Why Beautiful But Dumb?
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Not surprisingly, not all parents noticed the printing on the other side, and the vast majority of them threw it out. That night an email went out from one of the parents in my son's class informing the other parents that they should retrieve the lice flyer from the garbage, as it was actually a permission slip and a donation form for an important cause. Two days later, the school sent home another flyer for the lice check, this time without the ad on the other side. Presumably this was annoying to the school, to parents, and in fact costly, as they ended up having to send the flyer out twice due to bad IA.
Since then, I've been mulling over in my head what could be said to the administrator responsible for sending out the initial flyer - what would be a good basic IA rule that the school could use to make sure they didn't waste paper and resources due to bad design decisions? What could prevent the person in the office from saying, I know what's a good idea! I'll just print the lice ad on the back side of the permission slip and save some paper! without thinking that perhaps the flyers might be placed into school folders with the ad side facing out.
In the end I came up with two rules, both of which are obvious IA rules but which need to be applied to the offline world as well:
The reason the school used one piece of paper instead of two was probably to save money. Or maybe to save effort. Either way, someone thought it would be a good shortcut. But when it comes to communicating useful information, shortcuts come at a price. IAs are constantly encountering clients who want to skimp by not doing usability, by starting a sitemap without first determining user goals or personas. A perfect example comes from quora.com, where someone posted asking for advice on the TED.com home page. I took a quick look at the home page and saw that no one had done any up front IA on the site. The home page was a morass of video clips with ambiguous filtering tools on the side. Is this really why people are coming to the TED site? To watch a random assortment of video clips? TED clearly didn't do any gathering of user goals, didn't determine what users might actually be looking for on the home page, and ended up in the same boat as my son's schools' lice flyer.
Get A Second Opinion
The person in the school's office making the flyer should have taken the flyer, walked down the hall to three people and said, hey, what do you think of my lice flyer? Odds are that at least one of them would have replied, it looks like an ad. You don't have to conduct a big user test to get feedback, just step outside the office and ask someone. It doesn't really matter what you're designing, it could be a lice flyer, the TED site, or the Florida ballot - any of these would benefit from even the smallest amount of user testing.
None of this is earth shattering, but it needs to happen. So we can do things like go to TED conferences. And eliminate lice.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Good and bad information design is everywhere. Sometimes, a task as simple as paying to park your car in a garage can expose you to both ends of the spectrum. This week, a couple of business appointments gave me the chance to do just that.
My first appointment was in downtown Boston. As I entered the parking garage, I noticed a large sign hanging overhead, indicating that this was one of those garages where you pay in the building lobby before you get back to your car. Ordinarily, I take my ticket with me anyhow just in case that information is sprung on me later. Call me efficient; call me lazy; but when I’m ready to go, I want to go.
But what if I hadn’t noticed that sign? Clearly, someone had thought of that. In addition:
- There was a sign on the machine where you take your ticket.
- There was a sign on the wall as you wait for the elevator, both in the garage and in the building lobby.
- The payment machines were smack in front of you as you exit the elevator into the lobby, and say something along the lines of “Pay here before you go” in large type.
- As you wait for the elevator to go back down to the parking garage, a computerized voice reminds you to pay before returning to your car, at the machine looming 6 inches behind you.
While I was almost starting to feel assaulted by this information, I noted with gratitude all of the opportunities that had been capitalized on to apprise me of this practice. Normally, I side with the user by default in all circumstances, but if you somehow missed ALL of these hints about paying before you go…truly, you’re in your own world.
Compare this to my experience the very next day, taking the Amtrak Acela to NYC from a suburb south of Boston. As I entered the parking garage, there was no indication of needing to pay before leaving, but as is my practice, I took my ticket along anyhow.
Cut to 14 hours later as I’m dragging my weary self back to my car at 11pm that night. I took my ticket, cash AND my debit card out of my wallet (being a true IA, I had worked out all of the payment “what ifs” in advance) and drove to the gate. It was unmanned, so I put aside the cash and got ready to debit my way to freedom and the road home.
I put my ticket in the slot and received a message on the small screen saying “Unpaid ticket. See cashier”. There’s no cashier in sight and I’m starting to get a little nervous. Then I noticed, down below my line of sight, a small sign saying “Pay at the machine on level 3 before you leave. Thank you!”
Wait…what? There were innumerable ways to provide this information to me before this point, but instead, I’m being informed of the practice NOW, as I sit in front of the unmoving gate? Now I’m That Guy (or Gal, as it were) who has to put her car in reverse and make ALL of the other people in line back up so I can do a thousand-point turn to get out. I sheepishly waved my thanks to the other patrons (none of whom even looked at me; 11pm on a cold winter night is not high time for sympathy) and parked my car to head back into the building.
All of the cashier windows were closed for the night, there was no one else around, and no signage indicated where to pay for parking. I saw a kiosk, but that was to get your train tickets. I vaguely recalled something about level 3 on the sign, so up I went. Lo and behold, there were some payment machines tucked off to the side. From here, my transaction and exit were simple, but I was considerably annoyed.
One interesting thing to note is that I paid $33 to park for two hours when I had my good experience; and $5 to park all day for my lousy experience. Did paying so much money entitle me to a better experience? Maybe – the frustration I would have felt would have been compounded by the high price. That said, I do not think that the bargain rate at the train station makes it acceptable to have to run the gauntlet of aggravation that I did.
What I am sure of, though, is that the whole experience still beat the hell out of most air travel that I’ve done. But that’s a whole different blog post.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Here's a great resource for winning those arguments and others, from Web Designer Depot: Usability Resources to Win Arguments
Friday, January 14, 2011
Here’s what happened. Every day I face this usability nightmare going into and out of my apartment complex:
Apparently, someone ordered the wrong elevator buttons and signage. I live on the fourth floor but several times a day I have to remember to push the fifth floor button instead. So how did this labeling mistake end in a potentially uncomfortable social situation? Let’s look at it step by step and, because this is a blog about information architecture, consider the implications for good interaction design:
1. User Expectations
The first and most obvious problem I faced was bad labeling. I pushed “4” expecting to go to the fourth floor. This is a pretty obvious mistake in the design of my elevator, but labeling that meets user expectations can be a difficult challenge when it comes to interaction design. One of the primary tasks of an information architect is to come up with sensible labels and to group information within those labels in a way that meets user expectations. If simple logic doesn’t work, I usually fall back on industry standards to help solve the problem, which brings us to the next topic.
2. User Conditioning
I know that my elevator buttons are labeled wrong, so why did I push the “4” button anyway despite repeated use of the same elevator? One answer lies in the idea of user conditioning.
In interaction design, industry standards and best practices often exist because they are consistent with user conditioning (see this series for an interesting article on user habits). For example, the L-shaped navigation model is an industry standard because westerners are culturally conditioned to read left to right and top to bottom. Also, because it is used so frequently, users are further conditioned to recognize this pattern.
I’ve navigated thousands of buildings that have elevators in my life. In the vast majority of them the numbers in the elevator are the same as the numbers of the floor. Even though I know the label is wrong, I’m conditioned to push “4” and go to the fourth floor so it is very difficult for me to break out of this mental habit.
Even if it might be theoretically easy for a user to learn a different behavior (I can imagine the construction foreman of my complex shrugging his shoulders and saying “Oh they’ll figure it out”), don’t veer from standards without good reason. If you are being experimental or absolutely must place content in an unexpected place then you are going to have to work hard to shake users out of their conditioning.
3. Zombie Browsing and Banner Blindness
I really love the term “Zombie Browsing Effect” as used by Dawson in his article Human Behavior Theories That Can be Applied to Web Design. To paraphrase, zombie browsing, is the tendency to ignore information that is not directly related to a user’s immediate task or need. This is particularly prevalent after repeated use of a site. Dawson says this is why grocery stores sometimes change their layouts, and I’m sure it is behind Amazon’s thinking when they switch up the organization of their website from time to time.
A related idea is that of banner blindness. This is the tendency of users to ignore things that look like banners or are placed in typical banner positions (top of page, right of page) on a website.
Something like zombie browsing or banner blindness partially explains the next step in my story. I made it out of the elevator and into the hall without noticing a problem. There are at least three signs along the way to tell me I’m on the wrong floor, but these are all such common environmental objects that they were completely invisible to me.
4. Muscle memory
The other explanation for this step in my journey could be chalked up to muscle memory. Muscle memory is most often discussed in relation to athletic training. It’s the idea that a repeated movement will become ingrained and instinctual. I’ve always been fascinated with how easy it is to walk or drive somewhere and suddenly realize that you’ve ended up somewhere else entirely, like the house you used to live in. You’ve traveled that route so many times that once you cross it again your body takes over and guides you down the usual path. This is similar to the zombie browsing effect problem but is much more physical and fundamental in nature.
Muscle memory is an important factor to consider in interaction design. It is one of the key arguments behind making navigational patterns consistent. If you place a “more information” icon at the bottom right hand corner of images in your interface, you should always place it there because once they are used to it, users will automatically seek that position. It is even more important to be aware of standards. Users will have picked up muscle memory from other sites and other interfaces. Even if it is consistent throughout your site, placing a cancel button where a save button usually goes is likely to result in some frustration on the part of the user.
So back to my story, after stepping off the elevator and completely ignoring all signage, my legs took over for a zombie-like march to “my front door”.
5. Visual Clues
Which brings me to the final step. If there were some more obvious visual clues, like, say, the third floor was painted blue and the fourth floor was painted yellow, I probably wouldn’t have ended up at my neighbor’s door without noticing, but the two floors are identical.
The idea of landmarks and creation of physical identity is a keystone in the design of physical wayfinding systems. This idea also has application to virtual navigation systems. (See Mark A. Foltz’s thesis for an excellent discussion.)
While you shouldn’t go overboard and sacrifice consistency for the sake of wayfinding, it is important that different sections of a site have some slight variation. This may be largely a visual designer’s game, but information architects can help in terms of the content selected for highlighting on some pages and possibly with slight variations to layout or space given to content.
Of course, standards like breadcrumbs, and highlighting location on navigational bars can be helpful once the user has snapped out of zombie mode and figured out they are lost.
So where did I end up? Repeatedly jiggling my key in my neighbor's door and a half step away from some angry knocking. Thankfully, I snapped out of my zombie mode in time to see the numbers “308” magically materialize on the door I was assaulting. I was able to slink away quietly before my neighbor came to investigate the disturbance.
By looking at some basic interaction design principals I’ve been able to reassure myself that this incident wasn’t a sign of mental deficiency, I’m just a typical human being. Keep some of these concepts in mind when you are designing and maybe you can save your users from the same concern.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Monday, January 10, 2011
Friday, January 7, 2011
"And what are those P's?" he asked.
I looked more closely at the map and noticed that there were indeed little P symbols all over the place. I stared at them for a minute, wondering if perhaps this was some clever function the map designers had implemented where you could look up hotels, restaurants or something else on the map, before I realized I was staring at a map of all the parking garages in the city.
So let me ask: when you're in a cab, what is the only thing you without a doubt DO NOT need? That would be a parking garage. Congrats, NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission - well played.
In the event that the TLC decides to do something useful with the map, here are a few things people in cabs might actually need displayed on a map:
- transportation hubs (we were traveling from Grand Central Station, and astonishingly it wasn't indicated on the map)
- major tourist attractions (wouldn't it be nice for tourists to hop into a cab and see all the places they want to visit?)
- the ability to enter an address and see on the map where it is (any GPS can do it, you can too)
- traffic (Google does it, why can't you?)
- estimated time to one's destination
In the mean time, we'll all just wave to parking garages as we pass by.