Sunday, January 11, 2009

You are here

When we talk about computers, we tend to talk about them in terms that imply sophistication. However, another way to think about computers - and information technology in general - is to view them as primitive. I've been thinking about this since a recent visit to the new Westfield shopping centre in London. (Gina works for Westfield in Melbourne, where they've just finished the Doncaster project, so a visit to the London centre was a must.)

I don't spend much time in shopping centres, but I liked Westfield London. It's airy, bright and spacious, and easy to reach by public transport. (It also has 570 bicycle parking spaces, which says something about how London is changing, but that's a subject for another day.)

We'd arranged to meet some people at a specific store, and on entry to the centre went to a conveniently located information kiosk. This was a sleek and attractive stand-alone pedestal, with a touch screen on either side, so that two people could use the kiosk at the same time.

A lady in front of me was trying unsuccessfully to locate the Jo Malone store. She had a few difficulties. Firstly, she was wearing gloves, so the touch screen didn't register her attempts to press buttons (gloves are quite common in a London December!)

Secondly, once she’d entered the first couple of letters and instigated a search, the results displayed were scrollable, but it wasn’t clear what the scope of the results were, so that she was attempting to scroll down past the end of the results list. I watched several other people make the same “mistake”.

The scroll-bar itself was somewhat awkward, with a very small target area; again, this was something that several people struggled with.

I also noticed that when people managed to get a map with the required destination, it was difficult for them to orient themselves. There was a “you are here” indicator, but the map was in a fixed orientation. People would typically swivel around trying to figure out what local landmarks were shown on the map, so they could decide which direction to travel in.

I watched people using the kiosks several times during the course of a morning, and estimate that the overwhelming majority of users were unsuccessful. They typically turned to a staff member, or got a paper map, or just wandered off.

Now, kiosks are a difficult design challenge, and it would be unfair if I were to just complain about these ones – particularly since I spent only a short time watching them being used. However, a few points are worth considering:

  • Usability testing would have uncovered most of the problems I saw (it may be that usability testing was done, but if so I would have to question why some easy fixes were not carried out).
  • Some of the issues were trivial, in that an effective fix would be readily apparent and relatively easy to address.
  • Some of the issues are to do with the way in which the technology works. For example, re-orienting a displayed map to reflect the user’s point of view is certainly possible, but it’s just not the way such displays are designed.

This final point is the one that made me think that we have, in fact, a very primitive technology. Certainly it can do great things, but frequently in day-to-day applications it is awkward, confusing, and difficult to use. That’s why, in a brand new shopping centre that cost £1.7 billion (GB pounds), we can still have a highly visible piece of so-called “information” technology that does not effectively enable customers to find their way to their destination.

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