Archive for the 'real-world' Category

What’s not being considered in the MEL train debate: User experience

As a frequent traveller, I’ve noticed the long drawn out debate about whether Melbourne ought to have a train to the airport has heated up again this year, possibly as a result of Victoria’s transport minister Martin Pakula saying it isn’t a priority. I have to be honest, I have a vested interest in the outcome of all this. As an expat Kiwi living in Melbourne who travels home regularly and has experienced the best and the worst travelling to the airport has to offer, I’m firmly in the pro-train camp–but the reasons for this are more than just my personal best interest, as we shal explore below.

Those arguing for rail point out that it could bring signficant money to Melbourne, that Melbourne is growing (as is the congestion on the Tullamarine freeway), and that it is a necessary competition to the exhorbitant parking fees paid by those who drive to the airport (this last from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission). Those arguing against a train claim it is not needed and likely to be uneconomic, based on experiences in Sydney and Brisbane, and that a travel time of 40 minutes each way to the airport during peak time is acceptable.

At present there are three main options for getting to and from the Melbourne Airport:

All of the currently available options have significant negatives for all users: those in Melbourne on business can expect to lose nearly two hours of their day travelling between the CBD and the airport; disabled travellers may have trouble getting to and from the airport at all; the first and last thing tourists see of Melbourne is either the SkyBus or a taxi, both of whch travel on the congested Tullamarine Freeway; and regular travellers face the choice between the possibility of a long wait at the airport if they allow sufficient time for traffic or (and I speak from experience here) cutting it hair-raisingly close to missing an international flight. Things are sufficiently bad that it makes sense to have a rail link simply on the basis of the improved experience of those who need to get to and from the airport–and if the planners that be get it right, the improved user experience will also make a train make economic sense.

Women in tech, inclusive design, and the lesson Apple learned today

Women are clearly a minority in tech fields, both in education and in the workforce.  There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, including cultural attitudes, lack of mentorship and outright hostility to women in tech. This post isn’t about the cause of having so few women in tech, though–it’s about the results. People tend to design for themselves, particularly in tech–and this is perfectly expected, but it does mean that with the paucity of women in tech fields, the design work in tech is not often done with women in mind. Testing on people not-like-designers who use or might use the thing you design is pretty much the core of usability.  Given that women do purchase and use technology, if possible it’s worth including some of us in any design team and it’s always worth including them in the testing phase of any product they might use, because they might just see it differently (this principle also applies to products that might be used by children or the elderly or anyone who is a target market for any product, particularly where they are not represented on the design team).  Back to women, though: today Apple has learned about including woment he hard way.

Today Apple announced their much awaited new toy.  As many people predicted, it is a tablet, and they have called it the iPad.  The name has problems, including the phonemic similarity to iPod which one of my workmates pointed out, but more embarrassingly for Apple the connotations that immediately led to not Apple, nor iPad, but iTampon being a trending topic on Twitter and some pretty vicious skwereing on sites like adfreak

Apple's iPad spoof advertisement showing feminine hygiene product

This isn’t the first time Apple has forgotten women in it’s design process, I’ve already blogged about the direction of the clip on the iPod shuffle. Despite the free publicity, though, this is the one they might learn from–being ridiculed all over the internet probably wasn’t what they hoped for with this announcement. Apple may well have had women in their design process (there is a strange kind of groupthink that goes on on team-based design where people miss things that would bee seen by anyone outside the team), but they clearly didn’t test on a diversity of women.

The name of this product shows it wasn’t designed with me in mind, and makes me a little less likely to buy it as a result–this design, like the clip on the shuffle isn’t inclusive.  Obviously not enough people complained about the shuffle, and Apple didn’t understand the need to include women in design and testing.  I bet they will next time, though, and I hope other companies have seen Apple’s mistake and learned something too.

Global corporate challenge not that global: Where on my dress do I put this pedometer?

Today is the first day of the global corporate challenge (or GCC), a challenge where you team up with six of your closest workmates and try to walk 10,000 steps (or more) per day each.  The theory is that by increasing workers’ average number of steps from 3,500 (the stated pre-challenge average on the GCC web site) to 10,000, those who participate in the challenge will see an increase in health and wellbeing from their increased activity levels.

Making people feel better is an admirable goal, and despite the wider issues with the GCC (for example prioritisation of walking over all other forms of activity, as evidenced by the ridiculously stingy cycle to walk conversion, the “speeding ticktets” issued for those who do too much exercise, and the relatively rigid defninition of an athlete) both testimonials and research show that it is helping at least some of its participants to feel better, and that’s a good thing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am regular exerciser (on average 6 days per week) who does a variety of types of exercise (cycling, walking, aerobics, weight training, swimming, yoga…), who is female, and who is participating in the GCC.  As a participant, and as a usability consultant I have one major problem with how things work within the parameters of the GCC:  The pedometers we have been issued.

The rules of the GCC state that steps can only be entered from the official GCC pedometer (each participant gets two pedometers at the beginning of the challenge).  Given that one could reasonably expect that approximately 50% of participants are likely to be women (or maybe slightly more, if we take into account that cross culturally, women appear to walk more than men (PDF)) the choice of pedometer design for the challenge seems less than ideal.

The pedometer is the type designed to be worn on a waistband, completely upright, at one’s hip.  Moreover it does not have the type of clip that opens and closes, but rather it slides down over the top of a waistband.  This makes it considerably difficult to wear with a wide variety of women’s clothing:

  • Women’s trouser styles are much more likely to have trousers stop at the waist (or above the hip) than men
  • Skirts are often held up by women’s hips, meaning they too sit higher than the ideal for pedometer placement
  • Dresses leave nowhere to clip the pedometer at all. Given that this is a coroporate challenge, and women  are in some corporations required to wear a skirt (and that even where it is not required, in some places it is recommended), the pedometer not really working with a dress seems a considerable oversight)
  • Belts and sashes make the pedometer difficult to clip on because of the thickness of the material
  • The style of clip means the pedometer is much more likely than an open-close clip to come off when trousers are pulled down–arguably something women are likely to do more often than men.

There are alternative styles of pedometer (including those that can be worn around the neck or placed in a bag, and watch-style pedometers), so I assume that the pedometer chosen by the GCC was based on some combination of accuracy and price. In my opinion, neither accuracy nor price can justify the difficulty presented to women by this model of pedometer (when alternatives are available.  Clip-style pedometers are only accurate when worn at all (impossible with some women’s clothing), and worn in the right place, so many women’s readings will not be accurate.  The entry fee for the GCC was nearly $100 AUD per person, and for this it would seem considerably more sensible to supply participants with pedometers that actually count all their steps accurately, rather than providing backpacks, hats, water bottles and extra pedometers.

Like the clip-style ipod shuffle, it feels like the organisers of the GCC just didn’t think about the whole population when they were making design decisions, and as a result of this women participants are disadvantaged (at least in terms of their step count, if not in terms of their actual gained benefit).  To let the organisers know for next year, I will be emailing a link to this blog post to their follow up email, included on the pedometer box, and I encourage all other participants to do the same.

Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to participating in the challenge, and perhaps learning something about my daily habits (I’m well over the 3,500 average workers make without having done any actual targeted steps, so it is nice to know that I am not as sedentary as the average worker, for example).  If only I could figure out where to clip the thing for those two weddings I have to go to…

The new Facebook: Not yet unfriended by users, but close

Facebook recently made a change to their interface that was the subject of outrage for many of their users, inspiring more than 1.7 million to sign a petition to reject it.  Facebook has made some changes to accomodate some of the things users said were problems, but many of the changes (including the slower-to-render rounded corners on pictures) appear to be here to stay.

Initially I was mildly irritated by the new interface, but I put it down to my change aversion (users near-universally hate change, which is why if you’re making major changes, they better help users out substantially).  However, as time has gone on, I have become more irritated with the new interface, not less.  As I see it, there are a few problems with the new interface:

  • The proliferation of nonsense in my news feed, without an option to show status updates only.  Yes, I can turn the rubbish from every application off, if I want to, but this requires effort on my part, and will happen every time a new crop of applications becomes popular.  It’s also fairly irritating that I had to go to a help guide to even find out how to do this much, because the mechanism for operating these options is hidden unless you happen to look in the right place at the right time.
  • Another side of the same coin: having to edit applications not to publish my life story immediately upon adding them.  I don’t particularly want to bombard my friends with nonsense every time I play a turn in Lexulous.  This means I have to be particularly pro-active in editing the settings for my applications so that they don’t bombard people, and the function for editing this is reasonably difficult to find
  • The lack of automatic updating.  I know the old interface didn’t have it, but the trade off for change was supposed to be that we got automatic updating. This change has had no benefit for me, so I resent the fact that the one useful thing that was supposed to happen didn’t.

Do I think no interface should ever change their look and feel?  Absolutely not.  Do I think that Facebook should have done some usability testing before lanching this design?  For sure.  Do I think they did?  Dubious at best.  The Facebook approach, which is one that will always generate negative publicity, is to test their designs on real live users.

According to this blog post, the best way to plan change requires four steps: knowing your customers, listening to them, communicating with them, and responding to them. I think that sounds pretty good–pretty much like doing good user experience, in fact.  And Facebook didn’t do too badly, on a points system–they did warn users (albeit not in a way that most users would notice), and they did respond to some of the complaints users had (albeit not in a way that is really that satisfying).  Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose which things you want out of that list–good user experience requires all of them.

Nonetheless, I think many (if not most) Facebook users will suck up the changes, even though they don’t like them, because for now, Facebook offers them more than the changes have taken away.  Having said that, though, like I said in my earlier post about Facebook and MySpace, people have personal purposes for using social networking tools.  If Facebook continues to change in a way that breaks that purpose (as the first iteration of these changes did), they will find that users (and thus their advertising dollars) drift away.

What product or service have you used that has slowly worn away at your loyalty until you couldn’t stand it any more?

When things go wrong, communicate

In three separate instances recently, I have been frustrated by poor communication on the part of service industries I deal with.

In the first instance I was drastically affected by an airline schedule change, and it was not made at all clear to me what my options were–and when I worked it out and tried to to take advantage of the best option for me, the airline tried to charge me for it, claiming I had “already agreed to the schedule change”.  To be fair, I did eventually get what I needed with no additional fees to pay, and I was thrilled, but it seems a bit sad to be thrilled by an airline doing the right thing.

In the second, I found out that my favourite class was being cancelled at my local recreation centre from feedback they posted publically to another class, saying they would be moving that class into the room we had previously occupied.

In the third case, I was phoned the day before a booked appointment to say that I would not be able to keep my appointment (and offered two less convenient times as alternatives) because the professional I was to see was “not in”.  When I pressed to try and see the person with whom I had an existing relationship, I was told they had left the business.  This from a business that would charge me a 50% cancellation fee if I were to cancel within 24 hours of an appointment.

In all three of these cases, the disappointing thing that happened was inevitable, and I am not blaming the companies concerned for what happened.  What I am blaming them for, and what really made me angry, was their inability to communicate with me properly and in a timely fashion about the issues which affected me, and the paucity of alternatives I was offered (at least in the first and third cases).

Things go wrong in life, particularly in those industries where a product and a service are sold together.  In most cases users will be pretty forgiving if they understand what has gone wrong, and you communicate with them and explain what their options are from the outset.  In the instances where something goes wrong, communication is the key to keeping a user as happy as it is humanly possible to do, and keeping them using your service rather than anyone else’s.

Has anyone else had an experience where communication made the difference between grudging satisfaction and outright annoyance?

One of these things is not like the others: Livingsocial’s recommender services

Last year I did an experiment: I logged every book I read, complete with tags about timing, subject matter, fiction or non-, andf themes, in Google books.  This was inherently satisfying to my curiosity (63 books last year, 24 of whiuch were non fiction), but was lacking something I’m interested in: a recommendation feature.

During the year, I discovered I could also log my books in Facebook, in a service that does have a recommender feature based on ratings (but no tags, sadly–I know, I should have just used librarything in the first damn place).  Thus I entered the exciting world of LivingSocial, which accepts ratings for books, albums, movies…and restaurants.

While I haven’t bothered too much with the music recommender service (though I should try, since my taste is all over the place), but I have found the book service and the movie service to be quite exciting–I’ve seen lots of books and movies I want to read/see.  So when I noticed last night that they also had a restaurant section, I was cautiously excited: I love food and I am always looking for places to try, but I suspected that it might be a US-only service.  It’s not, but I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, mostly because it doesn’t take into account the differences between books/movies/albums and restaurants:

  • Availability of large, relatively comprehensive catalogues: There are a wide range of relatively-comprehensive online catalogues for books and movies–think Amazon or LibraryThing. The same is not true for restaurants: there may be listings in the local yellow pages for some towns, some of which may be available online, but these listings would be difficult to harvest and far from comprehensive.  As a response to this, Livcingsocial will actually allow you to add your own restaurant listings, but only after you have rated 20 restaurants.  If you don’t do a lot of travelling, and your city doesn’t have any restaurants listed, this could be a bit difficult.
  • Location dependence: Subject to availability, playing equipment and local censorship laws, books/movies/albums may be enjoyed anywhere.  Restaurants, however, are only really available to those living or travelling (let’s be generous) within say 100 km (60 mi) of the restaurant’s physical location.
  • Amount of information required to make a decision: Everyone has certain requirements of their entertainment, for example:  some people find swearing offensive, some people dislike science fiction intensely, some people cannot abide restaurants that won’t take bookings, some people are vegetarian.  Recommendations for books/movies/music are more likely to meet people’s requirements (going back to our example those who dislike science fiction will universally rate it lower, thus feeding each other’s recommendations) and even if they don’t, it is much easier to find out ahead of time that they are bad (in the example of swearing parental advisory stickers are a good clue). In the case of restaurants, however, there are more paramters in play (food, service, noise level, ambiance, wheelchair accessibility, child-frioendliness, diaetary requirements) and this type of thing is harder to tease out in a five point rating, and often harder to discover before making the time investment to actually go to the restaurant.

The restaurant recommender is based on the same principles as the other recommenders, the amazon style “people who liked x also liked y, and you like x so you will probably like y”.  My experience with it, however, was quite frustrating: I rated a significant number of restaurants (not without some difficulty, as there aren’t that may listed in Melbourne, so I had to go to other cities I had lived in), and then clicked on “recommendations”.  Most of the recommendations were for restaurants in the US, and there was no way to generate recommendations for a a specified geographic region.  If I were travelling to the US any time soon, this might be helpful if I were going to the specific cities where restaurants were recommended for me, but generally speaking, these recommendations are useless.

The problem here is that a model that works well for small physical items has been applied to experiences, and it simply doesn’t work–making the user experience clunky and ultimately frustrating, possibly more often than it is helpful.  LivignSocial would have been better to stick with wine!

Have you ever tried a product or service from a company that did other things well only to be disappointed?

‘Giving back something broken’ undoes all your good work and then some.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Second Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, the protagonist Covenant points out that ‘there’s only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything: Give him back something broken’.  While that is certainly melodramatic for the tone of this post, it is something than rings true in user experience.  If your system does something good for users and then takes that something good away without good reason it will make the user angry.

Let me give you an example:  Long time readers of this blog will remember how pleased I was with the pre-pay option available at my local supermarket.  Recently the chain involved in that post has brought out a loyalty card which allows you to collect those four cent petrol vouchers on the card, rather than stuffed into your wallet.  This works particularly well for my partner and I, since we don’t own a car and therefore only rarely purchase petrol; it means when we do purchase petrol we can just hand over the card rather than having to remember to save the dockets and present them at the right time.

So far it all sounds pretty good, right?  The problem is, this card breaks the pre-pay option on the supermarket tills.  You can put all the information in, but when you hand the cashier your loaylty card, it cancels the transaction you have begun and forces the cahsier to start all over.

This problem takes a system that works in favour of the customer, and turns it on its head: the customer does the work of entering their information, only to have that work completely wasted.  It would be less annoying not to have the option to pre-pay in the first place. The supermarket needs to fix this problem, or remove the pre-pay option before they get into more loyalty schemes (as is happening in the next couple of months).

What experiences do you have of systems that were working really well only to turn on you at the last minute?


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