Archive for the 'humour' Category

Culture, gender, and why Kartoo’s interface isn’t inclusive.

I’m not going to write about Kartoo’s interface in general in this post, beyond saying that the clustering is poor, the seaqrch results are uninspiring, the visual cues are unhelpful at best (and an accessibility problem at worst–those little moving stars could trigger seizures in someone with a seizure disorder).  Basically, Kartoo isn’t a very good search engine, ad it doesn’t have a very good interface.  Many of my colleagues have said much the same thing, and I don’t need to re-hash it here.

Since the 23 Things has started, however, the interface has changed.  Many weeks ago, when I looked at Kartoo, there was a graphic of a windsurfing genie, which I found to be uncomfortable at best: It had no relation to anything else to do with the site, and played on cultural stereotypes, which potentially alienates large groups of users either by offending them, or by playing on a metaphor they do not understand and cannot engage with (in this case I think the metaphor was supposed to mean that this magical being could help you surf the web).

With the change in interface, however, the genie has been moved off his windsurf board and into the corner of the interface, and a new character has been introduced:

Kartoo's female character in skimpy clothing

Yes, that’s right, an exoticised image of a woman with a figure designed to be appealing to the male gaze, and wearing very little clothing.  What you can’t see from this still image is that the light behind her torso pulsates as you wait for your search results to load.  This is insensitive at best, and sexist and racist at worst.  It is likely to offend a wide range of users, from feminists to those who see the female body as sacred and something that should be covered modestly (as is the case in many religions). I’m sure it is supposed to be ‘fun’, but in fact a large number of users (including yours truly) will see it as a sign that Kartoo was not designed to appeal to them, and has little to offer them.  Given that it does not add anything helpful to the user experience (for example the pulsating light does not pulsate faster to tell you your results are nearly ready), this can be seen as a serious misstep by Kartoo in terms of the user experience (unless they only want to appeal to a certain demographic).

This example really highlights the risks involved in using metaphors, particularly culturally loaded ones.  Many cultures understand metaphors quite differently than one would expect, for example the Maori (minority indigenous gorup in New Zealand) understanding of a ‘library’ is quite different to the New Zealand European understanding, and acts as a barrier to Maori accessing useful, relevant information ind a digital library (as reported in Duncker, 2002).  Metaphor can be very useful if used carefully, for example the desktop metaphor was one of the driving factors behind usable personal computing.  However, if ill-used, metaphor and cultural artefacts can confuse, offend, and actively drive away users.  Have you ever been offended or confused by a metaphor that didn’t fit your understanding or cultural values?

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Not that helpful

I was filling in an online form the other day and I got to the anti-spam device. This is what I saw:

If I literally “can’t read” then the way out isn’t going to help me much. On the other hand if I am (for example) red-green colourblind (as many people are) I may have trouble reading the text they presented here regardless of my reading abilities. I think it’s probably best to stick with the stock-standard “can’t read this?”, personally.

Humour vs. computers, and the importance of usability

Computers, unlike any tool in history, seem to be the butt of a number of jokes. Sometimes it is about the stupidity of they way a computer talks to us:

Press any key

Sometimes it is a common irritation with a feature designed to be helpful:

P*** off, clippy.

In a certain type of siege mentality, even the images of someone finally losing it with their computer are humourous:

Sadly, though, the frustrations our computers create for us are not always funny. Sometimes, as in this 2003 case, they are dangerous — a man shot his computer four times in a fit of rage that he could not do what he wanted to do. Anyone who has done a course on human computer interaction will almost certainly have seen the beer taps used to replace levers in a nuclear power plant to make it easier for workers to distinguish “the big red button” and not press it.

While the cost of bad user interfaces is not usually counted in danger, it is incredibly pervasive. A 2001 survey of 6000 computer users showed an average of 5.1 hours wasted per week grappling with computer problems, and frankly, I don’t think much has changed since then. Think of the last time you called a call centre, or asked a retailer if they could order something they didn’t have in store. How many times did they apologise for having difficulty with the computer, and taking so long? How much time did you spend standing there, or hanging on the line? Were you, as I was yesterday in a shoe store, sympathetic, and slightly embarrassed?

We create jokes like those above because computers make us feel bad — they make us angry, they make us feel stupid, they waste our time, and the things designed to help us (like Clippy) are often insulting. User interfaces designed with users in mind, like iPods and Nokia cellphones engender tremendous loyalty because they don’t create those negative feelings. While I am sure that their competitors may be technically just as brilliant, I have never used them because I like my iPod and my Nokia, and because user experience is at least as much who I am as what I do, I take poor user interfaces very personally.

There are two things everyone who uses computers can do to break out of the siege of wasted time, danger, and outright rage that computers impose:

  • Buy the products that irritate you the least. Look for user reviews and see whether the company has a user focus (right now there is a radio ad for navman that mentions usability specifically). When a product frustrates you, if possible, complain to the company that made it. If there is a customer service line, call it — this costs the company money (as poor usability should).
  • If you are designing a product or service, once you have made sure that that product or service is useful, make sure it is also usable. Being useful means you haven’t wasted money on a product no-one will use, but usability will save everyone time and blood pressure.

Computer humour is fun, but it’s black humour. I’d rather not need to resort to humour to cope with my daily interactions with, what are (when all is said and done) tools.


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