Progressive enhancement has proven to be such a great strategy for the technical side of the web that I think we should take a similar approach for its personal side as well.

Just as we assume the harshest conditions technically (outdated browsers, slow connection speeds, etc.) and layer enhancements from there, we can assume interest levels and moods are equally harsh.

“I’d rather be doing something else.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“I don’t give a shit about this.”
“I’m out.”

While this might not reflect every user’s attitude, there will always be some who are apathetic, bored, rushed, etc.

Consider this in the context of real life. If I call you without prior warning you’d expect me to be polite and say something to the effect of, “Hi, it’s Trent. Have I caught you at a bad time?” Common courtesy requires that we assume first that we are inconveniencing others unless we’re told otherwise, showing respect for their time and attention.

Similarly, If I met you for the first time at a party and spent an hour talking your ear off about my deepest secrets, or showed up unannounced at your house the next morning you’d rightfully freak out. I know I’d feel violated. Who hasn’t felt similarly imposed upon by overzealous email campaigns or overwhelmed by a website that has too many things demanding attention all at once? For relationships to evolve, there must be mutual disclosure and trust. Social penetration theory sums it up well:

As relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels to deeper, more intimate ones. […] It can also be defined as the process of developing deeper intimacy with another person through mutual self-disclosure and other forms of vulnerability.

Online relationships are no different, and we should aspire to design interfaces that recognize users are humans by mirroring this natural process of relationship building. Perhaps common entry points (like home or product pages) should only be responsible for that introductory-level exchange, and things like further navigation or account creation could be taken as a signal to share further: more information, more options, and more permanent connections via Twitter or email.

I think there are a lot of cases on the web where assumptions start at the opposite end of the spectrum, and our behavior online would be considered intrusive and shallow in real life.

We hope you enjoyed your stay.

I recently took my wife and 2 kids along for a business trip. We stayed at a popular hotel chain downtown and were thrilled at the experience—clean rooms, nice views, and positive interactions with every staff member from valet to check-in to room service. They took every care to make sure our experience was positive so that we’d return, and when we left I was certain I would.

Two days after the trip I woke to an email on my phone from the hotel—not a receipt but a solicitation. After wiping the sleep from my eyes I zoomed in to find an unsubscribe link only to land at a page that told me the unsubscribe feature was unavailable on mobile devices. Frustrated, I deleted the email.

Later that morning I got another email, clicked unsubscribe, and went through the process of entering my email address and receiving another email prompting me to confirm my email list removal.

The next day I woke to yet another email from them. I don’t know if I failed at unsubscribing or if I have multiple email categories to unsubscribe from, but it didn’t matter. I was angry. The negative experience of e-mail marketing eclipsed the fond memories of the hospitable staff, and now I don’t want to go back. In my mind, the head of digital marketing should head over to the hotel and apologize to the entire staff for undoing the relationships they spend all day building with their customers.

What if already checked email newsletter boxes buried deep within the booking process online were replaced with big “Can we email you?” buttons, or unsubscribe links were as large as the main call to action? By all means, offer discounts and incentives but do it in a way where you’re opening every possible door to customers rather than trying to barge in on theirs.

You won’t read this.

Slate recently published an article analyzing why users fail to fully engage (completely read) an article page. An excerpt:

Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway.

Are users failing at the task of staying focused or do we (as web designers and site owners) assume too much? Does a page view equal someone’s full attention and intent to engage?

What are our designs telling users to do when we bury a 12px font-sized river of text in a sea of animated banner ads, sensationalist flat belly links, and fixed positioned social sharing widgets? In my mind, if users leave they’re just doing what the design told them to do because all the crufty noise linking elsewhere is the most engaging thing on the page. It is not my goal to single out Slate because many pages across the web look like this.

The only way to build is with real people in mind. They’d rather be with their families than deleting emails. They’d rather not mine a cluttered layout for content. They start off not knowing you and not caring, but if they detect a hint of grace and respect you just might have something upon which to build a relationship.

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