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

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.

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?

Auto-correct a touch-screen problem

For the past few months, I’ve been taking an average of 1.6 flights per week on commercial airplanes. Most of these offered seatback entertainment, so I could watch the TV show or movie of my choice, or listen to satellite radio while reading. Touch-screen controls are easy to use because they let me touch—or tap—the item or the control that I want. By using the touch screen, I can select a program, adjust the volume, skip the next song, and so on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that about ¼ of seatback touch screens are poorly registered. By registration I mean that the system and the user agree on where the user is tapping or touching the screen:

An illustration of registration

I recorded a video of two common tasks for a seatback entertainment system: selecting the language and adjusting the volume. As you can see, the registration is off, so I initially get the French interface instead of the English, and I must press an unrelated button to adjust the sound:

The registration error is significant. My fingertip tapped about 2 cm left of the centre of the EN button. The larger the registration error, the harder to tap a small target—as was the case with the volume controls in the video, above, where I appear to be tapping the Fast-Forward button. On more than one flight I have unintentionally increased the sound to painful levels while attempting to lower the volume!

A system such as this could be made to detect and auto-correct poor registration. If we assume that repeat taps on a blank location indicates poor registration, the software could:

  1. After several repeat taps, select the nearest target—a reasonable guess—even if it is a centimetre or two away from the user’s tap.
  2. Ask the user to confirm the guess. “Did you mean [this one]?”
  3. If the user confirms, calculate the amount by which to correct the registration, and then fix the registration error.

This solution requires a screen—perhaps the start screen—whose choices are spaced far apart, so the system can detect when the user appears to be tapping a blank space:

Tapping a blank space (at right)

If user testing were to show that auto-correction needs human involvement, after calculating the registration error, the system could ask the user to check the corrected registration. For example:

Confirming that the registration is correct
Are you there? Please tap the green circle.

I haven’t done any testing of this idea, nor have I given this much thought, so I’m certain there are many more and better ways to auto-correct a registration problem on a touch screen. I merely wanted to identify one possible solution in order to get to the next point: the need to consider the business drivers when deciding to address (or deciding not to address) a usability problem.

Everything costs money

Fixing this problem—it’s a real problem, you’ve seen the video—would cost money. If the following can be quantified and evaluated within a framework of passenger-experience goals, there may be a convincing business case:

  • Not every passenger can work around a registration problem. Those who cannot would be unable to use the entertainment system. When everyone else gets a movie, how does the passenger with a failing system feel?
  • If a failed entertainment system is perceived as a negative experience, will passengers blame the touch-screen/software manufacturer or blame the airline? I’m sure you can imagine the complaint: “I sat there for hours without a movie! It’s the airline’s fault.” What’s the likelihood that this will cause churn (passenger switches to another brand next time)?
  • Based on the screens I’ve seen, some frustrated passengers must use hard objects that scratch and even gouge the touch screen. Are they trying to force the screen to understand what they want? Are they vandalising the screen? What’s the cost of replacing a damaged or vandalised screen?
  • A scratched screen is like graffiti. It affects every subsequent passenger in that seat. Do vandalised screens affect the airline’s goal of attaining a particular passenger rating for perceived quality or aesthetic experience?
  • The in-flight entertainment system was implicated in a catastrophic Swiss Air crash near Peggy’s Cove about a decade ago. Would a fix to the touch-screen registration problem incur prohibitive safety-testing costs?

Designing and influencing user performance

When designing the user experience of software, UX- and Development teams often focus on how the user interface supports user performance, because that’s within their locus of control. Once the product is in the wild, environmental factors may reduce user performance despite the team’s best product-design efforts. But I believe it’s possible for a UX team to also influence the environment in which their products get used. Consider two of these:

  • The user’s display size.
  • The soundscape.
Large displays < one salary

The environment affects user performanceUsers of all ages and genders are more effective at performing search tasks and comparison tasks (Tao Ni et al, 2006), and more effective at spatial tasks, when they use large displays. Mary Czerwinski et al, reported a 12% significant performance benefit (2003). However, when given a choice, people don’t want very large displays on their office desks; they opt for medium-sized displays instead. One study showed that older users least prefer large displays but stand to gain the most performance benefit. (This study was done before multi-monitor arrangements became common.)

A 12% improvement in performance suggests that 7 people with large displays could theoretically do the job of 8 people with medium displays. How many large displays could your office buy for one person’s salary every year? For business-to-business sales and especially for enterprise-wide software implementations, there’s a place for sales teams and proposal writers to mention the business case for larger displays.

Call it what you want—innovation, thinking outside the box, providing solutions—your UX-Design team can work with the Sales and Service/Implementation teams to ensure customers get solutions that include better hardware choices.

Speak less clearly, please

A half-decade of research by Dr Sabine Schlittmeier has expanded on what common sense told us: it’s harder to concentrate when others are chatting in the background. Schlittmeier found that when background speech is louder and more intelligible, it negatively affects verbal short-term memory, sustained attention, and verbal-logical reasoning. When I asked her what techniques have been shown successful, Schlittmeier told me that a masking sound, such as music or talk radio, is not objectively effective because the higher level of background sound has detrimental cognitive effects, but subjectively people feel this is effective. She added that there’s a measurable benefit to:

  • Shifting high-concentration work to times when fewer people are around.
  • Doing high-concentration work in single offices.

I suppose working remotely—from a quiet home—is a variation of these solutions.

I also asked, “What one thing, if handled differently, would most improve the way people experience noise at work?” Schlittmeier said it’s not about one thing. She recommended attacking problem sound from all dimensions at once: loudness, frequency characteristics, sound production, transmission, and so on.

The way I read the research results, reducing background speech to a soft, unintelligible noise could result in a 10% to 25% decrease in memory errors and logic errors, and an 18% increase in attention span. What Schlittmeier hasn’t provided is data about overall productivity improvement, without which it’s harder to make a business case for spending on office-noise abatement.

But there are other ways to mitigate the background office noise that affects your users, and you may be able to influence how your customers approach that problem.

A box that promotes wide screeens or headsetsAgain: call it what you want—innovation, thinking outside the box, providing solutions—your UX-Design team can work with the Marketing team to influence the environment through traditional marketing. Imagine a business-to-consumer product that is designed to work even better with a (noise-cancelling) headset—and which is depicted in use with headsets in the marketing messages and on the packaging.

Train yourself in frustration, confusion, and inefficiency

For professional reasons, I like to mess around with software. It’s a form of training, because some of the messing around leads to frustration, confusion, and inefficiency. And that’s good.

My hope is that my experiences will help me to better understand what I put various groups of software users through when they use the software I helped design and build.

An easy way to mess around is by changing default settings. For example, my iTunes isn’t set to English. This helps me understand the experience of users who learned one language at home as children and now use another language at work as adults. It’s not just beneficial to experience the initial pain of memorising where to click (as I become a rote user in a GUI I cannot read), but also the additional moments of frustration when I must do something new—an occasional task whose command vector I haven’t memorised.

Relating to the language challenges that some users face

Another easy way to mess around is to switch between iMac and Windows computers. It’s not just the little differences, such as whether the Minimise/Maximise/Close buttons are on the left or right sides of the title bar, or whether that big key on the keyboard is labelled Enter or Return.

Switching between operating systemsIt’s also the experience of inefficiency. It’s knowing you could work faster, if only the tool weren’t in your way. This also applies to successive versions of “the same” operating sytem. This is the frustration of the transfer user.

It’s noticing how completely arbitrary many design standards are—how arbitrarily different between operating systems—such as the End key that either does or doesn’t move the insertion point to the end of the line.

Another easy way to mess around is to run applications in a browser that’s not supported. I do it for tasks that matter, such as making my travel bookings.

All this occasional messing around is about training myself. The experiences I get from this broaden the range of details I ask developers to think about as they convert designs into code and into pleasing, productive user experiences.

In a separate IxDA discussion thread, a few people reacted to this blog post:

  • Try a Dvorak keyboard instead of a Qwerty keyboard (Johnathan Berger).
  • Watch children’s first use of a design (Brandon E.B. Ward).
  • Use only the keyboard, not the mouse (CK Vijay Bhaskar).
  • Sit in at the Customer Support desk for a day (Adrian Howard).
  • Search Twitter to find out how people feel about a product (Paul Bryan).

See also the comment(s) below, directly in this blog.

Photos help user personas succeed

If your user persona includes an image, which type of image helps the team produce designs that are more usable?


The illustration on the left?  Or the photo on the right?

According to Frank Long’s research paper, Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product designphotos are better than illustrations. Teams whose user personas include a photograph of the persona produce designs that rate higher when assessed with Nielsen’s heuristics for UI design.

Frank Long compared the design output of three groups, drawn from his students at National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Ireland, in a specific design project. Over the five-week project, two groups used user personas of different formats. One group was the control group, so they worked without user personas. The experiment looked for differences in the heuristic assessments of their designs.

Photos—versus illustrations—are one of the ways I’ve engaged project teams with the user personas that I researched and wrote for them. Here’s a teaser:

How many user personas?

If you’re creating user personas, How-To articles often tell you that you only need two or three personas at most. That’s fine for most web-design projects. However, if you are working on an enterprise-wide system that has modules for different types of professionals who each perform distinct and substantial tasks, then you will have a larger number of user profiles.

How big is the feature set? Imagine a product suite the size of Microsoft® Office that actually consists of very different pieces: Excel, Word, Access, PowerPoint, and more. Usually, the only persona who is involved with every module of a suite is someone like Ivan the IT administrator, whose tasks are very different from most users.

That may sound obvious, but I really struggled for a while with the notion that I was “doing it wrong” because I couldn’t squeeze the user roles and needs into a mere three user personas—or five, or seven, for that matter. When you have a dozen user personas, it’s challenging to keep them all apart, but most teams only need a few at a time. Likely, the only people who need to know all the user personas are on the user-experience and product-management teams. And the alternative—to have a catch-all user persona whose role is to “use the software”—is of no help at all.

If, by chance, you find you need many user personas, then beware once the projects wrap up and the teams turn to their next projects. They may have incorrectly learned to begin a project by creating user personas (“…well, that’s what we did last time…!”) instead of re-using and tweaking the existing user personas. [Not everyone agrees with re-use; see the comments.]

User personas will influence your product design and affect how people throughout Development and Marketing think, strategically and tactically, about their work. So you need to get the user personas right. Getting a series of user personas reviewed—not rubber-stamped but mindfully critiqued—is a challenge; nobody ever makes time to do it well. Here’s my solution: after you research users and then write your draft user personas, review them together with some subject-matter experts, Marketing staff, and developers, in a barn-raising exercise. Pack them all into one afternoon for the initial review. Then meet the first Friday of the month until you have agreement about each user persona. During one such meeting, one of my subject-matter experts said to another: “Oh, this user persona is just like [a customer named H—]!” The user persona was so on-target that that it reminded her of someone I had never met or researched. That was a nice way to learn that I got it right.

For detailed How-To advice on developing user personas, try these readings: