So I’m in a hotel (again) and, the first morning that I’m there, I stagger into the shower to sluice off the grime of a couple of days of traveling. The shower’s faucet is a single flat handle like the diagram on the left (but without the arrows — I added them for reasons that will become clear in a minute). I pull that handle straight out towards me, figuring that will turn on the water. It does! This is good news because, quite frankly, I’m not really thinking yet.
However, the water isn’t quite warm enough. So now, unfortunately, I do have to think: Which way do I turn the handle to make the water hotter? I’ll let you think about that for a minute.
OK, I’m back. If you guessed that you needed to turn the handle to the left then you were right (I guessed wrong, by the way). There are a couple of lessons we can take away from this experience about conventions, scenarios, and why usability is sometimes in conflict with user experience.
For those of you who guessed correctly, you should ask yourself why you thought the handle should be moved to the left. You can answer that question by performing an experiment: Close your eyes, shake out your shoulders, and relax yourself. Now imagine yourself standing in front of your sink at home and, without thinking, reach out to the hot water tap. If you live in Western Europe or North America, I bet you reached out with your left hand because that’s the side that the hot water tap is conventionally put on (this may be true of the rest of the world also, but I don’t have enough experience to be sure). You counted on that convention (“hot water on left”) when you moved the end of the handle up and to the left.
Leveraging your audience’s knowledge of the applicable conventions (what we call design patterns in Learning Tree’s User Experience Design course) is obviously a good thing. It means, for example, that you don’t need to read a user’s manual or to take a training session in order to use the shower. Even though I fumbled the initial direction, I did understand the convention. Where I had done wrong was to imagine that it was the direction of the top of the circle (not the bottom of the handle) that mattered. As a result, I moved the handle to point its top towards the “hot water on left.”
If I was concerned about the usability of this shower, I might want to address that problem. To indicate unambiguously that swinging the handle to the left is the right answer, I might engrave a simple H | C at the bottom of the handle (coloring the H in red and C in blue would also help). If I wanted to indicate that it’s the top of the handle that matters, I might put some mark at the top of the circle to indicate that: A little point at the top (or even just a thin vertical line) might be all that’s needed. To put it another way: conventions support usability…but only when those conventions are unambiguously invoked.
Without those changes, the current design obviously has usability problems. But how big a problem does this amount to? I did, after all, eventually get the water’s temperature to where I wanted it. That’s because, even though I fumbled the initial direction, I got some feedback (the water got colder) and was able to figure out what I should do.
Let’s conduct another experiment: Let’s imagine a different scenario than my hotel room. Instead, let’s imagine that I’m a homeowner remodeling my home, which includes putting in a fancy new bathroom. While I’ve never done this myself, I’ve watched enough home remodeling shows to know that that people who do remodel their bathrooms never say use the word “usability” when describing their dream bathroom. When describing their new bathrooms they talk about “elegance,” “sophistication,” and “the wow factor.”
I suspect that, by the time the homeowner steps inside their new shower, they probably have gotten some training in how to use this every elegant design (probably when picking out the fixture). Even if the homeowner stepped into the shower with as little knowledge as I did, they would figure out the right thing to do as quickly as I did. More importantly, they’d remember it the next day. In fact, with this handle, once you get the temperature of the water right it’s possible you might never have to adjust it again. Either way, this is a one time mistake in, potentially, a life time of using this shower.
Compared to the user experience of getting an elegant, sophisticated shower with lots of the “wow factor,” I suspect that there really isn’t a problem with this shower handle. To put it another way: user experience always trumps usability.
But, you’ll notice, to suggest that usability wasn’t important I had to change the scenario. I switched from a weary traveller spending a night in a hotel room to a homeowner who participated in the design of the whole bathroom.
I’d suggest that, for the hotel scenario, the importance of usability as part of the user experience increases. For the standard commercial traveller who spends one or two nights in a room (that’s me), the last thing I want to have to think about is my room. While I might certainly like to have a room with “wow factor,” I’m probably not willing to pay for it. I’ll certainly resent having to think about how to use my room when I want to think about whatever business brought me to the room.
And if you think “resent” is too strong a word, think about how much time I’ve spent complaining about this shower — and I’m not quite done yet.
I recognize that there are a variety of hotel room scenarios and some where usability won’t be the critical part of the UX design (people staying at a high-end resort hotel for several weeks for purely leisure time activities probably wouldn’t object to the shower as much as I do, for example). But that wasn’t my scenario or the scenario of the majority of the travelers at that hotel. To put it another way: The relationship between UX and usability is driven by the user’s scenario. In some scenarios, “ease of use” is the most important part of the UX.
As I said, there are lots of lessons that can be learned from this experience: Scenarios drive decision making (if you pick the wrong scenario, you’ll make bad decisions); User experience is more important than usability (though, of course, if you can achieve perfect usability without sacrificing user experience, that’s the best possible result); If you sacrifice usability, it’s essential that you provide a feedback mechanism that allows users to correct their errors; to maximize usability, conventions must be unambiguously invoked.
You can learn a lot about UX design by paying attention to what goes wrong in your life. If you want to learn more about UX design, check out Learning Tree’s User Experience Design course.