Thursday Sep 06, 2007

Feature rich or easy to use? Yes.

Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with the Java Enterprise System installers. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

Over the last week, a usability email list that I belong to has been discussing Don Norman's article, "Simplicity Is Highly Overrated".

In this article, Don Norman talks about his experiences with consumer electronics in Korea, which illustrate something that he has seen time and time again during his 40-some years in the usability field: people choose products with more features at purchase time, because people interpret more features to mean that a product is more powerful and prestigious, and that the features give them more control. Likewise, people will pay more money for products with more features; even when the buyers understand that more features mean more complexity, and as a result, lower usability.

I wasn't as shocked by Don Norman's article as were some of the usability professionals on the email list, because I'd read the Harvard Business Review article, "Defeating Feature Fatigue" (February 2006), which discussed the trade-offs between features and usability, and the relationship between initial sales and customer satisfaction over time. It cites one study as finding that 85% of returned home networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work.

Barry Schwartz, in Paradox of Choice, describes our anticipation of our experience with a thing as "expected utility" and the actual use of the thing as the "experienced utility". When our experience (experienced utility) is too far removed from what we expected it to be (expected utility), we are confused and uncomfortable (the technical term is "cognitive dissonance").

So while a product with more features appeals to us at purchase time, if our expectations of it conflict with our user experience of it, that tension can make us feel insecure about using the product, feel less satisfaction in owning it, or lead to returning it all together.

Tuesday Sep 04, 2007

What's Wrong With This Picture? (Lockdown)

Loren Mack is a design architect in xDesign who creates strategic and tactical designs for the Service Oriented Architecture/Business Integration group at Sun.

Design isn't all about aesthetics, but aesthetics certainly make a difference. To me, design is part thought process, part style, and part usability; thinking about the problem you intend to solve, creating your solution with style and verve, and then making sure it works well for its intended task and audience. However, much too often in my everyday life I come across something that makes me growl — especially when that something encourages me to make a stupid mistake. Right about then the laugh-track goes off in my head, and I feel a bit like Jerry Lewis, only I'm not intending to do something goofy.

The Pull-Me, Pull-You Problem

I once locked myself in a skyway running between the second floors of two buildings in Des Moines, IA. Because of its cold winters, downtown Des Moines has connecting glass hallways that allow you to travel from building to building without actually leaving an enclosed space. It's great because it can be bloody cold outside that time of year. So how did I manage such a feat?

Well, the picture on the left shows a doorway similar to the one that confused me. And, while it was my error that caused the problem, it was the design that really encouraged it: door handles like these say "Pull-Me" to the person approaching the door. If you watch 100 people approach this door, I'll bet you 50 $imoleans they all try to pull the door toward them.

It turns out though, that the doorway had handles like these on both sides, so folks on either side of the door will likely end up pulling on the handle, which is exactly what I did.

The problem occurs when the door only opens one way. In this case, the "push" side (shown right) also has the "Pull-Me" handle, and in my case, so did the skyway. I pulled open the door at one end of the skyway, to enter, and then pulled (in vain) on the other side to get into the next building.

I then went back and pulled the handles on the door through I had just entered, and sure enough the door didn't open. I assumed that, since it was late in the day, the doors had locked between buildings. I was trapped like an ant in an ant-farm.

Eventually, someone else came through the door on the opposite side of the skyway, and I made my escape. Only then did it occur to me to try again and that's when I figured out the doors only opened into the buildings. I could've pulled on those handles all day and never gotten the doors open. Thank goodness it was a weekday, and I wasn't the only person working late.

The point of my story is the same as the story Don Norman used in 1988 to first describe what "affordances" are: the perceived and actual uses of a thing. In my example above, a C-shaped door handle around waist height indicated a grasp/pull action. This design is fine for two-way doors, but one-way doors could better indicate their functional direction by having a handle on one side, and a push-plate on the other. Norman suggests that "a good conceptual model allows us to predict the effects of our actions." So, in the absence of an affordance, at least put the word "Push" on the correct side for all skyway doors in Des Moines.

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