Jul 172009

I swear I won’t keep ranting about user-oriented design, but examples seem to stare me in the face these days.

I was in Cleveland for a few days (don’t ask why), and looked at the fare machines on the Healthline express bus platforms. A few interesting discoveries ensued. The user interface consists of a screen, which is not tactile, and a few buttons placed on the side of the screen, similar to the last generation of ATMs. The first screen you see asks you to choose what you want to buy. The screen is not graphical, but character-oriented. It shows two lines of text, one for “Senior/Disabled Tickets”and the other one for regular fares. Next to each designation is the number 0. A blinking cursor appears on the first zero (next to “Senior/Disabled”). The labels next to the buttons say, as far as I can remember, “move cursor to right,” “move cursor to left,” “increase value,” “decrease value,” and “buy.”

In other words, even ignoring for a moment that the text is in small, single-font characters reminiscent of the “green screens” of the 1970s, if you want to buy a single adult ticket, you first have to click on “Move Cursor to the Right” so the blinking zero is now next to the label for regular fares, then click on “Increase value” to change the 0 into a 1, than “Buy.”

Some of the questions one might want to ask the designers of this system are:

  • How often do you buy zero tickets from a machine? Don’t you think that the default value could be, say, 1 instead of 0?
  • Did you study the demographics of the travelers to conclude that most of the users were senior or disabled?

Clearly, moving a cursor and incrementing values is part of the jargon of the developers, not of the general user population. Now what are the practical consequences, other than annoying me? Well, since you are supposed to purchase a ticket from these machines, board the bus, and have the ticket available in case of a check, let’s say you are struggling with the user interface while the bus arrives. Do you let the bus come and go, so you can legally board the next one, which may not be until ten minutes later? Surely, most people in this case will board without paying, therefore the Rapid Transit Authority is losing money.

Summary: user-oriented design is not a luxury, it has business value.


Claude Baudoin

Claude Baudoin is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Business & Enterprise Architecture and Data Insight & Social BI practices. He is a proven leader and visionary in IT and knowledge management (KM) with extensive experience working in a global environment. Mr. Baudoin is passionate about quality, knowledge sharing, and providing honest and complete advice.


  One Response to “Another Inane User Interface”

  1. avatar

    Despite this posting being a month old, I have to comment. Notwithstanding your observations, which I believe are dead on, if the demographics study concluded that most users WERE senior or disabled, this user interface is an abomination. First of all, I’m not a senior (at least I don’t consider myself to be one) but small text on displays with bad lighting and worse surrounding contrast are next to impossible to read with old eyes unaided. I would have to get my readers out to be able to even see what it said and that’s a loss of time and inconvenient. Second, if the person is disabled, how do they interact with the user interface. What if they’re blind? Unable to use their hands steadily? Heck, if they’re old enough, they may not even begin to understand what the directions mean for using the machine much less be able to use it.

    This is, however, not restricted to software systems. For example, going to restaurants in the evening is challenging because dim illumination (atmosphere), bad font choices (no average user should be able to select printable fonts), and bad contrast between the font color and the background paper color (trendy) make it nearly impossible to read the menu in most restaurants. This is as much a usability issue as those encountered in software. Not to beat a dead horse, but another example I encountered recently was a product intended for use by people over 50. The directions for use as printed on the container were so small, that even with readers on I couldn’t make it out. Demographic studies are great, too, but if you don’t apply usability patterns to the results of those studies, they’re just a waste of money and result in frustrated consumers.

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