Rebuttal: The great debate about user centered design in China

This post is a popular rebuttal challenging 张小龙 (Allen Zhang’s) idea on user centered design (UCD).  The critic here is 尹广磊  (Guanglei Yin), founder and community manager of the rapid prototyping tool, Axure.

This is part of the translated series aimed to elucidate the Chinese internet industry to foreigners what topics are trending, what people are discussing, what thought leaders are saying in China.

The original post (Chinese language) was written on May 11th, the English translation and all errors therein are my own.

 

About the respondent:

Guanglei Yin is the founder of WebPPD.com and Axure.org focused on rapid prototyping and training. He is also a web application developer, interaction designer, consultant, trainer, online community organizer and promoter Axure.

 

About the original author:

Allen Zhang is the product director for the highly successful Chinese unified communicator app “Weixin” or “Wechat” from Tencent. By end of March, Weixin surpassed 100 million active users in 433 days and still growing strong today.  Allen is also the chief designer and architect for 2 other products that exceeded 100 million users namely Foxmail and QQmail.

 

Guanglei’s response to the 3 points that Allen made in his translated post:

 

  1. It is hardly conclusive to deem iPhone’s unlock mechanism “natural” just because 3 year olds can unlock it.  All we can draw from this observation is that it is extremely easy to learn.  Remember the first generation iPhone commercial? The first 5 seconds showed the audience how to unlock, and then it showed how to navigate to other screens and apps by swipe and touch.  In subsequent commercials, Apple showed that we could zoom in and out of map by pinch and expand with two fingers. We were amazed with this design and we learned quickly.  But these commercials really served as user education; a user who is shown once to achieve mastery still needs to be shown. Also, I seriously doubt 3 year olds find it natural to switch between single and multiple fingers in navigating touch screens.

 

  1. Claiming directory and document concept is not natural in PC is bogus.  Having documents and directories on desktop is the most natural thing on any device. In the case for iOS, if you overlap two apps, it forms a directory.  While it is true that iOS is more protective of its system files making root and other system directories/files inaccessible.  iOS made that as a conscious choice because Apple thinks regular users would only cause detriment if they had access. The more accurate differentiation here is PC is more open while iOS is more closed.  It does not mean iOS abandons the directory and document structure.

 

For the argument made in “natural scrolling”, it is important to note this “natural” feature was not available in prior to OSX Lion.  Scrolling with two fingers to move in the direction of the content is the same natural movement as a mouse.  Sure, it is opposite direction from the PC’s touchpad, but all it added is another option for the user… claiming natural does not makes the case.  Also, it is worth arguing that the real reason Apple added natural scrolling option is to compensate for the new full screen feature navigated by swiping in the direction opposite of the multi-finger movement.  The designers at Apple realized if natural scrolling weren’t added, it would be awkward for users to switch between horizon vs. vertical scrolling logic.  So this move, I believe, is using logic to compensate for design, not because it is really natural.

 

  1. Claiming Weixin Shake is a primal to get to know people around the user is bull. If this logic were true, we’d see more physical gestures than complex language development in our modern society.  The truth is, designers at Tencent knew the built-in accelerometer and gyroscope sensors in smartphones are fun and interactive so they leveraged it to increase the entertainment value of the app.  Also, this isn’t their first time leveraging physics in software; QQ music adapted shake to skip to the next song but I would still argue this action is hardly common place.  I feel Bump’s shake to exchange information is more of an exception than a rule.  Can you imagine someone on the street shaking his phone to get to know the people around him?  I think if I see someone shaking his phone on the street, the natural tendency is to think he’s lost signal during a call or that he’s crazy.

 

There are two other examples where Tencent stumbles in being natural (not mentioned in Allen’s post):

  1. Tencent saw that Path  lets users swipe right and swipe left to access menus and navigation and it tries to copy this capability to its QQ mobile messenger. But while Path swipe to switch between menus, QQ’s swipe closed the chat window rather than temporarily switching to something else.
  2. QQ’s installation on MacOS on its official website asks the user to drag from left to right to enable download (like software installation in the MacOS environment).  To me, this is hugely unnatural to be employed on web downloads. What is natural is the default flying animation to the downward arrow on the top right corner in Safari.  It’s completely unnecessary to reinvent the wheel in the wrong place.

 

The book “Don’t make me think” is only an ideology not a methodology.  There are multiple methods to execute to an idea but the most important thing is to encompass user behavioral permutation and thought complexity into the design and prototyping process.  Then, exceed user expectation and deliver something that surprises them. This is are a lot more useful than debating what is natural and what is easy to learn.