Good Friction

Product design is usually predicated on the idea that we want users to be able to, with the simplest interaction possible, take action. Our definitions of usability are frequently driven by easy, quick actions to reach some goals, cutting away at the unnecessary to get to good outcomes. What’s been fascinating in speaking with epidemiologists and other specialists is the idea that good product design, especially in the cases where decisions can have life-and-death effects, have to incorporate “good” friction into products.

There’s a strong desire to create a simple site that decision-makers can use to quickly understand what to do. A single number or directive, derived by some mathematical magic – we’re seeing a fixation on things like Rt (reproduction rate at a given time) without understanding the uncertainties in computing it for COVID-19 right now. The urge is a correct one – it’s one thing to understand, one measure that tells us if we’re succeeding.

But complex, interconnected systems aren’t simplifiable. For example, though there are sources of data around deaths and cases, we were advised and chose not to present deaths on the same page as our metrics – even knowing that a decision-maker could go to those other sources – because people immediately create causal connections. “My county’s case rate is low and my radius of gyration is high, keeping people at home doesn’t seem to be necessary to keep them healthy,” is a totally natural connection to make. However, the mechanisms and context aren’t yet understood. Most likely, that logical leap ignores bad data (undercounted cases), time delays (high movement may affect cases weeks later), or other context (a county with naturally high radius of gyration that has decreased movement).

And, context is king. As we design for an end user that is making decisions for their area, they will absolutely know more than us about their county, their cities, and their states. The most usable website for them is not one that indicates that there’s a single action that works in any scenario when, right now, our uncertainty is high. It’s one that presents the information that we do know and lets the person who knows their context use it. It allows for action to be taken – and quickly – but accounts for the uncertainty of our current situation.

When more is known, what we present and how we present it will shift. But product usability has to be thought of differently when oversimplification can lead to disaster.

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