Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Real-life usability testing

This is a tale about closely observing the behavior of a sophisticated user…

It’s a sleet day today. That is, I get to enjoy having my sweetie pie home this Valentine’s Day because she has closed her office, thanks to the disgusting weather.

She had a small problem a while ago with her brand new (Windows XP, not Vista) computer and asked me to take a look. She was trying to sign on to the server at her office, something she had done regularly on her previous computer with no difficulty.

The particular problem was that she got to a user authentication dialog that had the wrong user name filled in. On her previous computer, this dialog had the correct user name filled in, and she wanted the new computer to behave the same way, saving her the trouble of retyping the user name each time.

The authentication box (provided by the remote server, I believe) had User Name and Password fields and OK, Cancel, and Options buttons. (The Options button actually didn’t do anything interesting.)

So I said, all right, click Cancel. This brought her back to a similar-looking dialog (almost identical, really, except for the dialog title) on her own machine, the purpose of which was to make the connection to the remote server. It, too, had User Name and Password fields, OK, Cancel, and Options buttons. In this case, the Options button opened a new dialog where she had the opportunity to change the default user name. Problem solved.

But here’s what I learned: The design ideal of an integrated, consistent visual environment can itself introduce confusion. If everything looks alike, it’s hard to keep track of just where you are. On the other hand, if controls that serve different functions have different appearances, you’re more likely to have a clue. This is something architects discovered decades ago. If the on the hillside are not only all made of ticky tacky but also painted the same color, it’s easy for visitors to get lost on their way to a friend’s house. If there are pink ones and blue ones and green ones and yellow ones, visitors stand at least a quarter of a chance.

Anyway, this is just something to keep in mind if you’re involved in the GUI design process for an application. dictum is to use the smallest effective difference. If the difference isn’t effective in terms of user behavior, it’s too small.

Design matters. In books and on screen, as well as in the real world.

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