Everyday Usability Design: The Good and Bad – All At Once

Very often, particularly while helping someone non-technical with a technical problem, I think to myself “this would have been so much simpler/less confusing if the designer would have put just a bit more thought into the user experience.” Similarly, I occasionally come across something where I say “man, why don’t more people do this.”

Yesterday, I had each of those reactions — to the same piece of technology! So I had to share. What was this magical piece of technology that mixed both the good and bad design experiences? Why, a gas pump, of course.

Take a look at this portion of the pump user interface. On the top, you have a credit card reader, and on the bottom, a keypad.

The Good:

The credit card magnetic stripe reader. They are everywhere: gas pumps, ATMs, grocery stores — pretty much every brick-and-mortar retail outlet you can find has some form of this device. And it seems like every time I use one, I swipe my card, only to realize I had the mag stripe on the wrong side and have to flip it and swipe again.

So what’s so good about this one? Well, take a look at the little helper pictures on the device. Did you see it? You can swipe the card with the mag stripe on… wait for it… either side. There is basically no way the user can do it wrong. The manufacturer has created a pit of success for me to fall into by adding a second receiving device on the other side. I LOVE IT!

This was the first thing I noticed on the gas pump, and I rejoiced. It put me in a better mood.

The Bad:

Immediately after swiping my card, the pump asked me to enter my zip code for credit card verification, followed by the dreaded “Do you want a car wash too?” prompt. Entering the zip code for credit card verification was straight forward — I had a set of what is clearly a numbered keypad to use. So I tapped it in. No problem.

Now I get the “Do you want a car wash?” prompt. In my head, as I recall this little episode playing out, I hear this 80s era computer voice asking “Shall we play a game?”

Ok, I can do this — “just press ‘No’” I tell myself. So I reach down to the keypad and… um.. where’s the ‘No’ key?

Now, it’s hard to tell from the picture, but the 0-9 keys, plus the yellow “Clear” and green “Enter” are all raised, like an early 90s telephone. So this is a very familiar interface to me. The yellow and green colored buttons stand out to me — clearly the designer gave them color to draw my eye to them. Then there are these stickers on the left and right side, which are also of various colors.

Here’s how it played out in my head:

Ok, so, now, how to say “no”? Let’s see, what are my options? There’s no clear “No” key, but there is a “No” sticker next to the “Clear” key and they are both yellow — so maybe that’s it. But wait, there’s a red “Cancel” label next to the green “Enter” key, and red usually means No — but green means confirm and the key itself is green. Better go with the yellow “Clear” key.

I hit the key — the machine beeps. The screen refreshed: “Do you want a car wash?”. Ok, maybe it didn’t register… so I pushed it again. And back comes the car wash prompt. (or, in my head “How about Global Thermonuclear War?”….) Clearly, this is not the right button.

To make a short story less long, here’s where I landed: Turns out, those “stickers” on the side aren’t just labels — they’re actual buttons. I probably should have taken the picture from a slight angle to make it more clear how much the buttons stick out — but to me, it was not at all obvious that these were interactive components, especially since they are juxtaposed immediately with what are clearly interactive components. So I eventually hit the yellow “No” sticker and went on my way.

There is so much going on with this little 3″ x 3″ square of user interface.

  • keys that are buttons
  • stickers that are buttons
  • stickers in yellow, red, green and white (what do those colors mean???)
  • keys in black, yellow and green

As a user, I don’t know what this all means, which means I’m likely to get it wrong, at least once. Had the buttons all been the same physical design, I would have immediately known which button to push.

It makes me wonder if the two parts of this user interface were designed by the same people.

Multi-Monitor Support For Remote Desktop Sessions

At the office, I have two nice, big monitors so I can spread out my work. I have become so accustomed to this much real estate that when I work from home, not having two monitors becomes a noticeable hindrance to my productivity.

While I do have a second monitor at home to attach to my laptop, I primarily remote desktop into my machine at the office, and that meant going back to a single monitor — until now!

With Windows 8 (or maybe it was 8.1), the remote desktop client allows you to utilize all your local monitors. It’s really easy to use, too. Just check the checkbox!

Update: I’m told this works in Windows 7 as well — seems this was a well-kept secret.

I Have A New Job Title: Director of Development

Two years ago I joined InRule Technology, in part, because I saw tremendous potential in the company and it’s software. During those years, we’ve seen great sales growth (with a 67% increase year-over-year revenue in 2013), and all signs indicate that sales growth will continue for a very long time. Accordingly, the company is poised to grow in size and maturity as well, and in my new role as Director of Development, I will be helping guide the ship through.

I’m a huge believer in continuous improvement and frequent incremental change, not just for improving our software codebase and feature set, but also for our people, processes, practices – both at the micro (individual contributor) and macro (department and company) levels. In the Director of Development role, I’ll help drive strategic initiatives within the Product Development (aka software development) group aimed at improving our processes, software architectures, system infrastructures and our people to make it easier to expand our products, grow the department and to venture into new technologies and new markets. I’ll play a key role in growing the team itself, as well as representing the development group in cross-departmental concerns.

Many of these are things I’ve already been doing in the background, because I’m passionate about my work and enjoy the work I do. This title change just makes that part of my official role. Of course, Jeff Key, Sr VP of Engineering, will continue to oversee the department overall, and I will continue to report to him. While I will be absorbing some of the work that is currently in his plate, we both felt it was important that I continue to spend a large portion of my time writing code.

As such, I will still be doing development/architecture the majority of the time. This is my “happy place” and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Too often, companies will take high performing members of the team and “promote” them into a leadership role which takes them away from development and the things they enjoy about their jobs. This ends up hurting the individual and the company in the long run, something I’ve experienced in my own career, and is something Jeff and I both wanted to avoid. That I work with a management team that understands this dynamic is yet another of the great things about working for InRule!

Hmm… Guess it’s time I dusted off my Thoughts on Employment series.

Alright, enough self-aggrandizing. Check back with me in a year when I’ve got something to show along with my big words!

Photo Credit: Michael Heiss (Creative Commons License) Some rights reserved