Zero or one — can we make digital less digital?
A computer knows only two numbers: 0 and 1. That’s where the term digital comes from: those two digits. Down to their core, computers see the world only as true or false. On or off. Black or white.
Yet the real world is of course far from black or white. Reality is shades of grey, and all the colours of the rainbow. Human beings, we don’t work in zeros and ones. Sometimes we do the right thing. Sometimes we do the wrong thing. And what’s right and wrong can change, depending on the context or your perspective. It’s why life is so complicated, but also why it’s so interesting. We make mistakes all the time. And in most cases, we also try to forgive each other. But computers don’t have this ability.
Take an online form, for example. You either filled it in correctly, or you did it wrong. Even if there is a friendly error message, it still means we didn’t do something the way the computer wanted us to do it. If you think about it, it’s shocking how few design patterns are designed around forgiving. All we have right now are the undo and back buttons in some applications.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if digital interfaces were capable of being more forgiving? Of being more flexible? More encouraging, more human? What if an online form would say (either literally or symbolically):
“You’re doing a great job, you’re almost ready. Just one more question to go.”
“I know it’s a pain to fill in all these fields, but I promise you it will be worth it.”
“You know what, you can leave the last field empty. In your case it doesn’t matter much.”
And what if we used a free text field to ask about gender, instead of two radio buttons? What if apart from asking for a telephone number, we also ask how much you like calling?
I was triggered to think about these things when I came across this research paper: Empathy in the Digital Administrative State. The writer describes that with so much administration becoming digital, our unique human feature of forgiving mistakes is disappearing. She argues we should build more empathy into digital processes. I couldn’t agree more.
As designers we already love to talk about empathy. Do research! Understand your user! Know what they are feeling! But when we design forms, we mostly talk about efficiency and effectiveness. How can we get all the information we need from the user? Even today, I had a meeting about designing better forms, from the perspective of collecting better data.
As designers, let’s make it our responsibility to literally put some more empathy in our designs, by making them more forgiving. Let’s try to make digital things less digital.