August Usability Newsletter is Live

Since this happened while I was traveling, I forgot to post a link here for anyone interested. The August edition of Usability Interface is live at http://www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/index.html.

Read my editorial to see how the Wreck This Journal book blogging experience helped me realize the importance of visual cues in web design. Who knew I’d get that out of fabulous, frivolous destruction!

There are also book reviews of Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (5th Edition) and Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories.

You can read about how to alleviate friction between software developers and users through user-friendly documentation and how to create strong navigation on a web site.

If usability or web design are your thing, check it out.

Latest Edition of Usability Interface is Live

The latest edition of Usability Interface is published at long last! As editor, I haven’t yet hit the right rhythm of timing. What a learning process this has been!

With this being my third issue I think I now have an idea of how long on average each step takes. Perhaps that will help me with assembling a new timeline moving forward.

Anyhow, this issue talks to usability professionals about the value of words, gives an excerpt from the newly published 5th edition of Designing the User Interface, and explains why I leave my floss on the counter.

If any of this interests you, you can read the latest issue here: http://www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/index.html.

Usability of a Mac & Cheese Box

If you’re reading this you either really like my writing or you were helplessly drawn in by that amazing title.

So here’s the story: I was making macaroni and cheese the other night when I found myself experiencing a bit of déjà vu.

To open that familiar blue box I jabbed my thumb at the bright yellow “push here to open” tab on the upper edge of the box. As usual, I succeeded in doing nothing more than denting and mashing the corner. Then I went to plan B: rip open the top flaps and be done with it.

I commented on Twitter about my inability to work that thumb tab thingy and asked if I was the only one. That little tweet elicited 5 fast responses and a phone call from people all agreeing they couldn’t work it either. One suggested we start a club. I’m thinking we could call it People Opposed to Useless Tabs (POUT) or Just the Flaps Please. But I digress.

What I realized is that we didn’t fail as macaroni & cheese box openers. The box design failed us. Why perforate a thumb tab when we could simply open the top flaps? Crazy idea, but it works for the cereal people.

Besides, as my friend pointed out over the phone, even if you jab the end of a wooden spoon through the tab and successfully pull it open, the cheese packet doesn’t fit through the opening. Hmmm.

I’m curious. How do you open the mac & cheese box?

Doors and the Design of Everyday Things

A door that defies basic usage principles

A door that defies basic usage principles


Over the past week I have been reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, a book about how product designs can hinder their functionality.

Using his background in psychology, Norman explores how people perceive and interact with objects they encounter in their daily life, paying particular attention to how the design of those objects often trip up the user.

An example that Norman often refers to is doors. When a person approaches a door, they must use visual cues to determine how to open the door (where to grab the door, whether to push/pull/slide, etc.). Apparently after the initial release of his book, some people began referring to baffling doors as “Norman doors.”

Well, this weekend I came across a Norman door (see photo at beginning of post).

If you look at the door handle, you may ascertain that this is a twist down and pull open scenario, not terribly uncommon.

I twisted down and pulled. Nothing happened. I looked at the handle for a moment, tried twisting down and pulling again. Nothing happened. I noticed the sign: “Turn handle up to open.” (At least someone thoughtfully provided ancillary instructions. Otherwise I may have resorted to banging on the door and calling for help.) I turned the handle up, pulled, and the door opened.

I did what any (easily amused, usability obsessed) person would do. I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a photo.

Then I stepped to the door, twisted the handle down, and pulled. Nothing happened. That’s how quickly a user forgets non-standard, forced learning behavior, folks!

Moral: Don’t let your product become a Norman product.

Usability Newsletter is Published

The latest edition of Usability Interface is now live. Usability Interface is a quarterly newsletter about web usability. If you’re interested you can read it on the STC’s Usability & User Experience community web site. I have been working on this newsletter for the past year and was honored to have recently been given editorship.

This month’s issue includes articles about heat maps, content page design best practices from Yahoo!’s Luke Wroblewski, upcoming STC (Society for Technical Communication) news and events, and a book review of Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney’s latest book Web Forms That Work.

You may recognize the name Caroline Jarrett. I interviewed her last Fall prior to the release of her book. She was so delightful to speak with. You can see a recap of that interview here.

Happy reading!

Usability of a Hot Chocolate Packet

Hot chocolate packet that opens at bottom

Hot chocolate packet that opens at bottom

I have a problem. I’m obsessed with usability. I notice usability highs and lows throughout my daily activities. I guess it’s because I like to make processes as simple as possible. I don’t like when things become unnecessarily stressful or take longer than they should.

This is why I’m continuously baffled by the hot chocolate packets currently in my desk at work. The tear mark is at the bottom of the package causing me to struggle every time.

It may sound wussy to say “struggle” in reference to a hot chocolate packet. Making hot chocolate is generally a quick task, so let me explain my step-by-step process with these particular packets.

  1. Reach in to already open box and pull out a hot chocolate packet. (Note: Leaving the box open eliminates one step, making the process more efficient.)
  2. Though contents are settled in bottom of packet, give one quick shake for good measure.
  3. Attempt to tear open packet near the top edge.
  4. Wonder why the packet isn’t opening.
  5. Examine top of packet in search of “open here” mark.
  6. Since no “open here” mark is visible, begin examining rest of packet. Consider whether scissors may be needed.
  7. Find tear mark at bottom of packet.
  8. Rotate packet so bottom is at top.
  9. Shake packet vigorously to redistribute contents to new “bottom” of packet.
  10. Tear packet open.
  11. Pour contents in to cup of hot water and stir.
  12. Wipe up chocolate dust that escaped during step 10 since contents originally settled where packet was ultimately torn open.

If the packet were meant to open at the top like some other hot chocolate packets, I could have been to a warm beverage in an efficient four steps (numbers 1, 2, 10, and 11 above).

Sometimes life is about the journey and sometimes you just want the shortest distance between here and happy hot chocolate time.

Onion Video Shows Why Usability is Important

My dad sent me a link to the following video from the Onion and I thought it was a great example of why usability is important. No, this is not a real product. But consider for a moment if you had to use it. How long would it take you to do your work? Would it help or hinder? This, folks, is why usability is important.

(Note: Since WordPress.com won’t let me embed the Onion video code, this is from YouTube. For better quality, watch the video on the Onion.)

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