Does TSA need some usability analysis?

10 Aug 2011

Does the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) do any usability studies to see how passengers react to security screening at airports? I don’t mean whether people like the different types of scans, but the whole process, from approaching the TSA area to getting their shoes and belts back on.

I have two problems: There’s never enough time and space to prepare, and I don’t really know what the rules are.
TSA agent (photo from

I try to prepare: liquids in one bag, prescriptions in another bag, a bag ready to empty my pockets into, shoes ready for removal, etc. But I always wind up at the conveyor belts sooner than I expect to. People are standing behind me, waiting for a basket while I’m trying to remember all the things I’m supposed to do. About half the time I forget to remove the bags with liquids and medications, and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Apparently certain mistakes can cause you grief. I read a story in the New York Times about a businesswoman pulled aside by TSA agents because the sundress she was wearing was too long (and could hide something) and because she didn’t make eye contact with the agents (after taking the red-eye from San Francisco to New York).

And I recently learned that cargo shorts pretty much guarantee a pat-down. Too many flaps, pockets, snaps and zippers.

So if I arrive at the conveyor belts and don’t do everything smoothly enough, will I be pulled aside for additional questioning or screening? That’s another part of the problem — no one really knows what the rules are. It’s like entering a new password on a Web site that doesn’t tell you the rules for passwords until you violate them. (That’s another blog post.)

I did find a reference to TSA doing customer research on its Web site a couple of years ago, but nothing about this.

Have you heard about any research into the overall process? Ignoring pat-downs and scans themselves, what would make the experience easier for you?


AEDs: a great example of design

30 Jun 2011

I took the refresher course for the American Heart Association’s Heartsaver CPR & AED course recently.  Once again, I was impressed with the design of AEDs.

Wikipedia describes an AED as

An automated external defibrillator or AED is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses the potentially life threatening cardiac arrhythmias of ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia in a patient, and is able to treat them through defibrillation, the application of electrical therapy which stops the arrhythmia, allowing the heart to reestablish an effective rhythm.

While they may be used by EMTs with a lot of training, they’re also used by people who happen to come across a person in distress. You can imagine how anxious such a user is, so the devices must be really easy to use.

And they are. Once you open the device and turn it on, it tells you what to do, step by step.

Here’s a video I found on YouTube that shows a typical one. (The demo starts at 00:1:00 into the video.)

You might be trained on one brand of device and have to use a different brand if you come across an emergency in a store or public library. I don’t think it matters, because they walk you through the process, showing and saying what to do at each step.

I’m not sure why they’re all so well-designed. Maybe one company figured it out and the others copied, or maybe the Red Cross or Heart Association made suggestions to all of the manufacturers.

Have you taken AED training? Have you ever used one in real life? How did it work?

Back to the home page: text or icon?

9 Sep 2010

Not everyone knows to click the logo at the top or in the upper left corner of a page to get to the home page.

In a recent study, some people were confused by the lack of an explicit Home link in the navigation bar. Whether the nav bar is horizontal or vertical, it’s helpful to have Home as the first link. Even though the Web has been around for so long, this is still necessary.

Two ways back to the home page: the Home link, and the company's logo

I tell my clients that it’s always interesting, and sometimes humbling, to watch real users work with their products. Little problems like this are exactly why we have to continue doing usability studies.

People blame themselves, even when they’re not at fault

6 Sep 2010

One thing that’s never changed in usability testing is seeing people blame themselves for problems, even if the product is clearly at fault.

I’ve collected (anonymous) quotations from participants over the years Some of them are funny, but they make me wonder how often people feel stupid while using a computer.

Here are some favorites quotations:

  • “Back here again. Why are we here? Why are we back? Because we failed. We’re being punished.”
  • “This is my error. I have a habit of not reading things completely, so it’s not the system. It’s the user.”
  • “Maybe it’s just me… I feel like a moron now.”

I point out to participants in usability studies that if a product lets them do something that seems wrong, it’s not their fault, but people always assume that it is. This is not to say that every design has to protect every user in every case, but it’s important to know how people react in these situations and avoid problems where you can.

There are other  interesting comments, too. One of my favorites:

  • “They’re watching me on video? I’d have gotten a manicure if I’d have known that.”

More See more comments where people blame themselves for problems with software and hardware products.