A Few Lessons From Real World Usability

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Have you ever noticed that in some movie theaters, the steps going up and down to the seats have lights around them? Have you ever stopped to realize that in some theaters the lights around the last step before you reach the floor are another color?

Throughout the day, I often notice things that I consider “Usability Wins” and “Usability Fails”. We interact with so many objects during our day that we often don’t notice that someone actually stopped to thing about how we were going to use items. I’ve talked before about how it’s nice to have a usable teapot. But it’s also nice to have usable doors, electronic equipment, clothing, furniture, food packaging and so on.

Missing the Access Point

Sometimes, people do well and sometimes they miss the mark. Ellen Degeneres once had a section in a stand up routine where she discussed how packaging had gotten ridiculous. She was saying that these days, you need scissors to get into a pack of scissors.

When I see things like that, I often feel that those people who designed the packaging for an item missed the point. When you’re putting together a product, you have to stop and think about how users are going to access your product. When it comes to things like packaging, even though the outer wrapper isn’t what someone really bought, it is still the first thing that the user comes in contact with and, as such, will be their first interaction with your product. It is the same for websites. If you have a terrible landing page that doesn’t allow users to find the meat of your site easily, then your packaging is failing your product.

Keeping with the Times

Over time, what determines whether or not an item is usable changes. A great example of this would be buttons. Not web buttons. Actual clothing buttons. See, you may have noticed that women’s clothes have buttons on the right and men’s have clothes on the left.

In olden days, men would dress themselves, so they would want to be doing the buttons up with their right hand. Women, however, would normally be dressed by a maid or other assistant, so that meant their buttons should be on the right, to be used by someone facing them.

This seems like some good thinking when it comes to usability, but nowadays most women dress themselves and that makes the buttons on the right situation a moot point. Now, in the case of young children and babies, it would make perfect sense to put buttons on the right.

The lesson here is that sometimes things that made an item usable in the past just aren’t relevant today. In order to keep things usable, they also have to keep up with the times. Just because everyone used to design websites with tables doesn’t mean it should be done that way today!

Sometimes It’s Just About Consumerism

To me, grocery stores are Usability fails. Aisle signs tend to not describe anything you are looking for. You often have to wander aimlessly up and down aisles to locate some small item that seems to you to be unrelated to anything around it. Often times, generic brand products are really high up on a shelf or really low down.

This is where consumerism trumps usability. The location of items in a grocery store are carefully designed to make you spend more money. They want you to take your time looking for an item because the harder you look, the more things you will see, the more potential for impulse buying. Cheaper items are often in harder to reach places because they want the brand name products to be in your immediate reach. You spend more, they make more.

Now, this is a good business practice, but it doesn’t make things very user friendly. Unfortunately, stores realize that everyone does have to go to the grocery store. But, if you have a website, it’s unlikely that everyone has to go to it. In web design, usability trumps consumerism every single time. It’s important to have good navigation and make your products easily accessible.

So what usability wins and fails have you seen in life? What products are keeping up with the times and which ones are falling behind? Where do you draw the line between consumerism and usability?

About the Author

Redd Horrocks

Redd Horrocks hails from South East England. She moved to Atlanta at the age of eighteen and has enjoyed her life here ever since. She has a degree in Communications and Media Studies and now works in Professional Theatre Administration. She is also a Freelance Writer and runs Distilled Rose, a personal finance blog. Redd also contributes to or manages four other blogs with topics ranging from Personal Finance to Vegetarian Cuisine.


  • Erica Minton Reply

    Airports are one of my favorite places to hunt for usability wins & fails. For example, you can tell when an airport designed its bathrooms with luggage in mind. The flow of traffic sometimes makes perfect sense (like the Delta kiosk) or is a total pain (snaking through some airports to reach baggage claim).

  • Fire G Reply

    Completely agree with your Grocery Store Example Redd. I know the manager of my local Bloom store and he constantly has to deal with organizing and re-arranging his stock to encourage sales (especially of less demanded items he has a large quantity of).

    You mentioned the lights on the steps at movie theaters and I’ll admit I never noticed them until just now when you said that I realized that they form a line at the edge of the last step at my local theater.

    Great post Redd!

  • Sai Gudigundla Reply

    Excellent article with gr8 examples.

    Another example I would like to bring up is the EXIT doors in casinos. They just make you go round and round all through the casino to access a EXIT door, making you spend more time in the casino and may be lose a buck or two.

    I think when we first launch a website we should give Usability the top seat and as we build critical mass, we can start sneaking in consumerism to make money.

  • thiskat Reply

    Balancing business goals with usability is always a tricky act, isn’t it? And knowing how many corners you can cut off of the user experience without driving people away. I heard Jared Spool last week tell the story of making usability improvements on a site that also decreased their page-views and, thus, the business’s profitability (they were ad supported). I get annoyed when those ad-supported sites make me click through 10 pages of content to read an article that would scroll on one page just fine, but I also get that they need to make their bucks. If they didn’t I wouldn’t have the opportunity to read the content.

    So I’m not sure that these sites, like your grocery store example, are total usability fails. I can get to the food I want, I can get to the content I want, I just have to work a little harder than I would if it were a perfect world.

  • Jeff Reply

    Nice Article.. Here’s a great Usability lose I see all too often. eCommerce sites.. None in particular, but often enough I’ll read an article about, “The Top 5 (or 10) Best Designed SItes”… Sometimes there will be an eCommerce site in there. And while the home page may look spectacular the product detail pages, or checkout process is laborious and very frustrating. So in this isntance, usability should trump design. But you can have both… But focus on the consumer experience first, and then wow them with the visual.

  • Taylor Regan Reply

    Great post. I like the movie theater and the grocery store observations.

    When considering usability, interaction and persuasive design, I think it’s important to consider the power of subtle inputs. Like the lights around the steps in the movie theater. Ever noticed the music being played in the grocery store? If you’re in a Jewel or Dominick’s, it’s cheesy soft pop or elevator music, versus the more modern, hipster music they play at Whole Foods.

    When considering usability, it’s the subtleties we sometimes miss or take for granted, but it’s the culmination of these subtleties that can have such a dramatic impact and influence. People’s emotional reactions are triggered more quickly than logical, rational responses. This is a big deal when it comes to user interactions.

  • Francis Reply

    Your h3 tag for “Sometimes It’s Just About Consumerism” isn’t closed properly and is causing a display issue in Opera.

  • Adam Winogrodzki Reply

    Well ! the article is great … The example which Sai gave is also great :)

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