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It all started with an internal discussion we had at work. Our Design Director asked all the consultants if they had any inputs into a presentation on User Centred Design being delivered to a group of developers.
A flurry of emails followed – ranging from developers not caring about cost and usability and only loving their code, through to the need to get developers in the design process early because they are so valuable to this process.
While all these emails went back and forth, it occured to me that this inherent instinct to protect one’s code or ‘creation’ is not just limited to developers, but it is in fact a human trait. We all do it! Let me explain.
I recently bought some Venetian blinds and being a handyman, decided to install them myself. Now, most architraves and window framings are quite simple and support Venetian blinds reasonably well. My house isn’t quite so simple and hence I had to use my creativity to install them. Five hours later and after numerous efforts to find studs and adjust the levelling due to our sinking house, I managed to install the blinds. Now let me make it clear that I am a Virgo, and hence a perfectionist. Stepping back to examine my hard work and effort, I couldn’t help but smile with arrogance at having won my battle with the window frame and successfully installed the blinds.
My wife, on the opther hand, took no more than three minutes to comment on the faults and imperfections of my installation. Funnily enough, I went into defensive mode straightaway, arguing what a great job I had done finding a solution to this difficult problem. I was almost heartbroken that she had focused on the ‘bigger picture’ rather than appreciating my hard work and intricate solution. At that moment, the work discussion mentioned earlier popped into my head. Oh my god, I’m one of those (referring to developers and their love for their clever code to a complex problem).
I had failed to step back and look at the bigger picture, which is what I do every day at work as a UCD practitioner. I had been sucked into a narrow tunnel of specific problem-solving and had totally overlooked the importance of installing the blind from an aesthetic point of view.
We all tend to get bogged down in the detail, especially when immersed in a specific problem solving activity.
So what am I actually trying to say? Two things: firstly, apologies to all those developers who constantly get referred to as “code-loving techies who can’t step back and look at the bigger picture”. It’s not just you, it’s all of us. Secondly, I want to emphasise the importance of UCD practitioners (and indeed anyone) constantly stepping back and questioning their own design solutions against the high-level goal.
How often have you burnt your hand trying to pick up a saucepan by the handle, or touching a hot plate at a restaurant? When it comes to the web, as technologies improve and more and more people (including my mum) start to use the web, people’s expectations of website usability increase and comapnies need to respond to stay in the game. Yet, when it comes to consumer products, although technologies have also improved in the fields of metals, plastics etc, we still see so many products on the shelf which could easily have been tweaked to make them more user-friendly . In the example above, it would be simple to incorporate smart materials so that a handle of a saucepan changes colour to inform you that it’s hot. Some saucepan manufacturers have incorporated technologies to display a red circle in the middle of the pan telling us it’s at the optimum temperature for cooking, so why don’t they do the same with their handles to tell us that’s it’s at the optimum level for… burning your hand!
Here are a few thoughts as to why the consumer product industry has been outstripped by the web industry in instilling usability:
- With millions of websites out there, the competition for people’s attention is intense, placing greater pressure on companies to improve their web usability in order to attract and retain users against the competition;
- Specialised organisations and companies such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Stamford Interactive exist, defining clear standards for the internet and embodying them in user-friendly websites respectively;
- Users can easily provide feedback to companies and webmasters regarding issues they have with websites, either via a simple email to the webmaster or the completion of a feedback form.
The above three points are not reflected in the consumer goods and manufacturing industries. Although there are many saucepans out there and we have a choice, brand loyalty, country of manufacture, and pricing force us into that choice. Secondly , there are no organisations like W3C in manufacturing of consumer good, and although safety standards exist, they are not really linked in with the usability of the product. Finally, the mechanisms for providing feedback for physical products require far greater effort, and the fact that few of our own consumer products are manufactured in Austaralia users further discourages users to provide their constructive feedback to overseas companies.
Now, I’m not saying that the web has attained a universally high level of usability and we all know there are still countless poor websites out there. It just seems that although the web is still in its infancy, it is already leading the field in terms of both expectation and delivery of usability and user experience.
So what is the solution?
I think we, as consumers, could raise our expectations of manufacturers to provide us with sensible products and be actively engaged in providing feedback for the products we use day to day. We should also learn to be more discriminating about good design, ensuring companies that have put some brain power behind their good products are rewarded for their efforts. This way we can hopefully raise the bar for other manufacturers and over time, reap the benefits of a world full of good, usable products.
An incident in a car park this week got me thinking about the nature of signs and the importance of placing them at the right point in the journey. I’m not talking about labeling here, the signs made perfect sense; the problem here was timing.
Signposts are there to ultimately get us to our destinations quickly, safely and with the least amount of wrong turns or dead ends. Sometimes however signposts send us to the wrong destination and, in this case, literally up against a brick wall. After parking in the underground car park, I got out of the car and took several confident steps towards the large, prominent sign saying “lifts”. Then I stopped. As I had got closer another sign became visible that directed people to two different lifts, the public lifts and the club lifts. I wanted the public lifts so I followed the arrows, and that’s when I hit the brick wall. Back I went to the first sign to check the direction. No, I was definitely following the signs…to a dead end. Looking up the car ramp I could see the lifts within tantalizing reach but there were large signs prohibiting pedestrians on the ramp. In the other direction, I could see stairs, but they were going down and I needed to go up. So there I was, seemingly literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.
This experience got me thinking about the importance not just of proper sign labeling, but of placement and destination. At what point in the site journey do we place the sign to the next step we want users to take? When do we give them signs to other destinations? Through testing and working with users, I have learned to place signs (such as registration calls-to-action or related information details) at the point in the journey where users are most receptive to them. Sometimes this might be at the start, but sometimes it’s after they’ve done a little bit of exploring on their own and are ready to look for, or be prompted with, that next step. Take the example of someone arriving at a product site and being forced to register before they can browse items or add them to their basket (yes, this still happens). Forcing people to register before they’ve decided its worth their while will only drive users to other sites where shopping is easier. Sites should also allow users to choose whether to register (because there’s an advantage in doing so, like saving time on repeat purchases) or to simply make the transaction (including bill payment) without registering.
Likewise, hitting people with information about hotels when they’ve arrived at the flight search page is a little premature but showing them that information after they’ve booked a flight is helpful because they’re now ready to take the next step in their travel arrangement process.
So, did I get out of the car park? Yes, I took my chances with the vehicles and walked up the cars-only ramp to the lifts. The door into the lift foyer had no affordance, but that’s a whole other issue, nor did it tell me what floor I was on (a hazard for the return journey!) but I did manage to eventually get myself onto the street above.
Moral of the story? Don’t send your users into brick walls. If the directional sign to the lifts had been placed after I had proceeded down a flight of stairs, I would have found them easily instead of being deterred too soon and sent literally up against a brick wall. So think about when and where to give directions. When will your users be receptive to further information or calls-to-action? When is the right time to show them secondary directions? What would be useful to know now and to where would they like to go? Remember, it’s a lot easier to leave your site than to exit a car park, so make sure you use signs well.