Seamful vs Seamless

Is making life easier actually making life harder? Senior Project Manager Leo explores the pros and cons of seamless digital experiences.

Making the complex simple is a core principle at True. We make difficult tasks as straightforward as possible for users, the proliferation of digital experiences into our personal and professional lives has made this goal even more pronounced. With software, apps and websites integrating with more and more 3rd party solutions, we are constantly striving to achieve ‘as seamless an experience as possible.’

Many of us have seen the benefits the seamless philosophy beings to our digital lives. I recently bought a suite of Amazon Echo Dots, Amazon’s home assistant product.

Via the Amazon app on my smartphone, which had my credit card details and home address selected as default, I shopped with ‘1-Click’ and the Dots were delivered to my pre-selected default home address the next day.

To set up the Dots, I had to download the Alexa app. Logging in with my Amazon account details, I found that the devices bought just the day before were already registered and I was ready for the setup process to begin.

It’s just one example of many seamless digital experiences. Through a combination of data collection and availability, technology and focus on positive user experiences, what could have been a complex process was simplified to make it easy me.

Seamless content curation and its new world problems

One digital sector that has seen huge investment and technological advancement is algorithms that collect data on user behaviours and create personalised experiences based on individual ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’.

A couple of well-known examples are Facebook’s ‘News feed’ and Amazon’s ‘Recommendations’. These systems adjust experiences without explicit user instructions or effort to display information that aligns with user interests, and is therefore more likely to engage their interest.

On the opposite end of the scale, there’s Hater, a dating app that matches users based on their dislikes.

Whilst the benefits of this technology have been well documented, some negative effects are beginning to surface.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the EU referendum in the U.K. brought the term ‘echo chamber’ into public consciousness.

The dictionary definition of echo chamber is:

a room or enclosure with acoustically reflective walls used in broadcasting and recording to produce echoes or similar sound effects.

In a social digital context, it has come to describe the phenomenon where social networks such as Facebook and Twitter filter the information they display based on a user’s personal interests.
 
No information outside of that user’s personal interests is displayed, which can result in a narrow view of events.
 
Echo chambers were one of the reasons cited for the shockwaves caused by the results of the U.S. election and the EU referendum. “How could this happen?! I didn’t know anyone who voted for ‘x’ was a common refrain.

So much effort is being focused on removing barriers and collating and displaying the information that users are interested in. But where’s the incentive to look at alternative views or sources of information?

Another recent example of this problem is ‘fake news’. - a story or comment with the look and feel of a credible news story, spread via social media, but with no basis or grounding in fact.

‘Fake news’ articles have been curated by social network algorithms and served to users (if they align with their interests and other updates) as valid news articles to consume, comment on and share with others.

Facebook preaches its impartiality on the variety of information it displays to its communities. Users could turn away from the network if they perceive it to be biased. However, this newsroom report shows that Fabebook is taking the proliferation of fake news seriously.

What is Seamful design?

This is where the concept of ‘Seamful design’ could have its benefits. Seamful design accepts that technology has limits, and instead of disguising these limits to the user, ‘pulls back the curtain’ to give the user greater understanding of how systems works. A research paper which goes into Seamful design in more detail can be found here.
 
Trust is a hugely valuable commodity when working with users. How data is collated, stored and used is ever more important to users, and increasingly gets top billing in news cycles (both real and fake) with serious financial consequences to organisations.

Users are aware that their data is being collected to market products and services, and the 2011 Cookie Law ensures we have an on-going visual reminder of that. Organisations should think about highlighting how processes work, allowing users to understand what they are seeing and build greater trust that what they are seeing really can be believed.

One of the potential UX solutions Facebook put in place to combat Fake News was a visual indicator that a story’s facts have been disputed. A pop up appears if a user tries to share the story, highlighting that its accuracy is in question. Another solution is to display the original source of the news item, so users can dig deeper to understand whether the story originates from a trusted source.

Maybe if sharing a news story took a little more effort, fake information wouldn’t disseminate around personal networks and Facebook as a whole nearly as far, or as quickly.

By allowing the process of sharing content, from the initial discovery to consumption to proliferation to be ‘seamless’, it’s almost too easy for users to simply ‘do.’ There’s no imperative to engage in critical analysis and understand the activity they are completing in real time.

These solutions are examples of seamful design. It means highlighting an issue or potential issue in the process so the user can properly consider the information presented to them.

As experience creators, we should be mindful that showing the seams in our systems and processes, is not always a negative. In certain scenarios, our systems should make it a little harder for users to achieve their objective or ‘show the working’ of behind the scenes processes. Users can then make conscious decisions on their next steps, or at least understand how the system has arrived at a conclusion.

Systems can demonstrate how they are catering to users, and allow them to make judgements on the best course of action. The challenge is understanding when and where these points are, and the most appropriate way to inform and engage the user, so they aren’t completely removed from an easy to use experience.

If users can trust that the systems they are interacting with aren’t attempting to hoodwink or mislead them, and that they have ‘control’ over their experience, it can only strengthen a brand’s bond with its customers.

In a marketplace where everyone is trying to make things easier for their users, maybe the key to gaining a competitive edge could be making things a little bit harder instead. 

To find out more about how True can help simplify digital for your organisation please get in touch.