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Just another ICM blog

He’s doing it wrong

As designers, is it ever safe to assume that users will understand how to operate a product as soon as they pick it up? Is it possible to work from a baseline of shared experience or do we have to consider the lowest common denominator in every decision?

When we began including audio slideshows on our newspaper’s Web site, we received some calls from people who couldn’t figure out how to play them. (Here’s a typical example.) We tried to explain that all you needed to do was click on the Play button. Some callers would say, “Which one is that?” There was even a suggestion that we include instructions under the flash players.

Really? Could it be true that the button with the triangle pointing to the right doesn’t yet qualify as an icon? Do none of these callers own a VCR, a CD player or a cassette tape deck? Surely, they’ve encountered this symbol somewhere before.

I’m wondering now if Alan Cooper wasn’t one of those callers.

My first impression of his piece was: What’s wrong with this guy? He’s a self-described “gadget geek,” but he can’t figure out how to work the picture-in-picture function on his television. He calls himself a “nerdy gizmologist,” but his alarm clock is too complicated to set.

While I haven’t completely revised my opinion, I’ve settled down enough to take a second look at his arguments.

I understand the point that Cooper is trying to make, but most of the things he cites as poor design make me wonder if he just isn’t very good with technology.

For example, take the comparison between the keyless entry system and the Swiss Army knife.

Knives are common. We use various types in the kitchen or at the dinner table every day. Despite this, lots of people have accidents with knives. Should we blame most of these accidents on poor design? Cooper might make that argument, but most people would not.

The knife provides no instructions for its operation. We either know what to do with it or we don’t. Most people will be able to figure out what to do with the blade on a Swiss Army knife. But if the user has never seen a corkscrew, what would they make of it? If they try to cut something with the screwdriver, they might eventually succeed, but users should quickly deduce that this wasn’t the designer’s intent.

The keyless entry system is another story. According to Wikipedia, these systems became widespread only about 20 years ago (the Swiss Army knife is more than 100 years old by comparison). I’m going to guess that Cooper has had a Swiss Army knife a lot longer than he’s had a keyless entry fob. He thinks nothing of using the knife, but has to puzzle through the functions of the fob. That strikes me more of a question of familiarity than design pros and cons.

In my experience, the keyless entry fobs are pretty straightforward. If the icons on the buttons don’t spell out what the user can expect, pushing the buttons a couple of times should do the trick.

Plus, there is likely to be at least a section in the vehicle owner’s manual devoted to the operation of the keyless entry system. Instead of fumbling with it, couldn’t Cooper just read the manual if he’s confused? (Of course, he’d probably have to figure out how to unlock the car to get to the instructions on how to unlock the car.)

In the end, I can’t decide if Cooper is expressing a desire to “dumb down” products, if he’s making a case for more intuitive design, or if he’s just a technophobe who should find something else to write about.

I’m just glad he owns a car with a real key.

Category: Weekly Readings

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