Tag Archives: Usability

Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

Are Blogs The Future Of Web Design?

Have blogs changed our idea of what constitutes a well-designed webpage?

I was reading Wired’s interesting piece on guerrilla webpage redesign, where disgruntled folk take the content of a badly designed website and make their own mirror, throwing out the Javascript, cookies, confusing menus, bugs, excessive art-junk for a slimmed down, simplified imitation on their own server.

While the piece talks about the trouble these folk go to, and the trouble they land up in, I couldn’t help noticing that David Jone’s excellent makeover of Wales’ National Assembly website is basically a blog. Everything is there from the original, but it’s all a lot easier to navigate and much easier on the eye. But it looks, feels, and walks, like a blog.

Are blogs turning the huge ship that is the World Wide Web back to its roots, where webpages were less about glitz and more about content, where simplicity and usability counted for more than multimedia interactivity and gee-whiz mouseovers? Or not? Or did it all happen a long time ago and I only just notice?

News: Is Windows About To Be Defenestrated?

 Interesting story about how Linux seems to be catching up with Windows in its user friendliness, at least among Germans. According to an article from ComputerWorld’s IDG News Service, “study findings suggest that it’s almost as easy to perform most major office tasks using Linux as it is using Windows”.  The study was conducted by Relevantive AG, a Berlin-based company that specializes in consulting businesses on the usability of software and Web services.
Linux users, for example, needed 44.5 minutes to perform a set of tasks, compared with 41.2 minutes required by the XP users. Furthermore, 80% of the Linux users believed that they needed only one week to become as competent with the new system as with their existing one, compared with 85% of the XP users. But when it comes to the design of the desktop interface and programs, Windows XP still has a strong edge: 83% of the Linux users said they liked the design of the desktop and the programs, compared with 100% of the Windows XP users.