Can we improve products by making them less efficient?

I can’t even remember when I last visited an art exhibition, so I was wondering if I can still enjoy abstract paintings and sculptures. It’s easy to see abstract art as its material presence (usually cheap materials) when you can’t assign meaning to it. So I went to an art museum today: the Hamburger Bahnhof.

It’s here in Berlin, a big former railway station from where the trains to Hamburg used to depart. It has a monumental entrance. And there’s a lot of abstract art on display.

Hamburger Bahnhof around 1850. Today there’s a huge departure hall behind the main building, now used for exhibitions

I’d been looking forward to the visit after having to postpone going there a few times. It was a hot day today, which made the trip on the S-Bahn feel long, so I treated myself with a cold drink at a cafe on the way there. I liked being a tourist in my hometown.

When I entered the first exhibition room, one of many big spaces, this triptych caught my attention:

Three blinds covering three windows

So yeah, for a second, I thought the blinds were part of the exhibition of wall-mounted sculptures. I created some more readymades:

A doorway and two exit signs
A frame in a dark area
Door locks and emergency buttons on the wall
The asphalt floor
A steel cube frame in the corner of a room
Soll Lewitt—OPEN CUBE/CORNER PIECE, 1965. Sorry Soll, I’m an idiot.

Confusion aside, I found the work at the museum amazing. Especially Jack Whitten’s work took me to another world. It made me appreciate abstract art in a whole new way. It would take a whole post to explain that part and this post is (going to be) about design.

The incident above made me realize that I’m often (sidenote: Actually, one of my favorite things of being an amateur photographer is that when I’m underway and not distracted, I often see things that could be framed nicely. Besides, the museum’s architecture isn’t an accident and I’m only 95% certain the dark picture above isn’t part of an unlit sculpture. ) not aware of the beauty of my environment and that my activities preceding the visit and the context of the exhibition put me in a different state of mind:

  • Waiting in line for a ticket
  • Choosing one of the ticket options. They’re not very expensive, but not cheap either, making me wonder how much of the price goes to the costs of building maintenance and staff.
  • Hoping Apple pay will work (it did)
  • Showing the ticket to the grumpy doorkeeper (who asked my question whether I should go left or right first with ‘no’)
  • Walking through the big halls
  • Seeing other visitors (serious people watching the art in silence)
  • Reading information about the exhibition

I believe all those things preceding the visit opened my mind to art, because I’d been anticipating seeing something special. I believe that if I’d been on a waiting list for the one of the exhibitions, it would even have been better. (sidenote: Nothing against art: I’m convinced some artists are better at creating work that evokes or conveys emotion than others, that some curators are better than others in recognizing that and that there’s a largely functional selection system in place that make the art on display at places like the Hamburger Bahnhof of very high quality. )

What that means for design

When designing a digital product to replace an offline experience, a common approach is:

  1. Analyze current user journey
  2. Redesign the user journey by getting rid of the existing issues
  3. Design the user interface based on that new user journey

In step 2 we usually remove all inefficiencies. Usually those cost time and money and often they’re frustrating. Removing them makes the product more competitive. Also, we usually maximize the amount of information captured while reducing the amount of information presented to the user to bare necessities.

In that approach there’s the risk that key parts of the experience get lost in the process. And although I’m yet to find an online art viewing experience that comes even near visiting an exhibition, the problem is not limited to that.

I believe all important organized events have essential inefficiencies:

  • Vacation; inefficient relaxation exercise
  • Wedding; inefficient marital status update
  • Funeral; you get the point

Social interactions aren’t just an exchange of explicit information. Bonding between people is key for our wellbeing. We need to build rapport for that. For millennia, that meant things like mirroring tiny body movements within a fraction of a second, breathing at the same rate and doing things like hugging. So a video call can’t replace (sidenote: That’s Douglass Rushkoff’s pet peeve on the Team Human podcast, which has taught me to look at human experience in a new way. ) hanging out with friends. Text messaging may not be a good substitute for visiting a therapist either. Sending an email is not always the best way to announce something.

In many online services, removing people from the their offline equivalent is a huge cost reduction. But at what costs to the user experience?

Sometimes just waiting for a thing makes it more exciting. I remember people talking about what the joy of anticipation after bringing film rolls to the photo shop and waiting for the prints to come back. You probably know someone who likes to listen to vinyl records. I’m sure it’s the time you need to physical pick a record and put it on the player that makes listening to vinyl more of an event than doing a quick Spotify search.

Next time I can make choices in where to optimize software performance, I’ll keep that in mind. In some cases, it may not be a problem when something takes a couple of seconds. If it’s important, users may actually appreciate some time to mentally process what happened.

Adding inefficiency to a design

So, not all important events in a digital experience have to be efficient. Of course I’m not saying you should keep your complicated signup flow like it is because signups are important to your organization. In fact, inefficiency doesn’t have to cost users time.

Even if you can’t get a priest to show up and do a ceremony for all situations, sometimes it can be beneficial to add some inefficiency to a UI. Illustrations and decoration can signal something out of the ordinary. For you minimalists: splurging on whitespace is a classic approach to emphasize an element of the design. You’ll find it easy to come up with more of those.

Do you know Freeletics? It’s an app with videos of bodyweight exercises. They organize those into training sets and I paid € 50 per year to do things like pushups and crunches. Very inefficient from my point of view as a user. Very effective too: it’s by far the most expensive app I have, so the icon on my home screen reminds me never to skip a session. A good deal for Freeletics too, as I’ve extended my subscription twice already.

Extensively customizable user interfaces are a often a form of inefficiency that give a products more meaning to users without functional benefit. Oh, the time I spent on organizing my music libraries, code editors and operating systems! That never weighed up to the time I saved making things easy to find and control. But it made me feel in control and caring for my things, enjoying my music more, making it more fun to use my computer.

What other examples do you know of inefficiencies that make digital products better?