Posts Tagged 'ergonomics'

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIV

Some conventions just aren’t worth messing with.

More often than not, it would seem that analyzing and redesigning a piece of hardware or software to increase productivity would be a good idea, especially if such changes include faster, safer, cheaper or simpler operation. A good example is Leo Beltracchi’s implementation of a graphical display system for nuclear power plants in the late 1980s, eliminating the need to frequently compare numbers to ensure the temperature of a reactor core is within a safe margin. This replaced confusing numerical data with a simple curved line portraying the temperature at which liquid inside the core begins to evaporate, and a dot representing the core’s current temperature. This system, still in use today, is no doubt responsible for a drastic improvement in modern power plant supervision, if not the prevention of fatal accidents that would have happened due to a couple easily missed equations.

Consumer products, such as cars, electronics and appliances, often receive updates when laws or demand calls for them. Airbags, scroll wheels, touchscreens, a fourth razor blade–these are all added features meant to improve some aspect of an existing product. Without improvements like these, consumers would have less reason to replace their products with new ones.

There are, of course, improvements to products that don’t necessarily boost their efficiency. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, an alternative to the much more common QWERTY layout, shows a decided increase in performance with users who are familiar with its key placement. However, the QWERTY layout has been around for over 130 years, and most computer users have never seen a Dvorak keyboard. The QWERTY layout has become an established standard in computing, and to replace it with the Dvorak layout would not only mean somehow convincing the entire world to give up what they’ve grown to know and learn a completely new system, but the cost of replacing every keyboard with the updated layout would hardly be worth what little increase in typing speed would result in the change.

Similar attempts to update the keyboard have been made with keys other than the numbers and letters. Supposedly, these changes are meant to better the intuitive nature of the keyboard, but to a user who has spent a lifetime working with a specific layout, the outcome is just the opposite.


These six keys–Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down–are grouped in this order on most modern keyboards. Because of their location relative to the arrow keys, they can easily be found without the user looking down from the screen. In fact, I use the Delete key more than I use Backspace, due solely to its location, and have become used to moving my cursor to the left of a character rather than the right before deleting it. As a user from the days of DOS, I still use the Insert key from time to time, as Copy, Cut and Paste all used the Insert key years ago, and many applications still have that option. The rest of the keys in that cluster are frequently used in navigating many types of documents and browser windows, and the wonderful thing is that I never have to look down to use them.


Here is a keyboard which breaks that established six-button group, eliminating the Insert key and rearranging the rest. Home and End are now left and right of each other, which makes sense when considering the direction a cursor moves along lines of text in a word processor, but not so much in a web browser. The Delete key, for some reason, has doubled in size, and the orientation of the group is now vertically arranged. Even if this layout might prove useful for certain users in certain applications, changing the layout of a conventional, time-tested setup only confuses the majority of users and breaks consistency with other keyboards on the market.


Function keys, used a bit like wildcards in computing, can serve a number of uses. Most of us know that F1 will bring up help files to assist us when we’re stuck, and we know just where to find the key. Packed together in groups of four, the function keys are easy to discern from one another without having to read their labels. As it turns out, four keys grouped together are easy to count internally, so users can quickly find, say, F8 without much hassle–it’s the last one on the second group of function keys.


Here’s how the other keyboard groups the function keys, in sections of three keys each. Even if this turns out to be slightly easier for users to use, the vast majority of keyboards group the keys in fours, and keyboards that break this rule are only confusing users who have grown accustomed to the norm. Even worse, users who switch keyboards often will find more difficulty using either layout smoothly. It’s hard to develop a productive subconscious pattern when you’re forced to break the pattern half the time.

On top of the different layout, the function keys on this keyboard don’t recognize commands that others do. F2 doesn’t rename files, F3 doesn’t search, Alt-F4 doesn’t close applications and F5 doesn’t refresh pages. They don’t even do what their labels say they’re supposed to, unless they’re used in Microsoft Office applications. What good is a new layout when it must be relearned and fights every convention we’ve established in the past?

Fortunately, changes like this aren’t as common as changes that actually improve on the user experience. Users are often reluctant to accept change, which is probably a good thing. Without sticking to a few consistent, global standards, we’d be reinventing the wheel with each new product we develop.

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28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXII

Dangerous products should be harder to engage and easier to stop.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old girl died after being trapped inside a front-loading washing machine which was turned on by her 15-month-old brother. The event stirred up a good deal of discussion involving the design and usability of certain washing machines in households with children.

Childproofing a home is never easy, and often quite expensive. Entire aisles of safety mechanisms are often available at retail stores in an attempt to guard children against numerous potential dangers: electrical outlets, drawers containing unsafe products, closet doors, sharp edges, hard surfaces and choking hazards, to name a few. As soon as a family expects its first child, it quickly becomes apparent just what a death trap some homes can be.

It’s impossible to remove every hazardous element from a child’s life, and attempting to do so only prolongs the encounter for a later time. When dealing with products and environments that can pose a threat to a child’s safety, it’s good to take advantage of the one safety mechanism built into all children: their size. Kids unable to figure out dangerous equipment start out with a very limited reach, and this should be utilized when designing products that can’t be simply kept away from children, such as washing machines.

According to news reports, the controls to the washing machine in question (a Kenmore 417 front load washer) are a mere twenty inches off the floor–well within the reach of a small child–and can be engaged easily. In top loading washers, the controls are usually set behind the door, and require a taller operator with an extended arm to start. With the advent of front loading machines, perhaps because clothes can now be folded or piled on top of the machine, keeping the controls where they were would have seemed like a bad idea, as access to the buttons might be blocked with no need to keep the top of the machine clear.

Years ago, a few medicine companies began advertising bottles that were easier to open, responding to elderly users having difficulties opening their medicine containers. Most childproof bottles feature caps which must be squeezed and forced open, or arrows which have to line up with one another before the cap will pop off. Both took considerable strength, and the arrows were small and hard to notice, making them harder for children to figure out. Obviously, these safety features cause problems for older users, who often have problems with both the strength and eyesight needed to open the bottles. To solve this problem, the new bottles have a long tab sticking up from their cap, making them easier to grasp, but still take a bit of strength to twist off. On these bottles, instead of the standard “Keep out of reach of children” warning, the label clearly states not to allow the bottle in any household with children–which is wonderful for older users, who are typically beyond the stage of having to worry about kids running around their homes.

The problem with this new style of washing machine isn’t only where the controls are placed, but the type of controls they use. As a user, I never really liked the push-twist-pull dial used to select the type of fabric and duration of the wash. Because the dial can only spin clockwise (a limitation I’ve never understood but have found on every dial I’ve ever tried), passing the desired setting means having to turn the thing around another rotation, and it isn’t always easy to know if the arrow is right on the correct setting or one click behind it. I’m always a bit uneasy about advancing an extra click when trying to select my setting, and because I’ve always used the exact same setting with all of my clothes, the fact that I have to turn the dial with every load does seem a bit pointless.

So the dial isn’t necessary, but eliminating it also gets rid of a helpful safety feature. How can a button-driven menu incorporate an equally effective feature? One idea could be to require two buttons, placed far enough apart to require two hands, to be pressed simultaneously. This will make it almost impossible to activate the machine accidentally, and still offer a simple way to get the machine started. Because the contents of the machine move around during the cycle, a release lever or button inside the machine isn’t possible, but in the interest of preventing another accident, unlikely as this sort may be, it would be possible to install a small microphone that halts the cycle if a loud noise, such as a scream, is detected when the tub begins filling with water.

Cases like these make us realize how important it is to analyze every possibility regarding household objects, products and situations, and at least try to prevent accidents before they occur. I wouldn’t say a recall is necessary on washing machines like this, but users need to understand the ease with which they can be engaged, and make the controls harder to reach by keeping the machines elevated or their rooms locked if there are children about. Like with the medicine bottles, manufacturers of these machines should make sure customers are warned of their inherent shortcomings as equipment easily accessible to children, by including printed warnings on boxes and in manuals that come with the products. When accidents like this happen, there is often no one branch of the user experience process the place the blame, as all parties–design, development, sales and even the user–may all have contributed to the unsafe conditions which led to the accident. That’s why it’s important to consider every step of the process when working to prevent future incidents.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XII

Don’t limit options when any key will do.

Another example of meaningless button-pushing is something I call Start Button Syndrome. As a child in the ’80s, I played a lot of Nintendo games, and after the opening credits, I’d see an intro graphic and two simple words, usually white on black, urging me to “Press Start!” Sometimes with two exclamation points. Such enthusiasm right off the bat.

Many titles screens offer several options: start a new game, load a previously saved game or enter a password, modify settings and gameplay options, and maybe view the game’s credits. But those games that only had one available option–to continue to the next screen–still primarily called for the user to press only the Start button.

The Nintendo controller is generally held with two hands, one on each side, while the Start button sits in the middle of the controller, a thumb’s stretch from the comfort of the A button.

The Start button is aptly named for its intended purpose of getting things going. Other purposes, such as pausing and unpausing the game, are less commonly used and should require more effort than the more common game buttons. But when a player’s thumb typically rests on the A button, why force the stretch to the Start button and ignore everything else on the controller?

Personal computing largely worked around Start Button Syndrome early on, asking users to “Press any key” when ready. With the multitude of keys on a keyboard, asking a user to locate and press a certain button would only slow down the process and cause unnecessary frustration. Still, there are times when it makes sense to require a specific key to continue: with so many available on a keyboard, and at least one hand normally resting on a row of keys at any given time, it’s easy to accidentally bump a key and agree to something before the implications have sunk in. Certain actions–those which can’t be undone, agree to legal terms or trigger hardware such as a printer or other equipment–should require a bit more thought to activate.

Many Flash games these days suffer from their own version of Start Button Syndrome. Instead of allowing a user to click anywhere on the page to skip an intro animation or bypass the start screen, a tiny button is used when no other functional elements are on the screen. Using a button labeled “Start” clearly tells the user what will happen once the button is clicked, which may take away from the desire to allow a user to click just anywhere–but a full-screen button should enable the hand cursor, which will tell the user the entire area is clickable, and many intro screens include the text “Click anywhere to start,” which makes it much easier to begin the game, and clears up any confusion that might arise from displaying the hand cursor throughout the entire page.

The DS, Nintendo’s most recent portable game platform, has several games which still stumble into the pitfalls of Start Button Syndrome, although I’m pleased to say the problem is getting better. Many games still begin by prompting the player to push start–an action which can be even more difficult than on the original NES controller if the player is holding the stylus at the time. To rectify this, games can allow a tap anywhere on the touchscreen to substitute for the Start button.

Another problem, however, is when a game requires a tap on the touchscreen–or a specific button somewhere on the screen–and won’t accept any other button in its place. This assumes the player is holding the stylus, and can serve a purpose if it means to prepare the player for a stylus-heavy gaming experience. But since the inclusion of a stylus essentially allows for two types of hand positioning (much the same way the N64’s three-armed monstrosity led to the forced triage of at least a few of the controller’s available buttons at any given time), both positions should be accounted for when trying to get past the introduction.

Limitations serve many important purposes, but can get in the way when a user is forced to take a specific action for no apparent reason. Showing an interest in the user’s available options and taking care not to unnecessarily limit those options is another step toward strengthening the developer-user relationship.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part VII

Not all browser windows are maximized.

Monitors are growing in size these days. I jumped from a 15″ to a comparatively enormous 22″ just a couple years ago, and recently I’ve been considering a few models in the 24″ and over range.

Despite my monitor’s capacity, I tend to keep my browser window at a modest size–around 880 pixels wide by 980 high. I do this for several reasons, not the least of which the idea that websites are primarily modeled after vertically-oriented reading materials, such as books and newspapers. While my eyes scan up and down a column comfortably, they start to protest when they have to go much further than that 880 pixel limit. (Of course, pixels aren’t measurements of real space, and distance from the screen is a factor, but under normal circumstances with most monitors I’ve used, this continues to be a good rule of thumb for me.) And 880 is for all content on a page combined. When dealing with blocks of text, anything over 500 pixels wide is pushing it.

Fortunately, most websites I visit still limit their content to a rather narrow column of roughly 700 to 900 pixels–many still too large for my tastes, but I’d like to think a little market research has shown those widths have gone over well with their target markets. Of course, market research doesn’t happen as much as it should, but that’s another topic altogether. Several surveys on the matter place me around the middle of the chart, and a few say my browser size is slightly narrower than average.

Many websites offering tips for web design suggest optimizing a site for 1024 x 728 displays, which still isn’t the safest bet since, aside from maximized browsers with very little chrome and navigation tools hidden, display size doesn’t say anything about available browser size.

Monitors are getting much wider, but laptops (and especially the recent influx of netbooks on the market) are still stunted vertically, some even dipping below 450 pixels. This isn’t such a big deal, as we’ve typically got seven keys dedicated to vertical movements in a browser window (not to mention scroll wheels and touchpad scrolling), and only two used to move our browsers left and right–and only then in much smaller increments than we can move up and down. That, and our eyes are more accustomed to scanning downward rather than sideways.

I’m no better than the next guy at making predictions involving technology, but even as monitors grow to sizes larger than you can fit on your computer desk without finding a new place for your Rolodex from well before the turn of the century, I expect most websites will stick to the same limits they use today. Typesetters have long known the horizontal restraints of our eyes, and have developed meticulously measured columns that minimize fatigue and enhance the reading experience. By putting a little effort into online content so it conforms to the same limitations, designers will find their visitors sticking around a little longer without reaching for the aspirin bottle.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part I

This month I’ve decided to post about one unwritten rule, commonly ignored standard or overlooked behavioral pattern per day, so by the end of February I’ll (hopefully) have a list of things all designers and developers in the User Experience field will be able to access, but just as importantly, a list we’ll be able to show clients who might need a little more persuasion that a certain design element won’t be perceived the way they might think it will.

This list will touch on several rules that are quite obvious, and might not seem to warrant a mention at all. The problem is that many facets of User Experience are so glaringly obvious that they proceed to go unwritten, unspoken, and ultimately unnoticed. But the purpose of UX is to remain conscious of the most unconscious user behaviors and account for them as effectively as possible.

So here we go. Rule number one.

Reading direction should determine button placement.

Mobile communications, like all new technologies, had a slow and gradual beginning, tentatively adopted by a number of companies who had no idea how successful their ventures would become. Standardization in the physical design of the phones and key layout would take many years to iron out, but eventually an acceptable model became popular, and more common than features such as the four-way cursor key and side-mounted volume buttons that most landline phones don’t include, the Send and End buttons respectively found their homes on the left and right sides on the keypad.

This makes sense when we consider the direction in which our culture reads: left to right. Because our inclination is to begin on the left and move toward the right, placing the Send and End buttons in this order stays consistent with the progression of a phone call. The buttons serve as a visual and spacial timeline for the duration of a phone call.

Having tested a number of mobile phones for a research project, I hadn’t found one manufactured in the past decade or so that broke this rule, and figured I never would. But I’d just been lucky. During a trip to the Philippines around 2006, one of the Nokia phones I used had its Send and End buttons switched, resulting in the most frustrating experience I had on the islands: I’d punch in a string of numbers, go to hit Send, and the numbers would disappear. Even worse, when I received calls while typing text messages, I’d try to pick up and would not only hang up on the caller, but I’d lose the entire message which would have been saved during the call. (To say this was my most frustrating experience there says great things about the rest of my travels.)

I didn’t get a picture of the phone, but looking into it, I’ve found a couple more that violate this rule. The Moto V60i, a relatively newer model, is a good example.

Because we also read from the top down, an acceptable alternative to the left-right setup would be to place the Send button above the End button, but the side-bu-side placement makes perfect sense, doesn’t impede on the functionality of any existing phones, and has become so established that changing it at this point would only cause frustration for those who are used to it–which is pretty much everybody. Perhaps hands-free headsets, which are generally slim and don’t have much room for two buttons placed horizontally, would be better off using the vertical layout.

The human mind is unknowingly stubborn. Give it a pattern to abide by and it will remember that pattern without having to really think about it. When such an established pattern is broken, subconscious actions can lead to unexpected results.

Up with Left, Down with Right.

The jog dial has found its way onto most electronic devices–cameras, computer mice, and cell phones to name a few–with varying results and consumer reactions. My first digital camera, the Sony Cyber-Shot, came equipped with a jog dial for scrolling through pictures and settings, and pressing in on the dial selected images and selected menu options. Nikon cameras make use of their jog dials by combining the scroll feature with various buttons to enable power users to make complex adjustments much faster than a traditional menu system would allow.

I’ve owned quite a few portable media players in the past decade, and one that’s stood out is the relatively cheap Sansa e140–stood out, primarily, because it outlasted most of the other relatively cheap models that decided to stop working with months of purchasing them. The e140 is notable in that it sports a typical jog dial in a less typical location: the corner of the unit.

I’m sure the designers who came up with this idea figured the corner placement would allow users to access the dial in two different ways: with the thumb along the side . . .

. . . and with the index finger along the top.

Seems like a pretty solid concept. But there’s one thing about a rotational input that doesn’t exactly lend itself to this kind of placement.

The jog dial serves two distinct tasks on this player: to navigate the menu system and to control playback volume. Other devices, like the iPod, use this same approach, but here’s where it gets tricky.

When using the menu to find songs and change the player’s settings, the dial acts like this:

As the dial rotates downward, the selection bar moves down the menu. So far so good. Now let’s take a look at the same dial’s behavior when changing the player’s volume.

Why does it do this? It really seems out of place for the dial to be playing Opposite Day when it comes to volume control, but acting perfectly normal with everything else. There’s only one reason I can come up with to explain it. Perhaps the designers decided that most users would be holding the player in a pocket, or at least in a different position, when adjusting the volume. If you think about it this way . . .

. . . it makes a lot more sense. And here we find the inherent problem with corner-mounted jog dials. They violate an unwritten yet important rule in ergonomics:

Up goes with Left; Down goes with Right.

Sure, turning the dial to the right increases the volume, which makes sense, but that’s also turning the dial downward, which makes no sense at all. At the same time, the entire dial is rotating to the right, so if you view it as a volume knob, it’s doing its job properly. But without being able to view it like a knob, who’s going to imagine it that way?

It’s most likely different in other cultures, but because we read top to bottom and left to right, we want to equate those directions respectively. Moving up and left are typically regressive movements in menu navigation.

There are several exceptions to this rule. Television remote controls, for example, either display the channel buttons as left and right or up and down, and in this case, up goes with right, down with left. But in most other cases, it’s the other way around. Not just with navigation, but displaying information as well. Take a look at how both Windows and OSX arrange files within a folder. In both environments, a horizontal view will place the first file on the left, while a vertical view places it at the top.

I don’t know why the e140’s jog dial bothers me so much. I’m the sort of person who can remember the idiosyncrasies of a system and use it just as easily as if everything were perfectly consistent, but the whole idea of putting the dial in the corner, while apparently offering more access to the user, does nothing but add confusion.

If Sandisk, the manufacturer of the player, still wished to place their jog dial in the corner of the device, there are two corners more sufficient for the job: the upper left and the lower right. This way, an upward action and a rightward action would match. However, putting the dial along the lower right would cause a completely different kind of confusion: viewing the dial like a volume knob, if a user could visualize it that way, you’d then be rotating the knob to the left to turn the volume up.

So the only remaining option would be to place it in the upper left corner. Sure, most users are right-handed, but the player’s small enough to reach each corner no matter how you hold it. Still, it would be more ergonomically awkward to put it there, so the only conclusion should be to ditch the corner-mounted jog dial, at least until a better application arises. But a music player just doesn’t need it.