Posts Tagged ‘Design’

Oops, I did it again!

September 24th, 2009

Why we keep making ‘slip errors’, even though we know what to do

As a good ergonomic citizen, I use an external monitor on my desk at work to reduce neck and back strain while I’m working.  The set-up for this is simple:

  1. Plug in external monitor cable
  2. Open the Display Properties dialog
  3. Extend my desktop to the external monitor

Sounds straight forward, right?  Well, despite successfully completing this process hundreds if not thousands of times in my life, I regularly forget to plug the damn monitor cable into my laptop before trying to complete steps 2 and 3.  I’m talking at least once every two weeks, sometimes more.  And no, I do not have below-average intelligence, but thanks for asking!

As it turns out, we all make similar mistakes even while completing procedures that we know inside-and-out.  If you think I’m kidding, ask yourself if you’ve ever:

  • Started typing in a web form only to realise that you forgot to position the cursor in the text entry box first
  • Started typing in a different window on your computer, only to realise that you forgot to put focus on the window first
  • Forgotten to attach an important document to an email before hitting the ‘send’ button
  • Accidentally left the original in the photocopier after collecting the copies.

Aha!  I bet I got you on at least one.  These common mistakes are called ‘slip errors’, and they happen when you accidentally leave out a step in a task that you know well.

Slip errors are particularly common at the very beginning and the very end of tasks, especially when the error-prone step is more about setting-up for the main activity (as in the case of positioning the cursor before typing) or cleaning-up after the main activity (as in the case of retrieving the original from the photocopier).

So what’s the deal?

In my Master’s thesis I conducted research on these annoying little errors (which may be why I find it a little funny every time I make one).  What researchers think is happening when we leave out a step like in the examples above, is that the device you’re using or operating has been designed so that a required step at the beginning or the end is functionally isolated from the main goal of the task.  For example, when a web form is loaded in your browser, your main goal is to supply the information necessary to complete the form, not to click on the first form field.  Or when you operate a photocopier, your main goal is to make the copies, not so much to deal with the originals.  As such, your brain assigns less importance or salience to these functionally isolated steps, making you more likely to overlook them – especially if you’re tired, distracted, or especially focused on the outcome of the main task itself.

It also turns out that in some cases these errors are so pervasive that they are virtually impossible to eliminate without modifying the underlying device design, even with training.  The best defence against them is to ensure that device design matches user goals – if tasks and devices can be designed so that all required steps that the user has to complete are related to achieving their goals, then slip errors can be greatly reduced or even eliminated.

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Posted in Errors and Error Messages | Comments (2)

Keeping up, as the world goes mobile

April 26th, 2009

How does your website perform when accessed from a mobile?

Have you ever used your mobile to check the score for the football game you missed, because you were stuck on the train? Or used it to look up the address of that store you were certain was on Oxford Street, but just couldn’t find when you got there? Well, a recent article in The Independent suggests that you’re not alone; twenty five percent of British mobile phone users currently access the web from their mobiles at least once a month, and an estimated 1.2 billion people will regularly use their mobile phones to access the web by 2012.

What does this mean for businesses who currently provide websites and web-based services optimised for desktop browsing rather than mobile users?

Some of the issues

  • Your website may provide a poor user experience when accessed by a mobile browser, it or may not work at all. As mobile web use increases, it will be those businesses who offer usable, useful, and satisfying mobile web experiences that will be perceived as innovators and leaders by the web-savvy market.
  • You may be missing out on new potential revenue streams. The Independent reported that London has become the core for mobile start-ups, even surpassing Silicon Valley thanks to lower mobile tariffs and an abundance of talented people. The same article notes that major Venture Capitalists value mobile users in their business models at up to six times higher than ‘traditional’ web users.
  • You may risk losing customers to competitors who have used their mobile web experience as a differentiator for their services, particularly in highly competitive markets. Personal Banking is an example of an industry where offering best-of-breed mobile services might be a compelling reason for customers to switch.

The way forward

So what can you do now to start building a mobile relationship with your customers, and to make sure you stay ahead of your competitors in the mobile space? Here are a couple of ideas:

First, make sure that your website meets your customers’ real needs when they access it from their mobile phone, and offers a usable, useful, and satisfying experience. You can focus your design and development efforts by:

  • researching what users expect from your website when they are mobile
  • identifying and documenting the most important tasks for your mobile users
  • testing to make sure new designs allow users to perform those tasks
  • reviewing your website using different mobile phone browsers to identify high-level issues.

You can also look for innovative ways to engage your customers in this new mobile-oriented world, and stand out from your competitors. In order to stimulate and direct your creativity towards a successful product, consider activities such as:

  • conducting creative user research including cultural probes, focus groups, and participatory design techniques to help you understand what is important to your users today, and to help you explore new mobile revenue streams for the future
  • making your product development process user centred, to ensure your creative ideas develop into a product which is effective, efficient and satisfying to use.

So, what next?

If you’d like some help improving your mobile presence, feel free to contact me.

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Posted in Mobile, Usability | Comments (0)

What makes a great HCI Designer?

April 24th, 2009

(I originally wrote this article for Usability News, after spending a fantastic week enjoying florence for chi2008).

After spending a week in Florence surrounded by the work of some of the world’s greatest artists and in the company of many of the best and brightest in HCI, it was hard not to start wondering just what it is that sets great HCI designers apart from the rest of the crowd. What qualities do the elite designers at places like Apple, RIM, and Google share, and what do they know that other members of the HCI community could benefit from? Looking back on the CHI proceedings for some insight, here are a few ideas.

One possibility, hinted at in a handful of talks, is that in order for a designer to deeply address the full user experience they have to be able to readily imagine themselves in another’s position, and understand what it feels like to be that person; namely, they have to be able to be empathetic. ‘Knowing the user’ is a central tenet of user centred design, and being able to perceive and feel the emotion of others would certainly provide an edge in doing so. Perhaps then, one quality that great HCI designers possess is the capacity to be especially empathetic.

Another factor separating the good from the great may be related to the selection and application of design tools. Is it possible that the HCI ‘masters’ have a more in-depth knowledge of the available tools, or when and how to use them? Usability evaluations have become the de facto standard for product evaluations at nearly all stages of development, but perhaps being open to employing other methods, especially early on, will more likely lead to getting the right design instead of getting the design right. So perhaps a key to joining the ranks of the world’s brilliant HCI designers is to be well-versed in all of the other non-empirical design methods and, probably more importantly, to be able to choose the right method for the problem at hand.

Related to this is the possibility that today’s great designers are more familiar with the history of product and system designs, and are more willing to leverage this existing design repertoire when faced with new challenges. As Bill Buxton discussed in the closing plenary and also in his BusinessWeek article The Long Nose of Innovation earlier this year, it is critically important to know what has already been done and what is already out there, and not to be afraid to learn from it, build on it, and stretch it. Whether this knowledge is acquired through formal education or simply out of a pure passion for and interest in the field, a depth of understanding about designs past and present and an ability to draw on this in new and creative ways could certainly set some designers apart from others.

Of course, there is always the possibility that great designers are just born that way!

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Posted in Design | Comments (0)