Usability in the Wild

The point of this blog isn't to make people feel bad, to insult anyone, or to imply that i'm the best usability person out there. No, the point is far more humble. First, it's to give me a place to vent. I see so many things out there that hurt me, and i need somewhere to let it out. Second, and more noble, i hope to help people fix the quick and dirty usability issues that crop up in the world. And third, hey, why not try to impress people, right?

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Name: lkt
Location: Sunnyvale, California, United States

Sunday, April 8, 2007

we hurt the ones we love

I love It's my go-to place for shopping, and has been from the start. This is partially due to the fact that the vast majority of non-perishable items i buy are books, with the occasional CD or DVD thrown in for good measure, but also because i hate shopping. Though amazon has, at times, tried to annoy me to the point that i'd cease shopping there, i persist. Sadly, this is not due to the phenomenal user interface. Thus, i shall catalogue some of my complaints here, and reserve the right to make this a multi-part adventure. Let's begin.

CONTEXT: Should one hover over the "See all 40 product categories" tab, intentionally or accidentally, this massive pop-up appears.

PROBLEM: Not only is this pop-up large, it covers a great deal of the page content (including the search field), and requires the user to push their pointer quite a ways to dismiss it. Further, it lists categories that i, as the user, have told amazon repeatedly that i don't like, never use, and would be quite happy to never be reminded that they exist. Why give me the option to say 'never show this to me,' only to show it to me?

SOLUTION(S): Get rid of it, or at least narrow the scope based on explicit and implicit preferences. On most pages, users can navigate categories with the left-side menu, or simply type some relevant term into the search field to get there. This short-cut isn't saving people much time, in general. And if just getting rid of the hover pop-up is out of the question, at least respect the user's preferences. I'm a fairly specialized user, and showing me links for 'tools and automotive' and 'baby apparel' is a waste of perfectly usable targeted advertising space. Then again, maybe amazon is trying to tempt me into perusing those categories. If so, they failed at that too.

CONTEXT: Amazon has a 'gold box' of items with a special one-day discount. Users can only buy one such item per 24 hour period, so the page does its best to showcase them. However, hovering on any item other than the Deal of the Day results in, yes, another giant pop-up.

PROBLEM: While providing more information is useful, especially in a product feature area, having almost every pixel on the page trigger a pop-up that blocks other items on the page makes it very difficult to browse. In order to see everything, one must either find the tiny areas that don't trigger the overlays, or simply rest the pointer outside the window entirely. It seems that whoever implemented these pop-ups has never heard of Fitt's Law.

SOLUTION(S): Once again, removing the pop-ups entirely is an option, and one i support as a minimalist. However, the more reasonable one would simply be to tweak the triggers for the pop-up. For example, netflix has similar product detail overlays, but they appear only when the pointer hovers on the product image, not the text and short description as well. That way, not only is it easier to read the page without being inundated with extra information for products you probably don't want anyway, but when you actually do want the extra information, there are no clicks involved.

CONTEXT: The 'wish list' button was replaced with a 'your lists' button and drop-down.

PROBLEM: Diversifying the lists available to users seems like a perfectly good idea, until the user interacts with it. I keep 3 wish lists: one for normal stuff i want, one for academic-ish stuff i want, and a private one to keep an eye on products that i'm not yet sure i want. I can only get to the first of these, the 'default' by hovering until the pictured menu appears, and clicking on 'wish list'. The other lists require another click. Worse yet, if i click 'your lists' instead of hovering for a second to get the drop-down, i get shunted to a summary page with auto-populated shopping lists and the like for which i have no use, and must then filter through a cluttered page to find the 'wish list' link.

SOLUTION(S): First, give users the option to say, 'No, i will never use your 'shopping list', please stop filling my screen with it.' That's unlikely, given marketing and such, but would still be lovely. Second, if a user has more than one with list, list them all in the drop down instead of making the user hover, click, move the pointer all the way over to the left, sometimes scroll down, and click again. It doesn't take up much real estate, and simplifies the list viewing process tremendously.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Why i want to be a usability engineer/analyst/related job title

One of the companies to which i applied asked me to write a letter explaining my interest in the usability field, and in that company specifically. The following is the first part of the letter.


One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my mother dial the telephone, then place the handset in the sockets of a 300-baud modem attached to a monochrome terminal. She typed her e-mail messages very slowly using this setup, as if she outpaced the transfer rate she risked the remote computer terminating the connection, and there was no way to recover data lost with the link. She continued using the new technology despite the myriad hardships because of the benefits it provided.

Now, it is usually the limits of human perception and reaction that constrain our interaction with technology. 300-baud modems have given way to gigabit wireless connections, and laptop computers with 3 Mhz processors have replaced monochrome terminals. The tremendous speed of technological innovation has far outstripped the slower pace of investigation into how humans actually perceive and use technology, yielding a world full of hopelessly complex technology and a population ill suited to benefit from it.

The broken promises of our technological revolutions can’t be fixed with denser processors and faster upload rates; unusable technology, no matter how advanced, is useless. If usability experts had more opportunities to influence emerging technologies, and modify existing technologies, maybe some of the dreams of the technological age will finally come to pass. Perhaps computers will make our lives easier instead of more complex, and our workdays more productive instead of more frustrating.

It’s not just the high tech realm of computers and the Internet that has gotten more complex. One need only compare the engine compartment of a 1960s car with a modern one to see the difference: the dirty, greasy engine laid bare in an older car compared with the sleek, streamlined casing in modern vehicles that keeps your hands clean while you check the oil but hides all of the mechanical components. While changes in automotive technology produce more efficient and reliable vehicles, they also increase the complexity to the point where few people can repair their own vehicle even if they had the time and interest. In addition, dashboards that once featured a speedometer, odometer, gas gauge, and other mandatory dials are now cluttered with symbols and signals. Drivers have more insight than ever before into the workings of their vehicle, but much of it seems pointless. I have no idea why the airbag light illuminates for the first few seconds after I start my car, and I recently paid a fair sum of money for a technician to turn off the ‘check engine’ light, which was on despite my engine’s perfect health.

The incomprehensible notifications on my car’s dashboard don’t stop me from driving, and the clumsy user interfaces of various applications and websites don’t stop me from using my computer, but they do saddle me with the knowledge that I’m only reaping a fraction of the possible benefits. Millions of people all over the world are only achieving a fraction of their potential productivity or creativity because of the constraints of their technology. If I could help design or redesign software or devices to mitigate this wasted energy, I would truly feel that I’d helped people and earned my keep in the world.