Despite its dazzle, uber-modernist style and great location in the store, the newly built Nook center at my local Barnes & Noble is empty. So it seems every time I pass it. Maybe it’s just a sampling error, I’m at the wrong store at the wrong time, or maybe it’s a selection bias, as I recall to mind only those times I’ve seen it empty. Or maybe there’s something about it that keeps customers away.

The new Nook center keeps me away, I can tell you this much. I dislike it. More than that, it intimidates me. Yes, it intimidates me! I approach it hesitantly, suspiciously. Just looking at it makes me uneasy, and I actually avoid walking through it to get to the other side of the store. I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Three years ago a product of mine was undergoing a design review at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. The review had been going smoothly until the engineer clicked on the toolbar icon for the application’s “Lexicon”. A new window appeared with a distinct interface and its own perspective on the underlying data. The UX engineer cringed. “You should consider moving this interface into the main window.” Qua? Here was a radically different way of looking at the data. It deserved its own window. “This window hides the main interface. You can’t tell where it’s gone, and it feels like you’re in a different application. I imagine my father doing this and being completely confused.” Well perhaps your father isn’t in the target market, I thought to myself at the time.

Of course the design engineer was right. By opening up such a different interface in an otherwise familiar application I was forcing the user to re-commit to the design. I had imposed upon him a world within a world, a new usability space that required re-orientation and exploration anew. The adjustment wasn’t an impossible one, or even necessarily a difficult one, but it did require a decision and commitment from the user which in turn imposed an additional cognitive burden. I imagine the gut response is unpleasant. “Great, now I have to figure this out too.” Or worse, the sudden, however brief, incomprehensibility of the space makes the user anxious, maybe even intimidates him.

The Nook center suffers from the same problem as my own Lexicon. Prior to its construction the Nook display occupied an open space near the entrance and cash registers. An impressive marketing presentation formed the backdrop to a couple of tables on which the various Nook models were laid out. Barnes & Noble had clearly taken a page out of the Apple Store book. Customers could come up, play with a Nook, ask the employees questions, and then browse on their way. But the presentation didn’t impose. Distinct just enough to attract your attention, it was still part and parcel of the store. It fit.

The new Nook center is a world unto its own. Like the Lexicon in its own window, the Nook center is enclosed in a separate space and isolated from the rest of the store. There are entrances at the four cardinal points, but walls otherwise close it off. And like the Lexicon with its unique interface, the Nook center exhibits a design motif that distinguishes it from everything else at the bookstore. Whereas the bookfloor is painted in earthy browns and greens, the Nook center is modern and metallic brimming with whites, grays and chromes. Whereas a walk through the store is pleasantly snug with packed bookshelves lining your path, the Nook center is oddly spacious. Finally the Nook center is bright. Very bright. Multiple LED screens beam marketing campaigns at you and the white interior reflects the fluorescent lighting in every direction. The rest of the store is dimmer in comparison and analogue. Posters of classic works line the walls and framed placards announce promotions. Unlike the other departments in the store, the cafe, the children’s area and the music section, the Nook center is utterly distinct.

Walking into the Nook center is like walking into another world. It’s as if you are leaving Barnes & Noble and entering another store. This requires a decision and commitment on the part of the customer. Am I finished browsing the aisles? Am I ready to leave? Am I ready to step into this store within a store and envelope myself in Nook, ready to reorient myself to its material and its surroundings? No doubt all of this is irrational and ridiculous. You’re just taking two steps into the Nook center and can leave it anytime you want. But it doesn’t feel like this. The Nook center is discontinuous with the rest of the store. It lies beyond an architectural and aesthetic threshold, and facing the decision to cross that threshold elicits a powerful emotional response.

Continuity or unity of design is a well established principle in interface engineering. The Nook center violates this principle with consequences. There is a cognitive burden associated with every decision to commit to a new environment, be it an architectural space in a bookstore or a user interface in an application. Usability patterns that require too much commitment from users will turn them off; the cognitive burden is too high and may not be worth it given their needs and their patience. The Nook center intimidates me because it is too different, because it requires too much of me to step into it.

It remains to be seen whether Barnes & Noble customers will acclimate to the new Nook center. Hesitation may eventually give way to curiosity and desire, patience will make due, and the center will be bustling with daily activity. The Nook is a fine product and deserves as much. In many cases, however, the designer may not have the luxury of time which acclimation requires. Users are fickle creatures, always on the lookout for better products at better deals. Stores and software alike may lose their customers if portions of the layout or interface are too distinct from the otherwise familiar context which surrounds them.

My immediate emotional response to the new Nook center taught me something that years of working with my own product couldn’t. Design must revolutionize, yes, but also integrate. For our part designers must think different and relate. The Nook center burdens its users with the unwanted commitment of the unfamiliar. We would do well to avoid the same mistake.

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