Dogs, Tails and User Interaction

What’s the tail and what’s the dog?
Why? User interaction is a moving target. Let me rephrase that, user interaction is a moving target on way, way, way too much Red Bull.

It is challenging to say the least to design functionality for a diverse group of users who are constantly being subjected to different ways of doing some of the same things online.

Take a simple registration form. We have been taught to expect certain questions to be asked online. First name, last name and our email address. We might not be surprised to be asked for our middle name, but if the middle name text field box has the dreaded-red-asterisk-of-death next to it, meaning required – we just might see a higher than expected attrition rate. “You are demanding my middle name, why?” That’s not what I expected, so I’m leaving.

Most of our interaction expectations have been taught to us and to more or lesser degrees we have accepted them. After all, how can we build a wonderful web application and provide wonderful features if we can’t check to see if you have signed up with your wonderful , unique personal information so we know what wonderful content to show you? The dog is wagging the tail.

But when you provide an interaction path with no options and you ask for something the tail doesn’t understand or it matches something the tail has been told by other tails as sketchy; well, the tail just might bail. If enough tails bail, then the dog might have to remove the dreaded-red-asterisk-of-death or face a severe loss of new tails registering. At a certain point the tail could win. The dog can get smarter and try to find out the same information in a less conspicuous way, and, the tail can also get smarter and give a phony middle initial in response to it.

What’s the tail and what’s the dog? What works today in a registration form might be different from what works in a year from now in a registration form. It depends on how many dogs listen to tails, how many tails find dogs that will listen to them and what dogs think it takes to make tails happy.

I am reminded of when we could gain access to privileged information by giving a phony email address. Tail gives the email address, dog opens the door, tail gets what it wanted and is gone before dog knows that it has captured yet another Fred Flintstone its database to match the other 1673 Fred Flintstones already on file. So the dog gave away the goodies and is stuck with higher admin costs to clean up the duplicate phony tail records in the database.

Ah, the tail was getting away with it. Now the dog got smarter and asks the tail for its email address and then on the confirmation page informs the tail that it must reply to the email to confirm the authenticity before being granted the keys to the kingdom.

Darn, the tail had already given the phony email address not knowing the dog had changed the rules. The dog has yet another Fred Flintstone, and the tail didn’t get what it wanted either.

The dog gets smarter yet and tells the tail next time that entrance will only be granted upon confirmation of an authentic email address before the submit button. If the tail wants the goodies, then it will have to play by the dogs rules. If tails and dogs come with different IQ’s, then possibly opposites will attract and smart dogs will find less smart tails, and vice versa. But in the overall mix of things it can get really frustrating for tails to sort out how information is served up and what is expected by all the different dogs out there. Life is difficult for both dogs and tails. And psychologically, the interesting thing for me is all dogs are tails in other situations.

What is my approach to user interaction? Be aware that there are accepted existing conventions, both tail-friendly and not so tail-friendly. Take advantage of best practices of engaging tails. Challenge dogs in the areas where they are not being nice to the tail. Be aware of where the tail wants some wiggle room and try to sort out if the area’s where the tail is hesitant might just lead the to a better way of dogs doing dog stuff.

The dog can teach the tail and the tail can teach the dog.

Editors note, as always, I write to explore ideas and process applying concepts to situations. Reading what I write could involve tremendous resources of cognitive multitasking and require a desire to embrace ambiguity and ambivalence.

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