Ten ways to improve the usability of products that Agile teams build

Software development that uses a waterfall method is likely to deliver the wrong thing, too late. The intent of the Agile method is to deliver working software sooner, so the intended users—our clients and their customers—can provide feedback that steers us to deliver the right thing.

There’s a tension between delivering on time and delivering the right thing. In fact, the rush for on-time delivery can result in the wrong thing—an unusable product. There are ways to prevent this. User research can help. Continue reading “Ten ways to improve the usability of products that Agile teams build”

Poor usability is a form of tech debt

If you’ve worked in software development for a while, you may have noticed that work on usability gets postponed more often than work on new features and functions. You could see this as a form of tech debt. It accumulates with every release.

What contributes to this accumulation?

  • Timing. Some usability issues aren’t identified until Alpha testing with customers begins, or until after the product is released.
  • Competition. There’s often pressure to leap ahead or catch up with competitors by adding new features and functions.
  • Budgeting. If multiple teams compete for a share of the development budget, something shiny and new may attract more funding than boring old maintenance, upgrades, and tech debt.

It’s not an either/or proposition. With every release you can give your product a bit more usability. And you can do this at a low-to-moderate cost and low-to-moderate risk.

Continue reading “Poor usability is a form of tech debt”

Reduce spam without hindering usability

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

Spam bots post content that detracts from your website. Spam lowers your site’s perceived quality. Spam posts may include links that pull traffic to competing sites or trick your visitors into a scam. The cost of spam is hard to quantify.

Plenty of experts recommend methods to avoid spam. But in a series of user research studies, I observed that anti-spam measures impose a cost of their own. They can add friction that causes visitor abandonment and attrition. The cost of this is easier to quantify.

Some anti-spam measures impose more pain than others. I decided to assess and compare them. Continue reading “Reduce spam without hindering usability”

The ease of user research goes in cycles

The tools of user research have evolved substantially over the past three decades, and need to evolve more.

Here’s a history from last century through today, based on my experience.

User researchers have had to learn to test

  • computer software using expensive usability labs,
  • desktop software by using other desktop computers,
  • smartphone apps by using apps,
  • household appliances and outdoor digital experiences the hard way.

Continue reading “The ease of user research goes in cycles”

After you publish, test and review

As a consultant to business and government, I know my clients often see publishing as a project that has a start, middle, and end. Once they’ve published their app, their data, or their text and media, they often express relief that the job is finished and then want to forget about it.

The thing is, they’re not finished. If the app, data, or content is mission critical, they must not simply forget about it.

A story: Averting failure

To illustrate what can happen when people publish and forget, here’s a simple story. It’s from the perspective of a customer or “user” of some material that was published by others. In this story, I am one of those customers.

Continue reading “After you publish, test and review”

Modernist design: Beyond flat and simple

Earlier this decade, the big players in software adopted modernist design for their user interfaces. With this redesign, digital came of age, with a look and feel that’s no longer bound by last century’s conventions or bound by the inexperience of those new to computing. Modernist user interfaces focus people on their current task, supports fast-paced use, and embraces the fact that the interfaces are digital.

You’ve seen and used modernist interfaces, on your Apple phones and tablets, in Google products, and in Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows. But let me explain what modernism is and what it isn’t.

Modernism sometimes gets reduced—incorrectly—into two guidelines:

  • Put fewer elements on the screen.
  • Make what’s still there look simpler and flatter.

Blindly applying those two guidelines without understanding the underlying principles can lead to puzzling and inconsistent experiences. In some cases—including in products by the big players—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. In other words, overzealous application of the two oversimplified design guidelines has made some modernist products less usable.

Let’s examine each of the purported benefits listed above. Continue reading “Modernist design: Beyond flat and simple”

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 a mental model of pressing the accelerator 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 if the sensor is a photoelectric sensor—a beam of light—then 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

      1. WAIT FOR GREEN LIGHT
      2. WAVE HAND NEAR DOOR HERE

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:

TOUCH HERE ▓ TO OPEN

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 an understanding of a product’s inner workings is 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.

Gestalt principles hindered my sudoku performance

Last week, while waiting for friends, I picked up a community newspaper in hopes of finding a puzzle to help me pass the time. I found a sudoku puzzle.

A sudoku puzzle consists of nine 3×3 squares, sprinkled with a few starter numbers. The player must fill in all the blanks by referring to the numbers that are already filled. A number can only occur once in each row of 9, each column of 9, and each 3×3 square.

I regularly complete difficult sudoku puzzles, but this easy one—more starter numbers makes the puzzle easier—was taking much longer than I expected.

I soon realised that my slow performance was due to a design decision by the graphic artist!

In the original puzzle, shown at left, the graphic designer used  shading  for all the starter numbers. In my reformatted version, on the right, I used shading to separate the 3×3 squares. Both puzzles also use thicker lines to separate the 3×3 squares.

gestalt-sudoku-puzzle

The shading for starter numbers, on the left, is unfortunate because it interferes with the player’s perception of the nine 3×3 squares. Instead, players perceive groups of numbers (in diagonals, in sets of two, and sets of five).

I assume the designer’s intention was to help identify the starter numbers. Regardless of the designer’s intention, the human brain processes the shading just as it processes all visual information: according to rules that cognitive psychologists call gestalt principles. A sudoku player’s brain—any human brain—will first perceive the shaded boxes as groups or sets.

gestalt-sudoku-circled

In sudoku, the grouping on the left is actually meaningless—and counterproductive. However, since the brain applies gestalt principles rather involuntarily and at a low level, the grouping cannot easily be ignored. The player must make a deliberate cognitive effort to ignore the disruptive visual signal of the original shading. This extra effort slows the player’s time-on-task performance.

You can check your own perception by comparing how readily you see diagonals and groups in both puzzles above. On the left, are you more likely to see two diagonals, two groups of five, and many groups of two? If you are a sudoku player, you’ll recognise that these groupings in the puzzle are irrelevant to the game.

If you like, you can print the puzzles at the top, and give them to different sudoku players. Which puzzle is faster to complete?

Interested in gestalt principles? I’ve blogged about the use of gestalt principles before.