The pilot thought he had keyed in 7600 to warn air traffic control his radios had packed up. But he actually punched in 7500, the code for “I’ve been hijacked”
The pilot’s problem is comic, but not unique. Why, asks Michaela Bushell, are so many products still designed to suit the way companies would ideally like us to behave?
When a dozen law-enforcement officers and a SWAT team surrounded Harry Butler’s Cessna business jet as it landed at Georgetown County Airport in September 2005, he must have wished he’d read NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System bulletin, issued seven years earlier. In it, a victim of a similar incident offered helpful advice on how to remember transponder codes. The key was a memory aid: simply think of the high-five hand gesture and a pilot should remember that only a ‘hi’jack warrants a 7‘5’00 transponder code.
Easy. But why should a pilot under the pressure of lost radio contact, or worse, a hijacking, have to resort to tenuous memory tricks? To put it in everyday business terms, a recent study by the IT Policy Compliance Group found that over two- thirds of companies suffered six losses of sensitive data a year. Only 20% of these were due to malicious activity such as hacking – a whopping 75% were blamed on employee mistakes. The report made no mention of design responsibility, but why should such mistakes be blamed on human error?
Which, in a nutshell, is what user-centred design, or usability, is all about. Whether it’s a plan, a website, an environment or a service, usability means designing it to be efficient, effective and satisfying for those who use it. And, as Harry Butler discovered in his Cessna, there’s a difference between being user-centred and user-friendly.
Throw away the lipstick, start designing
User-centred design means calling designers in early in the creative process, rather than giving them an inflexible brief at the end. Design shouldn’t, as Clive Grinyer, director of design at France Telecom, says, be about “putting lipstick on a pig”.
“Designers are not magicians who sprinkle magic dust on products, rendering something attractive that is, underneath, unattractive,” he insists. Design should be about creating a complete service experience. BA is a case in point. The airline, Grinyer says, developed fantastic space-saving flat beds after research revealed business class fliers wanted to sleep on long-haul flights. But BA took much longer to apply that research to the whole experience and serve meals to passengers as soon as possible so they could bed down. “Here brand experience has real value,” says Grinyer, “and the product – the seat – is just an enabler to the service.”
Prepare to be surprised
Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport used to spend a fortune cleaning urinals until it found that if there was something in the urinal, like a cigarette butt, men would aim at it. Etching a fly into each urinal cut the cleaning bill by 80%.
User-centred design can’t always be that easily retro-fitted. Software expert Robert Pressman says £1 spent resolving a problem during product design rises to £10 in development, and £100 or more if the problem has to be fixed after the product’s launch.
“Bringing user input into the start of the design process means that changes are cheap, easy to make and can have real impact,” says Meriel Lenfestey, founder and CEO of usability consultancy Flow Interactive. “By the time a project is nearing completion – where changes have more effect on time and budget – the changes discovered in a user-centred design process will be minor tweaks.”
The clarity provided by user-centred design can be useful for business. IBM usability expert Dr. Clare-Marie Karat found that focusing on ease of use can advance a product’s release date. The return on investment can come in time saved, sales revenue, increased product use, greater brand loyalty, product differentiation and lower customer service costs.
Do as they do, not as they say
So how do you become more user-centred? First, meet your user. Discover what they really do – not what they say they do – and what they want to do. Usability testing is a must – and should not be confused with market research and the inherent falsity of focus groups.
“That’s like comparing a hammer and a woodwork project,” says Lenfestey. “Usability testing is a method of collecting conscious and subconscious feedback about a design through simulated use of a product or prototype. There’s an overlap in techniques when it comes to research intended to understand a market and research intended to inform a design, but the objectives are different. The first often looks for ways to capture the consumer’s attention and change their behaviour, while the second tries to understand the user’s way of thinking, to drive the design process and create a highly intuitive experience, whether or not that experience is a familiar one.”
Select your usability test group carefully. Consider extreme users outside your intended market. When designers at IDEO were asked to develop kitchen tools for a Swiss company, they cooked with children. Kids weren’t the customers they were designing for, but they shared all the motor issues that adults have – they’re just much easier to spot in young users.
Don’t just consult the experts
Be careful what you ask users. As Henry Ford used to say, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” Some revolutionary changes are so big, you have to be sure to analyse usability test results thoroughly. Based on the increase in older travellers in airports, BAA planned more toilets for London Heathrow Terminal Five. Deeper investigation revealed older customers were actually going into the toilets to hear the announcements, which they couldn’t hear clearly on the concourse. The plan now is to create new audio areas where flight calls can be clearly heard.
If time and budgets are precious, managers might be tempted to ask an expert to check a product for usability. If this is an exceptional last resort, you might get away with it. But experts are not users and you won’t get the same quality or quantity of feedback – and that could prove costly.
If anything the trend is to engage more deeply with the user. In the 1990s, Bill Gaver and Tony Dunne pioneered ‘cultural probe’ techniques to encourage users to express thoughts and emotions that might not be revealed through standard observation, which could inspire the designer.
Some companies like IDEO like to become the user themselves. It sounds like a reality TV show concept, but it can be the most powerful way of learning what a user really goes through.
Technologies for the way we live
As Don Norman, author of The Design Of Everyday Things, puts it: “We must design our technologies for the way people actually behave, not the way we would like them to.” In his book, Norman proposes some principles that designers should follow to enhance the usability of their end results. These include using constraints (so it’s easy to determine what actions are possible); making things visible (showing what is possible and how it should be done); making it easy to evaluate the current state of the system (through good feedback – so you don’t over-delete text when composing a message on your mobile phone, for example); using mappings (between intentions and possible actions for example, or actions and their effect); and designing for error (any error that can be made, will be made – make it easy to reverse operations).
These principles should ensure that, at any stage of using a product or service, the user knows what to do and can tell what is going on. Norman goes so far as to say that if an object needs labels, pictures or instructions, the design has failed. The plough is one of the earliest recorded examples of this. By 1532 it was considered to have so many adjustable parts it was difficult to use, and “it is harde to make a man understand it by Wrytnge.”
The consumer comeback
Some users may have been complaining about usability for almost 400 years but, especially when it comes to technology, there is a tendency for consumers to accept – and even take the blame for – bad design. “The consumer still thinks it is normal for a ‘technical problem’ to cause a real problem like the malfunction of a device,” says Elizabeth Rosenzweig, who was hired to develop Kodak’s usability lab in 1991. “Human error is still attributed to people using machines wrongly, when the real issue should be that machines should be made so people can’t make a mistake. Someone has to dream it will happen one day.”
Rosenzweig is that someone. She started World Usability Day in 2005 and, every November, a series of organised events around the globe increase awareness of the fact that we don’t need to put up with things not working the way they should. Rosenzweig believes more should be done: “Companies recognise that there is a need for better design and better user experience. What they still seem to be struggling with is what is enough, and how they can make the time in the schedule to include this important work.”
'I have a lot of trouble with your remote controls,' the Queen told the Sony boss over lunch. 'Too many arrows on them'
A story prompted by the most recent World Usability Day shows there is work to be done. Caroline Jarrett has pointed out that the Oyster card her husband has to use on his daily commute is, in one crucial way, less easy to use than the tickets it replaced. “We used to be able to glance at our tickets anywhere to see whether they are valid. With the Oyster card you can’t do that without a special reader on buses and at London Underground stations.”
Even in the US, Rosenzweig has some way to go. The US Treasury is currently fighting a losing legal battle against changing the design of different denominations of dollar bills which, unlike say £5, £10 and £20 notes, aren’t distinguished from each other either by colour or size, thereby forcing blind or partially sighted Americans to rely on the kindness of shopkeepers.
If improving the bottom line – or making a business as inclusive as possible – isn’t enough incentive, maybe hearing from disgruntled users will be. When Howard Stringer became chief executive officer of Sony in 2005, he recounted a luncheon he’d with the Queen. Stringer later revealed that the Queen told him she struggled with certain Sony products: “I have a lot of trouble with your remote controls,” Stringer says the Queen told him. “Too many arrows.”
Half a billion washing machines can’t be wrong… can they?
More than 500 million washing machines are in use globally, but most wouldn’t win awards for their user-centred design.
Delft University researcher Nicole Busch found the standard stoop-to-load design stopped some old people or those with bad backs doing laundry at home. One height for opening could, she decided, suit tall and short people – but that height was 100-105cm from the floor, not 60cm. Loading would also be easier if the axis of the drum was angled at 30 degrees from the horizontal.
Electrolux has explored a new user-centred approach to help users adopt more eco-friendly habits. In 2000 they gave 9,000 Swedish families free machines which let the user pay per wash (about 50p a cycle) via their electricity bill. The machines are replaced for free after 1,000 washes (five years for the average family).
Last summer in America, Microsoft, Whirlpool and Procter & Gamble piloted a high-tech programme called Laundry Time, which enabled users to start their wash remotely and have a note pop up on their TV screen when the cycle was complete. They could even use their mobile phones to start the dryer.
One unanticipated benefit of this IT-intensive approach was that the whole family got involved in sorting the laundry.
Famous – and infamous – notable users
Some users inspire a product, but kayaker Walt Blackader invented a sport that is now a £50m business. In 1968 he began to kayak through waves backwards and sideways. He and his friends made specially nimble fibreglass kayaks and, as other users began to emulate them, created the sport that became rodeo kayaking.
A Danish child
In 2001 Danish food giant Danisco invited a troop of kids to dream up some new treats from a range of ice creams and wild ingredients. One child asked, “Why don’t you make some frozen jelly on a stick?” Danisco did just that, eventually developing a drip- free lolly called Ice Dreams.
This legendary American drummer got so fed up with curtain cords failing to hold up his cymbals properly that he developed the cymbal stand. According to the great Buddy Rich, he also invented the idea that drumming could be part of the musical foreground and is credited as the first drum soloist. Without Krupa, Rich said, it is hard to imagine how jazz would have spread.
Emperor Joseph II
One influential customer who famously didn’t influence development was Emperor Joesph II, who complained to Mozart that The Marriage Of Figaro had “too many notes”. The composer was brave – or arrogant – enough to ignore the emperor.
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 2, Summer 2007