One of our finest tasks as designers is to filter the abundance of choice into easily digestible bits. Creating great interfaces is as much about motivating, teasing, leading, and guiding users along—so that they experience value, faster—as it is to improve usability by removing friction. This requires an endeavor into product psychology and the art of designing with purpose and intent.
It’s common in our field to hear that we don’t get enough time to regularly practice all the types of research available to us, and that’s often true, given tight project deadlines and limited resources. But one form of user research–contextual inquiry–can be practiced regularly just by watching people use the things around them and asking a few questions.
I started thinking about this after a recent experience returning a rental car to a national brand at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport.
My experience was something like this: I pulled into the appropriate lane and an attendant came up to get the rental papers and send me on my way. But, as soon as he started, someone farther up the lane called loudly to him saying he’d been waiting longer. The attendant looked at me, said “sorry,” and ran ahead to attend to the other customer.
A few seconds later a second attendant came up, took my papers, and jumped into the car to check it in. She was using an app on an tablet that was attached to a large case with a battery pack, which she carried over her shoulder. She started quickly tapping buttons, but I noticed she kept navigating back to the previous screen to tap another button.
Curious being that I am, I asked her if she had to go back and forth like that a lot. She said “yes, I keep hitting the wrong thing and have to go back.”
A quote that I stumbled on during grad school stuck with me. From the story of the elder’s box as told by Eber Hampton, it sums up my philosophy of working and teaching:
“How many sides do you see?”
“One,” I said.
He pulled the box towards his chest and turned it so one corner faced me.
“Now how many do you see?”
“Now I see three sides.”
He stepped back and extended the box, one corner towards him and one towards me.
“You and I together can see six sides of this box,” he told me.
—Eber Hampton (2002) The Circle Unfolds, p. 41–42
Creating a Learning Resource with Aboriginal Students
My graduate school thesis project was to create a learning resource for an Aboriginal literature course for Aboriginal students at the University of Alberta. This effort was an interesting challenge since it involved me—a non-Aboriginal designer—trying to design for Aboriginal students from multiple cultural backgrounds.
While navigating the expected cross-cultural design issues, I met some wonderful people and learned a great deal about the importance of letting those with whom you design guide the research and design process.
This daunting task left me more than a bit intimidated at the end of the day. However, I felt from the outset that if I took the time to get to know my design partners and if I took the time to examine how they could guide me, somehow we could be successful.
For centuries, the well-heeled Christian faithful in Europe made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, but most couldn’t afford these expensive and dangerous trips. In the fifteenth century, monks met the demand by setting up shrines along the roads. Together, these shrines told the Passion story, so that the faithful could take the same trip in miniature, at home. In the seventeenth century, these shrines moved inside the churches, becoming the modern Stations of the Cross.
The church had met a design challenge by constructing a narrative in an environment that advanced its messaging goals and met the goals of its audience. As the visitor moves from illustration to illustration depicting the famous trials and tribulations, they are moved both physically and emotionally.
Large scale websites require groups of specialists to design and develop a product that will be a commercial success. To develop a completely new site requires several teams to collaborate and this can be difficult, particularly as different teams may be working with different methods.
This case study shows how the ComputerWeekly user experience team integrated with an agile development group. It’s important to note the methods we used do not guarantee getting the job done. People make or break any project. Finding and retaining good people is the most important ingredient for success.