Interesting subway design: would you do a usability study?

1 Feb 2011

I was in the Atlanta airport recently. It’s big, so they have a couple of subway lines to take passengers to the terminals, hotels and car rental offices.

There aren’t many seats on the trains, which I think allows more space for people to stand, and makes it easier to get on and off.

To make standing easier, they have poles. But notice the design of the pole: instead of a simple vertical pole, it divides into three parts, providing more hand-holding space. Even if someone leans on the pole, there’s  space for someone else to hold on.

A pole to hang on to in the subway of the Atlanta airport. It divides into three poles to make more room to hold.And, as a friend noted, the bars aren’t so far apart that people can get their heads stuck inside. That’s a good design, huh?

I wonder if they tested this at all, or just assumed that it would work because it’s so clever. I assume that someone at least rode trains for a while, observing how people reacted and used it.

What do you think? Would you test something like this, or just build and install it? Have you seen any other clever designs like this?


Web sites with attitude

11 Jan 2011

I’ve seen a couple of sites lately with mascots that have something to say and say it with an attitude. I guess whether you think their comments are clever depends on your point of view. Or your age. Or what you expect from a business Web site. Or your mood. Or something.

Here are some examples.


MailChimp is an email marketing service. Their mascot is a chimp, and he’s got a lot to say. Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes it’s, well, odd.

MailChimp saying "Monkey see, monkey do. I'm only wearing a mail bag, how about you?"

MailChimp saying "Hal, I'm just a poor boy from a poor family."

MailChimp saying "Hi Gail. New shirt? Very nice."

Notice that the middle one has a link. It goes to a YouTube video: “The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody”. They link to many clever things around the Web.


You’ve probably heard about Groupon: an online service that offers coupons for businesses in your area. Each day’s coupon comes via email, with a picture of Groupon the cat and the saying of the day. They’re funny, silly or just a little strange. Here are some examples:

Groupon cat and the statement of the day

Groupon says "Which dried fruits are specifically processed for the socially rejected?"

Groupon says "I named my son after my husband and my husband after my boat."

If you click on the arrow in the email they send, you go to a Web page describing the offer, and more detail about the saying. See what you get by clicking on the one about children and matches.

This one doesn’t have a mascot, but…

This one doesn’t have a mascot. But the business name and the domain name are a bit unusual:

Logo for Shit Creek Consulting

Note the the logo: they have the paddle.

And they have the right attitude for the name. Here’s part of the description: Smug? You bet your ass we’re smug. We won’t waste your time and all we ask is that you don’t waste ours with your indecision. Call us if and when you are serious.

So what?

Well, that’s a good question. Does having an attitude like this matter? Does it reflect a big change on the Web or in business? Or is it just a few companies pushing the boundaries?

I observed a usability study where some people were put off by an attitude like these examples. And I have to say that some of these comments surprised me. I have to guess, though, that they know what they’re doing. Maybe they don’t want customers who offend easily, or who expect a pin-stripe-suit attitude. Or maybe times have just changed.

You’d certainly want to know your users before doing this. And you’d want to carefully develop good personas for your development team to clarify the boundaries.

What do you think?

What have you seen? What do you think when you see a site with an attitude like this? Send me a note or write a comment below. If you have other examples, include a link.

Wherever I go, I’m in a usability study: parking & transit payment machines

19 Oct 2010

Whenever I use a payment machine for parking or a transit system, it’s like participating in a usability study.

Many of them are just hard to use, but I know it’s a complicated design problem. Why? Anyone can use them: natives and tourists; people who read well, don’t read well or don’t read the local language; new and experienced users, young and old, etc. And there may be a lot of tasks to include in the user interface.

Here are some examples of what I’ve seen

Boston’s multi-space parking meters
These new parking meters serve a number of parking spaces. Pay a fee, get a ticket, display it in the car. Simple, right? They work fine in the daytime but I struggled to read the instructions on a dark sidewalk. I saw a reference to “the green button”, but it was too dark to see color. And I could barely find where to insert the coins.

Boston's multi-space parking meter. Easy to use in the daytime, but impossible to read in the dark

Boston's multi-space parking meter serves multiple adjacent spaces. It's easy to use in the daytime, but impossible to read in the dark

Providence, RI, airport’s parking machine

One of the big problems with these systems is simply knowing where to start. That was the case here.

Parking lot payment machine -- Providence airport

Parking lot payment machine -- Providence airport

Parking machine at Mt Auburn Hospital (Cambridge, MA)
This worked pretty well. The steps are numbered (although not arranged in order) and it uses speech (do you remember DECtalk?). It started talking when I got close and guided me through the process well. It was loud enough for most people, but I don’t know if it uses other languages.

Parking garage machine, Mt Auburn Hospital, Cambridge MA

Parking garage machine, Mt Auburn Hospital, Cambridge MA

Washington, DC, metro (subway) payment system
This was very confusing. I didn’t know where to start. As in other cities, they have people available to help customers. Do you think that’s necessary, or could they make it easier?

Washington, DC, metro (subway) ticket machine

Washington, DC, metro (subway) ticket machine

New York City has multi-space parking meters like Boston’s
A friend sent this for my collection (thanks, John)

Parking meter, NYC

Multi-space parking meter, NYC

While we’re looking at NYC, here’s my favorite street sign
They came up with a great graphic to show why parking is prohibited.

No parking sign, New York City

Nice graphic on a no-parking sign in New York City

Family members know I’ll pull out a camera when I use one of these machines and they laugh. But I think it’s fascinating to see how different they all are, and to think about how much easier some of them could be.

Question: Have you seen machines like these? How easy were they to use? Did you feel like a usability study participant, too?

If you have any favorites images, email them to me and I’ll post them here.

Draw a picture: what do you think of the product you just used?

7 Oct 2010

I used to ask people to draw a picture after a usability session. Not a picture of the application itself, but a sketch of how they felt about it.

Not everyone likes to draw, so it didn’t always work. But when participants could do it, we got a great view into what they were thinking.

Here’s one of my favorites, from a study of a human resources application. The person was comparing the new software with other applications he’d used. He liked the new product and compared it to others that weren’t helpful.

“A two-part image: on the left, a desk with a computer, with ‘Clear answers’ above the computer. On the right, a door that said ‘HR’ and ‘Don’t have answers. Come back later.”

Sketches after a usability study on an HR application

Question: Have you ever tried something like this? How did it work?

Testing a microphone design in a radiology lab

29 Sep 2010

After designing software for physicians to use in dictating patient notes, I helped the client design a microphone. It had buttons for controlling the recording, for dealing with the speech-to-text conversion, and for controlling the mouse pointer. This made it the only device the user needed to use with the dictation software.

Wood microphone prototype

Low-fidelity mockups (blocks of wood) from a design workshop

It was a great project. We started with a Group Design Workshop, where participants brainstormed ideas and then marked up blocks of wood to show how they wanted the microphone to work.  (More about Group Design Workshops.)

We did several rounds of refinement and usability testing. Late in the project, we took a non-working model to a radiology lab, where radiologists studied actual MRI images. We asked them to hold the new microphone as if they were really using it, and tell us how it felt in their hands, how they liked the buttons and how it compared with the mic they currently used.

Radiology lab used in testing the microphone

A radiology workstation

This photo shows a radiology work area. The item marked “A” is actually a sandwich, but it’s where  one physician put the microphone down. He was engrossed in the MRI image, but was reasonably careful with the mic. Location “B” is a basket for papers that another physician used as a storage place for the microphone.

The lessons

We learned two important things that day:

  • Microphone holder or fruit bowl? We had been thinking about designing a holder for the microphone, something to stick on the side of a monitor. I realized that the radiologists weren’t as careful about the device as we expected they would be. Not that they were careless, but they were so much more focused on the images they were reading. Half-jokingly, I suggested we use a big fruit bowl with sloping sides as a holder. The mic would slide into the bowl, and it would provide a big target. The client eventually went with a standard holder, but seeing how people actually used the device was eye-opening.
  • It’s different at a hospital than a usability lab. We knew beforehand that this would be a real work situation, but seeing the radiologists reading real MRI images made us realize the seriousness of interrupting them. We modified the study a little to make sure they could concentrate on their work as much as they needed to.

We got good results in the study, the microphone went into production and it is still being used, many years later. In fact, I just found that it’s for sale at, with and without the holder. See it at

Clean up the UI before the usability study

23 Sep 2010

Sometimes you need to make changes before running a usability study, instead of waiting for the results. If you make the changes, you won’t have to watch all the participants struggle with the same obvious problems. This lets the study focus on deeper issues.

These problems may in the user interface or the underlying business rules. If it’s possible, work with engineering and product management to fix the problems beforehand.

For example, a few years ago, we tested an online document database. The initial search UI opened too many windows, and we expected to hear about that from all of the study participants. The development team created a parallel version of the product that fixed this problem.

This change, along with some others, allowed participants to focus on searching for information instead of on how the system worked. It was a successful strategy: A participant who had used the system before the study explicitly said that he liked the single-window model better. We were able to find a lot of other problems instead of hearing everyone talk about all the windows.

Question What have you done to make usability studies run more smoothly?