All fingers and thumbs, an observation

User testing is always illuminating. The mirrored glass, the dimmed lights, and the unreal relay of sound from one room to the next. These things become familiar. But the users, no matter how carefully screened and segmented, are all different. They make every session both humbling and surprising.

Last week I dropped in on a test of one of our flagship products, running in prototype on a touch screen phone. The sessions I saw went well: no problems using the phone, some encouraging stuff on our product, a few issues, no showstoppers.

But then this…

  • The thumb deployed to tap links, to hunt and peck at letters in text input
  • The forefinger to slide and drag
  • Even sometimes the middle finger to scroll

And since then I’ve been watching how people treat their touch screens – some lovingly, some harshly. And the more I watch, the more I wonder if “touch” is even the right word. More like…

  • A stroke screen
  • A press screen
  • A smear screen
  • A stab screen

This amazing, visceral dexterity at once reveals the inadequacy of the previous great user interface breakthrough, that fistful of plastic, the mouse, and its faux precise on-screen avatar, the pixel-pointed arrow. The four-year-old child who was looking for the mouse behind the TV is now a six-year-old jabbing impatiently at the screen.

Microsoft Word tells me this post has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 5.1, so to all you 10-year-old mobile designers out there, this pearl of wisdom is for you.

The way we design for these screens needs to change, to consider not just the size of the screen but the hands with which people hold and control it.

  • Are they big hands or small hands?
  • Does it work as well with the left as with the right?
  • Does this component suggest fingers or thumbs?

In such choices lies the difference between user frustration and user delight.

Update 22/08/2010: Nice observations from Dan Saffer of Kicker Studios on Finger Positions for Touchscreens

Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh

So I got home late last night and opened a letter containing a replacement bank card. To activate it I had to call one of those automated phone lines. It taught me something interesting.

Though standing in the living room just a few feet from a landline phone, I reached for the phone that is always with me, the shiny computer in my pocket, with wifi, a web browser and a touchscreen so slick it has to defend against my disgusting human fingers with a lipophobic coating.

I entered the number (because, yes, this computer also makes calls!) and was greeted by a man from the Nineteen Eighties. This is going to be a breeze, I thought smugly. I’m a confident 24-hour e-banking consumer. I laugh in the face of paper bills. I sweep administrative trivia into the gaps of my a busy lifestyle.

“Now,” demands Nineneen Eighties Man, “using the keypad on your phone, enter your 16-digit card number followed by the hash key”.

The keypad on my phone? The keypad on my phone? My phone has a camera, a compass and an accelerometer. It tells the weather to save me the strain of looking out of the window. It has no need of a keypad!

Continue reading “Enter your 16-digit card number folllowed by Arghhh”

Dementia and Dopplr – how designing for extreme users benefits us all

To the RCA for Innovation Night, tied in with the college’s summer show. The evening included awards for students in the Helen Hamlyn Centre, which uses people-centred design to support independent living and working for ageing and diverse populations.

Focusing on the needs of people often ignored by mainstream business and design is obviously a Good Thing, and no matter how young and healthy we may be it comes with a dose of enlightened self-interest. Not for nothing are the awards titled “Design for our Future Selves”.

But designing for “extreme” users can also reveal truths and perspectives highly relevant to the rest of us. Consider, if you please, Matthew Holloway’s Virtual Breadcrumbs project, in collaboration with people with dementia. In the words of the awards website:

This experimental design proposal looked at the problem of memory loss and began to explore means in which information we collect through our lives could be summarised and communicated back in meaningful ways. From key findings visual outputs were designed, such as wallpaper that contained important events in a person’s life. Further experiments were also carried out with travel images reduced into a single strip and tested on people who had been involved in the travel to assess their ability to provoke memories.

… and in this case a picture is almost certainly worth 1000 words…

Virtual Breadcrumbs

So it was a delight to see this theme come through again at an unrelated talk on Dopplr, hosted by the Information Design Association, this time for a different kind of extreme user – the business traveller.

Matts Jones and Biddulph gave us a fascinating insight into the design principles behind their elegant and useful website, where a key piece of the brand identity is the algorithmic use of colour to represent places. As a user builds up a history of travel, the places they’ve been displace Dopplr‘s standard “sparklogo” colours. This…

Dopplr logo

… slowly becomes this…

Mattedgar badge

Matt and Matt have stayed true to Dopplr’s laser-focused mission – not to replicate other more general social networking sites, but to be the best in their chosen niche, making the experience of travel more delightful with added serendipity, and helping people look back on their travels afterwards.

Far from making life boring, this clarity of purpose gives them the freedom to play, to make multiple ways of capturing our travel plans, to wallow in the giant ball pool of trips and coincidences that we create. Their enthusiasm for the data is infectious.

It would be easy with all this eye-candy for the human stories to go untold. While the Dopplr crew are painting a model of the world with MD5s and RGB values, their website is making real stuff happen. Coincidences are spotted, meetings are arranged, dinners are eaten, drinks are drunk, people have conversations, and who knows what more. Somewhere in the world, sometime soon (if not already) a Dopplr baby will be born.

What’s the colourful thread running through these two stories? Well I think it has to do with the dividends we all get when design focuses on the needs of a well-defined user-group, even if we’re not part of that group ourselves. Fortunately few of us suffer from dementia, but we’re all forgetful from time to time, and could all do with visual cues to link us back to past experiences. Fortunately few of us travel at the speed of a whippet, but most of us travel a bit, and those who don’t have friends who do.

Naturally there are risks in this: high tech businesses can fall into the trap of designing only for “power users.” But it does mean that only ever looking at the average customer will only ever yield average results. Sometimes it takes the people at the edges to show us the way.