has a degree in economics he is actually thicker than two short planks he clicks back instead.

Another situation (a semi real one) – Annie has an iPhone app that helps her work out in the gym. She doesn’t really know what she wants to do but it looks like a nice app. But, she goes on and there are nine choices -NINE!!! Annie thinks to herself that there are so many options she couldn’t possibly be able to work out which is the right workout so she closes the app and goes to Burger King instead. A week later Annie sees that there is an update for the app, downloads it and tries it again. This time there are three options for types of workout – she chooses general. Next, there are another three options – she chooses ‘Whole-body, no equipment’. She does the workout and enjoys it.

The moral is that if you design a system that you want people to use, the most effective way to do this is to consider the way people will feel when they are using it. If a site makes people feel bad they will attribute this to your brand. If people can’t decide what to do, they will do nothing, then feel bad and attribute this to your brand. So, think about samsara and how to avoid stirring it up in your interfaces.

But, this is where the Jedi mind control comes in. Once you are aware of this process you can take advantage of it. Generally this is known as “Gamification” but I like Jedi mind control better. Imagine the situation, you log in to LinkedIn. You only have 95% of your profile complete – WHY WHY WHY??! “You need to have a recommendation from someone” it says. So, quickly you fire off a few requests and hoorah you get a recommendation and the world doesn’t end.

Or, you go on to a website that wants you to do something. You give it a go and you get a badge. A BADGE!!! You feel great! You achieved something and the site that gave you the badge is basically amazing. So, you do it a few more times and you get ANOTHER BADGE!!! You are essentially a genius and the universe is complete.

Look around, gamification is everywhere and it works. Facebook uses it, Twitter uses it (ooh, another follower), Stack overflow uses it. The really sad thing is that having realised this stuff I STILL fall for it EVERY time – and so will you. But at least you can make others do it as well, and benefit from a bit of Jedi power 🙂