Design of Business

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Tag: user interface

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.

Good design is in the details

Cover of "The Design of Everyday Things"

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the work of Donald Norman and his seminal book “The Design of Everyday Things” (the title itself was in true design fashion improved from the original “The Psychology of Everyday Things” or POET.)  I was also bemoaning that people seem to be far more familiar with Jonathan Ive, the much heralded (and recently knighted) designer of many things Apple, than with Don Norman and his now business partner Jakob Nielsen, who’ve been evangelizing human-centered design longer than most.

Of course reading The Design of Everyday Things has once again made me sensitive to good and bad design decisions that surround us and I wanted to share a couple of instances of poor design (or poor affordances, as Don terms them). Just the other day I swung by an ATM machine, tucked in next to a Food World store. And here’s what the greeted me at the door.

Push or Pull A sign that said PUSH but a handle that said pull. This is one of the first examples Don cites for cognitive dissonance – a fancy term for when what the sign says (push) doesn’t gel with what your brain says you should do (pull). Alas Don wrote his book more than 20 years ago and we are still grappling with this one.

Another favorite one of his is figuring out which switch (on a bank of switches) controls what light or electrical equipment in a room. Just this last weekend we sneaked away to Yercaud (an largely unspoilt hill station near Salem, Tamil Nadu). The hotel we stayed in was relatively new and the first thing that greeted me, as I tried to turn on the lights was this bank of switches.

The housekeeping staff, had to put a small sticker with a sign that read Fan. Given that there are only five switches, sure we can run through them quickly – however you’d have an irate spouse in the middle of the light if you turned a light on rather than the fan 🙁 In this particular bank of switches, you can see the set up is a pair of switches (neither of which controls the fan) and the regulator in one block while three other switches in another block (one of which controls the fan). Ideally pairing the regulator and the switch into a single standalone block would have worked or having them at the very least on the same block would have provided a clear affordance.

The good news is that good design shows up in most unexpected places. The office provided me with a Tata Photon 3G broadband USB dongle. Most of us who’ve used any sort of USB dongles, whether memory sticks, Bluetooth, WiFi or broadband, have experienced the bother of losing the caps that come with them. Invariably once I’m done using the stick and remove it from the computer, I am constantly searching for the cap and usually end up just doing without it. The Tata Photon previous generation dongles suffered from this same short coming as I saw with my colleagues. However the latest dongle that I was provided, had a most ingenious solution – a wrist band that was strung through the cap – so not only was carrying the darn thing easier, but the cap even when removed stayed attached (and conveniently) out of the way, so that when it was time to stow away the stick, I don’t have to begin searching for the cap. Good design, like god is in the details.

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