Posts Tagged ‘Usability’

User Experience Begins at Step One

Monday, September 27th, 2010

For this week’s post, I decided I would play around with the Internet Explorer 9 beta and post some initial thoughts. I’m a bit of a browser geek, and as I mentioned back in April, I’m excited about IE9. I imagined I’d have a great time exploring the support for HTML5 and CSS3, and playing around with new features like SVG and GPU-acceleration.

As it turns out, I didn’t get that far. Why, you ask? Two reasons:

Reason #1: It has never taken me as long to download a browser as it took me to download IE9.

Seriously. I opened a text file to log my initial impressions, and thought it would be fun to start taking notes right from my search to download the beta. I ended up saving my text file, happy with my outline, after only completing the install. Briefly, here’s what I noted:

Downloading the installer feels like work. The top hit on Google for Internet Explorer 9 is the old platform preview page from April, still with the same title. I initially skipped over it, thinking that I already have the preview and that’s not what I’m looking for. The next few results were all sketchy, unofficial mirrors. Eventually I crawled back to the preview page, which had a link to “Get the Beta”.

This led to a completely different-looking page (neither were particularly well designed, they were both quite startling in their mediocrity). Here I immediately saw a link called “Get it Now”, which I followed to a third page, that had not one but almost forty buttons labeled “Download”.

Yes, forty.

This is because Microsoft decided to list all languages IE9 is available in, each with its own download link. And to choose your preferred language, you don’t click on the language or a checkbox or anything, you highlight your OS version from the accompanying drop-down list. Are you kidding me? Who designed this? That’s five clicks now, for those of you who are counting, across three pages, with two different types of controls, and I had to parse my language out of a giant list.

Downloading a browser shouldn’t feel like a chore!

Think about the last browser you downloaded. Was it Chrome? Then you probably don’t remember downloading it at all, because it takes about 10 seconds. The download page can be found in an instant, and you click one button to download the installer. ONE. From one page, that you found really easily.

Maybe your last download was Firefox. In that case you probably remember it a little better. The procedure was smooth and enjoyable; branding was consistent and the sequence of clicks and navigation was concise and straightforward. You probably noticed how beautifully designed Mozilla’s website is.

If Microsoft is expecting IE9 to compete with the other major players in the browser market, they have to streamline the downloading process. Google and Mozilla go out of their way to make sure their browsers are easy to find, and simple/enjoyable to download. Finding and downloading IE9 is currently a hassle.

Reason #2: Installing IE9 is about as modern as debugging IE6.

I’m serious. The installer for IE9 looks and feels like it was built in about 1997. It’s a standard dialog box with a progress bar. No decoration of any kind, and no branding. No “Thanks for participating in our beta!” or “Here are some of our new features…”. Just the bare minimum; something no other browser maker would dare do these days.

And how long it took! I’m pretty sure I could have installed FF, Chrome, Safari and Opera in less than the amount of time it took to run the installer for IE9. Of course, Microsoft was kind enough to provide me with a couple of helpful progress messages explaining what was taking so long:

  • “Installing required updates.”
  • “Installing.”

That’s it. Two extremely vague statements with no way to gain further information. And just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, I completed the install only to find a pop-up telling me to restart my PC. I almost fainted. Why on earth would installing a browser require a system restart? This is unheard of.

Is this really the best Microsoft could do?

Where were the interaction experts that put together the interface for Windows Phone 7 or Windows Live? When will Microsoft figure out that it’s no longer acceptable to phone in their UX? That it’s not okay for even trivial interactions with a new product to be poorly designed?

The web crowd is not known for its patience, and I wonder how much longer it will persevere.

Modern YouTube meets Retro Firefox

Friday, July 9th, 2010

A quick bonus-Friday-post to help get your Friday rolling:

I’m doing some web development at my day job for a site that simply must work in Firefox 1. It’s not as bad as it sounds (we’re also supporting IE6, which is a far bigger hassle) and every once in a while using a really old browser provides a bit of comic relief. For example, when I accidentally opened a YouTube video using Firefox 1, here is what I saw:




(click image to enlarge)

The text reads: “Hey there, this is not a commercial interruption. You’re using an outdated browser, which YouTube no longer supports. Some features on YouTube may not work.”

How ironic that the outdated-browser warning message is nearly unreadable in outdated browsers! It looks like even the brilliant minds at Google occasionally struggle with legacy-browser support, just like the rest of us ;)

Have a good weekend!

The Case for Hot Zones

Friday, May 14th, 2010

This post is a playful reply to Marco’s thoughts on the iPad. I’m not trying to say that he’s wrong (he brings up a perfectly valid usability issue), just that there are two sides to every coin.

Update: A more fleshed out version of my thoughts on this topic is available on my company blog.

If you’re reading this, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’ve heard about or maybe even played with an iPad. Have you tried to show it to someone extremely nontechnical, like that parent or grandparent who has never really used computers, or those friends who are always scared of technology because their computers always confuse them and cost them money?

You hand it to them, the screen auto-rotates, and they’re amazed for a second as they wonder what they just did.

With universal auto-rotation, the massive touch screen, and highly reactive apps, the iPad (and the iPhone, but it’s even cooler on the iPad) is always “hot” — touch anywhere on the screen, brush off a speck of dust, or change its orientation slightly (often unintentionally), and something happens. You found something! Maybe you discovered a feature you didn’t know about, maybe you noticed something you hadn’t originally seen, or maybe you’re simply in awe for a few seconds.

We’re not accustomed to this. You can pick up a TV remote, twirl it around, and run your finger over some buttons without learning anything. It has very small hot zones that you’re unlikely to accidentally discover.

When the hot zone is the entire device, and it’s a device you’re likely to be frequently picking up and handling, using it is actually kind of exciting: you never know when you’ll uncover unexpected behavior, so you’re more curious and exploratory. Every time it auto-rotates when you didn’t know if it would, it’s a minor joy: this device is a step ahead, it’s thinking for you, and you don’t need to be “good” at it.

One reason the Kindle seems like a less exciting ebook reader, and why the Kindle 2 is so much more boring than the first Kindle, is that it has almost no hot zones. Accidentally rotate it a bit in bed? Nothing happens. Grab the side and pick it up? Nothing happens. Accidentally rest your thumb on the button without deliberately pushing down on the inner edge? Nothing happens. Brush some dust off the screen? You guessed it: nothing happens.

When you want to take an action, it’s not fun or exciting — it’s just like every other piece of hardware from the past twenty-five years.

By minimizing hot zones, the result is a less-innovative product that provides little discoverability for people with low technical confidence. When everything is a hot zone, user excitement and experimentation increases.

And the Clocks Keep Unwinding

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

I haven’t prepared a “real” post for this week. Instead, I offer you an excuse, an idea and an interesting problem — unrelated, but in that order.

I’m awful at writing exams.

I wrote my Flex 3 with AIR ACE exam on Friday.

I passed :)

Unfortunately, this meant devoting every ounce of my being for about six days to memorizing the entire API studying intensely. I’m still catching up on all the stuff I was actively ignoring last week, which includes “writing awesome blog posts” and “hunting for bears“.

We need more double-clicking.

This is something we take for granted, but as an input mechanic it’s pure genius. How can we make one button do two completely different things? Have it react differently based on the frequency of its presses. It literally doubles the usefulness of the left mouse button. Why haven’t we made this optimization on other controls? The only other case I can think of is how my iPhone thoughtfully fills in a period if I double-tap the space bar.

In particular, I’d like to see more double-key presses. I would love for my computer to pull up a shutdown prompt if I double-press my escape key. This is a key I rarely use anyway*, and it would save me the trouble of remembering whether I’m in Win7, XP, OSX or Ubuntu, not to mention which sub-menu they tucked it under. What about tab? Two tab presses could bring up Apple’s exposé, the Windows visual window manager du jour, or some experimental cube animation in linux. Maybe double-backspace deletes an entire word; and don’t even get me started on the power we’ve yet to unlock in our function keys.

Our input devices hold so much more potential than we’re using, we just have to think like the guy that invented the double-click. (Wikipedia currently credits this to the original Apple Lisa).

An unsolvable problem.

A common practice among interviewers in the high-tech circle is to ask the candidate for a solution to an unsolvable problem. Such problems are intended to drill down to the problem-solving skills a good candidate will hopefully have, and present an excellent opportunity for the interviewee to explore creative solutions, show attention to detail, and often demonstrate a sense of humour. I’ve always found these very interesting to answer, and today I propose one of my own:

Wikipedia will reject new page submissions about people who are deemed not notable enough to warrant their own entry. How could we find the most notable person that is not yet listed in Wikipedia?

This is something I’ve thought about a bit on and off, but if you have any insightful answers (practical or not) I’d love to hear them.

* I have been known to mash escape in vii and its gang of dangerous-to-abbreviate ‘CLI text editors’, where a double-escape mechanism would obviously be annoying. Maybe this would drive me to learn how to use the damned things properly?

Are you Selling Winter Tires or Customer Experience?

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Note: This article was re-editing and re-posted on the Macadamian blog.

In Canada, right around when the first major snowfall hits, all the last-minute drivers bring their cars into Canadian Tire to get their snow tires put on. Pop Quiz: If you were managing a Canadian Tire, what would you say you’re selling?

The obvious answer is “winter tires”. Someone brings their car in, you put some winter tires on it, then the driver picks it up. This is the naive answer. Yes, ostensibly you’re trading tires for money, but what you’re really doing is providing a service. Anyone can put winter tires on cars, but the people who will be most successful at doing so will be the people who take this opportunity to show off their customer experience skills.

This year, I needed new winter tires and new rims. Let me tell you about how this went for me at Canadian Tire, and as I go, explain some of the ways in which they could have sold the experience of getting winter tires, rather than just some rubber and steel.

I did a bit of research first to make sure I knew what I was doing ahead of time. I got my tire size, the bolt pattern for the rims, looked into which brands of tires they sell and figured out which ones I want. Then I called the store’s automotive department. The conversation was pretty straightforward; juggle the auto-answering system, tell the tire guy my specs, and hear that yes they have tires and rims in stock for me. Good start!

I drive over to the store about 20 minutes later, and walk up to the automotive desk. I mention that I called not long ago, and the guy asks me for my phone number, then does some work on his computer, then asks me what size the tires are.

Why didn’t the guy on the phone enter the tire size into whatever record the behind-the-counter guy pulled up with my phone number? In fact, I’ve been here several times before, including 6 months ago to get my old winters thrown out and summers put on; this data should have all been there already. This would have saved time and a lot of trouble if I hadn’t known my specs off the top of my head.

After mentioning that the rims need to match a 4-bolt pattern and making sure I point this out because the 2008 model of my car is much more popular and has a 5-bolt pattern, the service rep disagrees (!) and insisted we look it up in some book. Lo and behold, it’s a 4-bolt.

Why didn’t the service rep trust me? Again, this could have all been avoided if they’d recorded this information last time they worked on my tires. This is at least the third time I’ve mentioned my tire information to this store, shouldn’t it be worth writing down?

After asking what brand of tires I would like (it didn’t occur to him that I might not know? good thing I did) the service rep informed me that I would have to leave my car there for a day and a half for them to get the tires installed (why didn’t the guy on the phone warn me about this?), then told me the price and that they’d call me when my car was ready. I pulled out my wallet, but he said payments are done when the car is picked up.

By waiting until pick-up, I have to come back into the store and wait in line again to get to the register. Not efficient. I should have been able to complete the transaction right then and there.

The next day, about five hours past the estimated time the service rep gave me, I still hadn’t received a call. So I reluctantly called the store, dialed through the auto-answering system, got transferred from Auto Department: Tires to Auto Department: Service and was finally told that yeah, the car is ready to be picked up.

Gee, thanks for letting me know! Why did they not call me when it was ready like they promised? Why did I have to jump through so many hoops to get a simple answer? If the store is this busy, and calling people back is too much of a hassle, maybe it’s worth investing in some sort of “dial a number/enter your license plate/find out if your car is ready” system.

I ended up walking to the store because it was late and I had no one around to drive me out of their way in the middle of a snowstorm. File this in the over-and-above category, but if they know I don’t have my car, maybe they could run a service offering to pick me up and drive me to the store? I’d gladly have paid them to avoid a 40-minute walk, knee deep in snow. Hell, if they’d let me pay for the tires when I bought them, they could have driven my car to me!

So I get there, half-frozen and covered in snow, wait in line to get to the register, pay for stuff I technically bought yesterday, and they hand me my keys, telling me the car is in the lot. Thanks. Have you seen a parking lot during holiday shopping season? This particular location shares its parking lot with a Starbucks and a Best Buy. It’s massive, completely full, and somewhere in there is my car, covered in a foot of snow.

Rather than having me wander about aimlessly looking for my car, they could have simply noted where they had parked it and told me that when I’d picked up my keys. Better still, they could run a valet service where an employee finds my car, brushes off the snow, then brings it to the front entrance.

I now have my car back with new winter tires and rims, which are working great. So in one sense, you could say that Canadian Tire sold me some great winter tires. That’s true, but what they didn’t even attempt to sell was a great customer experience.

To sum up, the next time I need new tires I’ll be looking for a store that:

  • keeps the guy on the phone and the guy behind the counter in sync.
  • warns me right away if it will be a long wait to get the tires installed.
  • trusts me when I know my specs, or better yet doesn’t expect me to.
  • keeps a history of previous work they’ve done on my car, and uses it to avoid unnecessary questions.
  • eagerly explains the differences between the various tires it carries.
  • lets me buy and pay for tires in one transaction.
  • calls me back when it says it will.
  • offers an easy way to check if my car is ready.
  • brings my car to me, or at least tells me where it’s parked.
  • sells great tires.