Archive for January, 2008

A birthday wish I just noticed …

I got a happy birthday wish over on Zaius Nation! Wow, I’ve never been called “Mrs. Other” before … my hubby, a blogger in the otherwhirled made it happen. Gee, thanks hon, I think …

And happy birthday to all the rest of you January birthdays!

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If the users can’t find it, should it even exist?

Developers sometimes express frustration to me when they get feedback from a user requesting a function that already exists. Why does this happen? Software is typically specified and written by the functions it is supposed to perform. Little thought is usually given to the user’s ability to find the functions–the interface that drives it all. 

It’s a waste of development time and money to build a function that will never be used. If it’s hidden in the interface, it might just as well have never been built for all the help it gives the users.

How do we fix the problem?

Perhaps we need to dedicate a bit more effort to the interface and to supporting the user’s tasks (and desires). The functions for the software developers to build would naturally follow.

First employ user task analysis to identify critical tasks. If it’s not critical to the user, should you waste precious development resources on it? Perhaps, but it should be relegated to lower priority than the critical functions.

Once those critical tasks are identifed, it’s important to design and test the interface so that it surfaces the most important functions to the users’ critical tasks. The software functions should follow (not lead) the user’s task flow. The system should anticipate the user’s next move and provide an obvious path to the functions that support it. 

Many functions get hidden in menus. Multiple paths to important functions can be employed–it’s okay to put a function in a menu and provide a button, as well as a keystroke shortcut.

But avoid tripping the user up with unnecessary functions

tightwalker photo from evolutionhealth.comMost software and web sites are so full of functionality, which ends up being clutter that users have to sort through to get to the one that they need. This is another way of hiding functions, but hiding them in plain view. If it’s not necessary for the critical tasks, don’t put it in the way. Also, in general it’s a good idea to put things where people expect to find them.

 It’s a delicate balancing act, surfacing the right functions at the right time. As the New York Times reports, our world is full of neat hidden functions we might use all the time if we knew about them. Our hurried lives necessitate that most of the time, though, users need to just focus on the task at hand, and when it comes to hidden functions–perhaps they might be better off never having been built. Think of all the money and time we waste building functions that aren’t used.

The Story of Stuff

It all started with a trip to the iRise blog to read about Made to Stick, which was very intriguing and made me want to write about usability and stickiness all over again, but I took a side trip to the Made to Stick blog which led me to the Story of Stuff. It’s such an impactful video, I’ve got to say, it’s changed my whole way of looking at life. Talk about usability done well! The simple, stick-people graphics in this video combined with the passion and common sense of Annie Leonard are so incredibly well-done. They even split the video up into chapters so you can watch the whole thing, or you can skip to or re-watch portions of it. And at the end of the video, they provide a link to what you can do–a clear call to action. They did everything right, and it’s a good thing because this is a message that needs to be heard.

I e-mailed it to all of my friends and made a mental note to write it up on my blog and everywhere I went I started challenging the way I was doing it. I ran across another blog entry this morning about Water Bottle Guilt (with entertaining diagram!), which reminded me I GOTTA blog about this!

We detoxed our home a couple years ago, switching all our cleaning products, personal care products, etc. to Melaleuca. I’ve been sharing the “get-rid-of-toxins” message with people ever since then. But now when I go to the coffee shop, I order my coffee in a washable mug, rather than a throwaway cup. (And next time I need it to go, I’m gonna bring along my own travel mug to put it in!) My friend had given me a reusable shopping bag over Christmas, but I kept forgetting to use it, until I saw The Story of Stuff. I’m finally refusing to use plastic bags at grocery stores–either I bring my own bags (I got lots of “love your bags!” comments when I used my bright green “Live Green” bags yesterday at the store!) or I just carry my items. “Don’t you want a bag?” they ask. No, I don’t. I am against using them, against our whole consumption-oriented society. It’s insane how much waste we generate every day, and we all need to take steps to stop it and create a sustainable system that won’t destroy our earth. I’ve also decided that when we go to the convenience store for fountain pop, I’m gonna reuse the cups we bought last week. I’m not buying the plastic bottled pop anymore. These are just some little steps I’m taking.

My daughter and I are going to get together and brainstorm some more ways we can help save our planet together. She’s really excited–and so am I!

Where’s your journey to helping sustain the earth going to take you? I hope you will start by watching the Story of Stuff.

(By the way, I did notice sometimes that the Story of Stuff web site has trouble loading. I think it’s getting a lot of traffic. If it doesn’t work the first time you visit, reload the page and try again. It’s well worth it!)