A balance of predicability and surprise

I wake up in the morning later than I want to, head to the kitchen and make coffee – it's a simple task I undertake every morning. The technicalities of this process are complex and reliant on multiple parties like power, transformers, water, having purchased coffee or filters. You'd assume all I want in this experience of making coffee is predicability.

Predictability is foundational to good user experiences

To make a product feel simple and reliable every time a user undertakes a task they should see the same result. Predictability allows a user to understand where they are in the product with a feeling of control over it.

When a product is unpredictable it's equivalent to the worst morning. Spluttering water, a tripped power breaker or running out of coffee, if this happened regularly I would be constantly on edge every morning wondering what was going to go wrong.

If your product behaves like this with features or buttons unexpectedly moving around. You're leaving users without a sense of ownership and a feeling that maybe they just didn't understand your product in the first place.

Building on the foundation of predicability

Predicability however is just a foundation to a user experience. If my morning of making coffee is perfectly predictable then at best it's okay, I make my coffee and it's exactly as I expected. The bad frustrates and the good doesn't impress. For a great morning I need the balance of surprise. This morning I found my wife had bought me a new coffee to try, it was the perfect balance of surprise, exceeding my expectations.

“Design doesn’t need to be delightful for it to work, but that’s like saying food doesn’t need to be tasty to keep us alive” — Frank Chimero

So how do we build on this foundation we've built?

Anticipate and over deliver

Anticipating your users needs should be a prerequisite but over delivering on them is a great surprise. For example 1Password when you try and fill a login without a url on a page we will ask you if you want to add that url to the login item saving you editing it. In iOS Apple offers to copy and delete a screenshot and if you have a url on the clipboard it offers to paste and go. This is anticipating the users next step and offering to jump to exactly what they need.

Reward progress, discovery and effort

When onboarding onto new features or at the end of a complex configuration you can reward with delight. For example when you setup a new email campaign once you send you get the iconic mailchimp highfive. This is the perfect time to reward the end of a journey. It might also be appropriate to use this similar approach to entice users into discovery.

Customise the experience

You can customise an experience to have it enhance an experience and not distract. Saying Good morning, Hello Mandy or simply by a more conversational tone at the beginning or end of a journey. Avoid doing this in places that the user is trying to accomplish something or generally in being overly cute.

Overall a little goes a long way. How are you using predictability and surprise, I'd love to know. You can tweet me @mattdavey.