02 November 2010

...forming an orderly queue

If nothing else, we are told, us Britons are the best queuers in the world. It's part of our DNA. The technology in our head is that of a homing pigeon. When our nature spots a queue, our nurture has to work double hard to not let us join it. Regardless of the fact we all seem to really appreciate standing in line, the Post Office - the bastion which practically invented queueing, has gone and laughed in our faces – its OWN face even – by reinventing the queue. I say reinvent, but if you enjoy waiting 10 minutes in an un-orderly fashion for something you've just purchased, then Argos got there a couple of decades earlier.

Not all Post Offices have this new system, but my local branch in Eastbourne does. If you haven't seen it yet, here's how it works:

• Upon entering, you're confronted with a touchscreen machine. Sometimes a friendly member of staff accompanies the machine.
• You choose between two options: counter services or bureau de change.
• You take a ticket with a number on it; your position in the queue.
• You take a seat and await your number being called out by a female computer voice.

So, you see, the system is very similar to Argos. However, the difference being at Argos it's really, really annoying, but at the Post Office, it's great. Why is this? Simple. At the post Office, the customer is awaiting a service which one can bail out on at any time. We're the master of the situation, and people just LOVE control. However, at Argos, you've already queued once and paid for the item you're waiting for; queueing is the part of the leg work which garners reward, so to make you wait any longer feels like a liberty. Control is taken from us and we wait, prone, for our little boxed item to get spat out of the chute for collection.

The beauty of the Post Office is they have recognised the shift in today's society, how our behaviour and habits have changed and, in turn, adapted the model of how the customer-facing side of a town centre Post Office functions. Where a traditional queue once worked when people were more accustomed to interacting with one another, bumping into a neighbour and passing the time chatting, the queue today is eerily silent. Time stands still as we stand there waiting with nothing to do. The queue is emphasised, its length a reminder of how long the guy is taking sending four eBay parcels at window number twelve. Silence. Frustration. Negative focus. What's more, you're locked in. It's dead time. Wasted time. If i were a horse and you a betting type of person, then the odds on me trotting on elsewhere and being left long in the face are, I don't know, 3-1 favourite. However the new system changes all this.

The Post Office now appears to be a little hive of activity. Once you take your ticket, there are comfy red seats, smartly positioned at 45 degree angles to break any notion of queueing. Whilst you're waiting, you can kill time and take advantage of the many other services the Post Office provides, look at gifts, packaging, greetings cards, buy a scratch card at a separate counter. You're not tied down and this has been recognised. Impulse purchases are a real possibility rather than an awkward situation waiting to happen. Where DVDs were once harboured within the queueing barrier at crotch level, they're free to be perused as you wait your turn to be served.

Another smart move is the 'Banking' section. An area dedicated to the Post Office's many finance related products – mortgages, loans, savings etc. – is now redesigned like a privacy room in a bank. It actually feels like they're taking your money seriously. Whether the average postage stamp-buyer consciously acknowledges this, the semiotics won't fall under their radar. We'll quickly forget how it used to be (with old Mr Trunky in line peering over your shoulder when you're trying to talk discreetly about your bottom line) and rightly so. It's a clever, welcome service in a time when everybody is looking after their money.

So, with queueing 2.0 in live beta mode,  I think the feedback will be good. My only reservation whilst in store was what would happen if you missed your place in the numerical line? I asked the nice lady at the counter about this and she said "We have to call the number three times, but we usually only need two. If nobody comes up, it's probably because they've left."

Maybe they went to Argos?

"If you missed your turn, you take another ticket".

Makes sense to me. Just like a good old fashioned queue.

01 November 2010

25 October 2010

...tagging this as 'Eastbourne Theatres'

At the Eastbourne Beer Festival a few weeks back, it came to kicking out time. As the revellers were slowly herded out like confused cattle on the way to the 'happy land', stewards deflty began removing ale-soaked tablecloths all around us. It was with some delight I noticed the municipal table tops had been tagged by the owners, which poses the question: who steals a table? Regardless of the answer, the tags are (presumably) unintentionally creative. I managed to snap a couple before we were ejected. You can see why I'm looking so forward to next years festival. I hope they're all that nice.

28 September 2010

...washing your hands

Within the walls of Park Guell in Barcelona - if you cross their palms with silver - you can wander around the house where Gaudi took residence whilst the park was created. No flash photography please. Whilst taking in the self-guided tour, you can bear witness to Gaudi's Toilet, and quietly wonder to yourself how much of his work could have been conceived right there atop the less than majestic white porcelain. Toilets and inspiration. They're unconventional yet formidable bedfellows. Like recycling bins and public car parks. Or Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. Both function perfectly on their own merits, but when put together, magic happens. Now where's my shoehorn

It was within the four walls of a car park public toilet that I found my inspiration for a little User Interface discussion on hand washing facilities. Not exactly on par with conceiving the Segrada Familia, I know, but the subject does cover cleanliness. And you know what cleanliness is bedfellows with? Godliness! Enter the magic...

Public toilet hand washing is a funny old experience. It's a moment when there's nothing else one would rather do in the world than eradicate the grim invisible funk of a thousand stranger's germs, but often can't. There's usually no soap, hot running water is a luxury, and good luck if you don't actually want to dry those hands on yourself. But what if the people who owned the convenience really did have your best interests at heart? They wanted to lay on all the hand washing paraphernalia you need to make it quick and pleasant, and what's more, IDIOT PROOF! Who WOULDN'T wash their hands? It sounds amazing!

Welcome to the 'WasH2o-3000' "It WANTS to clean your hands" (I made that name and slogan up, but if you're looking to go into this line of business, be my guest). It's a hole in the wall that does everything you can actually do yourself, except does it for you. Automatically. My first impressions were that i'd rather do it myself, but mustn't grumble, there's someone at the adjacent machine getting involved, so why not?

I step up to the ergonomic moulded plastic hole in the wall and like anyone, I take just a precursory glance at the pictograms whilst simultaneously attempting the task (literally) at hand. Both hands enter the hole in what feels like the natural, assumed correct position, in the centre. I look at the instructions again and a centrally placed arrow pointing down confirms this.

Squirt. The handwash is delivered but misses my hands. Bother.

Now here's some water coming out to mix with the soap which I don't have.

Ah, okay. I think I get it. There appears to be a motion sensor involved. I remove my hands and put them back in the hole again to trigger more soap.

Oh, no no no NO. Wrong move! It's the hot air's turn to impress; do have some hot air sir, to dry those delicate hands.

On my left, there's another happy user up to his wrists in bathroom technology. Except he's really bamboozled. We'll call him Gary. I realise he's the same guy i saw standing there as when I walked in earlier. He's peck peck pecking away at the graphic of the soap with his index finger like there's no tomorrow. My user testing persona watches with interest for a while, and when I think 'you're not getting paid for this experiment' I interject suggesting that it responds by hand movement. Gary's still not 100 percent convinced as he attempts my suggested procedure.

You can totally understand why he was mashing the graphic, though. Touchscreen is so prevalent nowadays that it comes as no stretch of the imagination that the toilet, if not using the most up-to-the-minute technology, would employ a hidden button system under the plastic of this 'futuristic' washing device. And the particular sequencing of the pictograms, 1 2 3, also preys on our instinctive 'I push this here to make that go there to make this thing come out here' understandings. Also, many other objects and interfaces we react with today rely on neat little icons to denote their application or function - think ticket machines or iPhone - and it's something we're all getting quite accustomed to. A couple of times recently I've witnessed someone at a vending machine, pressing inert pictograms to make it function. Are they daft? No. Its just a symptom of our emerging expectations of how the world around us works in 2010. So now when it comes to designing something like an automatic hand washing machine, we need to take a wider view of the schematics rather than focusing on the instructions.

In this case, the design is lead by the assumption the machine will function perfectly for a passive user; we'll follow the instructions, liquid soap will land in our hands, water will flow to wash away the soap, air will dry us, and we will stand there letting it happen. But as user testing has revealed, when something doesn't work in the way we expect - when we're faced with an immediate problem - we'll want to try to immediately solve it. When there's no direction, we experiment, we improvise. We're doers! As soon as we break out of the machines presupposed 'user flow', the whole system can collapse. In this case, a simple yet crucial factor lead to the function to fall down and, in turn, caught Robert out. Sorry, caught Gary out (I'm terrible with names). It ran out of soap.

As with all systems, whether mechanical or social, it only takes one simple blip to create a failure: it's only a tiny piece of rubber which causes the brakes to fail; forgetting to carry the 1 spoils the whole spreadsheet; a simple pocket call starts the family feud. You get what I'm saying.

Wanting to catch the failure, I used my machine again to examine its cycle. Yes, Hand movement triggers soap. A timer then lets you rub it in before the water flows. The water is also timed to switch off before the drier begins. Now in drying mode, the timed element is no longer a factor and it becomes a drier which stays on for as long as you're flapping your hands around underneath. More can go wrong than I thought, and I became aware of the scenario Gavin ... Gary? was battling.

With the machine out of soap and no way of alerting you to the fact, when the water flows, there's a strong chance you'll change your mind about how it works. You'll assume you missed something. So when you think on your feet and start pressing buttons that don't exist, it can really discombobulate you when the drier starts up and cuts out very quickly. It would feel as if you have no control over the task at hand, which in turn, bothers us. Frustrates us. And of course, when the cycle begins again, that short pause when the soap should arrive then leads you to believe it has a sketchy sensor, furthermore shaking you're beliefs of how the object in front of you works. Misbehavior breeds mistrust, and this is damaging for the product, the brand, and furthermore, the manufacturer.

A couple of suggestions which I think would aid user flow.

Make the soap visible (like many regular washstands). If you can see there's no soap, you'll better understand why the machine is behaving the way it is. If the soap can't be made visible, have an indicator telling us when its run out - like any other vending machine would. If the machine indicates putting your hands in the middle, make sure the soap is delivered in the middle - this broke the exercise for me. Usually the simplest solution in the design phase solves the complex problem.

I left Gary to it in the end and was left wondering how much resource gets wasted by the learning curve of using the machine. And also left drying my hands on my clothes as usual. My drier had a sketchy sensor.

18 August 2010

13 August 2010

12 August 2010

10 August 2010

26 July 2010

…dot, dot, dash, dash

...cultural baggage. Number 2: Seinfeld

I should explain. This van was in front of me on the M25 Dartford toll. What is that logo? I thought. It's certainly not a Self Drive company logo. It's a hangover from the eighties; proof on four wheels that design in the early nineties existed.

It's Seinfeld. It's definitely Seinfeld. Yellow, shaped background. Big blue typeface. A touch of red. Primary colours in all their sickly glory. Seinfeld.

Camera. Click. Drive. Tollbooth. Think. Drive. Barbecue. Drive. Ponder. Definitely Seinfeld. Drive. Tollbooth. Ruminate. Drive. Park. Upload.


It's not Seinfeld.

In comparison it's not. I admit.

But in my head it is. Everything about it signifies Seinfeld. Maybe it's because Newman's postal van - VAN - is a recurring feature in the sitcom? Maybe it's all the episodes of Jerry driving to bluescreen. I don't know. Maybe it's - sigh- What?

Is my reference point askew? Maybe I'm getting confused with some other early nineties pop culture logo? There were enough of them.

A few possibilities emerge.

Saved By The Bell

Parker Lewis Can't Lose

Weekend At Bernie's

It's none of the above. Or, rather, it's all of them.

I don't want to go mad attempting to nail this one, so I'm happy to let the Seinfeld logo be the zenith of this particular style; an amalgamation of all the above colourful, angular motifs.

Unless YOU know what it is and let me in on the secret, I'll let it lie. Seinfeld: cultural baggage number 2.

22 July 2010

18 July 2010

15 July 2010

12 July 2010

...Invert Look

As part of the recent budget, the new coalition government decided to pull its big old clumsy blue and yellow cojoined leg back as far as it jolly well could to give the torpid UK economy a thundering kick in the nuts. The Libercon Dermosives or whatever we're supposed to call them, probably thought it an easy win to scrap tax breaks for the UK games industry. So short-sighted and out of touch was the decision, that individually writing down their ideas on scraps of paper, neatly folding them in half and putting them in a tombola would seem a more rational way to have chosen their deficit-busting policies. This government doesn't understand gaming. I'm sure they believe games are made by a few lazy ne'er-do-wells in their spare time to be played by a handful of loners with a propensity to vindictively re-live every pixellated action from Double Dragon on to upstanding, unsuspecting voters. A perception not only twenty years out-of-date, but twenty years wrong. If only these private-sector-sucking politicians could see how much money they could personally accrue from this (talented, prestigious, vital) UK industry, they may just change their minds. Right, comrades?

Where would we start in making them see the light? We need thrift! An expedient bulletin to make them understand the industry's far reaching cultural influence, affluence and pertinence. I know! Let's post the launch issue of Invert Look through the letterbox of number 10. I wonder who'll get there first in the morning to pick it up, Clegg or Cameron? I assume they untie their 'third leg' to go to bed. Nick is probably already making the tea and removing all the Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes from the miniature cereal selection to mollify David and his sweet, sweet tooth whilst the letterbox swings on its hinges. "My, what's this?" They'll say. Invert Look.

It's a new quarterly gaming publication from The Church Of London, producers of the excellent award-winning film mag Little White Lies. If you're familiar with the crisp, erudite writing from their contributors, wrapped inside layers of beautifully designed editorial, then you'll be as cock-a-hoop as I am that gaming has gained their attention. The launch issue - received free as a loyal *cough* subscriber to LWL - is a rallying cry at what a games publication can be in this climate of digital news, social gossip and blog saturation. No latest reviews, no sycophantic scoops, no early-adopting slavering over the latest technology; think watching Newswipe instead of the actual news. Quite refreshing, really. And it's about time.

Back in the early '90s when I was battling to get Alex Kidd to the end of his Miracle World before getting called down for My Dinner (there was a world before memory cards, kids), I'd worship at the altar of Mean Machines, my first magazine love. Before 'crowdsourcing' was a word, they had a feature calling upon their loyal readers to write in whenever a console or game was referenced in popular culture. It was an exciting crossover. The idea of anyone mentioning Nintendo or Sega outside of darkened teenage bedrooms seemed as unlikely a scenario as us teenagers getting girls inside our darkened bedrooms. But then it happened. Bruce Willis, at the end of Hudson Hawk (shut up, I LIKED it) asked "Will you play Nintendo with me?". Wow! Off went my letter to the magazine which killed the feature stone dead by the next issue. It looked like games weren't ready to penetrate the mainstream consciousness.

Cut to:
The year is 2010, C.U. of 10 Downing Street's door mat. A bright green magazine. A pair of Superman slippers right of frame.

As a 36-page taster, Invert Look does a really nice job of creating an absorbing and entertaining genre magazine that actually disobeys the rules of the genre completely, for a wide gamut of readers. I for one am not the archetype who'd buy Edge, Gamer or the like. I read as a designer who dips into Red Dead, fiddles with twitter, drops in on Facebook. Via tight features including an interview with Edgar Wright, a biog of an hitherto unknown Nintendo cornerstone employee and an essay on the basic human sociological need to play, Invert Look raises questions about 'a new state of play' (their mast tagline). Of how culturally significant gaming has become; an integral colourful fibre meshed in the pullover of society, with no sign of it unravelling any time soon.

From the outset, Invert Look succeeds, and I'm sure will flourish, by inviting us all to the party. Come in gamers, Tweeters and Facebookers, programmers, designers and writers, and bring your friends. Help yourself to drinks and buffet. There's plenty for everyone. We're just waiting for David Cameron to arrive. He's bringing the trifle.

06 July 2010

02 July 2010

...hands that do dishes

Washing up the dishes the other day, I was pondering the Fairy Liquid bottle in front of me on the windowsill. It's one of those limited edition affairs, with retro packaging to celebrate the brand's 50th anniversary, reverting to the original design a lot of British households, detergent fans and bubble enthusiasts will be familiar with: White and cylindrical with flexo-printed dark green graphics. Vintage. A design classic.  Up there, I'd say, with Marmite, Colman's Mustard, Lyle's Golden Syrup and Tunnock's Caramel Wafers. That's the reason I bought it, really. It's just so NICE. So very nice, in fact, it let me in on a few truths about the power of marketing over function and vice-versa.

The design of this promotional pack has been rewound several decades (somewhere between way-back-when and yesteryear). It looks all very true to the period and yet there are some modern elements they've left in; two opposing indentations for grip, and the de rigueur non-drip cap. It's a sensible decision by the manufacturer to keep these attributes, as they don't detract from the overall authentic appearance and would, more importantly, be a detrimental omission for the consumer who has come to appreciate and expect these useful features. But in the process, look at what it tells us. The bottle is pared down to its most basic, usable form: Liquid to wash dishes; bottle to hold liquid; grip to hold bottle; cap to contain liquid. And that's it. That's all you need. After all these years and advances in production, all we've gained is a smart cap, a couple of dents and some nostalgia. So why is the modern bottle so different to its great grandfather?

Looking at both modern and classic bottles, comparatively they couldn't be more different. Firstly, the modern bottle is colourful and (armchair psychologists unite), we can all agree how humans warmly - or coldly - respond to hues and shades we come into contact with. A powerful device which drives sales (think Blueberry iMac). Secondly, the shape of the modern bottle is flat, wide and at first glance appears ergonomic, to help us hold the thing, making it easier to handle. And yet from a user's perspective, the classic bottle, with it's grippy-dents, proves otherwise. We have just been sold into the modern bottle.

Of course, there is also an evolution of a product to consider - the different 'flavours' (scents, anti-bacterial properties, hypoallergenic and mild formulations etc.), subtle shape changes of the packaging as each relaunch demands a little 'refresh', and advances in labelling technology which allows superior quality printing on more unusual substrates (such as plastics). But I'd say the shape has a lot more to do with making the product as physically wide as possible to aid brand visibility at point of sale and to stick the pretty label on. At a pinch, you may get more into a container for transit and storage, in turn lowering unit costs, but ultimately it's the marketing which sells the item, and a 'vanilla' white opaque bottle, just wouldn't sell in a modern market. Which brings us full circle. Because what would normally be a hindrance in shifting washing up liquid - a bottle that doesn't look the part or invoke feelings of confidence in what's inside - has instead become its USP and invokes feelings of warmth for a product which we're being reminded in this marketing push, is a brand leader we have trusted for for 50 years. Even the iconic baby on the bottle is flipped around, semiotically telling us a precious infant is happy to take that step backwards, so goodness gracious, why aren't YOU already? So hooray! Let's celebrate!

And that's exactly what I did in buying this retro Fairy Liquid. Now I'm making crazy bubbles, the bottle isn't slipping from my grip, and the last drip isn't running down the side. That's some usability testing right there, and the results are in. Boo to the modern bottle.

26 June 2010

19 June 2010

...not thinking

I recently had one of those moments when you go nutty for books. I wanted to seek out some good academic reading on design, but having a fair amount of traditional graphic design knowledge in my locker, and coming from a print background, I figured I'd cast the net a little wider.

I'm what you'd call a 'digital designer' within an agency which deals in a lot of game design. We're called Kerb. You may have heard of us. Or maybe even played one of our virals one lunchtime at your desk. If you've fallen over and hurt yourself whilst stumbling upon us, then that's a different kerb altogether, and I'd advise getting a tetanus jab and call the council about that, and have a good day, thank you.

I'm dealing with a lot of user interface design. You know - the graphical cues and pictorial signposts which help you click the right buttons and navigate the game you're playing or website you're visiting, one screen to the next. You could say I visually jolly things along.

On to my book quest. Three titles stood out as the most relevant to my skills, but different enough from one another to keep things interesting.

I bought:
Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug
Emotional Design by Donald A. Norman
Thoughful Interaction Design by Jonas Löwgren and Erik Stolterman

Before you get too excited / fall off your perch with boredom, I've only read one title so far - 'Don't Make Me Think'. But already, my beliefs and findings have been solidified that digital is as similar to print as we humans are genetically around 95% chimpanzee, and are therefore indebted to its heritage.

The hierarchy of information we scan on-screen every day - and instinctively decipher at a snap - has been learned by you and I over generations by reading all sorts of literature; bibles, books, newspapers, magazines, comics, posters et al.

Taking the cover of a magazine - a modern common denominator for capturing and guiding attention - it's not dissimilar to a web page. We have the masthead occupying the top like a site logo; there's 'what's inside' feature panels prominently displayed like CTA buckets; and our eyes (so we're told from scientific study by patient eggheads, God bless them) follow the path of a golden spiral - hence the callouts on the cover of magazines are traditionally positioned such.

And what do we do next? We hit the next button on the right, or rather, turn the page, following further visual prompts until maybe we lose our way and use the global navigation, aka the contents page. And for those paying attention at the front, I know. A good interface should not have allowed you to lose your way in the first place.

My point is, we're hard-wired a certain way as far as absorbing information is concerned, and our old habits are like John McClane, transferred from the page to behind the click-wheel of a mouse. Therefore, it's important to be facilitated with a nice, intuitive interface. Friendly. That's the word. And that's what 'Don't Make Me Think' is all about.

Its author, Steve Krug, is a usability consultant, and he's taken all his hard-earned experience to create a book as simple to understand as the websites he helps make friendly. It doesn't cover the casual games I specialise in, per se, or their second cousin removed, social media (the book was originally published in 2000, but has more recently been updated), but what it does reveal, with mostly simple, bulleted examples and pictorial evidence, are the essential rudiments of mouse-to-eye-to-brain usability, which is a pretty universal theme in digital today.

Now, some folks in my position may feel that to read such an uncomplicated tome on our 'specialist' chosen subject is to look like some uninformed noddy who should go back to making their Powerpoint-designed, export-for-web creations. And we can't be seen to look like that, can we? But to embrace it is to cast aside any silly vanities and help bolster your own back catalogue of knowledge and semiotic instinct garnered from years of graphical learning. You'll also unearth some neat new chestnuts you'll be surprised you never passed in the corridoors of this establishment. For example: user testing - it's not the same as focus group testing, silly.

Sorry, never knew it.

And whilst you're user testing, in your first session, it's usually more valuable to use lower numbers of volunteers (say, three) than a higher number of your target audience. Why? Because regular 'Joe Bloggs' users will uncannily weed out the most obvious - yet missed - usability clangers.

There are also some very nice analogies for looking at user interface design (which I'm about to mashup and paraphrase wildly) to make you think both logically and laterally.

Example. Imagine I've tied you up (hello?) with a bag over your head (erm?) and stuck you in the boot of my car (okay, I get it. Are there air holes?). Yes, I've thought of everything. There's even a little hamster bottle to your left in case you get thirsty. (Very kind). No problem. Anyway. You're in the trunk, getting driven around for an hour, being disorientated. Then I stop, bundle you out and drop you in the middle of a department store. Your task: find me a vase.

How you respond to this task is dependent on a number of variables, including how well the store is laid out, how clear the signposting is and, even, what sort of mood you're in (angry from the car ride I expect). These circumstances can directly relate to how we navigate a website.

Imagine you've landed in the middle of a page from a Google link. Just like me dropping you inside that department store in the real world, Google has dumped you in the middle of a website, and how you find your way around to complete a task is, again, down to a pretty similar set of variables including layout, signposting and how the user is feeling.

If you're ticked off from the outset, it's unlikely you'll persevere with the task in hand if you're given misdirection from bad layout or signage, but if the overall experience leaves you feeling good about it, then you'll forgive a couple of bum steers. And the warm feelings may not just be down to how easily you find what you're looking for, but also your interaction with the aesthetics. Your feelings. They're something I've always had in the back of my mind as a designer - if what i produce is pleasing to me, at the least aesthetically-speaking, I expect the end user will likely feel good, too.

State of mind and its direct correlation with design is another one of many interesting points raised by our pal Steve Krug, and a factor we should pay as much attention to as the positioning of a label on a submit search button.

So, that's me recommending the book.

With the end-user's mental state in mind, I'm now about to tuck in to the second book on the list, 'Emotional Design'. You can guess what that's about. When i'm done reading, I can let you know if it's any good. But only if you feel like it.

07 June 2010

06 June 2010

23 May 2010

...the art of damaged goods

11 May 2010

06 May 2010

29 April 2010

27 April 2010

...your independence