Observing the User Experience

Questions to ask before you move forward with something new.

Wendy Ruyle 8.07.2012

One of the most important steps in a user-centric design process is observing real people interact with a product, site, or interface in an environment that is as close to real life as possible.

The methods for this step vary greatly based on budget, time, and how complicated the task you want people to accomplish is. But taking the time to stop, observe, and not get bogged down in your own preconceived notions is essential.

Take it for a test drive

For low-tech projects this can be as simple as getting a paper dummy made of the brochure you are going to produce and asking some co-workers to open and thumb through it. Do they fumble at any point? Is the pocket in the back hard to get papers in and out of? Is the size too large to hold? Is it too small? Do the fasteners catch on clothing? Does it feel too heavy for its purpose? Does it feel too light? All of these observations can help you make the object easier to use and more relevant to your audience which, in turn, leads to achieving your business goals.

Ask all the questions

Obviously, the more parts and pieces to a design, the more complicated the observation has to be. Websites, computer interfaces, and retail environments all have many more variables. What is the lighting like? What is the noise level? Is this how the user would actually sit or stand to interact with the product? How distracted is the typical user due to unforeseen factors like kids, traffic, or hunger? Sometimes it just isn’t possible to capture all those factors into one test environment.

Check out your peers

A great way to combat this is to observe the use of similar products or environments and glean some general truths about common situations. One user interface I have been observing a lot lately is the new parking meter system that has been installed in most of Minneapolis. The thinking behind it seems great. Each parking space has a number posted next to it. A single machine for each block allows you to punch in your space number and then pay with coins or (brilliant!) a credit card. Should make parking so much easier, right? Well, take some time to observe real people using this system and then give me your answer.

One of the biggest problems with the system is the placement of the pay machines. There is one in the middle of each block. This means if you park at the end of the block, in front of your ultimate destination, you have to walk half a block to the machine to pay and another half block back to where you want to go. We could all use more exercise, right? But what if you are handicapped or not fully mobile? What if you are a little older and remembering a number for a half a block is difficult? What if you live in Minnesota where low temperatures in January average 7°? Add to that that it takes a good 30 seconds for the receipt to appear after you have punched in your number and swiped your card. This doesn’t seem like that big of a deal until you have 4 or 5 people waiting in line for the same machine. And in bright sunlight it is difficult to read the screen. And. And. And.

The observations can go on forever and I don’t want to disparage the new system completely. But all of these notes could be useful for anyone creating a kiosk or pay system in the future. The flaws seen here can be avoided by the next design team.

Take some time to think about your users, watch them in action, and ultimately make their lives easier with a better design.

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