UX Nuggets Thoughts and advice on usability and user experience

Don’t Get Outmoded – Lessons from a Novice User

August 26, 2010 |  Todd Diemer

In The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems, Jef Raskin argues that designers should strive for creating modeless interfaces. That is, interfaces that do not vary depending on whether the caps lock is on, what option button you have pressed, the type of object you are trying to interact with, what service you have signed into, etc. Modeless interfaces can been demonstrated with many of the tools you might find in a traditional toolbox –a hammer, saw, screwdriver, level, etc.- they can do one thing, are limited to that one thing, but do that one thing very well.

In practice modelessness is hard to achieve as user requested features and functional requirements often dictate a system that grows in complexity and ultimately might require more than one system state, or mode, to be in. We see examples of this in car dashboards, microwave ovens, e-mail clients, MP3 players, and more.

Despite this reality, it is worth thinking critically about intended users and how many modes they require to make an interface effective for their needs. A case in point:

I have a friend who recently began learning how to use a computer. Computing concepts, hardware, the modern operating system, and the Internet were distinctly foreign to her, yet she had been told that she needed to learn how to use Microsoft Word for an upcoming job.

For a number of weeks she studiously sat at a computer learning how to use Word, and, as a necessity, file management and Microsoft Windows. One evening I received a phone call from my friend, “I’m doing everything as I’ve learned, but now I cannot edit the document. What is going on?” she asked. She went on to explain, “When I try to edit anything I have already written, it goes away. I cannot edit anything without erasing the rest.”

Puzzling.

A number of thoughts went through my head. The cursor must not be active inside of the text area. The keyboard had the number lock or insert lock turned on. The file is being opened as read only. As I pondered these possibilities, it occurred to me that all of these required that she understood that Word could be in any number of modes: text edit mode, key lock mode, or read only mode.

I walked her through the process of sending me the file via e-mail. I opened the document and her problem became clear: her text wasn’t text at all. It had been replaced with an image of the exact same body of text. That is, the Microsoft Word document was nothing more than an image file that contained the original text. When she tried to type, she would click on the image thinking it was text she could edit. She would then begin to type which removes the image and replaces it with text. She did not realize that Word was in image edit mode rather than text edit mode.


Figure 1 – Example of 1. Standard text (left); 2. Image of text (right)

The above figure is a recreation of the kind of screens she was seeing. Can you tell the difference between the two images? Just looking at the image can you tell which side contains editable text and which one contains the image? How would you know the mode that you were in? How would you recover from that mode and return to the mode you wanted? Would you even be aware that there were multiple modes? What if you had all these questions and you were still learning to use a computer?

For this user, learning a word processor using Microsoft Word might not have been the most ideal choice. This reminded me that, the ideal user for Microsoft Word is someone more advanced in skill set who understands a number of typography, tabular, collaboration, and graphical options. My friend, just beginning to understand computing, was being thrown into the thick of advanced options and modes when she might have been better suited to learning using Microsoft Wordpad or a basic text editor. This would reduce the number of modes possible, keeping her focused on learning the basics of text editing, without getting sidetracked with the challenge of understanding an image replacement or other modal features. The right tool for the right job.

As a User Experience Specialist this anecdote is one to keep in mind as we work with a wide range of users who might encounter a wide range of applications that contain any number of modes. For some users, reducing the number of modes -reducing complexity- could lead to a much more enjoyable, usable, and productive system.

References

Raskin, J. (2000). The humane interface: New directions for designing interactive systems. Indianapolis: Addison-Wesley Professional.

 

Todd Diemer is a User Experience Specialist at GfK User Centric and has worked on projects ranging from process mapping Indian oncologists' treatment planning procedures to redesigning elementary-education learning management systems. Todd has a MS in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.

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