Designing with research has been easier

About ten years ago, usability testing of software got a lot easier, thanks to improved tools that let us see our products in the hands of users, along with the faces, voices, and actions of test participants. But then along came mobile devices, and usability testing of apps again became difficult.

Research needed an expensive facility

Around the turn of the century, it was possible to measure how an interface performed in the hands of customers, but that required an expensive lab that had cameras, microphones, and seats for observers behind one-way glass. In those days, only large companies had a budget for usability labs, so smaller companies made design decisions based on best guesses and opinions.

Due to budget constraints, I had no access to a usability lab. Instead, I would talk to software developers about the user interfaces we were building. “We can put text in the interface to explain how it works,” I’d say, and: “We can use different controls so it becomes more obvious how to use the product.” The developers and I were all interested in quality, but we didn’t always agree on what quality might look like. We relied on our opinions and personal biases to predict how software interfaces would perform in the hands of customers.

Then research got easy and affordable

One day, almost a decade ago, I heard about TechSmith Morae. This software was a game changer because it could turn any computer into a usability lab. TechSmith’s product evangelist, Betsy Weber and her user-research colleague, Josie Scott attended industry conferences and spoke tirelessly talked about this miracle product that could record someone’s actions—clicks and typing—along with everything on a computer screen, plus their face and voice. All we had to do was plug in a camera and microphone, because these were the days before laptops had built-in cameras and microphones. Usability practitioners embraced this product. We gave people tasks to complete while we used Morae to watch them in action.

Suddenly, we could invite developers and other stakeholders to watch live user testing from an adjacent room, where they could watch and listen in near real time. They could see the participant’s puzzled expressions. They could see where the user was mousing, what they looked at and clicked, and what they overlooked. We could also record everything and then, from the recordings, make video clips to show which parts of our software caused participants to struggle. Suddenly, it was easy to help every team member understand the plight of their customers.

One of my earliest participants, during a half-hour usability test, went from blaming herself to expressing extreme dislike of the product. For the development team, I made a video clip of the key points to show how the participant’s attitude toward the product changed from neutral to extreme dislike, over 28 minutes. The participant gave us permission to use the video for product research, but not for this blog, so I’ve paraphrased the video’s story here:

Test participant after 2 minutesTest participant after 8 minutesTest participant after 19 minutesTest participant after 28 minutes
This video was incredibly persuasive, because it showed the participant’s emotional reactions. When testing a product’s usability research, it’s humbling to see the product fail and awful to the product cause frustration and anger. But the point is to identify and fix problems before customers see it, and to get the development team thinking about involving users during the design process. (Usability testing also allowed me show user delight at innovative new features that worked well, to reinforce that our user-centered design process was working.)

Around the same time that TechSmith released Morae, Web 2.0 enabled the development of competing tools that partially overlapped with Morae’s features. The majority of these tools only worked on web pages, not on installed apps. Also, the majority of these tools did not let researchers see and hear their users in action, as you can read in the descriptions of testing tools from 2009.

Mobile made research difficult again

Much as we love mobile devices, they’ve make usability testing harder. Diverse operating systems and the free movement of mobile devices present challenges that we haven’t seen for almost a decade. While the tools that assess websites still work, there are no tools that provide rich data about installed apps. We’re back to external cameras and the rigs that hold them, and we have to ask participants to keep their phones in a fixed position for the camera. So we’re back to expensive labs and special equipment. What we need is software that can do on a mobile phone what software can already do on a laptop computer: capture and transmit

  • the app’s screen
  • the participant’s voice
  • the participant’s facial expressions
  • the participant’s taps or gestures
  • the participant’s typing or speech-to-text input

Ironically, smartphones, many tablets, and most hybrid devices have the required camera and microphone. Unfortunately, (in January 2014) no company offers software that can capture and transmit the data from mobile devices that run Android-, iOS-, Windows-, and BlackBerry operating systems. It’s especially the camera and voice data that helps researchers to understand how participants feel—are they puzzled, frustrated, or delighted?

Not giving up

Development teams tend to be made up of tenacious and skilled people—including business analysts, designers, developers—and they’ll follow the evidence. As practitioners, we want development teams to let go of the old ways and get them evolving toward evidence-based, user-centered design. And we’ll continue to look for ways to measure the empirical performance and the emotional impact of our designs, through usability testing.

Usability testing is such an excellent way to show development teams what’s usable. Building a product that is measurably more usable leads to persuasive case studies that show the benefit of usability and user experiences. It’s too bad that easy measurement tools are currently missing for apps that run on mobile devices. But a few challenges haven’t stopped us before, and won’t stop us now.

Visual-design principles in practice: A team self-assessment

Online, I found a lecture about user-experience design that Jeremy Lyon gave to software developers at Stanford University. Lyon explained how important it is for the software’s visual design to reinforce the software’s use and meaning. He listed five principles that he applies:

  • Balance.
  • Rhythm.
  • Dominance.
  • Motion.
  • Unity.

For fun, I decided to use these five visual-design principles to assess a recent project I worked on with a team of developers. In this article, I’m only illustrating a small portion of our design—an application that helps people set up a corporate event, issue formal invitations, and then track all related communication that results.


Lyon told his students that balance reduces friction from the extra processing the brain must do when elements are out of balance, visually. In this illustration, the group of boxes is imbalanced because one button sticks out beyond the boxes:

These elements are visually unbalanced.

In contrast, in our design we visually balanced the boxes and button:

The elements are visually balanced.


A common way to create visual rhythm, Lyon said, is by repetition. When a visual detail gets repeated, it increases predictability. One example of visual rhythm is a list, another is a data-entry form that has a series of boxes. Rhythm comes from a regular a visual beat: consistent spacing, consistent weight, consistent colour, and so on. During development, the rhythm of our software’s user interface was disrupted by the uneven spacing of the boxes and labels:

These elements are not rhythmically spaced.

During development, we noticed this problem, and we fixed it by aligning and evenly spacing the boxes and labels.


In some user interfaces, sometimes one element needs to be dominant. In an online store, the Buy button may be larger. In your email Inbox, new email may have more weight by using bold text or colour. In the first example, above, the button draws attention to itself because it is placed outside the visually balanced boxes. In the example, below, the large and bold text, “Event details,” signals that the other elements are lower in the organizational hierarchy. This provides cues that help people understand and complete the task faster.

The larger, bolder element has dominance.


Movement can reinforce the meaning by signalling relationships and hierarchy between different elements. In his lecture, Lyon named various types of motion: zooming, sliding, scrolling, and panning. In our design, we used motion to “slide in” additional boxes in the middle of the set. This technique is called progressive disclosure, and this illustration shows how, in our design, two new boxes slide out below a larger box:

The new boxes show they are related to the one the slide out of.

After sliding out, the user can enter additional details. Most users of this software want to accept the company’s default start time for events:

Two boxes and their labels slid out below the larger box.

During the design stage, we realized that motion alone wasn’t clear enough to signal that the additional elements were part of a group, which leads to the next point.


Unity is Lyon’s word for visually showing which elements belong together. To provide visual grouping, we could have uses spacing, colour, shape, and weight, placement, and more. For example, in this illustration, you’ll see two groups of circles, two groups of triangles, and two groups of squares.

You see two groups of circles, two groups of triangles, and two groups of squares.

Lyon also identified enclosure—providing a visual fence—as a way to group objects. In our design, we used colour and enclosure to visually identify the group:

You see two groups of circles, two groups of triangles, and two groups of squares.


By assessing our work, I confirmed that we successfully applied all five visual-design principles that Lyon listed in his lecture. Below is the as-designed portion of the software on which the above illustrations are based.

The example as designed.

If you want to hear about these five visual-design principles—and more—from the source, you can watch the Jeremy Lyon lecture about mobile user-experience design on YouTube.

Modernist design: Beyond flat and simple

In recent years the big players in software have adopted modernist design for their user interfaces. With this redesign, digital comes of age, with a look and feel that’s no longer bound by last century’s conventions or by those new to computing. A modernist user interface focuses people on their current task, supports fast-paced use, and embraces the fact that the interfaces are digital. The intent is to help people to learn and to use software more easily—and you’ve no doubt seen and used modernist interfaces, especially on your phones and tablets, in Google products, and on Windows 8 and later.

It’s easy to reduce modernism to two guidelines: put less on the screen, and make what’s still there look flatter. While modernist software works well, blindly applying those two guidelines without understanding the underlying principles can lead to puzzling and inconsistent experiences. In some cases—including in products by Apple and Microsoft—fewer items and less visual detail on screen has resulted in the removal or omission of the necessary cues that separate content from controls, the cues that allow people to learn and use the software effectively.

Fewer elements on the screen

Modernism calls for a simpler interface. With fewer choices on the screen at any given time, people can work faster and people are more likely to choose what they need—provided the right elements are present at the right time. To get this right requires an excellent understanding of the tasks customers need to do, and when. Research on customers before the design stage is key, and testing with customers during the design stage is key. Simply putting less on the screen without testing how the interface performs in the hands of customers is a gamble.

Visually simpler elements on the screen

Modernism calls for an interface that is stripped of distracting ornamentation. With less visual noise on the screen, the interface is less demanding and—again—easier and faster to use. Simply removing extra lines, extra colours, and extra words without testing how the interface performs in the hands of users is a gamble. Here’s why.

In the illustration, example 1 shows a button that clearly has affordance. On screen, the button looks like a 3D object that we could press in the real world. The button’s gradient fill and shadow make it appear 3D. Most people know this 3D appearance from earlier versions of Windows and from the first editions of iPhone.

Examples of visual affordance

In example 2, the 3D appearance and shadow are removed. Most people first noticed this flattened look for buttons in Google Chrome and for tiles in Windows 8. With most of the affordances stripped away, in some contexts people have trouble recognising that these boxes are buttons to click or tap, or an object to drag or swipe.

It is possible to strip away the ornamentation without going too far. In example 2, the Search button (far right) has a slight gradient, slightly rounded corners, and a slight shadow on roll-over, all of which subtly help identify this element as a button. This button is from Google Gmail’s search box.

Example 3 shows “buttons” that have the background rectangle removed, leaving only text. For many years, blue text —especially when underlined—was used to identify a hyperlink. Most people know this link appearance from the Internet’s first two decades.

Examples of visual affordance

In example 4, the colour and underline are also removed. You may have noticed these plain, modernist links in mobile devices such as Windows Phone and applications such as Microsoft Zune. With the colour stripped away, in some contexts people have trouble recognising which text is a link to click, tap, or swipe.

It is possible to strip away the background colour and text decoration and still provide cues that people can interact with this text. For example, in the illustration, below, the row of links extends off the right edge of the screen to suggest they can be swiped. Extending off the screen is easy to do, for example by enlarging the text.

Swiping to see more

Example 5 shows two icons that have lots of realistic detail. This resemblance to physical objects is called skeuomorphism. For many years, skeuomorphism increased as improvements to computer screens allowed more colour, better display resolution, and thus more realism. During this time, each icon typically also had a label to help make the icon’s meaning clear.

Examples of visual affordance

In example 6, the skeuomorphism and labels have disappeared, or are hidden. Most people first noticed the flattened, modernist icons in Google apps and in Microsoft Office 2013. In some contexts, people don’t recognise the icons without their labels, and either don’t know how to or don’t think to reveal the labels.

It is possible to see the labels on demand. For example, Windows Phone provides an icon to tap that reveals the labels, as illustrated below.

New cues for digital interfaces

The ellipsis (the “…”) is a cue to users that “there’s more.” This cue is necessary—so it hasn’t been stripped away in this modernist design. This is also an example of a cue that’s natively digital. It’s not possible in the physical world to show and hide content because paper is static, not interactive.

On earlier iPhones and iPads, some apps would use skeuomorphic detail to cue people about how an app functioned. For example, an image of spiral-coil binding (below, left) signals that there may be more content on another page, and page-curl transitions that mimic a turning page reinforce this as the user navigates from screen to screen. In contrast, the more modernist design (below right) uses a cue that’s only possible in the digital world. The screen uses content peeking (look closely at the right edge) to signal that there is more content on another page.


Some design challenges, as the content-peeking example shows, have excellent solutions that comply with modernist design principles: simple, less on the screen, and natively digital. Other design challenges have yet to be solved.

Natively digital

One example of an unsolved challenge is the Windows Phone calculator, whose functions change when the device is rotated. Rotating the device causes the calculator to switch from standard calculator to scientific calculator if rotated clockwise, and from standard calculate to binary-and-hexadecimal calculator if rotated counter clockwise. This exemplifies what it means to be truly digital—in the real world, a calculator on your desk cannot change its buttons, no matter how you rotate it.

Windows Phone calculator

However, the current design fails because there is nothing in the interface to suggest that these functional changes will occur, so there’s no reason to rotate the screen in order to discover them. This design challenge calls for a solution—a visible button or icon or other explicit path—that clearly toggles through the calculator’s three states, for example by forcing the screen orientation to change for at least a few seconds, and temporarily ignoring the device’s current physical orientation, or perhaps locking it in place.

User interfaces that enable full product use

To be “usable” requires not only that people can successfully use software tools to perform their tasks, but also that they can locate and recognise those tools. This used to be easier to accomplish when there were fewer platforms.

The big players are changing the way user interfaces look and feel by applying modernist design to make the truly digital. At the same time, software is changing because the way people use it, where they use it, and with whom they use it is changing. As development teams continue to provide possibilities, they need to work with interface designers, usability analysts, and members of their target audience—the users or customers. Together, we can ensure the new interactions and simplified interfaces we design and build will tell people how the interface works and both help and remind people to find the functions and content they need. It’s not about making things flat and removing clutter; it’s about getting the interface right while applying modernist principles so people can use the product fully.

I came across a video, titled Everything is a remix, that explains the “why” of modernism.

Overcoming an initial language barrier

Imagine completing a form that asks for your initials—the first letters of each of your names. Now imagine you’re from a culture where your name isn’t written in letters, but in strokes and characters.

Some basic stroke orders of Chinese characters

In some cases, the concept of initials needs clarification, as the sign below indicates. The sign, spotted at Simon Fraser University by Seanna Takacs, explains in Chinese how to identify one’s initials.

A sign that explains what ''initials'' are

Isn’t this clever? Apparently, the staff only needs to point at the sign, and it does the rest.

But this raises some questions

  • Was the form tested on all audiences?
  • Are initials necessary, or could the form ask for different information?

Would you have designed it that way?

In my day-to-day life, I often think about design problems as I encounter them. I find myself wondering about information that I don’t have—details that would help me solve the problem I noticed. And I wonder: faced with the same constraints, would I have come up with the same solution? Here’s one I encountered.

Passengers waiting to board a ferryLast week, some friends wanted to visit their family on an island. Where I live, people use ferries to get to travel between various islands and the mainland. At times, I’ve made the crossing on foot, by bus, or by passenger car. The choice might depend on the size of our group, how far we’re going on the other side, how much we want to spend, what time of day and year we’re travelling. On busy days the ferries fill to capacity, and traffic reports may announce “a 1- or 2-sailing wait” between points. From time to time the media discusses changes to ferry service, prices, and ridership. All in all, there are a lot of factors influencing the deceptively simple question: “When I get to the ferry, will there be space for me on board?” The question could also be: “Can I avoid waiting in line?”

The ferry company’s website answers this question in a seemingly fragmented way, and that got me thinking: why was the answer fragmented, and what user needs was the website’s current design meeting? The ferry company segments its audience by mode of travel. This segmentation is logical for an audience motivated by cost, because a ferry passenger on foot pays less than a ferry passenger in a car. But when other decision-making factors are more important than price—such as space availability—segmenting users by mode of travel might not be helpful.

Can I avoid waiting?

The friends I mentioned earlier had all the time in the world to get to their family on the island. But they didn’t want to wait in line for hours. Finding the answer to “is there space for us, or will we have to wait” is complicated because the answers seem to be organized by mode of travel on different pages of the website. Here’s a reproduction of one of the first “is there space for me” answers I found on the website:

Is there space on the ferry?

Given the question, the above screen may not be clear. What is deck space? And—look closely at the orange bar—how much deck space is available? Is it zero or 100%? Is a reservation the same thing as a ticket? Does everyone require a reservation to board?

Here’s another way to present the same information, this time making it clearer that a driver’s willingness to pay more may influence wait time:

No reserved spaces on the ferry

Now it’s clear that this information about availability only applies to vehicles that want a reservation. That means foot passengers, bus passengers, and cyclists still don’t have an answer to the “will we have to wait” question. From experience, frequent travellers already know part of the answer: passengers on foot almost never have to wait, but occasional travellers and tourists wouldn’t know this. And travellers with vehicles may wonder about alternatives, because leaving the car on shore and boarding on foot could put them on an earlier ferry. The answer to “can we avoid waiting” may require a comparison of wait times for each mode of travel.

Here’s another way to present the information, this time listing more modes of travel:

Different types of space on the ferry

The above screen answers the “can we avoid waiting” question more clearly. In addition to providing greater certainty for some modes of travel, it also meets the (presumed) business need of generating revenue by selling reservations.

Design questions, but no answers

It’s easy to theoretically “solve” a design problem that we encounter, but there are always unknowns.

  • Is there really a design problem? How would we know?
  • Would this design have been technically possible?
  • Would this design have been affordable?
  • Would this design have met the needs of many users, or only a few?
  • Would this design have been ill received by customers or interested groups?
  • and so on….

So if you can’t know all the answers, why bother with the exercise? Because it’s what we do, in our line of work.

The trigger for this exercise

Here’s an excerpt of the screen that inspired this post.

Excerpt of the original screen

Reduce spam without hindering usability

Updated Aug 2013: more ratings of anti-spam choices and more links.

If your website lets visitors sign up, join in, add comments, or enter reviews, then—in addition to the legitimate details you want—you’re getting some garbage. Some of this garbage is sent by automated spam-bots.

You can reduce the unwanted entries that your website generates, but consider who pays the price to ensure your business’ data is clean. Does your business pay? …Or do your legitimate site visitors pay?

Choose usability … and less spam

Anti-spam options can present users with difficult tasksGarbage data may be a problem for you. But don’t punish your site’s legitimate visitors by making them do your anti-spam work. Many spam-fighting choices burden site visitors with extra tasks—and these tasks can be difficult. Fortunately, some spam-fighting choices don’t burden your visitors.

Here’s a usability assessment* of common anti-spam choices.

Anti-spam choice Simple Easy Quick Accessible Total
Do nothing: Don’t automate your spam-fighting. Instead, assess each form and each comment by hand. 4
Spam-filtering service: A third-party service assesses the input and flags likely spam. Read more. 4
Load- and submit time: If a bot fills out the entire form faster than a human could, their data is discarded. Read more. 4
Duration of focus: If a bot fills each box on the form faster than a human could, their data is discarded. Read more. 4
Unique tokens: It can be harder for a bot to get a unique token each time they fill a form. Read more. 4
Invisible to humans: If a bot fills in a data-entry box humans can’t see—a honeypot—their data is discarded. Read more. And more. Still more.  ½
Invisible to spam-bots: Humans must select an option or enter data in a box that spam-bots cannot see. Read more.  ½
Social-media login: Users authenticate by signing in with their social-media account. Read more. ½ ½ 3
Logic question: Users answer a logic question that requires moving or sorting objects. Read more. ½
Review-details page: Users review an extra page that bots do not analyze. 2
SMS verification: On the form, users enter a code that they receive via text message. ½ 2
CAPTCHA™: Users enter the text from a distorted image into a field. Read more. 0


* This is how the choices were scored:

  • Simple. If the task is readily understood the first time by most people, it gets a ✓ in the Simple column. The first time you encountered a CAPTCHA™, was the task readily understood?
  • Easy. If the task is done correctly most times by most people, it gets a ✓ in the Easy column. How often have you failed at enter the correct CAPTCHA strong?
  • Quick. If the task is completed quickly by most people, it gets a ✓ in the Quick column.
  • Accessible. If the task is not a hurdle to users who rely on assistive technology, it gets a ✓ in the Accessible column.
  • If the choice adds no task for the user, then it gets a ✓ in each column. (In the table, these rows are shaded.)
  • A task that can be skipped gets only ½ in each column, because the user must process the information before deciding to skip the task.
  • Total. The sum of a row’s Simple, Easy, Quick, and Accessible scores.

As you encounter more anti-spam choices, you can use the ratings above to assess whether a choice is simple, easy, quick, and accessible. You can also add columns for other measures, as needed.

One of the surprises in this method is how many choices are less desirable—from the perspective of usability—than “Doing nothing.” Have another look at the table, and see how the first choice—”Doing nothing”—compares to the other choices.

When a user interface is for using—not for understanding—a product

The purpose of a user interface is not to explain how a product works. Instead, the interface is to help people use the product. Here’s an idea: if someone can use your product without understanding how it works, that’s probably just fine.

What model does the user interface reflect?

Models are useful to help people make sense of ideas and things.

An implementation model is how engineers and software developers think of the thing they’re building. It helps them to understand the product’s inner workings, the sum of its software algorithms and physical components. For example, a car mechanic has an implementation model of combustion engines.

A mental model is how someone believes a product behaves when they interact with it. It helps them to understand how to use the product. For example, a typical car driver has an implementation model of pressing the gas pedal to go faster and pressing the brake to slow down. This mental model doesn’t reflect how the car is built—there are many parts between the gas pedal and its spinning tires that typical drivers don’t know about.

The implementation model and the mental model can be very similar. For example, the mental model of using a wood saw is that “The saw makes a cut when I drags it back and forth across the wood.” This overlaps with the implementation model. In addition to the back-and-forth user action, the implementation model also includes an understanding of how the saw’s two rows of cutting edges—one for the forward stroke and one for the backward stroke—help to cut the wood fibers, break the cut fibers loose, and then remove the fibers from the kerf, and whether the saw’s tooth shape is better for cutting fresh wood or dried wood.

The mental- and implementation models can overlap, or not

The implementation model and the mental model can also be very different. Let’s consider another example: getting off a public-transit bus. The mental model of opening the exit doors is that “When the bus stops, I give the doors a nudge and then the doors open fully.” The implementation model of the exit doors is that, once the bus stops and the driver enables the mechanism, the exit doors will open when a passenger triggers a sensor. Now consider this: if the sensor is a touch sensor then the passenger’s mental model of “nudging the door” is correct. But, in fact, the sensor is a photoelectric sensor—a beam of light—and the passenger’s mental model of “nudging the door” is incorrect.

To exit, break the photoelectric beam

Getting bus passengers to break the photoelectric beam was a real-life design challenge that was solved in different ways. In Calgary, public-transit buses use a large, complex sign on exit doors to present a mental model that’s somewhat consistent with the implementation model:

Signage explains the complex implementation modelTO Signage for a simpler mental modelOPEN THE DOOR


In Vancouver, public-transit buses use a large, simple sign on exit doors to present a mental model that’s inconsistent with the implementation model:


In fact, touch does not open the exit doors at all—not on the Vancouver buses or the Calgary buses I observed. Only when a passenger breaks the photoelectric beam will the doors open. In Calgary passengers are told to wave a hand near the door. A Calgary bus passenger might conclude that the exit door has a motion sensor (partly true) or a proximity sensor (not true).  In Vancouver passengers are told to touch a target, and the touch target is positioned so the passenger will break the photoelectric sensor beam when reaching for the target. A Vancouver bus passenger might conclude that the exit door has a touch sensor (not true).

Calgary bus passengers are more likely to guess correctly how the exit door actually works because the sign presents a mental model that partly overlaps the implementation model: the door detects hand-waving. But does that make it easier for someone without prior experience to exit the bus?

No, it’s harder.

It’s more difficult for a sign to get passengers to hold up a hand in the air in front of the door than it is to put a hand on the door. Here’s why: If you knew nothing about a door that you wanted to open outward, would you place a hand on the door and push? Or would you wave at it? From our lifelong experience with doors we know to push them open. Touching a door is more intuitive than waving at it, and that’s why “nudge the door” is a better mental model and thus an easier behaviour to elicit and train. The simpler mental model improves usability.

Rule of thumb for mental models

When understanding of a product’s inner workings are unnecessary, staying true to the implementation model risks increasing the complexity of the user interface. Instead, have the user interface, reflect a mental model that is simple, effective, and usable.

If you can relate the use of an object to a common experience or simple idea then do so—even if it doesn’t follow the implementation model. It is unnecessary for a system’s user interface to convey how the product was built. The user interface only needs to help users to succeed at their tasks.

No doubt there are cases where a lack of understanding of a product’s inner workings could cause danger to life and limb, or cause unintended destruction of property. In that case, the mental model needs to convey the danger or risk or, failing that, needs to overlap more with the implementation model.

Chip-card usability: Remove the card to fail

Card readerI went to the corner store, made a purchase, and tried to pay by using a chip card in a machine that verifies my PIN. My first attempt failed, because I pulled my card out of the card reader too soon, before the transaction was finished. I should add that I removed my card when the machine apparently told me so.

The machine said: “REMOVE CARD”

And just as I pulled my card out, I noticed the other words: “PLEASE DO NOT”

Have you done this, too…?

Since making a chip-card payment is an everyday task for most of us, I wonder: “What design tweaks would help me—and everyone else—do this task correctly the first time, every time?” Who would have to be involved to improve the success rate?

Ideas for a usable chip-card reader

A bit of brain-storming raised a list of potential solutions.

  • Less shadow. Design the device so it doesn’t cast a shadow on its own screen. The screen of card reader I used was sunk deeply below its surrounding frame, and the frame cast a shadow across the “PLEASE DO NOT” phrase. (See the illustration.)
  • Better lighting. Ask the installer to advise the merchant to reduce glare at the cash register, by shading the in-store lighting and windows.
  • Freedom to move. The device I used was mounted to the counter, so I couldn’t turn it away from the glare.
  • Layout. Place the two lines of text—”PLEASE DO NOT” and “REMOVE CARD”—closer together, so they’re perceived as one paragraph. When perceived as separate paragraphs, the words “REMOVE CARD” are an incorrect instruction.
  • Capitalisation. Use sentence capitalisation to show that “remove card” is only part of an instruction, not the entire instruction.
  • Wording. Give the customer a positive instruction: “Leave your card inserted” could work. But I’d test with real customers to confirm this.
  • Predict the wait time. Actively show the customer how much longer to wait before removing their card. 15 seconds…, 10 seconds…, and so on.
  • Informal training. Sometimes, the cashier tells you on which side of the machine to insert your card, when to leave it inserted, and when to remove it.
  • Can you think of other ideas?

Listing many potential ideas—even expensive and impractical ones—is a worthwhile exercise, because a “poor” idea may trigger other ideas—affordable, good ideas. After the ideas are generated, they can be evaluated. Some would be costly. Some might solve one problem but cause another. Some are outside of the designers’ control. Some would have to have been considered while the device was still on the drawing board. Some are affordable and could be applied quickly.

Making improvements

Designers of chip-card readers have already made significant improvements by considering the customer’s whole experience, not just their use of the card-reader machine in isolation. In early versions, customers would often forgot their cards in the reader. With a small software change, now, the card must be removed before the cashier can complete the transaction. This dependency ensures customers take their card with them after they pay. One brand of card reader is designed for customers to insert their card upright, perpendicular to the screen. This makes the card more obvious, and—I’m giving the designer extra credit—the upright card provides additional privacy to help shield the customer’s PIN from prying eyes. These changes show that the design focus is now on more than just verifying the PIN; it’s about doing it quickly and comfortably, without compromising future use of the card. It’s about the whole experience.

A good hardware designer works with an interaction designer to make a device that works well in its environment. A good user-experience designer ensures customers can succeed with ease. A good usability analyst tests the prototypes or early versions of the device and the experience to find any glitches, and recommends how to fix them.

Divergent thinking and collaboration

I watched an illustrated video of an illustrated speech by Ken Robinson on changing education paradigms. I believe the paradigm shifts he calls are also needed in the development process of software and information products.

In his speech, Robinson cites a study on divergent thinking—thinking in an unusual and unstereotyped way—which isn’t the same thing as creativity. Divergent thinking is an essential part of creativity. It is the ability to see:

  • lots of possible ways to interpret a question.
  • lots and lots of possible answers to a question.

Interaction designers engage in divergent thinking when they explore multiple ideas and try to “saturate the problem space.” Divergent thinking Initially, this exploration isn’t linear or convergent. Instead, it’s about trying different things, borrowing ideas, letting go of ownership and letting go of the idea that your idea is too good to edit or to combine with the ideas of others. Brainstorming is a structured form of divergent thinking. Only after the divergence—after the problem space is saturated with ideas—is it time to converge, to assess, to use judgement, and to make design decisions.

You can engage in a divergent-then-convergent process on your own, but for people new to the process, results are much better when they can borrow and combine each other’s ideas during the divergent stage. In the workplace this is called collaboration, and we need to add it to iterative, Agile development processes.

If development teams find collaboration difficult, it could be because of the paradigms we learned at school. As Robinson points out, the education system refers to sharing as copying, refers to re-using as plagiarism, and sees both as forms of cheating?

Although children innately engage in divergent thinking, Robinson cites a study from Break Point & Beyond that shows how our Return the fish to water ability to think divergently dries up as we pass through the education system. In school, divergent thinking is a fish out of water. At work, we need to put the fish back in the water.

It’s true. There’s a mismatch between what business leaders say they need and what schools teach, according to a 2009 Asian Development Bank publication, which reports:

What best demonstrates creativity?   (1 is highest) Business Schools
Problem identification or articulation 1 9
Ability to identify new patterns of behaviour or new combination of actions 2 3
Integration of knowledge across different disciplines 3 2
Ability to originate new ideas 4 6
Comfort with the notion of “no right answer” 5 11
Fundamental curiosity 6 10
Originality and inventiveness in work 7 4
Problem solving 8 1
Ability to take risks 9 (tied) 8
Tolerance of ambiguity 9 (tied) 7
Ability to communicate new ideas to others 11 5

In the table, above, compare where business ranks originality and inventiveness versus where schools rank it. Similarly, note the contrast between problem identification and problem solving.

Where to start? Sketching is one method that supports divergent thinking because a sketch intrinsically says: “As an idea, I am disposable. You can change me, or discard me, and then have more ideas.” Ideas are cheap, so have lots of them—that’s key to divergent thinking. There are people in your workplace who know this, already. People formally trained in design have been taught to use divergent thinking. Ask them for help. For other ways to learn to collaborate and to reward collaboration, an Internet search will identify many ideas and methods. One of the first things you’ll read is that collaboration requires support at all levels. Here’s a to-do list for executives:

  • Make sure the vision and mission are clearly communicated. This helps others to understand the problems to solve.
  • Remove the bureaucratic obstacles that strangle creativity.
  • Create a climate for an open flow of ideas, collaboration and knowledge sharing. Freedom and trust are key to creativity.
  • Embrace diversity. The more personality types (or team roles) are on the team, the more likely the project will succeed.
  • Give employees an opportunity to reap the rewards of the success they helped create. Stage celebrations to benchmark success.
  • Cultivate continuous learning. Revitalise by cultivating outside interests.

Drivers on the phone: Misusing the original social network

Researchers have been tracking the use of phones by drivers for almost a decade. We know that phones reduce driver performance, and that one fifth of motor-vehicle accidents involve cell phone use. We know that hands-free phones don’t help. Heavy traffic and stop-and-go traffic compound the risk, because driving in this type of traffic requires more attention. The type of phone use is also relevant. In Japan, dialling and talking while driving was involved in about one sixth of accidents, whereas attempting to locate the phone when it chimes to announce an incoming text message or voicemail was involved in almost half of phone-involved accidents. In addition, laws restricting phone use do little—at this stage—to reduce actual cell-phone use. This research applies not only to you and me, but also to professional drivers who deliver services to you and me.

Can we influence the phone use of drivers?I was in a taxi, earlier this week. Traffic was heavy, so when the driver’s phone rang, I said: “Please don’t answer unless you pull over, first.” The driver decided not to stop and not to answer the phone call. Instead, he attempted to read the incoming caller’s phone number, which involved taking his eyes of the road as he repeatedly glanced at the phone. At the next red light, my taxi driver announced: “I’m just going to use my phone quickly.” He made a call and was still talking when the traffic signal turned green and we resumed driving. After ending that call, he answered another incoming call.

Emotional rewards

In the back seat of the taxi, I decided to grin and bear it, because a phone offers a driver more immediate rewards than most fare-paying passengers do.

From time to time, all people—not only taxi drivers—find it challenging to ignore their phones. Mobile phones provide instant emotional rewards when you attend to them: your reward is interaction with your family, friends, colleagues, and business associates. Conversations and messages offer the phone user entertainment, drama, tension, (information about) money, connection, belonging—all manner of emotional reward.

If you see why phones are so rewarding to use, then you understand (part of) the popularity of social-networking sites, as well. Like phones, social-networking sites offer interaction with friends, family, and colleagues, regardless of whether these sites are accessed on traditional computers or mobile and wireless devices.

Service design

With a fifth of traffic accidents related to phone use, it’s worth exploring how to reduce the wrong kind of phone use by drivers.

If our goal is safety, and we assume that safety is a measurable attribute of service design, then what would it take to design safer services by professional drivers? Here are a few ideas.

Change beliefs and opinions. My taxi driver believes he’s an expert driver and volunteered that he’s never had an accident in a decade of driving. In another decade, ad campaigns similar to those against drunk driving might change his mind. For a more immediate effect, driving simulators could help professional drivers learn how phone use affects their driving performance.

Standards and pressure. Someone recently told me that they limit smart-phone use in business meetings with one simple rule that everyone agrees to in advance: You can check your phone messages and email if you read the message out loud, for everyone in the room to hear. When it comes to phone use in vehicles, could the phone report to peers and employers when it is used while driving? Peers can apply pressure and employers can set standards with pay-related and job-related consequences. In Canada and the USA, some employers already do this.

Technical solutions. Phone networks know when a phone is moving in traffic, from cell to cell. In addition, smart phones have GPS—so they know when they’re moving on the road. Phone companies could offer a soft-lock feature that silences the chimes and rings for incoming messages, texts, and calls, and that restricts outbound calls to emergency services while the vehicle is moving. For drivers in the delivery sector and service sector, a not-while-driving soft lock could reduce lawsuit payouts in case of injuries in traffic.

These are just a few ideas to kick-start what I believe needs to be a public discussion. What ways can you think of to redesign or influence phone usage by drivers?