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Published on September 7th, 2009 | by Rahel Bailie


Reality TV meets user experience

Given the seeming lack of good ideas for new reality television shows, I thought I could pass this one along for an inspiring TV producer. The idea is for a show that is a combination of user experience and consumer advocacy, and it would star someone who is over 50, who always seems to get the 1-in-1000 defective product, who hasn’t become accepting of design flaws or usability shortcoming as “that’s just the way it is”, and who understands systems well enough to not confuse organizational incompetence with conspiracy theories . Someone like moi? Oh, you flatterer.

But really, wouldn’t it be an eye-opener for companies and bureaucracies who don’t seem to get it, and don’t seem to have an impetus to get it? And the consumers who could finally realize that the problem doesn’t like with them, but with the services, products, websites, and agencies with which they they’re trying to interact.

The idea would be something like this: follow around a couple of average people, watch their interactions with the world around them, and show the interactions, both positive and negative. Here’s what a half-hour episode could look like:

Woman comes out of the shower, holding two bottles. She shows the camera that she can’t tell which one is shampoo and which one is conditioner because she’s at that age where everyone needs glasses – who wears glasses in the shower, though? – and the labels on the bottles have the brand name in large type and the product type in small type. She figures out the fix: change brands for one of the products so she’ll know that yellow is shampoo and green is conditioner. (Are you watching, marketing managers? Designers?)

Woman is shown up some transit information. Between the compact fly-out menus and double-tab navigation, it takes her several tries to click on the tab she wants. With each try, her language gets more colourful. Finally, she gets to the schedule and discovers that the route she needs to take doesn’t work for her, and she expresses her frustration articulately but firmly.

Man is shown driving in his neighbourhood. He points to a bicycle lane being used as a right-turn lane, another being used as a right-hand passing lane. The camera shows how close cars come to the bicycles as they whiz by. Camera shows him on his bicycle, and as he rides down the street, wobbling from time to time, he articulates his fear of being hit by a car that doesn’t allow enough clearance. He reminisces about the bicycle paths in Holland, a tiny country that found the room to create bicycle paths separates from the road by greenways.

Man is calling a telephone provider to ask about deleting a service he doesn’t use. He is put on hold while told that they are “experiencing a higher than usual call volume”. He snorts with derision and says that he’s never once called without getting that message. In an Emporer Has No Clothes move, he theorizes that this is simple understaffing in the hopes that, aside from saving money at their end, more people will be motivated to figure out their problems by themselves. The camera pans to his computer screen, where he shows how he’s sent around and around in circles when he tries to get to that service. When he finally reaches customer support, the comical discussion with the staffer at the other end reaches Kafkaesque proportions. (Are you watching, marketing managers? Loyalty advocates?)

Woman is trying to book a ticket online, and shows that despite clicking “Remember Me”, the site design doesn’t want to remember the first six numbers of her account. Somewhere along the line, she is asked to put the number in again, and ends up looking up the number and, out of frustration, writing it on her hand. She muses that it’s times like this she considers taking up smoking again. (Are you watching, interaction designers?)

I could go on, but you get the picture. This is the reality of daily life, where design sloppiness gets ugly as it frustrates us ten ways to Sunday and wastes our time, from the time we get up until the time we go to bed (oh, and don’t get me started about alarm clocks). Oh, and if you need a willing victim, er subject, for your show, call me.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

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