Goldilocks Routines

Photo of Curtis Lusmore Curtis Lusmore,

I hate the lock on my front door. It’s pretty standard. Unlock with a key from the outside, lock by turning the knob on the inside. Open from the inside and the door stays locked. Seems pretty simple, so what’s not to like? If I was capable of following the routine perfectly, it wouldn’t be so bad. When I get home I unlock the door, step inside, turn the knob to lock the door, and put my keys down on my desk. When I leave home I grab my keys from my desk, open the door, step outside, and the door stays locked behind me.

The problem is that I don’t always follow the routine perfectly. I can be a forgetful person, and I don’t want to lock myself out by leaving the house having forgotten my keys. I know that if I’m leaving for work I’ll never forget to take my bag, so sometimes when I get home I put my keys in my bag instead of on my desk. But at the same time, I don’t want to train myself to think “I will never forget my keys because they’re always in my bag”, because sometimes I leave the house without my bag, if it’s not for work. This means that every time I leave the house, I do the dance where I step outside, keep the door propped open with my foot, and then double-check my bag or pockets for my keys.

Okay good, I have my keys, I pull my foot away and the door shuts. How confident am I now that the door is locked? If I followed the routine correctly I would have locked it when I last got home. Did I remember to do that? Hard to say, so as I’m leaving home I also have to check that the door is locked by trying the handle. If I don’t bake this step into my routine, later in the day I’ll worry that my door is unlocked and all my stuff is gone. But 99 times out of 100 (hopefully more to be honest) the door was already locked, and so over time this check is delegated to auto-pilot. Did I really check it properly? It’s hard to say.

I have a similar issue while at home—did I remember to lock the door as I came in? It’s a simple enough action that I can do it on auto-pilot, so it can be hard to say for sure that I did.

Are there betters locks?

At my previous place I had a typical deadbolt that locks automatically as the door closes. When I was leaving the house I still had to do the foot-in-door check for keys to make sure I wasn’t about to lock myself out, but I didn’t have to test the handle (there wasn’t one anyway) because I knew that if the door was closed it was locked. This meant that I never had a nervous panic while out of the house trying to remember if I locked the door. Phewph, so that’s a bit better.

What other kinds of locks are there?

The place before that was a little unusual. Coming home was the same—unlock with a key from the outside, lock by turning the knob on the inside. But to open the door from the inside you had to unlock it. This seems objectively worse, right? Instead of having to test the handle on the way out, I had to actually re-lock the door. Testing the handle is just a confirmation step, so even if I forget to test the handle the door was probably locked and it’s not a big deal. But there, literally the last thing I did before leaving the house was unlock the door, so now the last step is crucial—if I forget to re-lock the door, it’s definitely unlocked.

But I found I actually preferred this. Why? Because there I had to lock the door as I was leaving. I had no choice but to make it part of the routine, and it’s not easy to delegate this task to auto-pilot. In the end I was never worried while out and about whether the door was locked, because I just had to think back and remember the deliberate action of locking the door. I also didn’t have to worry about locking myself out, because it was literally impossible. To get outside I had to unlock the door, and the only way to lock the door again with me on the outside was to have my keys with me.

When a routine becomes so mundane that you do it on auto-pilot, you risk not only not doing it correctly, but not even being able to remember whether you did it correctly. The best way to address this is to either make the routine fool-proof, like a self-locking deadbolt, or make it require more deliberative action, like locking the door from the outside.

If you build software, what routines are your users performing that are so mundane that they do them on auto-pilot? Are you inadvertently providing your users with a bad user experience by building something easy enough that they do it on auto-pilot, but just tricky enough that they get it wrong? Think about a wizard that you next-next-next your way through before remembering that critical checkbox that you need to go back for. Think about those junk notifications that you swipe-swipe-swipe away and then just as you see one disappear you realise it looked important and now it’s gone forever.

How could you design these systems differently to make them less error-prone for your users? You obviously don’t want an experience that’s so hard or frustrating that you struggle with it. But you also don’t want one that’s so easy or tedious that you skip through it without paying attention. You want something that’s just right.