Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Independence and Dignity in product design

I was reading a great ethnographic paper on how people use products and what happens when products don’t meet our needs. In one case, an elderly user had several clocks in one place. A digital clock was big enough to read, but she didn’t know how to set the alarm. An analog clock was not readable, but she could set the alarm. The things we will do to accomplish what we need!! Interestingly, she did not blame the product designers, but instead felt incompetent.

Another example was a short person who could not reach the cabinet over the stove. So she grabbed a broom and knocked the item she needed out of the cabinet. In the process, she knocked a few others out too, creating a fire hazard when the stove was on (or if she forgot to remove it).

The purpose of the paper was to highlight two very important user requirements that we often forget about:

Independence – the product should allow you to complete whatever tasks you need to without help. Referring to a manual or calling customer service is not an acceptable solution. Even asking a friend can be a problem, especially for demographics like elderly or children who are afraid of being considered incompetent.

Dignity – the product should not make you look foolish when completing whatever tasks you need to complete. Even when someone can accomplish a task quickly and accurately, the product fails when the user looks foolish.

How many of us even measure these when we test our products? How many of us have our own stories like the two I described above? I know I do !!

Saturday, October 01, 2005

If it ain't broke, add more features.

I heard this quote last week at the HFES Conference. It is so typical, but I like the contrast with the other cliches. So many systems add more and more features for every new version/model/or whatever come out. Its like the Peter Principle. If the system is usable, more features are added. When it is finally not usable anymore, they stop.

I heard another quote which was from a doctor during laparascopic surgery. He said "move it down, up the axis." What the heck does this mean? The other doctor didn't know either. The presentation was a study of communication during surgery. There were lots of other examples like this. Even simple statements like "move it to the left" are ambiguous because you can't tell if he meant his left, your left, or the patient's left. It makes me very afraid to get sick.
Isn’t networking great? When I got to the Human Factors Conference last Monday, I accomplished more in the first 24 hours than I usually do in a month. For example:

  1. I bumped into a usability engineer I had met at a previous conference and got a lead on a consulting gig for his company.
  2. I met an old colleague who is writing a book and we discussed me perhaps co-authoring it with him.
  3. I met a contact from NASA who may be able to use my help on a project in January.
  4. I bumped into a usability engineer who I have known for several years and mentioned that I would be in his city next month. He asked me to give a presentation to his group, which could possibly lead to a future collaboration.
  5. I met a Canadian consultant who may be able to introduce me to some Canadian companies with expertise that I need.
  6. In a hallway discussion with my grad school advisor, he gave me the contact information for a Korean lab that is working on something I am also trying to do. I never even thought to ask him.

I also helped out a few people:

  1. I found out a student chapter needed help creating some marketing materials and I offered to help.
  2. I asked a colleague to apply for a job at my institution, and he decided to apply.
  3. I found a summer internship for one of my students.
  4. I helped a student at another school decide on a grad school to attend.

And all this was just on the first day!! On the other hand, there are some things that go nowhere. At one lunch I attended, I spend 90 minutes talking to a guy about a potential project and he wouldn’t even give me the time of day. And who knows what will happen with the 10 items listed above. But it was worth the five days in Orlando if even one or two come through !!