Why Else We Design: Of Fences and Ambulances

There’s a poem written in the late 1800s by Joseph Malins about townspeople living near the edge of a cliff. (Googling brings up a number of different versions). Because people kept falling over the edge, the citizens decided something had to be done. Two solutions were put forth: build a fence at the top of the cliff, or put an ambulance at the bottom of the valley.

In the poem, the vote came out in favor of the ambulance. After all, the slip over the cliff only might happen. But once someone falls, well, there’s real damage to take care of.

As crazy as it sounds, in real life we see examples of this type of thinking all around us. We see it when products are developed without thoughtful design. We see it when products are released without adequate testing. We see it when software offers us choices with no indication that one might be wrong—until we get an error message after choosing the wrong option. And the cost of correcting a mistake is virtually always higher than preventing it—often exponentially.

In an earlier post, I asserted that design is about solving problems. That’s true, but I think it goes further. Good design makes the right path clear and minimizes the chances of going down the wrong path. In other words, good design stops problems from happening in the first place.

Design Bloopers #2: Tablet Power Management

I love my Evo tablet—it has revolutionized the way I manage my life. Like most tablet owners, I try to maximize battery life. One of the main ways I do so is by keeping the screen on its dimmest setting when I’m indoors.

But my tablet has an odd quirk: when it alerts me that the battery level has reached critical, it simultaneously adjusts the screen brightness to the highest setting! At the very point when my tablet most needs to conserve battery power, the tablet changes my setting to drain the battery even more quickly.

Was this intentional? I doubt it. I can’t imagine a developer coding a battery alert to include a power drain. So it was probably caused by a unexpected line of code somewhere. But once again, it points to the importance of testing designs in realistic scenarios to make sure they work as expected and are free of glitches. User testing adds to the cost of the project; but failing to do user testing costs even more.

Beyond Fad to Functionality: Hop Off the Carousel

Someone at work asked a group of colleagues to check out a new beta web site. The home page featured one of those trendy, large carousels that took up about half the space “above-the-fold” on my large monitor.

“Looks great!” a couple of people quickly commented. And the image on the carousel was lovely. But I found myself wondering if anyone had thought about how the carousel affected user experience, rather than how pretty the picture was.

Then another colleague raised the same concern. As the discussion went forward, a number of issues surfaced from our own experience:

  • Interference with user goals. When users visit a site, they usually go for a specific purpose. Chances are good that the carousel content will have nothing to do with that purpose, so the carousel can make it harder for users to accomplish their goals.
  • Interference with communication. In addition, carousels typically take up a large chunk of screen real estate. In doing so, they push other content below the fold or even off the screen, making it harder for users to find information they need.
  • Quick obsolescence. Carousels have a short shelf-life. Once users cycle through the images (if they have the patience for it) the carousel becomes old news.
  • User tune-out. More likely, users don’t cycle through the images. So there’s a good chance they won’t see content the site owner thinks they will see.

That got me thinking—these carousels seem to be everywhere. So was I missing something? Or was this another example of a trend being adopted because it “looks cool” and “everyone’s doing it” without considering its impact on usability?

I did a little digging and found this telling post on conversionxl.com. It turns out that extensive usability tests concluded pretty much the same thing: carousels are ineffective. As one UX advocate, Lee Duddell, humorously noted:

Carousels are effective at being able to tell people in Marketing/Senior Management that their latest idea is now on the Home Page.

They are next to useless for users and often “skipped” because they look like advertisements. Hence they are a good technique for getting useless information on a Home Page (see first sentence of this post).

In summary, use them to put content that users will ignore on your Home Page. Or, if you prefer, don’t use them. Ever.

‘Nuff said.

Smart Design on a ThinkPad

One of the little extras I appreciated most on my old ThinkPad laptop was the keyboard light. Whether taking notes in a darkened presentation room or finishing up a project while watching the last remnants of a sunset from my home office window, I often used the small light that illuminates the keyboard just enough to type.

There was just one small drawback: the light was activated by holding down the Function key in the lower-left corner of the keyboard while pressing the Page Up key in the upper-right corner of the keyboard. Now in daylight, of course, when the light is not needed, it’s no problem to find the two keys. But in the dark? Not so much. It was easy to hit several wrong keys before finally turning the light on.

Recently I replaced my old ThinkPad (RIP) with a newer, faster model. I loved it—but where was the keyboard light? Not on the Page Up key any more (which had moved anyway) and not on the Delete key, which was now in the upper-right corner of the keyboard. It wasn’t on any of the Function keys either. But I knew the laptop had one because it flickered briefly during boot-up.

Finally, I turned to the product documentation (which I should have done in the first place) and discovered the light was now controlled by holding the Function key and pressing the Space bar. Great idea! There’s no key on the keyboard that’s easier to find in the dark than the space bar. Kudos to Lenovo for a user-friendly change.