The Pale King, the late David Foster Wallace’s final novel, was published in 2011. It’s about IRS employees in Peoria, Illinois
And it’s incredibly boring.
I’m not being cruel — The Pale King contains an intricate description of a traffic jam, a long list of tax forms, and an entire chapter devoted to mundane office tasks. As Michael Pietsch, the book’s editor notes, “David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world — sadness and boredom.”
Defending boring UX is a slightly easier task. I just want to get you excited about the invisible, unsung work required to build useful and understandable digital products that truly satisfy user needs.
Boring user experience is clear and straightforward content, design, and code that solves key pain points. No surprise. No delight. It’s the non-design of IA Writer or the simple poetry of plain language.
Unboring is an error message that requires a PhD to unpack or Microsoft Word’s everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to software.
Boring UX emerged in 2012 with the launch of GOV.UK, a government site that proved straightforward digital design can improve the lives of millions of people. As the jury who awarded the site Design of the Year 2013 put it, “It may not look particularly exciting or pretty, but that is not the point. This is design in the raw, providing vital services and information in the simplest, most logical way possible.”
Boring doesn’t always save lives, but it usually improves them. The titans of the web — Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub — look boring when compared to Snapchat, The Outline, or Bejeweled. But boring companies have millions of repeat users because their products actually work.
“Only when a product is functional, reliable, and usable can users appreciate the delightful, pleasurable, or enjoyable aspects of the experience,” notes Fessenden. In other words, boring underpins delight — and sometimes boring is delightful. Popular apps like Pocket and Instapaper, along with Safari’s reader view, turn exciting into boring by rescuing content from the evil clutches of hyperactive design and indestructible retargeting ads.
If you’re truly user-centric, admit that the most meaningful life stuff happens beyond the borders of tiny glowing rectangles. UX folks are brokers and intermediaries, not rock stars or ninjas. Your job is to swallow some boredom so people can live better lives.
And if that sounds a bit dreary, remember the words of David Wallace in The Pale King: “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
A reminder of why reader modes exist in browsers and to embrace them as a user’s right:
Good design isn’t about forcing someone to walk a tightrope across your carefully manicured lawn. Nor is it a puzzle box casually tossed to the user, hoping they’ll unlock it to reveal a hidden treasure. Good design is about doing the hard work to accommodate the different ways people access a solution to an identified problem.
For reading articles, the core problem is turning my ignorance about an issue into understanding (the funding model for this is a whole other complicated concern). The more obstructions you throw in my way to achieve this goal, the more I am inclined to leave and get my understanding elsewhere—all I’ll remember is how poor a time I had while trying to access your content. What is the value of an ad impression if it ultimately leads to that user never returning?