Power to the Users

6 04 2011

Bruce Tognazzini’s “First Principles of Interaction Design” hits on some very powerful things often overlooked in interaction design. He briefly discusses a scenario involving entering time on a microwave. He argues that if you bring the user into the equation, it is technically faster to microwave something for 1 minute, 11 seconds rather than 1 minute and 10 seconds. As I thought about that, and about my own microwave, I came to the conclusion that while interaction design is primarily for the user, the actual equation of how the user will interact with the product is often ignored.

As a consumer in the 21st century, I’ve dealt with my fair share of microwaves. My sole purpose in using a microwave is to get my meal warmed up as quickly as humanly possible. When I approach a microwave, I instantly scan for the fastest way to get the microwave started so I can be on my way to lunch. I assume most microwave designers have planned for me over time to learn to choose one of the cleverly designed shortcut buttons and select the key that corresponds to what I’m microwaving, whether it be popcorn, a frozen entree, baked potato, etc. Actually, in my life-long history with microwaves, I don’t recall ever actually using one of those shortcut buttons. I usually scan, then locate the numbers and set the timer to whatever I feel is best for my food. For me, this is the fastest, easiest way to get my meal. I have no desire to learn the location of fancy shortcut buttons, I want the most direct path to warm food without learning any new skills. I’m sure the microwave designers imagined a loving relationship growing between me and my microwave as I learned each shortcut button and was soon able to microwave all kinds of things by pressing only one button. In the 5 years with my current microwave, I don’t believe I’ve ever used any of its functions beyond the 10 digit number pad to set the time and occasionally the defrost function. How strange then, that so many microwaves come standard with all these functions that no one ever uses. Of course, I’m just making a broad generalization based on my personal experiences. However, it seems to me a lot of time was wasted on designing pre-programmed settings for foods without testing whether or not people would actually use those functions. From a design perspective, it sounds like a great idea. Having pre-programmed settings makes the appliance more efficient, but as a user, I’m not interested in learning the secrets of the shortcut buttons, I’d rather just have my lunch.

So what does that tell us? It all comes back to another of Tognazzini’s points: “The only way to ascertain user expectations is to do user testing. No amount of study and debate will substitute.” Taking shortcuts is not an option. Many products fail to meet a user’s needs because of a failure to do proper user testing. Sites like usertesting.com are devoted to provided feedback to website owners directly from users in their target demographics. An article by Patrick Wong also details the importance of user testing in each stage of the web design process.

One of Bruce’s strongest points comes in discussing the difference between empowering users to be efficient versus building a highly efficient system. A well designed system will allow users to be efficient because it will have taken their needs into account as well as how they will interact with it. The success of any product relies on it’s users, which is why it is crucial to cater to their needs and behavioural tendencies.

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One response

12 04 2011
spikeym

i think thats a good point that most users of any technology (microwave) just want to do what they have to do and go on to the next thing, it seems like everyone wants the guickest easy way to get things done. It must be society is speeding up more or something we just dont have the time anymore to do anything or have a simple meal.

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