A Note on Everyday Usability

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We can learn a lot about usability just by observing everyday objects, applications and interfaces. This morning I was flying to London from Buenos Aires, when I realized something awkward about the UI on the plane’s in flight system, which allows you to track the progress and duration of the flight, or occasionally watch a movie.

The UI was mostly in english, except for a couple of views which were bilingual, that is, english with an spanish translation below. Additionally, a portion of the flight map would, in turn, be displayed in either english or spanish. This was further aggravated by the fact that you couldn’t really pick a language on the console, so it didn’t really help much if you weren’t capable of reading english, and if you were, the half-baked spanish translations just got in your way.

A similar case might be made about the in flight announcements. Although I didn’t have a problem with these, personally. All of them were first announced in english, and the important ones would also be repeated in spanish. I guess you could make a point about how if an announcement is not “important enough to require translation”, then it shouldn’t be announced in the first place, but that’s debatable.

Either make the experience bilingual in its entirety, or allow users to pick a language, but stick to one of those. Be consistent, don’t throw a half-baked feature hybrid at your users. It’ll just confuse them.

In this particular situation, I learned that consistency is really important. Having a consistent UI design would’ve saved me the mental leap (albeit a small one).


Transitioning back to the web.

A similar disservice is met on the web quite frequently. Many sites offer partially translated versions of their pages.

Those which try to force a localization language upon you are even worse. Rather than referring to your Accept-Language HTTP header, or even navigator.language in JS, some choose to pick the default language for you based on your IP address. I think that this is plain wrong, even though major sites such as Google itself do it.

You should respect the default language preference that a user chose, rather than fix them on your best guess.

This can be generalized for just about any aspect of usability. Wherever you can, let your users make their choices by themselves. Put yourself in the shoes of user with a particular need, then figure out what you would change, as the user, to make that goal easier to achieve.

One last thing

When it comes to designing user interfaces, it’s hard to come up with a recipe for success. I’ve found trying to impersonate the person using an interface to be the best way to concoct a succint and elegant design that doesn’t get in the way, and, at the same time, makes it obvious how to do what you, as the user, are trying to accomplish.

A rule of thumb might be that if it doesn’t help you get there, then it’s getting in the way.

Luckily, I brought with me a good book on usability design, The Design of Everyday Things. I didn’t read all of it yet, but I will surely come back to this topic once I finish reading it.


Happy easter!

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