Archive for the 'system design' Category

Consumer trends in business applications?

ERP software analyst Stephen Jannise from SoftwareAdvice.com ecently emailed me with a link to an interesting post about social and e-commerce software trends that could be implemented in business-based software.  Trends he highlights include Twitter-like feeds, the ‘like’ button on facebook, and Google’s search autocomplete.

I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen’s perspective on each of the features he covers, but I don’t want to post about why now, because he’s running a poll and I don’t want to screw up the results for him by introducing bias. Having said that, his post raises some really interesting ideas, so get over to his palce and read the post and vote in his poll–once he posts the results (which he is going to make public), I’ll comment on the features myself.

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.

Password masking, and the difference between usability and user experience

Recently Jakob Nielsen recommended removing the little black dots that come up when you type in a password, and having your password come up in clear text instead.  He had some pretty good reasons for recommending this including:

  • Increased password security
  • Mobile usability
  • Error prevention

However, Nielsen also recognises that there are some situations and some passwords (for example banking passwords) where the security outweighs usability. You can read more in his article about the matter here.

Responses to his idea ran the gamut from wholehearted agreement (by a security expert no less)  through tentative disagreement to pretty strong disagreement.

There has been some comment on the sociotechnical aspects of password masking, including using masking as a reminder to users that they ought to keep their passwords secure, and a discussion about the reasons why many people are uncomfortable with masking.

Other responses suggested solutions to the problem, including displaying only the most recently typed character (like on the iPhone), and giving the user the option to unmask (rather than mask) a password.

I completely understand the usability reasons for unmasking passwords, and I agree with what Jakob Nielsen is saying, up to a point.  My preferred option, out of all the ones suggested though, is the last option, where a user can choose to unmask a password, and my reasons for this are a common context of password use, which I will illustrate with an example:

I’ve just finished a large group project to launch a new library catalogue; we did a lot of collaborative work, and spent a lot of time using computers that projected onto a large screen.  We frequently read email to remember discussions we’d had about the system, manage links, manage to-do lists and generally remind us what was going on (this is a really common way–PDF of storing “stuff” in one’s headspace), and the system had components we had to log into.  We were logging into and out of systems left and right, and always on a big screen. I work at an institution with a single sign-on–this means your password for the HR system where you manage your payroll and salary, your library password, your email password–they’re all the same thing (bear in mind, single sign-on is good for security, users are less likely to use bad passwords if they only have to remember a few of them). Even more frequently than we had these meetings, two or more of us would be clustered around a desk testing some aspect of the new library system that required a log in or out.

I can’t imagne that either of these scenarios is uncommon in the workplace, meaning that in Nielsen’s world users would all share their passwords.  Similarly, I imgaine it is fairly common in social contexts, particularly with shared hosues and computers. Sharing passwords is undesirable at best, and I don’t need to describe how much damage one bad apple in a workplace could do under such circumstances–and it would be extremely difficult to track down who that person was, and what they had done when a large group of individuals all knew each others’ passwords.  Not only that, with single sign on passwords provide access to confeidential and sensitive information, including (at my institition) email, leave details, salary details and library details.

Just like with Nielsen’s solution, having characters disappear one character at a time essentially clear-texts your password to anyone who happens to be present, leaving the only options to balance security and usability as the check-box options.  Nielsen suggests that the checkbox be “hide”, but I disagree.  The social implications of a “hide” box are that you have to make the decision to hide your password from your colleagues or loved ones or friends in front of them, which sets up the potential for interesting dynamics around trust in professional and personal social interactions.  My preference would be an “unhide” box that implies it is simply natural to keep one’s password hidden–thereby avoiding any issues of trust in situations where otherwhise passwords might be shared.

The problem with Nielsen’s approach is that it is a purist usability approach.  If all we cared about was making systems more usable, absolutely it would be right to expose everyone’s pasword, and have the option to hide it occassionally as necessary.  This could lead to extremely uncomfortable social situations in both the work and personal spheres, though and as such is poor design of user experience, which takes the context of use into account–and I can’t recommend something that would so frequently lead to bad user experience.

So, what do you think?  Should we all show each other our passwords?

Help text: What it isn’t for

My life has been interesting lately: We’re implementing a new library catalogue which also means re-implementing most of the library web-site.  This has meant the need, in some cases, for new help text, and while I am not a technical writer, I have done some technical writing in the past, so I got the job (that, and I put my hand up for it since everyone is busy).

In preparation for writing the help text I needed to write, I reviewed a lot of other help text, and I found a pretty common mistake: Using help text to fix up  problems with an interface.

One of the help texts I reviewed was for the search history component of a search service.  This service automatically kept all the recent searches, and allowed users to save searches more permanently, and file these saved searches away in different folders for later recall.

The help text for this service explained to users what ‘this session’s queries’ and ‘saved queries’ were, and identified the non-standard icons used for moving searches between folders. Help text in this case is a band-aid for the mistakes made in system design: the word ‘searches’ should have been used in place of the word queries, and if the folder system could not be made drag-and-drop, the icons should probably have been replaced by words (or at least standard icons).  This would have dramatically cut down the need for help text, and more importantly (given that only a tiny minority of users read help text), improve the general usability of this feature.

Whiel the feature described above was a pretty clear example of using help text the wrong way, it was far from the only example I could draw on, and this is fairly disappointing. Help text is for systems that are genuinely complex, not for putting a band-aid over poor user interface design.  When was the last time you had to read the manual to do something simple?

Usability means sustainability: a note on world usability day

Today is world usability day, and the theme this year is sustainability.  I can undertsand if that might seem like a bizarre combination, or if it might appear that world usability day has jumped on some kind of bandwagon.  I don’t think the two are wildly unrelated, and I think it is timely that world usability day recognises the relationship.  The relationship comes into play in a number of ways, from better designed living spaces and cities down to feedback to technology users about their real impact, but today I want to focus on two issues: efficiency, and computer supported co-operative work.

Efficiency is, in my opinion, a really big way better usability can contribute to improved sustainability.  Consider that Ben Shneiderman found out 8 years ago that the average person spends 5.1 hours per week grappling with computer problems.  If even 25% of those people would otherwise spend those 5.1 hours doing something that didn’t require electricity, that is a huge environmental saving.  Consider also the case of Lufthansa flight 2904 where cockpit usability problems constributed the death of two people, and the scrapping of an aircraft or the Therac 25 usability problems which caused the death of two people and necessitated considerable medical treatment for two others; both of these cases highlight social, financial and environmental sustainability problems that might have been avoided with better usability.  More mundanely, consider workplace injuries caused by poor ergonomic design, or the tim you spend looking up help files: each of these is a loss in efficiency due to poor system design and lack of usability testing. Every loss in efficiency we suffer due to poor system design or technological troubles is a way that usability (measuring how real people interact wit that system)  might have produced a more sustainable product or system.

Computer Supported Co-operative Work is another area for significant growth in sustainability.  This research field has a rich hsitory of contributing to the ways in which we work, and promotes some real sustainability gains.  CSCW has been the genesis of ideas that allow us to travel less (because we can collaborate online–there are some things for which you have to be there in person, but meetins are no longer one of them), print less (because we can share and review documents online) and share ideas more readily (because electronic dissemination is so lightweight). In their own ways, each of these advantages of sharing an electronic workspace contributes to sustainability (particularly given that travel and paper are not incosiderable contributors to environmental problems) , and I have no doubt that CSCW will continue to provide stepping stones to sustanability gains in the future.

I could talk about any number of other ways that usability helps create a more sustainable world, but I need to get off this computer and go and do something requiring no electricity.  In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend this post on ways you can check the usability of behaving sustanably in your area.  What are the barriers you face in living sustainably that could be improved with better system design?

Voyage: A road to nowhere

Voyage is a novel feed reader that displays content in a 3D-appearing space, and despite my well-documented reservations about 3D interfaces, I tried to give Voyage a go.  I have to assume that Voyage is not actually a production-level RSS service, but rather a demonstration system, because it is lacking some fundamental features of RSS readers including:

  • Personalisation: You can’t create your own account on Voyage, which would mean you had to re-add your feeds every time you visited the site.
  • RSS search: Voyage forces you to know the RSS URL of the feed you want to access–not the name of the site or the site URL, but the RSS URL.  This is a big ask of the average user
  • Reading: To actually read any interesting RSS feeds you leave Voyage and go to the original site, even in cases where the feed is full-text (rather than an “atom”).
  • Pictures: The site does not display pictures. This is a bit of a problem for picture-oriented blogs like I Can Has Cheezburger

Given these limitations, this display feels more like a discovery service for new blogs (along the lines of the liveplasma music and movie discovery service), but it does not have the back-end database of recommendations.  Either way, there are considerable usability problems with this interface:

  • The text is not clear and readable
  • The 3D-ness of the interface doesn’t add anything (the only dimension that appears to have any meaning at all is the forward and back one), and does make things harder to find (indeed, included in the 23 things task is the “add a feed and try to find it” puzzle).  Given that 3D interfaces perform deomnstrably (PDF) worse in information organisation tasks, and this interface does not have to be 3D, this is a serious usability concern
  • The feeds area looks as though you ought to be able to click n the feeds to go to them.  Instead clicking on them deletes them, which given that you need to know the feed URL of a site to add it, is a high cost error for a simple action
  • It simply isn’t clear what many of the interface elements (space, colour, the horizontal line) mean, making the interface difficult to learn
  • it is difficult to navigate back “out”once you have selected something, meaning that the navigation is difficult and actions cannot be easily undone

Each of these concerns is in contravention of at least one of this excellent list of usability first principles, meaning that basically Voyage is hard to use.  Not only is it difficult to use, but it doesn’t offer either a decent feed reader or an interesting discovery service, so there is nothing in the user experience that is compelling enough to entice users back.  Maybe in a couple of years this concept will be more fully fleshed out, but in the mean time I am going to stick with Google Reader, which does reading and recommendations very well indeed.


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