Usability in your private life

We have just upgraded to a new television. A 32″ Samsung smart TV. It feels enormous. I hasten to add that the only reason that we did this was to be able to watch cats falling off sofas in high definition. After all, what other reason could there be? Apart from watching people walk into lampposts.

The sad thing about being a usability engineer is that you look at controls all the time. And the Samsung ones are dreadful. The manual tells you which connector for which input – excellent. Except it does this by having a little diagram of a connector (HDMI, USB etc) and it doesn’t tell you where the damn thing is on the television. Or even in relation to the other connections. There is no helpful location information such as – the USB connector is on the side and the Ethernet is the third on the left. And you have to remember that this is a large item and I have a small house. You really want to have it set up and then plug in the cables so you can squeeze them into the available space. Instead, what you have to do is drag this smooth black item over to the light source, stare at all the little slots and try and work out which one is which one, according to the label. Presumably they envisaged it being set up by someone with a head torch in a warehouse, rather than in a small sitting room with subtle mood lighting and no space to turn the screen round.

Anyway, this could generally have been seen to be successful, the TV works, connects to the internet, connects to my netbook, and we can get YouTube on it. But the handset is dreadful. It has an up/down/left/right set of arrows, with an enter button at the centre point of the cross. (No, I’m not going to take a photo and upload it – be grateful that I’m even typing) and there is absolutely no haptic information that tells you which the entry key is. I have already made several million erros by getting the entry key instead of the down key when I am attempting to move from Samsung’s default plan (Family TV or something equally inappropriate) and go straight to YouTube. I am developing a hatred for this. And you can’t change (as far as I can tell) what the default SmartTV option is. It  has the “Samsung-approved” set of options in BIG icons, and the other apps in little icons. And you can rearrange the little icons and put them in folders, but you are stuck with the BIG icons. Pah, I hate it.

But the good stuff is – yes, I can fritter away hours of my life in watching people fall off ladders.

The joys of cardboard

Yes, I did not write anything yesterday. I suppose I should start upping the blog’s excitement to build up a devoted fan base, but let’s face it, why would I want a devoted fan base.

So what happened yesterday that kept me so busy?

I gave a presentation (Yay!). This was supposed to have the twofold benefit of encouraging people to prototype to “define the design space” and also remind people that I do exist, I do care about usability and I am an exciting, rewarding and entertaining speaker.

Any of you people out there want I an exciting, rewarding and entertaining speaker? What, neither of you? Oh well, keep me in mind when you want to enthuse about the joys of cardboard.

Joys of cardboard, you enquire, what could possibly be joyous about cardboard? Well, plenty. It’s low-tech, it’s cheap, it’s flexible, and it’s perfect for rapid prototyping. With the aid of a lot of Sellotape and a Stanley knife you can create almost anything. Of course, it won’t work, (well, unless it’s a cardboard chair or a speedway track for rats), but it gives people ideas. And it clarifies your own ideas. And you can do fitting trials on it.

(Fitting trial, what on earth is a fitting trial, you enquire, that merely recalls the days when my sister was practising her dress-making skills upon me and involved me standing still for long periods while pins were inserted in random places including my flesh). A fitting trial is a practical test to check what can or cannot be reached by the population that you are dealing with. So, you set the percentage of the population that you expect to use your device, age, sex, disability etc, and you check to see if they can, can that unusually tall chap see the screen? Can that bent over elderly person reach the buttons? And so on and so on. There is a useful book called Bodyspace by a chap called Stephen Pheasant that covers much of this. It’s physical ergonomics and is important when you’re designing a real object to be used in the workspace. Of course, it can apply to virtual objects too. Are they accessible by the colour blind? Are the buttons big enough for clumsy fingers… and so on and so on.

Anyway, as I stated earlier, my main purpose in hymning the joys of cardboard (and paper) were to try and get people to start thinking and expressing their design before they became engrossed in coding it.

Did it work? I think you know the answer to that, no, no and again no. But I did start reading a coursera course book. The course is Design: Creation of Artefacts in Society (so obviously I’d find that interesting) and the book is by the guy who produced the course Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society or go to: OR

I like design ideas. I doubt that I’ll actually do the course, but I have this sad weakness for education. New stuff to learn. Wow!, How much can I sign up for. Yay. And it’s free! I’m like a small child offered free sweets – keep stuffing them into all my pockets and my jumper until the scatter all over the floor and I eat so many I’m sick and have to lie down in a darkened room for a while.

But I do hope that I can get people to re-design their way of designing. Even a little bit. Even just to be clear about what they’re taking for granted and what question they’re asking.

How did I get into this anyway?

A quick summary of my trajectory into user experience:

  1. Write embedded programs to control freezers. Try and make them suitable for maintenance engineers to use: i.e, give clear info easily
  2. Describe programs and write manuals
  3. Become a full-time tech author
  4. Train and write training courses
  5. Become very aware of what users had problems with
  6. Work for software companies
  7. Realise that whenever I couldn’t describe something easily, that meant it was poor design
  8. Try and persuade engineers of this
  9. Do an MSc in Human Computer Interaction and Ergonomics in an attempt to convince engineers that I really did know what I was talking about
  10. Lie on floor and bite carpet.

No. Omit the last step. I have never lain on the floor and bitten the carpet. I have been tempted to, frequently. I have succumbed to offering engineers chocolate, looming over them, complimenting on their English skills and wearing fairy wings. But not carpet-mastication. Yet.

My current problem (the one that is making me consider taking a quick chew on the washable wool/acrylic shagpile) is how to get people to think about what a user does as opposed to what they do.

In fact, to understand that users are people too. I sometimes feel as if I’m trying to explain to a Daily Mail reader that there might be a reason why people are in debt that doesn’t involve feckless spending on alcohol, tobacco and Sky sports.

Yes, users are not interested in how wonderful and clever your product is. They don’t care. They just want to do their job and then do something that they find interesting (which may, of course, involve feckless spending on tobacco, alcohol and Sky sports). They may have to run their payroll while a patient is vomiting in the waiting room and two doctors are off sick and someone has forgotten they’re the on call doctor that day and their car has broken down and they’re thinking about their snowboarding holiday. They do not have a calm uninterrupted environment to set up the best possible way of doing it. They just want it done and out of the way as quickly and effectively as possible: in their terms, not ours.

OK.  Developers might agree with this, briefly, but they don’t have time to make it any simpler because they have to get a new release out. And they need the new release out because the sellers have to have something to sell so that we have money coming in which will ultimately pay for my tobacco, alcohol and Sky sports habit. And how does it get decided what’s in the new release?

It gets decided by David and Gavin, chatting about what they can do and what they think is cool and what they imagine people might want because one of them saw something like this last week on a website and thought that’s a good idea and our competitors are doing it anyway. If they were designing Daleks they’d have vampire teeth and a six pack because they’d heard Twilight was making a fortune. And they’d produce a full working prototype of a Dalek with vampire teeth and a six-pack. Not a wireframe or a sketch or even a mock-up. No, because it will be brilliant and they need it by Christmas so they can’t afford to waste time. And they’d get all the engineers to stop what they were doing to redesign the Dalek head set to fit in those vampire teeth. And to rewrite all the libraries to make them incorporate a blood-drinking ability. And then look at the results and say “That’s not what we wanted at all”.

At which point the temptation to fling myself to the floor and get a mouthful of tufts is quite high.

So this is November

I’ve just been to the IEHF careers fair. It wasn’t exciting. To be frank, it was extremely unexciting. The high point was a discussion of the ergonomics of samurai armour. Who knew that the shoulder flaps were to confuse the eye?

I came back from it in the rain, determined to record something about life in a company that isn’t really interested in a better user experience. Or rather, is only interested in a better user experience for the director.

I expect there are a lot of companies out there like that, so we’ll invent the company. Let’s say it’s a small company in, oh, pick a random place in the country that I know very little about – let’s call it Suffolk. We’ll assume it’s a software company, because I know quite a lot of software companies. Let’s pretend that they make something which is used occasionally by a lot of people who aren’t really interested in it. I know, it can be some small business accounting package, which is marketed to doctors’ surgeries and the like and is specially geared to people working all sorts of weird hours.

The company was set up by two guys. (No question, they’re guys.) They’ve known each other since school. One is glamorous and good-looking and all that sort of stuff, but is really rather interested in money and success. Let’s call him David (any resemblance to anybody currently in power is totally coincidental). He feels pretty confident about his software ideas because his mate, Gavin, is a really, really techy person.He’s not a total geek, he skis and likes fast cars, but there’s no doubt that he loves coding and he loves cool stuff and he is very, very bright.

And it’s been a success. David is good at selling ideas and knows about the issues around small practices and large patient numbers and how you manage all the shifts and payroll and stuff like that. And Gavin is a whizz at software. Their company has expanded and they’ve now got sales people and a human resources person and about six developers. And they’ve rolled out more products and they are happy happy people.

But, their client base has changed. They’re no longer dealing with people who are spending a lot of their time in setting up systems and running systems. They’re dealing with people who want to run a payroll program once a week or a report once a year amid a ton of other things that they need to do.

And they want their program to be whizzier and faster and cooler and better. BUT even though their program is amazing and you can set it up to do everything you want to for ever and ever in the most complicated ways possible so that their clients can personalise it down to the last acorn, they’re losing market share.

So they sort of realise that they need to make it easier to use. And that is where I got involved.