Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

The “right” way to indicate Keep Left

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Things are quiet at No Wombats as the holiday season is in full swing - so this post comes from the sunny South Island.

One of the problems that causes traffic accidents in New Zealand is visiting drivers from countries where they drive on the right hand side of the road driving down (usually country) roads on the wrong side.

To prevent this there are helpful arrows painted on the road  here and there. But more commonly seen are road signs saying “Left Links”. If you’re a right hand side of the road driver you look to the right for road signs. So where are these warning signs targeting these drivers located? Yup - on the left hand side of the road - along with all our NZ targeted signs. These, however, should be on the right.

Distributing whiteboard images made easy

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

scanR have made it really easy to clean up, store and distribute images from your whiteboard.

The Action Meetings process is very whiteboard dependent. Why? A core principle of Action Meetings is transparency - everyone can see exactly what is going on all the time and all critical recordings are made onto the whiteboard. (For small meetings, we have an Action Meetings pad that means we have transparency and meeting minutes ready as soon as the meeting ends.)

In the past we always used a copying whiteboard (or we’d attach a Mimio to a plain whiteboard). Nowadays we usually photograph the whiteboard with a digital camera and transcribe it ourselves.

With scanR (a FREE service) you email them the photo of your whiteboard (at an angle and with some background items in the frame) and they email you back a link to the image cropped, straightened and enhanced with the option of downloading as PDF or jpeg. Want to send it on to your meeting participants? Just put in their email addresses and click the button.

(Tried out the document service too - text output was 99% correct - missed some superscript and odd/indistinct characters - OCR online - impressive.)

Pies - charts, that is

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

While not obsessed with pies in the way that Mr.Scruff is, I do have a thing about pie charts and their correct expression.

Sweetsmoke from Mr. Scruff - perhaps the only music video about pies.

Inside the Wellington City Council “annual report summary” there is a number of pie charts and I can’t figure out how or why they have formatted them as they have. The legends aren’t in alphabetical order or in the preferable descending value sequence.

The table on page 8 of “cost per resident” uses a convenient old trick - reduce numbers to the smallest element. For example:

  • $0.41 per resident per day - urban development
  • $0.77 per resident per day - transport
  • $0.18 per resident per day - cultural well-being

These are trifling sums that are clearly good value. Or are they?

  • $150 per resident per year - urban development
  • $281 per resident per year - transport
  • $66 per resident per year- cultural well-being

You’d better be attending the art galleries and free events to make sure you get your $66 worth every year.

A pie chart properly expressed starts with the first segment from a vertical line from the centre to the top of the chart and then each following segment (slice) goes round clockwise in descending size.

Why? Because you get to see all the important stuff (i.e the biggest) first and then round to the least significant.

If you create your pie charts in Excel (or similar) then sort the data into descending sequence of the values (data series) and your pie chart won’t just be a graphical device, it is far more likely to convey information.

When I consulted to Saturn Communications (now subsumed by TelstraClear) it had been a cable TV company that had added telephone services to its offerings. One of the monthly reports included a pie chart of revenue by product and the pie showed the data in alphabetical order by product name - you could see the split by products - but when we changed the chart to the correct rules for a pie chart, it became immediately apparent that the vast majority of revenue came from telephony products - and that Saturn was really a telco that also sold cable TV.

Here’s a chart from page 8 - “Cost per Resident in 2006/07 by Operating Strategy”.

pie chart - unordered

Here is the chart in descending value sequence.

pie chart - ordered

What’s the difference? Now I can easily see that the council spends about:

  • 76% on operations (now)
  • 16% on development (the future)
  • 4% on culture
  • 4% on running itself

Rather than having to work hard to interpret the numbers or the pie chart (the purpose of a graphic is to convey something more easily than looking at the numbers) I can more easily draw out information and conclusions.

A graphic (chart) is a communications device - that means we have to focus on what is to be communicated, not just knock up a pie chart and make the colours look nice.

3-D pie charts? Just don’t go there.

Unreadable but looks nice

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Having received the Wellington City Council “annual report summary” in my letterbox recently I thought I’d check it out to see what I get for my rates. Online version of annual report summary (pdf 236kB) is easier for me to read as it comes up larger on the screen and there seems to be more contrast.

Firstly, I found it hard to read - just plain hard to read - a narrow typeface on a dark background - how legible is that? Being on the wrong side of 50, I am unable to read without glasses - and I can’t really read this document easily with glasses.

annual report summary

Turn the page and the heading states “Our activities at a glance” - I can pick up the headings at a glance, but little more.

So - I dug in with more than a glance to find “Our website, contact centre and annual report all won national awards.” OK - so what does an award winning annual report look like? Pop on over to the award winning site and type “annual report” into the search box - and we have the second to last entry on the first page of results “[PDF] Annual Report: 2006/07” - bummer, that link doesn’t take you to the whole report but just the auditor’s stamp of approval. Keep looking through the five pages of results and you guessed it - it’s not there.

Incidentally, one of the discussions at the e-government barcamp touched on generally how poor search is on government web sites. Discussion on standards led to this idea - that it be mandatory that if you put “annual report” into the search box on a government website that the first result must be to the current annual report. How good would it be if you could go to any government website and know that if you put “annual report” into the search box that you could guarantee you were only two more clicks away?

Anyway - back to Wellington - try the Publications page on the site. Nope. You won’t find the award winning annual report on the award winning website.

Flick to page 10 to see “State of the City - Our Performance” - and what do you learn? Frankly, I can’t really conclude anything useful from this page. Why?

  • “We achieved 62% of our targets in this area.”
    • Were they the important 62%, the hard 62%? Are some of the 38% missed the ones we really care about?
  • Just showing assessment trend isn’t enough - we need to see where in relation to target as well. “Stable” and below target is way different to “Stable” and exceeding target. Or, looking negatively, “declining trend” (doesn’t sound too bad) is problematic if it’s below target as well.

I don’t think I could safely conclude anything from reading the “Our performance” pages, except in Governance where all targets were met.

Maybe the comprehensive analysis is in the complete version of the annual report…

No active host session

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Tried to log in to my internet bank. This was the result.

No active host session

What does this mean? What should I do next?

The addition of “probable cause” (why did it happen? is it preventable?) and “recommended action” (how can you complete the task?) to error messages provides some opportunity of communicating something - and leaving the user empowered to act.

Simplified spelling

Monday, September 3rd, 2007

Always been a bit of a spelling snob - the sight of poor spelling, American spelling and txt spk n da hse offend my spelling sensibilities. So when I heard Kim Hill interviewing Marsha Bell (16mins) about English spelling problems I firstly found it fascinating and then started thinking about the merits of simplified spelling. Is English spelling a usability issue?

Apparently “spelling bee” competitions only take place in English because spelling is so consistent and easy in other languages that no meaningful competition would be possible. The wonderful film “Spellbound” shows this off to absurdity (incidentally, the official site is a great example of gratuitous use of Flash).

One of Marsha Bell’s concerns is that students get hung up on spelling right and may alter answers and ideas towards ones which they know they can spell correctly. What do we want? Ideally, cogent answers and thought that are spelt correctly - but if that wasn’t possible would we prefer cogent or correct?

Usability guru Donald Norman makes a distinction between experiential and reflective cognition. Crudely, experiential cognition is thought about what you’re doing, managing your experience and reflective cognition is thought about why you’re doing it, what it means, where does it lead to, what’s the bigger goal? Broadly, when interacting with a usable environment, interface, or tool the amount of cognition you have to apply to the experience is low and your brain power is free and available for reflective cognition.

With an unusable spelling regime, how much effort goes into learning, editing and correcting spelling that could be more profitably applied elsewhere?

One of the reasons we don’t want to change to simpler spelling is that it looks ugly. But why does it look ugly? We’ll look at that soon.

Upside down and back to front would be easier

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Was it the fax machine makers or the photocopier makers? Doesn’t matter much now because it’s too far down the track to do anything about it and we just have to live with it. Here’s the thing - it seems that roughly half the fax machines and photocopiers out there need you to put the sheet to be copied face up and the other half of machines - face down. I should be over this by now - but, what’s exercising me about this is EFTPOS machines - when they first arrived, the shop assistant swiped the card for you but now increasingly the customer swipes.

Seems that roughly half want the magnetic strip on the right and half on the left. How many times a day do shop staff have to tell customers it’s the other way round? Some machines have a little symbol on them and I now look for that. In another shop, they had put their own little paper notice “Stripe this side” down the side of the machine.

And then there are my favourites, ATM machines. I look at the symbol to show you which way round to put the card in but their example never matches my card so I have to do a little brain gymnastics to imagine how my card fits that image - and I don’t always get it right. Why don’t ATM machines require you to put the card in upside down?  The back of all cards is the same - just show me the strip on right or left and in it goes, right every time. So when the ATM manufacturers bring out their new “upside down” models - can they please all agree to have the strip on the same side?

My other not so favourite EFTPOS machines are the ones in the PostShops. You have to slide the card down into the machine and pull it out again. Same problem, mental gymnastics to figure out the right way round (and I’m a Kiwibank customer!) - I can almost sense the staff tensing up - “OK another EFTPOS dummy approaching” - some just lean over and pull the card out and put it in the right way themselves - it’s efficient but the word “dumbarse” gets silently communicated.  This little scenario is playing out over and over again everyday at a PostShop near you.

If those machines were designed to take in the card back to front - the symbol would be clear - no mental gymnastics for me or you.

Alarm time doppelgangers verboten

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

5:50 - not fully awake - alarm will go off in 5 minutes - could extend another 20 - yep, just do it on auto-brain don’t wake up too much just quickly reset to 6:15 and return to cozy sleep - a simple plan, nothing can go wrong. Don’t need to put my glasses on, I’ll get by if I squint .

So, I press: right arrow (Functions), Select, down to alarm “Wake”, menu, down to Edit, Select, down to Time, Change, up one for hours, across to minutes and set to 15, Ok, Done.

So why do I see the Alarm Details screen again with”Alert” highlighted? Press Done again - something flashed at me and I’m back at Alarm Details. What the? OK - now I’m waking up - my pretty phone is spoiling my simple plan. Get glasses - need to see what’s happening. Why is “Alert” highlighted? I didn’t touch “Alert”. Ok - do it slowly - what - here it is - A white cross on a red background and “No duplicate alarm time allowed”. What? I can’t set two alarms for the same time! Why not? What on earth good reason is there not to allow it? Why didn’t it show the error message when I “Ok’d” the time before taking me back to Alarm Details? Why did it highlight “Alert” and not “Time”? All little details that make the difference between ordinary and not ordinary.

Before alarm set, error message, and Alert highlighted not Time

Surely within the alarm software in the phone (Motorola RAZR v3), the identifier for an alarm isn’t the time it’s set to - but why else would it be prevented? Could I do something “stupid” and set up two alarms with the same name? What do you reckon?

Full Code Press: Geeks pursue Aussie NZ rivalry in the web arena

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

In about two weeks, teams from Australia and New Zealand will compete in the inaugural Full Code Press. They will each build a web site for a non-profit organisation in 24 hours and be judged on how well the site fulfills the brief and meets other criteria such as usability, accessibility, standards compliance, visual design and other aesthetics (the exact evaluation criteria are unpublished at this stage).

Yours truly had a crack at getting on the New Zealand team and made it to the finalists but didn’t get the luck of the draw.

It looks like a whole lot of serious fun (the inner geek abides), and a couple of organisations will benefit. The event is to be blogged about, streamed (I think) and there will be plenty of static images. Check in some time after 10am (Australian Eastern Time) Saturday 18th August - sites have to be completed by 10am the following day. Go kiwis!

Accessible - just because you say it is doesn’t make it so

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Been checking out portal “best practice” recently and had a look at Directgov, the UK government portal. The site has a very large, clear well placed Accessibility link at the top right of the page (page top is preferred to page bottom - where it is often relegated) so they must be onto it right?

First glaring observation is the colour scheme. Red and orange backgrounds and red links - really tough to read regardless of how good your eyesight is.

Hyperlink fashion - is black without underline the new blue with underline? (red underline or red without underline??) Bad luck for colour blind users who could use the underline as a cue to presence of a hyperlink.

You can go to the Accessibility page and then click on the link to read about “Information on how we tried to make this site accessible and easy to use for everyone”. Where’s the link? You’ll figure it out real quick because you’re a smart sophisticated user of the web (that’s how come you’re here) - but the audiences of a public service website aren’t all like that. So now you’re there you can read all about how much effort they made to make the site accessible (people with disabilities really love to read this stuff - not!).

The clincher - the image of a presumably disabled user has no alt text. Presence of alt text is a WAI Priority 1 checkpoint.

This on the page that states “The site’s layout takes into account users who are blind or visually impaired. It is fully compatible with popular screen reading software.”