Romancing the User

dConstruct 2010 was above and beyond expectations, and it was, as always, pleasant putting real-world faces and mannerisms to Twitter streams. Others will do much better play-by-plays than I could hope for (the talks will be podcast, and I’ll be sure to curate my favorites then). For now, a couple of the highlights that stuck with me:

Confidently opening the day, Marty Neumeier spoke about making products not just good, but different. Really, different. Good points throughout, but a single side-remark, regarding a long forgotten coffee product experiment, an abysmal failure, stuck with me (here paraphrased from memory).

I suppose it’s some sort of coffee you store in your fridge and then heat in a cup in the microwave. Horrible idea. Miserable failure. Where’s the romance in that?

Romance. It’s amazing how the right word can describe an already known set of ideas in such a way that they become clearer. To me, romance is one of the things ho-hum run-of-the-mill products most commonly oversee.

Ridiculous as it may sound, I only just started drinking coffee in the last half year, so perhaps the romance of the coffee brewing process still carries more weight with me than with hardcore caffeine junkies, but I think most people, even non-coffee drinkers (and even Nescafé addicts), know exactly what Neumeier means by that.

Coffee brewing happens to come with romance built into the ritual of preparing the coffee (doubly so if you, like me, are a french press user), but romance isn’t restricted to stuff that smells nice or beans supported by millions of dollars of marketing narrative on their packages.

Mystery, playfulness, trust, courtship and sexuality are all a part of romance.

To me, the way that dock icons bounce eagerly to get my attention. That’s a little bit of romance; it breathes a little bit of life and playfulness into what is an otherwise entirely boring event; a file has finished downloading, or an application needs attention. Had the animation not been given just the right ease-in and -out curves, it would have been inanimate. Boring.

Another, recently much talked about, flourish Apple got right many years ago, is the sleep indicator on their laptops. As if the laptop is at ease. A lover, sleeping soundly in your presence.

The unlocking mechanism on the iPad, perfectly executed, is perhaps closer to the kind of ‘ritual’ brewing coffee requires (computer doing what they can to eschew rituals, being as they are often easily automated). I only set a security code on my iOS devices when I travel, specifically because punching in a code ruins the ritual of bringing my iPad or iPhone to life.

Though it’s been much maligned by some, as being either too unresponsive, or simply too simulationist, I think critics – the same ones bothered with Pages’ leather toolbars – much underestimate the romance of iBooks’ page-flipping animation. Its novelty, while powerful, soon wears off, but I hold that even after that, iBooks sustains a ‘bookness’, which makes it a warmer, kinder experience than that of the Kindle app.

My analytical self, my inner optimizer and minimalist (two of my strongest inhabitants I might add) would have ended up with a design akin to the Kindle app, no doubt. Something to fit the steel and glass look of the iPad. But in my heart, I would have wanted to end much closer to iBooks or Pages, something to complement your journey on the Orient Express, circa the late 1800s. Something with a little romance in it.

Apple isn’t the only company capable of endowing their products with romantic flourishes of course, but they are by far the most consistent (and I would argue, best) in the computer industry. Outside, companies such as Starbucks (obviously), Audi or Mercedes, Kitchen Aid, Dyson (to some odd extent) and others, do equally fantastic jobs at engaging their customers with their products not merely in a functional manner, but in a humane and romantic one.

There’s a fine line between touches that bring that little extra magic into the equation, and overcompensation. I’ve gone too far myself a few times, and I inevitably regret it. It’s what happens when you’ve got some snazzy framework at your fingers and everything starts to look like a nail (luckily I don’t think Apple goes entirely free of a little overindulgence from time to time, which I’ll gladly use as a crutch).

I guess my point, or rather Marty Neumeier’s point, is to remember that yes, it needs to be good, and different to make it out in the great wide world, but whatever you’re building, you’re building for people; and people need a little romance.