Designing the little things (or good reasons to test as early as possible)
Sometimes when you are designing it is easy to overlook the small things, the things that really don’t matter. But they do, the small things can really matter and I thought I’d share a small thing that happened to us recently.
We have been working on a new exhibition for the North York Moors National Park Authority (NYMNPA) which is being installed into the Sutton Bank National Park Centre. Part of the exhibition includes a set of interactive presentations that are triggered by placing cards and objects (e.g. rocks, paint brushes) in front of the display. Each object contains an RFID tag that triggers the computer to play a certain part of the presentation when detected.
The design of the tables, the screens, the interface and the objects have all been carefully considered to make sense and help tell the story relating to the North York Moors and the area around Sutton Bank. From an interpretation point of view the content was checked and checked again by the team at the NYMNPA, the technicals were checked to make sure no errors or gremlins were in the works and all has now been installed and working smoothly.
The centre was soft-launched and visitors were let loose on the interactives. We soon realised there was a problem. Visitors were not quite understanding what was being asked of them with the displays. The message that was shown on the screens as they approached the displays is shown below.
The confusion surrounded the use of the word ‘scan’. When questioned about what they had to do they had referenced the phrase into something which was more familiar to them – the self-service checkouts at supermarkets. Therefore they started to look for a scanning plate (there wasn’t one as the RFID is picked up through the table surface) and also for codes to scan. Seeing this we needed to change the wording to remove this misunderstanding.
Great, so this must have solved the problem. Well, yes and no.
People now understood that no scanning was involved and they needed to simply place an object on the table to start the presentation – great stuff. However, now we found that people were looking through their bags and pockets to find ‘objects’ to place on the table. When you think about it, why wouldn’t you? After all, you’ve just been prompted to place ‘an’ object, not a particular object. Whilst people tended to blame themselves for not getting it we didn’t agree, the wording needed to change again.
So far this seems to be working. With the array of objects placed around the display people are now reaching for the RFID objects, placing them onto the table and enjoying the triggered presentations.
I wanted to post this as I think it shows more than just “user-testing is crucial”. It highlights why several exhibitions I have seen have failed on such small things and ruined the hard work put in to create it. In psychology there is a phenomenon called learned helplessness which refers to situations where people experience failure at a task and as a result they decide the task cannot be done: they are helpless. If you have ever had the repetitive “Unexpected item in the bagging area” at the self-supermarket then you will know this feeling. This is obviously not a feeling that you want people to experience as it will colour their opinion of the entire project, not just that particular feature.
In Donald Norman’s classic book The Design of Everyday Things he puts forward the credo ‘If an error is possible, someone will make it’. As designers it is our job to track and test these errors and adjust the design to minimise the chance of the error taking place.
The Lime & Ice exhibition is open now and is well worth a visit to find out more about the fascinating history and geology of the area.