World Usability Day


Quick: you’re on the fourth floor of a hotel. You want to go to the first floor, so you step into this elevator… and now which button do you press? If you’re like me, you press the big number one just below the two. It even has little triangles on either side to indicate its special status as the lobby floor. If you press it, the doors will close, but nothing else will happen. That’s exactly as the designers of the elevator intended because this isn’t the first floor button, it’s the “close doors” button. It’s also an example of bad design for usability in that it actively encourages you to do the wrong thing. I know because I stayed in this very hotel, and each time I got in the elevator to go back down to the lobby, I pressed that damn “close” button.

What can we do about making our designs more usable? One thing we can do is celebrate World Usability Day. Usability professionals (yes, there is such a thing) are always looking for ways to raise awareness about usability-related issues (and, as a not unrelated side effect, point out that they exist). The Boston Usability Professionals Association is hosting a few special events today. My favorite is the Usability R.A.C.E “where teams of researchers study the city of Boston and brainstorm solutions to issues related to signage, and other public issues.” Ha! That’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Boston could improve its signage by HAVING SOME.

Old sad electronics

When my cousin Margaret was a little girl, her mom (my Aunt Nancy) came across a whole collection of empty popcorn boxes stuffed into the back of her sock drawer. How come? As it happened, a few weeks earlier the family had been to the circus, and when the show was over, Margaret felt so sad for all the empty popcorn boxes being left behind that she gathered as many of them as she could carry and took them with her to give them a good home.

Do you ever feel sorry for inanimate objects? Things left behind and unloved, like old shoes dangling from a phone line? Here’s a site (courtesy of my friend St. Frank) that specializes in taking care of Old Sad Things. As BeeJay, the owner and chief gamekeeper of the site says: “I like old sad things.”

Do you? What’s the oldest, saddest technical thing you can recall being used as directed (i.e. not by a collector, not with irony)? I remember lots of Polaroid pictures from my childhood, and not from the fancy shmancy SX-70, but the old Model 360 with its goopy, smearing film and the pop and crinkle of its disposable flash bulbs. I still remember the shredding sound our family’s Bell & Howell projector made when our family movies slipped the sprockets. And every film ended with the rhythmic whap-whap-whap sound as the loose end of the film reel flapped freely. And the slide carousels for the slide projector… click… clickety-click click. The pictures came out upside down as often as rightside up.

It’s funny that as I sit and try to recall these old sad machines, what I call back most easily are the sounds.