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Telegraphing in User Interfaces


There’s a concept in boxing called “telegraphing your blows.” It’s what separates the intermediate from the expert in the sport. It takes years to be able to reach the fluency in body language to know what punch is combing based on a slight rocking to the left of your opponent, and it changes from person to person.

If you shorten the term “telegraph” to just “tell” you might recognize the term from playing poker. As a player (or boxer) you inadvertently communicate your intentions to your opponents.

“A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. ”

source: [wikipedia](\))

Because the context of a match is adversarial, the stakes are pretty high. It’s a zero sum game and a reveal like this can really damage your outcomes.

  • Boxers ‘telegraph’:
    • I’m going to punch you in the ribs…
  • Poker players ‘tell’:
    • This hand is really terrible…

In design, our stakes are also high, but our goals are far more often “win-win”. Is there an opportunity to use the same thinking as boxers to make a knock out interaction?

Where a poker opponent is made vulnerable when a tell is “unconscious and reliable” we can instead make our customers into master telegraph-readers. A good UI is going to be chock-full of tells. Some we call “affordances” and they’re used to trigger our existing, learned expectations from the physical and mechanical world.

  • “You can push this thing”
  • “This is for grabbing"
  • “I’m a card, swipe me"

Other tells are more specific, and if you align them with the goals and needs of users, you give them massive advantage. Take for example this UI shown from the AirBnB.

What’s really smart is that they use a histogram (that I’ve highlighted in the yellow oval) to project where the room prices fall on the scale. Now it makes it super easy to see the distribution of hotels across the price range, and users can make smarter adjustments in fewer steps.

  • raise the floor to the most expensive only
  • pick something just above average
  • see why there’s so few results just below the average price

How is this a tell? It’s a peek beyond the submit button. You don’t have to look any further than the filter control to see the result. The controls work just as well without the chart overlay, but you can’t see into the hand of the search results to see what cards are there. It’s like reading the result of your actions right on AirBnB’s face.

And this time, that’s a good thing. Because as a winning company, you want your customer to win.

AirBnB example found in this article:

Originally published January 07, 2016 2:25 PM