The failure button

By Yeu-Kang Hua

The failure button

It goes without saying that a great user experience in the interaction with a product is crucial for achieving customer satisfaction. My colleague Stellan wrote about this just recently, and there are already many articles covering the topic of UX design, so in this post I’m going to talk about what I personally believe are the two most important components of any kind of user interaction.

When I was a child I loved to watch television. I don’t anymore, but I used to be mesmerized by the entertainment box in my house, constantly switching channels and browsing the ‘Text-TV’—that time’s equivalence to the internet. The remote control was filled with exciting buttons, and like any normal kid I had pressed them all, sometimes at the same time.

Now, there was one button among them, one of which purpose to this day still perplexes me, that would turn the whole TV screen black. Throughout my childhood I ‘accidently’ pressed it three or four times if I remember correctly, and I panicked every single time; terrified that I might have broken the TV permanently. It didn’t help that Chinese families have the habit of wrapping remote controls in plastic in order to protect them from dirt, as it was basically impossible to make out the button labels. Luckily my dad was able to restore the TV, and soon I learned to do it myself. I think it was some kind of reset button, only the reset state meant total darkness.

This was the earliest encounter of the failure button that I can recall.

failure button Brit. /ˈfeɪljə ˈbʌtn/, U.S. /ˈfeɪljər ˈbʌtən/
noun. a user interaction that allows you to fail.

Don’t feel dumb if you never heard the term before; I coined it myself (and as I’m writing this I’m thinking of the meta irony of the scenario in which I’m actively alienating my readers with illogical self-coined terms that ultimately makes me a failure as a writer, but the knowledge that you’re still reading—obviously—gives me hope that such is not the case).

Failure buttons are mostly undesired side-effects caused by lack or absence of human understanding (example; unintentionally bad UX) or just results of the human tendency of making simple mistakes (example; broken links). But sometimes they manage to become natural parts of people’s habits and expectations and stay undetected for long times. An example of this would be an app that allows you to open file types it doesn’t support, and only when you’ve performed the action does a warning message show up. If shown enough times, you eventually learn to be more careful, saving you all the extra clicks and frustration. You would then treat this modified behaviour as an acquired computer skill that you take pride in, and when one day someone complains about it, you stand up to defend it. Congratulations, you’ve just been Stockholm syndromed by a failure button.

If you’re like me—someone who prefers to interact first and react later, you probably tend to push failure buttons more often, leading to stuff breaking and systems crashing. If you on the other hand are resiliant to push anything until you’re absolutely sure, then you might be someone who’s been indoctrinated to fear and avoid possible risks of failures. In either case my standpoint is that there should not be any chances of failing to begin with—at least not in interactions designed to aid the user.

One handle, one opening, one purpose. UX design done right.

The success button

When me and my siblings started to move out one by one, my mother decided to learn how to browse the internet and use Skype. We tried to teach her how to open Firefox and browse her favourite websites. The problem was that she didn’t really see the logic of the system like we did; if she clicked on a link that opened a page in another tab, she lost her way back. When a window overlapped or covered the underlying one, panic occurred. For her, the computer was a minefield brimming with hidden failure buttons.

It was when I one day saw her using the web browser’s Home button to return that I finally realised that there actually was a valid use case for what had seemed to me to be a pointless feature. For her, this button was a way to solve a logic that we had all failed to explain. It was her success button. We bought her an iPad Mini in 2011, and she never touched a PC again.

success button Brit. /səkˈsɛs ˈbʌtn/, U.S. /səkˈsɛs ˈbʌtən/
noun. a user interaction that instantly makes you feel successful.

The success button has a clear purpose, and the response and consequence of pushing it is immediate and either meets or exceeds your expectations. The best success buttons not only helps the user make sense of the application; they make the user feel smart. Compare this to failure buttons that do the opposite; they outsmart the user. Examples other than the singular home button of the iPhone/iPad would be a contact button on a website that directly leads to a relevant result based on your location, preferences, the context, etc, or if we continue the case of the app that was able to open invalid file types; an open file dialog that shows only relevant folders and files with minimum browsing required is in my eyes very much a success button.

The thing is, if you strive to eliminate as many failure buttons as possible and replace them with success buttons instead, you will eventually and inevitably end up with a great user experience. This applies to any kind of interaction, be it digital or physical, in communication and in services. 

The honesty questions

To help you work out your failure and success buttons, I’ve formulated two simple questions that you can use to keep yourself headed in the right direction:

  • Is it possible as a user to feel like you failed at any point of the interaction?
  • What can you do to make the user feel instantly successful?

Being able to honestly answer and deal with these questions, especially as a creator, might not be an easy task, but it is a prerequisite for creating great user experiences.

The cliffhanger

I plan to write more about this whole concept in the future, but for now I hope I’ve inspired you enough to think about how you can apply this to your field of work. I’d love to hear what interesting examples you can come up with in the comments section below, and when you’re ready to improve your online presence you are always welcome to click the greatest success button of all time right below here. 😉

Talk to an expert

Yeu-Kang Hua
Generalist-specialist in digital experiences, or a hybrid designer-developer if you must pigeonhole. Curiosity is Kang’s trademark and a curse.
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