Tool tips – When should design explain itself?

My Hacksaw and Stapler basking on the lawn

Should a hacksaw or staple gun need a manual?

Mine have permanently moulded instructions to help get the most out of using them.

Handy hints built into my stapler

This hacksaw pre-dates the internet by 20 years, but look at all those tool tips!

This sort of thing has become commonplace in the digital world too. Hover your cursor over any button or tool  and you’ll see prompts, tips, guidance, explanation etc. as you explore and use websites, software and devices.

Tool tips could help you find this remote New Zealand surf spot

Whether you’re using software or a saw and need that extra ‘tool tip’ …you’re generally alone, doing your own thing … so what about when you’re around other people… Can we learn by watching others?, does the ‘how to’ of using things travel by osmosis in a social or group situation? or, in other words – do people become the tool tips?

In the physical world, it seems this is true, as I noticed on a Sydney train recently.

These Sydney train seats can be switched to face either direction

You could argue the train seats should have a ‘tool tip’ to show that they can be reversed, but there’s also something satisfying about discovering it for yourself, or through watching others.

…My latest UX research project is for a multi-user ‘touch table’ designed for an exhibition space. The content is navigated by individuals and groups with a similar emphasis on ‘discovering’ how to interact with the environment, rather than being signposted at every step.

Often things in the physical world help explain user behaviour in the digital world and I’m thinking this train seat scenario might be a good analogy… but despite how much more natural it feels to be facing forward when getting from A-B, few passengers actually do change the seating around…

So, I wonder…

  1. Would a visual cue take the satisfaction away for the few to improve travelling for the many?
  2. Do people suffer performance anxiety the first time they try to move the seat? (I waited until I had an empty carriage)
  3. Are those ‘in the know’ motivated to share what they’ve learned, or do they keep it to themselves?
  4. Are we more likely to make these ‘discoveries’ in the physical or digital world?
  5. Is it possible to move through a digital journey facing backwards?
  6. Is it more valuable to discover a feature by serendipity, or to learn by observation of others?

I’d like to hear of other scenarios where people learn how to interact with a product or service purely by watching others…

…Do you know of any?

5 thoughts on “Tool tips – When should design explain itself?

  1. Harry Brignull

    Social psychologists call this “Vicarious learning” (i.e. learning by observing others in a social context).

    There was a really interesting bit in Brown & Duguid’s “The Social Life of information” about the way Bell Co. actively engineered this to happen to facilitate the adoption of the telephone. I blogged about it a while back

  2. Nick Post author

    Thanks Harry, great post… and can’t really argue the success of this strategy. Seems Bell went to lengths to make using the phone either the only option, or the natural and accepted thing to do in each context. Smart.

  3. Zef

    The beauty of the train seat situation is that it’s optional to face forward (or back) – you’re not forced to choose – or, if you hop on the train alone for the first time and don’t realise you can switch the seat direction – it doesn’t matter! (well, the person might feel annoyed if the seats are facing the wrong way for their preference, but at the end of the day, they still got a fairly comfy seat).

  4. Lakshmi Muthaiah

    Regarding the train seat, we might first have to find out why the trains have reversed seat if most of them prefer seats facing forward.

    Do we have equal number of seats in both directions?

    Difference in feel of seats in both directions.

    Probably, a detailed study is needed on that and we may have to talk to regular train users and occasional train users to get a detailed perspective.

  5. Nick Post author

    Hi Lakshmi… My understanding is that the trains travel in both directions. this saves them turning around when they reach the other end. the driver hops out, walks back along the platform with his or her lunchbox and hops back in facing the other way. It seems the passengers want to face the same way at the driver.

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