Monday, December 27, 2004

Not a Drop to Drink, Pt. 1

No rest for the weary or the professional nitpicker. My xmas break afforded me a number of examples of either bad UI or dodgy instructional procedures for toys.

Perhaps my favorite occurred at a neighbor’s party, when I attempted to get a glass of water. Someone directed me to the refrigerator, one of those newer models that provides filtered drinking water to thirsty homeowners. There was indeed an obvious port in the door, topped by what amounted to a toolbar of icons for different services. After a brief attempt at deciphering them, I was directed to the one on the left which was supposed to symbolize water.

I placed my cup under the icon…nothing. I pushed on the cup. Nothing. I pushed the icon, thinking it might be a button even though it didn’t really look pushable. Nothing. Someone had to walk me through what should have been a completely intuitive and easy process. The nozzle for the water was not actually under the icon, although it was indeed to the left of the services port.

I had the rare experience of feeling like an idiot and simultaneously a pretentious nerd when I turned, slightly red-faced, to the gaggle of amused onlookers and said, “Bad interface.”

A number of lessons here: Make sure your icons are understandable at a glance; if you want people to push a button, make it look pushable, and if not, don’t (i.e. is it a button or just an icon?); and make sure your controls are placed as close to the object they affect (like my cup) as possible.

Not a Drop to Drink, Pt. 2

Hello again,
Here’s a great example of a technological breakthrough meant to make life easier for people (at least I guess that’s the rationale) that simply backfires.

Ever seen one of those sinks (typically in a public restroom) that operates by infrared or motion detection? You’re supposed to pass your hands under the faucet and produce a stream of water.

It’s a hazy memory now but I seem to recall being totally stumped by this when I first encountered it some years ago. The best examples actually provide some sort of explanatory signage, but not all do. Toilets proved especially anxiety-provoking without physical flushers, whereas faucetless sinks simply resulted in (aside from grubby hands) impotent rage -- ever-popular with those poor souls foiled by hardware. Well, that was then…you’d think I’d have gotten the hang of it by now.

And yet…and yet… I regularly encounter such fixtures and find them unable to produce the desired effect. I walk away from the urinal…nothing. I wave my hands like a madman under the faucet…nothing. I look for some hidden button, I try like an idiot to press or turn the faucet. Am I doing something wrong? Has the water been turned off? Is it just a defective sink? Typically the latter is the case, since other sinks (often provided with those silly antiquated devices called handles) do happily gush with water.

Lessons: Provide more than one way to do your task with a secondary control. Provide some explanation for your control even if you think everyone will know how it works; some of your users will never have encountered it before.