When you could turn a bug into a feature

My background often plays into what I pay attention to when assessing design projects. I grew up outside of the US - in Soviet Russia, where the proverbial [fill-in-the-blank] eats you. I’ve now spent about half my life in the US. This experience gives me a good amount of insight into both worlds, and just enough distance to question things.

“Bug” in behavior

One of my favorite things to explore is the meaning behind behavior oddities - small quirks we might often make fun of, or find “incorrect” when we observe them in others. I see many of these in tech and web products, but first let’s explore an example from physical life, very analog indeed.

When commuting on the metro in Moscow, I would often see folks reading a book wrapped protectively in newspaper. This trend would continue even after books have become relatively easy to find and purchase. The folks who continued the seemingly antiquated habit of wrapping books in newspaper tended to be older, and you’d be forgiven for chuckling at their behavior. “They’re not with the times! Why would they inconvenience themselves by dealing with that unwieldy newspaper?”

Bug or feature?

Look deeper. The newspaper wrapper doesn’t just protect a book’s surface. It gives the user a sense of safety and individuality.

Books were a controversial item in Soviet Russia. A large portion of what is now considered classic Russian literature was censored. Censorship extended to encouraging citizens to snitch on others if they observe suspicious behavior. Reading a book in public was an invitation for others to check out what it is, and express an opinion. A camouflage behavior emerged: when reading anything more controversial than a gardening manual, or a state-issued newspaper, people would wrap the cover for privacy.

How would you feel, knowing that your phone screen is clearly visible to everyone else on the train? Probably not that comfortable. To someone who’s grown up 30 or so years ago in Russia, an exposed book cover would feel the same. It’s a protective wrapper that gives us a bit of room to disagree with the system - and to avoid judgement.

In my practice, I’ve seen plenty of examples of “bugs” that reveal desired behaviors. For example, when redesigning a complex dashboard interface for specialist users, we noticed that the screen seemed overwhelmed with tabular data, almost to the point of being unreadable. It seemed like a quick visual design fix to reduce the clutter and show less information to help people focus. But that “bug” revealed a level of comfort the users had with seeing all of the information at once. They actually preferred the high density of information in some parts of the experience, because it matched an existing workflow in Excel, and reduced the cognitive load of switching back and forth.

Tl;dr.

Quaint behaviors that don’t make sense are a signal. When we observe them, we should know there’s more to discover. Something that looks like a bug to a design practitioner, can lead to a valuable feature in the eyes of a specialized user.

We should train ourselves to see these little “bugs” in others’ habits as opportunities to discover a deeper motivation, then build uniquely useful products as a result. And learn a fun fact for a blog post!

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