We live in a time when we operate in parallel in two realities, physical and digital. Being a UX designer means understanding both worlds very well. We create products dedicated to this online sphere, but they are finally used by real people with specific offline habits. Is it a good idea to draw inspiration from the physical world while digital product designing? Let’s dig into it.
I will not write about the real one here, because we all know perfectly well (or at least we think we know) how it works; after all, this is our main place of functioning. As for the digital world – to me, its development accelerated significantly in 2003 with the appearance of Second Life.
As many of us know, the game involves creating your own avatars, which can then take part in the digital economy of this world and buy, develop or rent land. Of course, some might may say it’s just a game. However, the human psyche is built in such a way that someone who gets drawn into this world will strive for their digital self to develop as far as possible, to be admired; the satisfaction of successes achieved here will be comparable to what we experience in the real world. Mark Zuckerberg is certainly aware of this phenomenon and is now creating something very similar – Metaverse. Game designers are equally aware, creating worlds where the user can create and develop their characters and build clubs, on the basis of an entire community of players. Usually, this is where, on a white horse, micropayments come in, allowing for much greater progress in digital development. Electronic Arts earned about 1.5 billion dollars in 2020 on the sale of virtual currency, allowing for much faster development of virtual clubs for its players.
This shows just how much people can be drawn into the development of their virtual self. We are social creatures who by our very nature have the need to be part of a group, to be admired and praised. The digital world is for many people a place where they can continue to meet these needs or compensate for failures in the real world. That is why everything is developing in this direction.
So, we know that we have two worlds – the physical one, where everything happens “analog”, and the digital one, where everything is a set of ones and zeros. We, as UX designers, must not forget that at the moment, apart from these two extremes, many things are happening on the border of these two worlds – virtual and real. Often our task is to make the progressive digitization of processes in the physical world – to use a common buzzword – “seamless”. Those who care about appropriate user experience can (or at least should be able to) draw on knowledge of the needs of users, their possibilities and limitations, and are aware of the possibilities offered by modern technologies. They should strive to make the transition between these worlds almost invisible to the user. Which begs the million-dollar question: how do we do it?
There is no simple answer to this. There are many things to take into account – the activity that we want to support, the users, how deeply ingrained their habits are, whether such a process has a chance to be developed further, or if it will be replaced by other processes. I would also not be myself if I did not say that, during the design process, we will need a lot of data, user interviews and prototype research. Only the processing of all this information will give us a fair chance to make the right decision. However, we certainly won’t make even the smallest design decision without our use cases.
So where can we find examples of these interpenetrating worlds?
Paying for purchases (POS)
Applications such as SoftPOS, which turn the phone into a payment terminal for processing contactless payments, are becoming more and more popular. Even Apple recently announced the introduction of such functionality to iOS. Due to the previously mentioned interpenetrating of worlds, in this type of application you need to consider such things as: The way of entering data – application-style, or perhaps just like in payment terminals? The shape of the keyboard – application or payment terminal type? The role of hardware in the entire payment process – device administration, dealing with data entry by two users in one process.
The topic of transfer forms may not seem so revolutionary today, but let’s remind ourselves that at the beginning of introducing such functionality, designers also wondered whether to create transfer forms from scratch, or simply redraw the transfer form that users already knew from bank branches The creation and development of new forms won the day, perhaps because the whole process had a chance to become something completely new and separate from printed forms.
Buying a car
Recently we notice more and more advertising from car dealers who realize that a key part of the traditional car-buying model is looking around and getting in the car, so what better than to enable users to do so digitally. Business decision-makers in this industry see a completely different future for buying cars, which is why the digital process does not seek to replicate the physical one but to impact it at critical moments of the decision.
Searching for a route (maps, AR)
Here I will also refer to times that can be considered old history. Perhaps some still remember when drivers would stop at the side of the road, walk in front of the car turning a large map to orient themselves, then spread the map on the hood to check where to go next. We now already have completely digital maps, but I can see that this part of the route-finding process is still with us. Let’s look at the functionalities of Google Maps and Apple Maps, where, using augmented reality, I can find the street I should turn into. You have to turn around a few times with the camera on in order to scan the surroundings and get clues. The same is also available in cars such as Mercedes or BMW. Here, too, with the use of cameras in our devices, we superimpose this digital world on the real one, and users find themselves treading the boundaries of both.
Using credit cards (Apple Pay)
Another area where we have a digital representation of the layout of the physical world. We used to carry our credit cards in our wallets. If we wanted to pay with one, we took it out of the wallet and used it in the terminal. Now we open the “wallet” application, “take out” the appropriate card from the slot and bring the phone closer to the terminal. Here we have a complete mapping of the traditional pattern of using a credit card, which we still use to pay in an absolutely real world.
I guess that you already know what this part is all about, and why it’s here. However, for the sake of clarity, I will explain that from the physical world we very well acquainted with what watches look like and how they show the time (I am referring here mainly to watches with hands). Many electronic watches mimic a wheel-shaped display showing a dial with moving hands – the perfect example of mapping the physical world in the digital world.
I humbly admit that this is an unfamiliar area for me. However, as far as I can see, this type of application also draws very strongly from the physical world. Mixers of all kinds, sometimes even pianos – everything we see on the screen is a very close representation of physical devices. These applications are interesting because so far no one (or I have not found it) has created them from scratch in the world of digital applications. The level of complexity and the rules of using such devices in the real world is so complicated that any attempt to transform it into a new world could end in tears.
More and more such examples can be found.
Because at Efigence we often work for the needs of the financial industry, I was able to deal with one of the above-mentioned groups of applications. Based on this experience, I would like to share my observations and conclusions. To give a little more detail, I faced the task of refreshing a mobile application and turning Android devices into mobile payment terminals. Here are the biggest challenges I faced.
Finding a way to redesign the screen to show the user how to bring the card to the device.
A very big problem was that users, and often also sellers, were not sure how to bring the card to the device so that it would be read correctly. After preparing several alternatives, we found a perfect combination of animation and description to guide the user. Our internal research has shown that users instinctively put the card to the screen of the phone (as with classic terminals). Unfortunately, it has to be said that almost no one reads what is written on the screen. Therefore, it was important that the message was short enough, with the maximum content conveyed, and the main tool for what to do should be an animation guiding the card to the back of the device. After the change was introduced, a study on a similar group of users showed that the number of wrongly applied cards decreased by 65%. Of course, this was internal research on a limited number of people, perhaps not fully representative, but I think that similar conclusions can be drawn after launching the application.
How to streamline the process of the seller entering the amount and the buyer entering their PIN.
The big problem for salespeople was that they had to hand the device to customers, which made them fear it would either be stolen or dropped and damaged during handover. The solution was to automatically rotate the screen without having to move the phone. In my opinion, this is a very neat example of how, with the appropriate improvement of the interface, it is possible to fix the issue inherent in the device itself. Thanks to the change introduced, the seller, instead of turning the phone and handing it to the customer, need only tilt it towards them, allowing easy entry of the PIN.
Deciding whether the method of data entry and the interface with the keyboard should imitate the classic terminal or can use patterns from mobile applications.
Finally, we decided on the application keyboard design and ultimately two alternative forms of data entry, to be selected in the settings (classic and alternative). In the former, the user enters numbers just like with a terminal, and in the latter it is done as in most mobile applications, where the user enters digits and, if necessary, a point and decimal values.
Facing these and many other similar design challenges, it is impossible not to start to wonder where all this leads to and whether you should choose the path of the real world or join Team Full Digital. I think I will answer in a way befitting a UXer (or a lawyer): it depends. Both approaches have their pros and cons – it all really depends on the situation.
Imitation of reality, if done well, allows the user to learn our application much faster because they already have a strong reference in the real world. In addition, or especially, the affordance issue cannot be ignored, i.e. the fact that individual elements are self-evident, and the user has no doubts as to whether something should be clicked, rotated, or content added.
On the other hand, such imitation of reality may be problematic in some cases, especially on an interface that uses very spread digital patterns. Users already know very well how to use a given application so artificial mapping of its physical counterpart only unnecessarily complicates the interface and may also make the application look very old-fashioned. In addition, adding large numbers of gradients or graphics can cause problems in the development and scaling of the application to different screen sizes. Not to mention the loading times of web applications, for example.
And how is the situation in the context of the full digital approach? The first and unquestionable advantage is the consistency of our application with others that the user accesses and which they know their way around. Additionally, in less graphic interfaces, you can put much more emphasis on the content itself, making it much more distinguished. Of course, there are also disadvantages – for example, if the application does not have a thoughtful design, users may have trouble distinguishing what is just text and what is clickable.
To sum it all up
There is a really big challenge ahead of us, as UX / UI designers, to reconcile people who have spent most of their lives in the real world with those who – colloquially speaking – were children of the internet. We cannot allow either of these worlds to be forgotten or abandoned. Let us use all the good aspects that each of them brings, and let us not reinvent the wheel every time. On the other hand, let’s not mindlessly exaggerate what we have in the real world, but only pick the useful principles of operation and proven solutions. Thanks to this, perhaps we will be able to make this border of transitions between the two worlds virtually imperceptible to an ordinary user.
Read also: Banking in Pandemic Times