Defying physics in UX

Abstract diagram showing a character moving through a landscape

In platform video games like Super Mario Bros, players run and jump over various pits, hazards, and enemies to progress.

These obstacles become increasingly difficult as the game goes on, and failing to clear them with precise timing often results in death.

Because so much enjoyment and progression comes from successfully executing jumps within these kinds of games, several of them incorporate a design mechanic known as Coyote Time’ into the logic of their physics.

Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Named after the Loony Toons character, Wile E. Coyote and his physics-defying antics, Coyote Time refers to a split-second delay before gravity begins affecting a player crossing over the threshold of a ledge.

The player is suspended in midair for an imperceptible amount of time, allowing them to successfully perform an action, such as a jump, even if it’s fractions of a second too late.

Diagram of an object bouncing off a ledge

This mechanic is pivotal as studies show humans are poor at assessing their own reflexes and maintaining consistent reaction times.

If a player aims to jump at the very last moment while running towards a platform’s edge, they will misjudge their timing more often than they’d expect. This results in not only frustration, but the feeling that the game itself is broken or inconsistent.

Because the goal of a video game is to empower and entertain an inaccurate human player, strange and inconsistent physics is not only acceptable, but necessary for a good user experience.

A few years ago, I mistakenly ordered dinner through a food-delivery app to the wrong address. I ended up having to leave my home to retrieve a cold dinner from the doorstep of my workplace.

While I do feel the address option in the app should have been clearer for people like myself, who frequently ordered food to both work and home, ultimately I was at fault for not noticing when I made the order.

Today, the app shows you a screen after you make an order that looks like this:

A screen from the Uber Eats app showing order confirmation, delivery address, a timer and an ‘Undo’ button
Uber Eats ‘Placing order’ screen

The page shows you your delivery address, order details, a short timer and a button to cancel your order.

In the context of the user journey, this step feels like it’s processing or dispatching your order. In reality the app is intentionally delaying your submission to give you a chance to back out in case you made a mistake.

Even if you technically step over the edge, Coyote Time gives you a brief chance to step back onto it.

These sorts of moments appear in products all the time, where mistakes can be made easily but with serious consequences. Gmail has an ‘undo send’ button, several e-commerce websites allow you to cancel orders within a certain time window and changing some social handles comes with a grace period, where you can safely revert back if you change your mind.

We, as UX designers, have the power to defy physics, turn off gravity or alter reality when the ground beneath the user’s feet gives way. All it takes, is to be mindful of where it could happen.

In products you’re working on, what actions are inherently irreversible or require a level of accuracy in order to avoid disaster?

Some possible examples include:

  • Erasing or overwriting details, like an uploaded document, or updating a profile pic.
  • Changing an array of settings, potentially without remembering the previous ones.
  • Sending a message or sensitive information to someone.
  • Having something become published or go live to a wide audience.

Coyote time is a mitigation strategy, not an ideal solution. If something demands skirting or leaping from a ledge, there’s opportunity to change the experience to remove these potential pitfalls.

But sometimes, users will have no choice but to take a leap. And they’ll need to make it stick, no matter how bad their timing is or how unreliable they are.

For something to feel perfect, it must be imperfect, and a split-second of impossible physics will go a long way in saving a lot of hurt.

Unless of course you’re this guy —

Image credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Categorized as UX Tagged

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