“How do I get the word count on this document? In the past when I selected a paragraph, I’d get a count of the words in it, right here at the bottom left.” A colleague was struggling to get Microsoft Word to do what she wanted.
Photo credit: livemint.com
The next time you take a short trip on an aeroplane, take a look around yourself. It’s almost certain that anyone who’s travelling for business and working on a laptop is using a spreadsheet or working on a presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote. With these tools playing such an integral part of our everyday lives, you’d think they’d be easy to use. Yet people, including the colleague I wrote of earlier, have to call on their co-workers, spouses and nephews of neighbours to get some specific function done, often one they’d used before. If this were a matter of software alone or particularly inept computer users, we’d likely be able to deal with it a whole lot easily. But, alas, this lack of usability or user-friendliness is not confined to software or even computers alone.
The Design of Everyday Things
Even the simplest of office equipment, starting with the copier, overhead projector or network printer (poor you, if it includes a scanner) require instructions to operate, as evidenced by hand-scribbled notes and printed instructions from other users, stuck on and around them. When all that fails, we then rely on the admin expert to make these do what we’d like them to. Before you figure that I’m an inept luddite, these usability problems are by no means unique to electronic equipment.
From the faucets in airport toilets to the glass doors in our office, you can see fellow travellers struggling to operate them, often requiring multiple attempts before getting water to flow (lift, press or twist) or doors to open (push, pull or slide).
In a world that deified Steve Jobs even when he was alive and the name of Jonathan Ive is known to more folks than you’d think is possible, why is good design so hard to come by? Before we try to answer that question, let’s do an experiment.
Try this at work today. Get four of your colleagues, hand them a piece of paper and ask them to make aeroplanes. After 10 minutes of flying those aeroplanes, give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a six- or eight-step process to make paper aeroplanes without illustrations. Now hand these instructions to other colleagues or use them yourself to see if you can make an aeroplane at all, let alone one that flies. Now why is it that folks, even ones that have multiple college degrees, who almost without thought can make pretty darn good paper planes, can’t write a set of easy-to-follow instructions on how to build such a plane?
In his book The Design of Everyday Things, cognitive psychologist Donald A Norman answers these and a whole lot of other questions about why design—particularly user-friendly design—is not easy. Norman, whom Newsweek called “The Guru of Workable Technology”, begins with how people interact with everyday things. The three critical elements to using things successfully are, in his words, visibility, appropriate clues and feedback of one’s actions. So whether a hot and cold water faucet or the turn signals in your car, if they are visible so you can locate them easily (in front of you rather than by your foot), provide visible clues or affordances (lift, press or turn) and provide feedback (flowing water, blinking direction indicator) upon being operated, we have the makings of usable design.
Norman also provides numerous examples of good and excellent user-centred design, whether in felt pens or floppy drives, and explains why many of them never get a chance to go through the five or six attempts required to get a design right.
Businesses and each of us individuals will find our lives more productive and a whole lot less stressful if we understand the psychology of everyday things. So, the next time you see a handwritten instruction sign resolve to evangelizing user-centred design.
This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint in Dec 2011