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Psychotherapy for UI design

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Editor's blog Here are some thoughts on user-interface design and the simple psychology of rooking the user. Try this for an example: I have been staying at a hotel where there is Wi-Fi available in the form of a T-Mobile hotspot. Let’s not go to the length of criticising the hotel for not fronting this service itself, putting the cost on the bill, etc – or indeed, just burying the cost in the hotel charges so it appears free. What it does mean, however, is that one has to go through T-Mobile’s SignUpWithYourCreditCard process... tedious but survivable.

But once through that small trauma comes a little psychological trick of the most annoying proportions. Some hotel Wi-Fi services then bury a cookie into your PC so that, next time you log on you’re connected automatically. Some others throw up a separate window that has the username and password details on it. This makes it clear this is information that you should save or keep in the background.

T-Mobile’s post-log-in screen has loads of information on it, and the most prominent element is a countdown clock showing how much time you have left. This is in BIG LETTERS AND A BRIGHT COLOUR. You can’t miss the thing, and it does have the effect of making you want to get on with using the connection.

Just above it, however, in small insignificant letters, is the username and password, which you can easily miss.

And if you do miss it? Well, you have to sign up again, paying twice for a service which, in many hotels these days, is increasingly free. This does not leave a good feeling, somehow.

And what do we learn from this? One thing is for sure: as a user one should never make assumptions. Always remember that the company providing the service will try to squeeze as much money out of you as possible, regardless of what its adverts might say, so spend some of your valuable time reading every damned word on the start-up page, just in case you miss something important.

As a web designer, always remember who is paying your salary or consulting fee – so find interesting ways of using simple psychology to get users to avoid reading important information that saves them paying twice.

For the service provider, just remember that the good name of your brand comes from appearing fair and honourable, and not from using simple little tricks to distract users from important information that saves them money. Not using them also inhibits the users’ potential to feel significantly bad about the service provided and the company providing it.

And me? Well, yes I feel a fool. I should have spotted it, but talking about it at breakfast showed that I was not the only one to fall into the same hole. But then again, every other Wi-Fi-equipped hotel I have ever stayed at made it very clear what the username and password were – if they were required at all. As a fool I have learned something: read every page of the sign up process very carefully, and learn by experience. I will try very hard not to need to use that particular service ever again.®

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