Asking (very) personal questions in an application process

20 Nov 2015

Personal questions to create a Social Security account

If you create a my Social Security account online, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses their “identity services provider” (the credit bureau Experian) to get information about you. You have to answer them to prove that you are you. Here’s a sample:

Text: You may have opened a student loan in or around February 1999. Please select the lender that you have previously or you are currently making payments to. If you have not received student loans with any of these lenders now or in the past, please select NONE OF THE ABOVE/DOES NOT APPLY. [Followed by radio buttons with choices]

Example questions in the my Social Security application (taken from a SSA online video)

If you can answer enough of them correctly, you create the account. If not, you have to wait 24 hours and try again. (That gives you time to look up old phone numbers and financial information.)

Personal questions in a usability study

In a recent usability study, participants entered a home address as part of an application process. The site then displayed a list of people who live there and cars that are registered to them. Some people thought it was an invasion of privacy or creepy. Others liked the convenience.

The range of reactions didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that no one was upset enough to want to leave the site, although some people wanted to know where the information came from.

Another surprise: Seeing that the website could look up some data seemed to change expectations. A few participants assumed that default values elsewhere in the form were not just suggestions, but other data that the site found about them. That seemed to make them more likely to accept the default values. (This needs more investigation, but it was an interesting observation.)

What do you think?

Have you seen personal questions like these in other situations? Have you created an account at SSA? Was it surprising to see what they could find out about you?

Real-time collaboration with a document camera

20 Oct 2014

As noted in another post, I got an IPEVO document camera to use in usability studies. I also used it in a GoToMeeting conference call with a client the other day.

We had been doing some quick prototyping at his office, using the whiteboard. We didn’t have time to get together for the next meeting, but I connected the document camera and used it as the webcam input to GoToMeeting so he could see what I was sketching. I put a printout of the latest Balsamiq mockup under the camera and marked it up as we were talking.

Aside from impressing the client, it was a handy way to work together remotely.

Camera, pencil and paper for collaborative sketching

What tools and tricks do you use for remote collaboration?

Pressing issues: Using parking machines

14 Jul 2014

It’s easier for a municipality to have central machines that dispense tickets for parking than to have individual meters. But they’re not always designed well. Here are two examples, one easier than the other. Neither takes credit cards, which complicates the UI in other machines.

The first one is in Belmont, Mass. While the display is a bit dim, it’s very easy to use.

The next one is in the neighboring town of Arlington, Mass. They put all those stickers on the machine because it’s so hard to use otherwise. Even the coin slot is labeled! When I was at the farmers’ market last summer, I saw a town employee who took people’s money and ran the machine for them.

That’s an expensive side effect of poor design.

Parking machine in the town lots in Belmont, MA

Parking machine in the town lots in Belmont, MA. It’s a little hard to read, but easy enough to use.

Parking machine in the town lots in Arlington, MA

Parking machine in the town lots in Arlington, MA. All those stickers are supposed to help with the UI. What do you think?

Pressing issues: using a public bathroom

7 Jul 2014

Soap on the right, water on the left. How do you use them?

After pressing the top of the soap dispenser, I pressed the top of the faucet. Nothing.

I see now that the three little openings at the bottom of the faucet stem indicate a sensor, but I was going to wash my face and didn’t have my glasses on. It’s a lovely design, but the inconsistency confused me. Each time I visited the Museum of Fine Arts and used this bathroom! I think now that I’ve written this post, I’ll remember!

MFA bathroom sink fixtures

How do you get soap? How do you get water?

Pressing issues: How do you use an elevator?

1 Jul 2014

I rode in this elevator multiple times recently, and each time pressed the numbers instead of the buttons. It’s not an unusual design, but to me, the floor numbers always stand out much more than the buttons. Have you ever had that problem?

MIT Stata Center elevator

Quick: What do you press?

At the time, I didn’t even notice that there’s no second floor!

What do they do when they can’t do what they want to do?

5 May 2014

I watched people create forms in a study and saw a creative workaround for an unclear feature.

The model that the participants were copying had a Submit button, and the program automatically inserted one in the form. That seemed like a convenience, but there was no way for users to know that would happen.

There was no way to insert the button because it was automatic. One creative person inserted a text box and made the default value be “Submit”:

One form with a text box that says "Submit" and one with a Submit buttonIt looked like a Submit button, sort of. And it made the participant feel like he accomplished the task, but it was confusing and stressful to figure out.

The lesson is that people often do things we don’t expect. Sometimes customer research like this usability study is the only way to find that out and prepare for it.

News: in print, on the Web, on a mobile device

12 Mar 2014

I’ve been thinking about how we read the news, and how the “device” we use affects how much we read. And that affects how much we learn about the world.

Here are some examples from a recent day’s news. Click an image to blow it up, but look from this bird’s-eye view first and get an idea of how much information each medium initially provides. I think that’s important.

This is not meant to be exhaustive, nor scientific. But you have to start somewhere. What  do you think about reading online vs reading print, especially for news?

The New York Times. Available in these formats: A new Web app. The Web site offers two versions: one is current news, I believe, while the other is the day’s print paper online. The Times Reader app may no longer be supported, but it was when I captured these images.

New York Times Web app

New York Times Web app

New York Web site- iPhone

New York Web site- iPhone

New York - Today's paper - iPhone

New York – Today’s paper – iPhone

New York Times Reader

New York Times Reader

New York Times front page - print

New York Times front page – print

New York Times daily email

New York Times daily email

The Boston Globe. At the time of these screen captures, there was a Web site, an app and the print version.

Boston - iPhone

Boston – iPhone



Boston Globe front page

Boston Globe front page in print

Boston Globe app

Boston Globe app

The Boston Herald. This is unique because readers see more information with the online front pages than in print.

Boston Herald front page, print

Boston Herald front page, print

Boston Herald app, iPhone

Boston Herald app, iPhone




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