Permissive UX design

Some months ago, at Women in Tech Nottingham (WiT Notts for short), I prompted our attendees to have a paper snowball fight. Why you might ask, were we facilitating an exercise in which people hurtled scrunched up balls of paper at each other? Because it provided an opportunity for our attendees to meet and chat. As soon as snowballs were picked up and their owners found, the volume of conversation in the room rose way beyond that of previous events. My learning from this: getting people to throw things at each other’s faces is an instant way to get them talking.

To give a little background to this scene, it came about from us holding a Retrospective during a previous WiT Notts event. When WiT Notts was founded, we had a bill of two speakers. Partly because this allowed double the opportunity to showcase brilliant female and gender minority speakers but also because it is the model of many tech meetups.

It is hugely important to us, as organisers of the event, that it isn’t a one-way street. In order to create and maintain an inclusive event, we need to listen to our attendees to ensure it works for them. We found out that they wanted more opportunity to get to know each other and the time before and during the talks wasn’t long enough to do this. It was also apparent that, understandably, some attendees were not self-confident when it came to speaking to people they didn’t know.

One of our aims has long been to help build a community of like-minded people who support and promote women and gender minorities in tech. From the Retrospective feedback, we reassessed our format and switched to a single talk followed by a facilitated session. Now, we regularly host a light-hearted networking session, such as the paper snowball fight, people bingo, guided discussions and hands-on workshops. Crayons have also featured; they were surprisingly popular.

Last year we hosted our first lightning talk session which was one of my favourite WiT Notts events. We gave our attendees permission to try something new, to share something about themselves and to step outside their comfort zones. We’re now seeing the rewards of evolving WiT Notts. We’ve seen relationships form, new people welcomed and brought into conversations with our regulars and individuals’ confidences grow.

Which has led me to consider, why has this been successful? Aside from making an event which is a safe space, I think comes down to permission. By allowing people to throw paper snowballs, we gave them the go-ahead to speak to each other. They were authorised to talk to a stranger, more than that, it was encouraged (but not mandatory).

We all need permission throughout our day-to-day lives. Polite society wouldn’t function without it. We wait (hopefully patiently) for our coffee order to be taken, hold back until the bus driver waves us on, wait for a pause in conversation to allow us to speak. Imagine if we didn’t have this, we’d all be a bunch of degenerates. We require the consent of others, and ourselves, to help us move through life.

Online permissions

What about online: do we consider and build permission into our digital products and services? I don’t mean native app permissions. These have their place; when well-designed they help us move through an onboarding experience, and when badly implemented make us mistrustful of the product’s intentions – why, shopping list app, do you need access to my contacts?

No, I’m thinking broader than this. We don’t step into a coffee shop and state our order without being asked, that would be rude. However, I believe, we expect people using our digital products to be authoritative when interacting with our designs. We often treat our products as a one-way interaction. The person using it is in control of the direction they take through it. They act with full autonomy. In theory, this works. We want our designs to be so intuitive that people can just use them.

What if it doesn’t work though? What if people lack the confidence and understanding of what they’re expected to do? If we change the way we design to be more aligned with our real, non-digital lives, what impact would that have? Rather than assuming that people want autonomy, what if we assumed, in some cases, they don’t?

Confidence and digital exclusion

For a number of reasons, many people struggle with digital products and online services. A lack of confidence is one factor. In the UK there are 11.3 million adults who are classed as not fully digitally skilled. These people range from never having been online to having the means to go online but neither the inclination, confidence, or skills.

As digital professionals, we’re native users of the web. Not only do we know how things work because we understand the design patterns behind them; we’re confident navigators. When things don’t make sense to us, we sigh, roll our eyes and send screenshots of poor design to our friends and colleagues (or is that just me?). We blame ill-designed systems because we know that it is the system at fault, not ourselves.

This is where we’re at, but others lack confidence. When an online service doesn’t work as they expect it to, it is often themselves they blame. They’re just no good with computers.” In the past year conducting user research, I’ve met many of these people. As Donald Norman writes in his seminal book, The Design of Everyday Things: The vicious cycle starts: if you fail at something, you think it is your fault. Therefore you think you can’t do that task. As a result, next time you have to do the task, you believe you can’t, so you don’t even try. The result is that you can’t, just as you thought.”

If we start to picture the people using our products and services going through this thought process, how much more important is it to work guidance into our designs? By adopting a permissive attitude, can we start inviting people to interact online in ways suited to their confidence levels? Rather than expecting them to have a clear goal that they’re trying to achieve, what if we reframe it as a need?

Permissive UX

From permission grows empowerment. Perhaps with some experimentation, screen design can better support this. What if screens are not the answer? We’re starting to see a rise in adoption of voice assistants in people’s homes. Currently, this is technology that we demand things of, it’s subservient. But what if it was genuinely more conversational? What if it catered to people who lack confidence in traditional online interactions?

Can we instead start crafting experiences that better mimic our day-to-day lives? A system that encourages conversation instead of instruction. A system wherein people don’t have to have a specific intention to command but can afford to be lost. Where they don’t need a goal, they can simply state their need and that need is met.

We’re still in this emerging world of voice technology, machine learning and non-screen UI. I am by no means saying that this will be the answer; we need to go through many more design and research cycles to see if this is even the right direction. In the meantime, let’s think about how to give people the freedom, direction, guidance and permission to interact with our products and services in a way that is suited to them. Let’s allow them to be lost and help them to be found again.