When Annoying Software is Great

A quite a commonly agreed measure of goodness of user experience design is that software should get out of the way from what the user wants to achieve. We praise the removal of clutter and friction, admire the software makers that are brave enough to remove features instead of adding them. There is even an ISO standard that tries to define usability via effectiveness (task completion), efficiency (tasks in time) and user satisfaction.

More than 30 years (an eternity!) have passed since the first word processor and email clients, but there are still new ones entering the market iterating further to remove “unnecessary obstacles” and to get out of the way from the user’s intent: to write stuff and send it away. (See: WriteRoom or Sparrow).

Almost every time I ask a stranger about what they like or dislike about Skype software, it goes something like this:

Well, I like how I simply click on my relative’s name and then just click the green button and then she appears on the entire screen and we can just talk for an hour. It is so cool, it feels like being in the same room! Last week I was talking to my grandma, who has been living in Australia for….

See what just happened there? From the second sentence in giving feedback on software, the software dissapeared. What remained was just the human experience, the long distance relationships and stories about people. The holy grail of great software: becoming invisible, transparent for the user.

Software that Wants to Get in Your Way

Now, on this backdrop, it seems that there still is a counter-current of software that does get in the way of the user intentionally. Note that I do not mean just badly designed software here or  some godawful legacy enterprise application built in COBOL and green-on-balck terminals, eating the productivity of whiteish-blue collar insurance clerks for breakfast, lunch and early dinner.

And generally, even technologically modern and well-designed corporate applications get some slack for getting in the way of their users. After all, every organization has the ways of working it wants it’s employees or partners to standardize on and behaviours it wants to bluntly enforce. It you need a certain doublechecking to happen for SOX compliance or your software development process requires every task to be estimated before entering a sprint backlog – it is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to knowingly build a few obstacles, nags and annoyances into your enterprise software to enforce people to do the right thing. You know, a little extra checkbox here or mandatory form field there.

Where it gets interesting if  you look at consumer internet software and mobile apps that contain those obstacles in their user experience. There is no enterprise lock-in after an expensive purchase, there is no hierarchy with top-down pressure to use those apps, there are tons of cheap of free competitors to turn to instead. And still, for some weird reason, users love some apps that distract them on their purest way of doing something. In most cases – probably despite of the nags. But in a few elite winners – for the obstacles.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • (UPDATE) Twitter‘s notorious 140-character limit. From one side it is a limit derived from SMS (160char minus room for @username), but on the other hand there are no such external limits on messages transported over internet. SMS compatibility could have been addressed by other means, such as truncation and thus this global limit on messages was a design choice by Twitter that has influenced their DNA massively.
  • Path, a mobile photo sharing app which artificially limits max number of your contacts to 50. In the rat race between social networks for who gets to grow their users’  connection graphs the fastest, it was an eyebrow-raising move, but their users love them for the purity of sharing pictures with just their closest ones. And the pressure to think twice before accepting someone in.
  • GMail has a few tongue-in-cheek dialogues built in that, if you look from the UX purists’ point of way, get right smack in the way of doing the core thing people come to a mail client for, sending a message:

Call for Discussion

Firstly, I would love if you can think of additional examples and submit them in the comments!

For example, one immense area to think about is advertising inside web apps (not just content sites) and in mobile apps. Slapping a banner with animated penguins in front of the “OK” button user intended to press is bad for the experience. On the other hand, Google’s search users are known to confess that text ads often enhance their experience to find what they’re looking for. What makes advertising part of the experience?

Trying to generalize it seems that while a piece of software that in its entirety gets in a way of the user attempting to achieve their goals can not be considered a good user experience, carefully picking the moments to get in the way of the user on the feature level can actually be a good thing.

How to recognize the those moments? From the few examples above one might say that the motivation is to avoid something negative, to protect the user from acting silly (aka being human) – like confirming every incoming contact request as their “friend” to avoid insulting anyone. And it would be likely that there can be cases of positive motivation too – helping a user to achieve more than they expected.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Realized this could be a Quora question too and added it. So wherever you’d like to chip in.

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  • An iPad game Sword & Sworcery actually asks you to stop playing once in a while.

    P.S. Slavoj Žižek has observed that one of the virtual environments with most freedom – Second Life – ended with most people going … shopping.

    • Hmm.. why do you think S&S does that? To create artificial scarcity?

      • Well, first it is Canadian software:). Second, it is cool. But on a more serious note, to me this discussion is not so much about disruptive user experience or annoying software being great, but it is about the respect towards user.

        In most examples you brought, it is the respect towards the user’s needs, tastes etc, that makes the software great. And when for that respect you need to remind the user of limitations, dangers or whatever, then be it! 

  • Disclaimer: I’m a co-founder at Pipedrive 🙂

    The sales management app Pipedrive.com does some nagging to get you to close more deals. Like displaying a warning next to every deal that has nothing scheduled with it. Or opening a schedule next activity dialog after after you mark the last one done. 
    It might be annoying to some, but it makes you realize that a deal with no planned next activity is a dead deal.