Empathetic Versus Manipulative Applications

Frank Zinghini

Founder & CEO

“I’m studying to be an application developer. What courses should I take?” When I’m asked this question, I always recommend, in addition to the obvious technical courses, classes in psychology and theater. Why? Psychology and theater – when done correctly – both require empathy: with the patient, the character, the actor, and/or the audience. The goal – again, when done correctly – is to empathize, encourage, and enable, rather than manipulate, discourage, and disable.This empathy is crucial to application development.

The number of applications on the market has exploded; competition is fierce. Users searching for the right application will download and test an app and decide, in a matter of minutes, if they want to keep working with it. They will know right away if you understand and empathize with their situation, and that your application will make it easy for them to perform their task, or if you think you are smarter than they are and you want them to do it your way. They will either enjoy using it and want to use it as much as possible, or will use it only if they are forced to by some corporate dictate.

We have all experienced the more manipulative applications, even though we may not realize what they are doing and why. They seem convoluted and are always frustrating, because they lead us down a path that makes sense to them, but not to us: usually because inconsiderate developers found it more important that the application model their internal business processes than our actual needs as users. Actions that should take two clicks take five; desired and often-used actions are hidden in too-complex nested menus; and the words that are used are not the ones we would use to describe or find something.

As the cloud has become the standard, users have come to expect applications that are useful right out of the gate, without needing to resort to training or manuals. They’re used to websites and e-commerce pages that make the next step obvious – what developers are coming to call a “consumer-level experience.”

Not only are usability expectations and standards rising, but the friendliness and tone of applications are improving as well. Users expect a more collaborative feel from their applications. For example, developers are finally starting to find more friendly alternatives to the “SUBMIT” button.

Empathy versus manipulation

When viewed in terms of empathy versus manipulation, I believe applications fall into three categories. There are those that:

  1. Force you into doing things their way for their own reasons
  2. Give you endless flexibility, which is another form of tyranny
  3. Guide you into doing constructive things via a helpful process

Obviously, I favor #3. The “process” part is important; it embraces the idea of constraints. All good processes include constraints. Too many developers proudly create tools that “let the user do whatever they want” (the dreaded “Swiss Army Knife of whatever” syndrome), instead of understanding that the poor user just needs to achieve a specific goal. Constraints don’t stifle creativity, they release it. A rambling poetry jam may seem like art, but it takes real creativity to craft an elegant haiku. Recognizing the constraints that bind your users, feeling their pain and giving them tools that make their lives easier and free their own creativity, are the real-world considerations that must be accommodated in order for an application to be successful.

A well-thought-out, empathetic application development process can become the sole reason for an application’s existence and success. Here’s an example: a new mother or father can easily take pictures of their new baby, at any time, with their ever-handy smartphone. Eventually their photo library will overflow with random pictures they might never return to. But imagine an app that reminds them to take a picture whenever the baby reaches a certain milestone. “Johnny is 4 months old today, you’ll want to take a picture of his first tooth,” or “Happy Halloween! Take a photo of Johnny in his costume!” These milestone shots can then become part of a digital album that is more than just a bunch of pictures; it’s a keepsake and a story that can be shared with friends and family. By understanding what the parents really want, the app transforms the phone from a simple camera into an active collaborator in capturing memories.

Empathy is always the difference between a so-so application and a great application. Those using the application might not even consciously recognize the subtleties that make it run more smoothly for them, but it will just “feel right.” Their desires, requirements, and goals will be accommodated in a way that makes sense to them. The application literally becomes transparent; it is the straightforward means to achievement.

For more information on creating an application users will enjoy, please download a guide for CEOs about creating great software from Applied Visions today.

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