Category Archives: Real Life Usability

Web Form Usability

What’s wrong with this question from a web form I recently came across?



Creating great web forms is not easy. There are so many details to get right, and you really need to consider who your particular audience is. In this case one improvement that could be made would be to order the options in age order instead of alphabetical order. So for example:

  • Under 16
  • 16 – 18
  • Over 18

That said, unless you can’t ask for a specific age for some reason (like user sensitivity or legal requirements), I would recommend simply asking for the user’s age. There is a heavy cognitive load to this question currently, partially because it’s out of order, but also because we don’t usually think of our age in these terms. So a simple “What is your current age” would make it a faster question to answer for most people.

The Usability of a Toyota Prius


This is the gear shifter from a Toyota Prius, the 2007 model to be specific, which I drove while on a work trip. If you’ve never driven this car before, let me describe how it works:

  1. The shifter is spring loaded, so it always rests in the position you see it in now. You move it to the “D” position for drive and it returns back to the “resting position”.
  2. There is an indicator on the dash (not pictured)  showing you if you what gear you are in.
  3. If you want to put  the car in park, you push the park button that is light in the picture.

So from a user experience perspective, what are the usability issues with this setup? What’s good about it? And why?

Let’s look at it using some of the parts of a usability heuristic evaluation

Status & Feedback – Is it clear to the user what’s going on at all times?

  • Good: LED on the parking button helps provide feedback to the driver that they are in park
  • Bad: Only the parking button has an indicator to confirm correct selection. Now granted there is certainly a dash indicator too, but could you improve the user experience by having an indicator in both spots?

Relevance & Familiarity – Are you using language that is familiar to the user? Does it line up with other products the user might have encountered?

  • Good: “R”, “N”, “D”, and “P” are all familiar to the average driver, and using the full words for something this common probably isn’t necessary.
  • Bad: While most of the letters on the gear shifter are clear, the “B” option isn’t clear as to what it should do.
  • Bad: On most cars the park option is selected using the same controls as drive, so your average driver stepping into this car won’t know to look for a button. As I’ve told some of my employees in the past, you need a really good reason to break a UI standard, and it’s not apparent what that really good reason is. I’ll add that there might have been a good engineering reason for this choice, but if that is the case you have to be careful that convenient engineering decisions aren’t trumping good usability.

Consistency – Are you consistent within the product in where items like navigation are placed or how buttons look?

  • Bad: The use of a box on the park button is inconsistent with the other letters / options. Using a box helps emphasis, but the designers of this car already separated the park button out from everything else, so is it a necessary inconsistency?

For the items I marked as “bad” keep in mind that this is the perspective of a first time driver. Sometimes you want to optimize for repeat users, so these issues might not be deal breakers depending on your audience and how they interact with your product.

What other good or bad usability things do you observer?

Redbox Kiosk Usability

redbox-screenIf you’ve visited a Redbox kiosk to pickup a DVD you reserved online, and mistakenly gone to the wrong kiosk then you might have seen this error message. In Chicago you’ll frequently find two kiosks side by side, so it’s easy to forget which one you’re supposed to get your DVD from when you arrive there a while after you’ve reserved it. You can click on the image above to get a larger view of the text they display, but looking at that screen, what’s good or bad from a usability perspective?

Here are two things I observed:

  1. It’s unclear that an error has occurred. I actually stood there for a minute thinking the machine was finding the DVD for me still, because I didn’t read the small print. Instead I interpreted it as, “the kiosk is still looking up your reservation and finding the disc inside the kiosk” instead of what they meant which is, “oh no! we can’t find your reservation at this kiosk”
  2. The error message is generic, and not customized to my problem.

A couple of changes I would want to make to this are:

  1. Change the title to be something like, “We can’t located on this kiosk, but….”
  2. If the credit card swiped matches a reservation, check if you can fulfill it from this kiosk anyway, if so don’t even show an error message and just fulfill the reservation.
  3. If the credit card swiped matches a reservation but you can’t fulfill it from this kiosk (that particular disc isn’t available), show the user where they should be going to get it. If it’s the other kiosk, just say that, or if it’s at a different address, show the address and a map of how to get there.
  4. If the credit card swiped doesn’t match any reservation (on any kiosk) display a message such as “I’m sorry we don’t recognize that credit card. Did you happen to use a different credit card for your reservation”
  5. Provide contact information for customer support on the error page

Ultimately the goal is to provide contextualized clues to direct the user to solve their problem rather than ambiguous errors, and whenever possible work around your user’s mistake (i.e. autocorrect).