If someone from the 1800s teleported to the present and we asked them to place a call on an iPhone, would they be able to succeed? Probably not. Now, what if someone from the 1950s teleported to the present and we asked them the same thing? And what about someone from the 1980s?
While the first two were likely candidates for failure and the last for success, this is not just a matter of how technologically [un]advanced these respective people’s eras are, but more specifically a matter of convention.
In the classic text (in the design world) Elements of User Experience, author Jesse James Garrett stated that “habit and reflex are our foundations for much of our interaction with the world.” Conventions allow us to extrapolate those reflexes to other circumstances. To demonstrate this idea, let me ask you one more time-traveling phone dialer question: if someone from the present time was asked to place a call on an iPhone on which the number keys are all randomly assembled, would they succeed? Yes, instantly, or Yes, but with a lot of struggling.
A component of design most people, including myself, don’t consider is how user experience design and our habits are highly correlated and intertwined. There is a reason why the button for “save” on most platforms is an icon of the floppy disk. Ask a millennial why so, they couldn’t say, but they know what pressing that little square button does. Same goes for the almost universal arrangement of telephone keypads, the turning left for hot water and right for cold, the righty-tighty lefty-loosey, and so forth. There’s a reason why all light switches flips on UP and not DOWN, and why the new chat app in the App Store is not going to arrange outgoing messages on the left-hand-side instead of the right. Because habits are just too hard to break. Building a feature that goes against our trained maneuvers and reflexes is suicide if not done right, and few are daring enough to attempt.
In sync with JJG, this doesn’t mean that designers are not innovating. But taking example from millennials’ bewilderment on the relationship between floppy disk and save, maybe we need to spot when conventions cease to carry significance. When a newer system comes along, it’s worth it to break old habits.