Design of Business

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Tag: user experience

Consistency in User Experience

The last two days my team and I were at an offsite at a local hotel. The meeting room, was in the basement, at the end of a long corridor, nestled in a far corner of the hotel’s Business Center. While our meeting was productive it was a stuffy two days. Made me wonder, how comfortable the US President would be in the White House bunker (at least what I’ve seen of it in movies) given its even greater depth.

When you spend all day in a stuffy room, drinking fluids, having the rest rooms nearby helps. The first time I walked up to them I had to look closely to figure out which door led to the right room. A smart designer had decided to use two tiny androgynous figures, with the words HE and SHE written below them to designate the men’s and women’s restrooms.

She He

Not the best of experiences when you are in a hurry (and when like me you’ve walked into the wrong room, while on a phone!) Alas the story didn’t end there.

During a short break we walked up and out of the lobby to catch some fresh air. On my way back, I decided to use the restroom right behind the lobby and encountered the following two doors and signs that now read GENTS (that’s what I think it said, the fancy font made ready hard) and LADIES. Clearly the same designer was not involved in the design of these two (ornate) doors. Luckily I was wearing my glasses and headed into the right room without any mishap.

ladies gents

It could have been worse I suppose, with signs in German (HERREN and DAMEN) or symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) or playing cards (KINGS and QUEENS). At least for our toilets, why can’t we make things simple with LARGE pictures (for the language or visually challenged) and words for the graphically challenged. This is a solved problem.

I wish I could attribute this to one or more zealous or incompetent interior designers. However, starting from even the most common and widespread of software products (can you say Microsoft Word), we encounter such design inconsistencies every day. All of us, whether involved in building software products, ticketing portals or hotels or mobile phones, need to provide our users consistent, predictable and self-evident user experience aka good design.

I have a hard enough time figuring things out, when I’m not in a hurry to go! So please let’s pay attention to our poor users and help them have a more consistent and intuitive experience.

Design for Dummies, Mummies & Others

“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.

Design of Every Day Things

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

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