EMPATHY AND OBSERVATION

I like to observe people and their interactions with their environment (not like a creep, though). These environments are usually crowded places like museums, shopping malls, theaters, fairs and exhibitions. Why crowded places? Because people behave different when in a crowded place compared to when they are alone. They become more conscious of their activities and are cautious to ensure they do not appear stupid.

This is especially true when they have to interact with technology. Consider booths with smartphone devices, cars or TVs in a public place like a shopping mall. We interact with them for very short amounts of time and we are highly conscious of what we do. This could be a major reason why most people interact only for very short periods with the products on display. We can use this information to improve stall designs to encourage more interaction and consequently, improve sales and the brand’s image.

I have visited quite a few museums to observe how people and especially kids interpret the instructions at interactive kiosks.
– Do they read the instructions?
– Do they follow instructions?
– If they don’t read them, can/do they still interact in the intended manner with the kiosk?
– Are the designs and layouts intuitive enough for people to use them correctly, ignoring the instructions.

This type of observation has informed a lot about the thought process of people, the time and effort they are willing to invest in reading instructions, designs that grab their attention etc.

I observed that instructions which were only a few lines long were ignored as often as longer instructions at kiosks at the Smithsonian museums I visited.
For example, Instead of it reading “Press the button to make the arm move”, it could just read “PRESS!” in large text near the actionable area. When this simple CTA is combined with an intuitive layout and proper hierarchy of the elements, there is no need for a board with instructions. I noticed this even in sections exclusively designed for kids who have neither the will nor the patience to read instructions before randomly pressing buttons and getting disappointed that it did not do what they expected it to do. Well, they did not read the instructions, did they?

Another observation: In one set-up where the user had to rotate a small when to get a ball rolling, the wheel had a small dimple on its surface. What was supposed to be done was that a finger was to be placed on the dimple and used to rotate the wheel slowly. I intuitively knew this was what had to be done without reading the instructions. But, the vast majority of the people who did not read the instructions (there were a lot) did not understand how they were supposed to rotate the wheel. What they did was rapidly push on the wheel hoping it would make the ball move. Not surprisingly, it did not work and many just assumed the set-up din’t work. I wonder how many more kiosks were affected by poor design.
If that little wheel had a handle on its surface like those little attachments for steering wheels that enable single handed operation, all users would understand how to operate the wheel regardless of whether they read the instructions or not.

Here is an excellent quote from Douglas Adams

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

I always keep this quote in mind. Though it is a bit demeaning, I do agree that we must not underestimate the “poor capabilities” of many people. After all, I design for the people and not for me.

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