My phone’s UI outsmarted me. It had been doing it for weeks, but I only realized this morning.


I have 3 alarms saved on my phone. Each one has a different alarm sound: a standard repeating beep, a gentle ring that gradually rises in volume (for the days I can snooze a few times), and a brasher one for more urgent mornings.

Every night, I turn on one of the alarms: if it’s going to be a snoozy morning, for example, I’ll activate the second alarm. But sometimes, I wake up to a different alarm sound than I’m expecting – something I always blamed on my own lack of attention.

What I never realized was that the alarms are not always shown in the same order. In fact, the phone automatically re-orders them to put the most recently activated alarm at the top.

No doubt, the designers thought they were doing me a favor with this “smart” feature. How easy for me! No keeping track of which alarm is which, because my most recent alarm is always right at the top.


The problem is, this was never communicated to me. Nothing in the UI indicates that the alarms are being constantly re-ordered or that the display order is any different from the way I last saw it. I spent weeks waking up now and then to the wrong alarm, feeling confused but assuming I was just tired and getting mixed up. And I only figured it out because one morning I was positive that I hadn’t been mixed up, and I finally decided to dig.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept of re-ordering the alarms based on recent usage. It could be a pretty useful feature, especially if the user has a lot of different alarms, AND – most importantly – if they know about the feature in the first place.

But when there is no communication, when the design fails to be obvious, it is too “smart” for its own good. Something that was intended to help the user and make the app easier to use instead confounds the entire experience.

Effective design is obvious. It communicates with the user. Its features, interactions, and behaviors are clear and for the most part unsurprising, because cryptic design does not help people – it confuses them.



Surprising design done right

A well-known mantra in UX design is that the best design “delights” users. Doesn’t delightful design surprise people?

The difference is that surprising design succeeds – and delights – when the user knows what has happened. Things that people may hope for, but not expect: for example, a survey builder that recognizes Yes/No questions and automatically creates “Yes” and “No” answer options.

Read more: The little things that delight

In a case like this, the user can immediately and clearly see the results of this little surprise. The change happens before their eyes, and affects the very next step of building the survey, so there is no way they can miss it.

This is quite different from the alarm clock shuffle, which happens at the very end of the flow after the user has finished setting their alarm. The next step is to close the alarm app, which makes it all the more likely that the change will go unnoticed. And the next time the app is opened, there is no visual indication of what has happened.


So what’s the verdict on “smart” design features that act pre-emptively on behalf of the user?

1. Use them sparingly:
It’s very difficult to predict what users will actually want to do, given the enormous variety of personas, use cases, and other factors in play most of the time. If you are going to take an action for your user without their prior knowledge, do plenty of user testing first to make sure you know what people want and expect.

2. Communicate clearly:
The best UX is not the smartest, it’s the most obvious. When you do choose to surprise your users, they have to be in on the surprise. They should feel like it was something that THEY wanted, not something YOU wanted for them.


What are some times that you’ve experienced designs that fooled you or left you in the dark?