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Let’s Get Physical: UX Outside of Electronic Spaces

Have you ever been baffled by a trash bin, frazzled by a restroom faucet, or juggled an armful of clothing in a small dressing room? You might think these seemingly mundane, utilitarian interactions would have been figured out by now; yet, it is surprising how basic tenets of usability are often disregarded in high-use public environments. Most of us in the field spend far more time interacting with these environments than many of the products we research and design, and we believe special consideration should be given to make these necessities as usable as possible.

So, why then do user experience designers seem less interested in improving these types of interactions? Perhaps along the way, user experience has become a synonym for the interactions that humans have with electronic products and services. However, we should view user experience as encompassing much more than that. Our tools, skills, and techniques can extend into assessing interactions in physical spaces. To have meaningful impact, we must overcome our electronic tunnel vision and begin to focus our sights on the bigger picture of user experience.

To put this philosophy into practice, we set out to conduct guerilla expert evaluations of some of the least glamorous environments in the physical world: street corners, public restrooms, and department store dressing rooms. We felt these locales exemplify typical and relatable user experiences not in the digital realm. As a result of this research, we emerged more assured that user experience professionals can tackle this kind of work. Additionally, we became more aware of how our skill set can be used to make any interaction, electronic or not, more effective, efficient, and satisfying.

Street Corner Trash Bins

The city of Chicago recently installed new trash bins downtown. The eco-friendly cans are designed to periodically compress the trash using a solar powered compactor. This seems a brilliant innovation as space is saved and an eco-friendly power source is promoted. Unfortunately, these trash cans ignore some common usability principles.

Poor Adherence to Standards and Familiar Cultural Constructs

Surprisingly, the trash cans simply don’t look like trash cans (see Figure 1). Lacking the familiar large opening, these hulking waste cabinets have a closed design with a pull handle; they look more like a mailbox or a Star Wars droid than a trash can. This distinct change in appearance, distant from the traditional metal trash bin, causes many to simply walk past, without recognizing the object’s function.

Trash cans with recycling symbol and slots to deposit bottle, paper, cans, and trash
Figure 1. The new solar-powered trash cans found in downtown Chicago don’t look familiar and require considerable force to open.

Context of Use Not Understood

When walking down streets, people need to throw away things acquired along the way: food wrappers, receipts, coffee cups. The old trash can design facilitated this with a wide opening that allowed users to toss in trash as they walked past. The new design not only forces people to stop, but also interact with the trash bin to discard their half-eaten Egg McMuffin. On crowded city streets, this only adds frustration as queues may form in front of the trash can.

Lack of Consideration for User Limitations

The new design also affects usage in other ways. First, opening the bin takes so much effort that sometimes a single person can’t do it alone. This could be a major problem for young, disabled, or older populations. Second, opening the can requires holding a potentially germ-ridden, often unidentifiably sticky handle, leaving people with a dirty hand and a negative reaction to the experience. Third, people carrying items with them have a limited ability to grasp the handle, making it harder to accomplish a task that was previously as easy as dropping an item into a bin.

How could the trash bin be eco-friendly and usable at the same time? If the solar compactor requires a closed design, one could take advantage of the familiar foot pedal operated model (see Figure 2). This design would allow someone to hold onto their shopping bags, while using their leg muscles to open the lid. Also, this design removes some of the perils of grabbing a mystery goo-covered handle.

Person using foot to open trash bin
Figure 2. A trash bin in Toronto uses a foot pedal model for opening the lid.

Public Restrooms

Public restrooms are bound to vary widely; yet, despite building codes, disabilities guidelines, and the expertise of architects, sometimes they do not serve our needs well. As a space that fulfills a human necessity, at the very least a restroom should allow people to complete their tasks as efficiently and hygienically as possible, but we observed several common issues.

Mismatch Between Typical User and Layout of Materials

Some restroom stalls have toilet paper dispensers positioned too low, high, or far to be usable for the average person. If the dispenser is too low, it forces people to reach blindly and tug toilet paper from the dispenser across a potential sea of germs. If the dispenser is too high or far, the person must balance precariously, at the risk of tumbling from the seat, to reach. These problems reduce comfort and cleanliness in an already uninviting situation.

Lack of Visibility of System Status

Many restroom utilities, such as toilets, faucets, and hand driers, rely on often frustrating motion-sensing activation mechanisms. There are benefits to such systems, including sanitation and conservation of materials; however, with no visibility of system status, people often find themselves failing to activate the utility. If it were clear that the hand drier was timed out between inputs, we could all avoid waving our hands fruitlessly.
These issues present easy fixes. The placement of toilet paper dispensers in stalls should reflect the average height of a male or female, and accommodate the needs of those with disabilities. Optimizing for all users can be as simple as adjusting the position by a few inches in either direction. Restroom faucets and hand driers could indicate when they are timed out and when they are awaiting input. Both of these changes would lead to a more predictable and less frustrating experience.

Department Store Dressing Rooms

Dressing rooms are spaces where one wants to feel at ease as much as possible. Most shoppers walk in with their personal belongings in addition to the items they wish to try on. Their goal is simply to determine if their selections fit so that they don’t leave the store with an unintentional belly shirt or flood pants. Yet, the design of many dressing rooms makes this difficult to accomplish.

Insufficient Resources to Accomplish Common Tasks

Many dressing rooms have only one or two clothing hooks from which to hang items. If it happens to be winter, one of these hooks is undoubtedly used for a coat. Any other available hooks are then used to delicately balance garments, hoping they do not fall onto the floor (see Figure 3). Once a person removes their own clothes, they are left juggling a pile of clothes, which impedes their ability to efficiently and satisfactorily accomplish the task of trying on the potential purchases.

Clothing hangs on dressing room hooks in a confusing way.
Figure 3. Fig3.jpg” width=”610″ height=”399″ /> Figure 3:

Lack of Visibility of Room Status

Doors to dressing rooms should have a visible lock indicator, but many do not. This omission adds doubt as to whether a room is occupied or available, causing people to bend over to look under the door and make sure no feet are present before barging in. Furthermore, there is often poor or no labeling of rooms. While less of a problem in smaller dressing areas, in larger stores, those who leave to show their outfit to a friend may return uncertain of which room was theirs.

These usability issues could be fixed with a few small changes. First, adding more hooks to each room can be done inexpensively and without a need for extra space. Another is to leave enough room between the hooks so that hangers don’t fight for space. Visible indicators of room status and a numbering or lettering system for each room can also aid people in identifying an open room or navigating back to the room they are using.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As UX professionals, we must shed our fixation on the usual range of interfaces and begin to see the bigger, holistic nature of user experience. We must be prepared to recognize processes outside of our usual scope of inquiry.

We notice usability issues everywhere we go, but we often ignore them because they exist in an uninteresting, or unflattering, physical space. We cannot ignore them for, as Jesse James Garrett posited, “The user experience mindset is an acquired condition for which there is no cure.” Yet, when it comes to the banal, we often assume these interactions are simply good enough, or fail to see beyond superficial improvements in utility. We must challenge our preconceptions about what constitutes “good enough” in the physical world—about what is simply useful, and what is truly usable.

In our brief exploration, we found numerous examples of experiences that frustrate, challenge, and confuse people. As user experience professionals, our charge seems clear: be an advocate for user experience research and design that will affect people in all aspects of life. No area is off-limits in this pursuit.

作为 UX 专业人员,我们不论何时何地都会关注可用性问题。Jesse James Garrett 断定“用户体验心态是后天习得且无法改变。”但是,对于日常琐事,我们经常假设现状已经足够好了,或者不能超越表面的功能改进。

我们都经历过不良设计决策带来的挫折感。以公共洗手间为例, 从悬挂的手纸够不着,到水龙头的感应功能失灵,这些简单的现象都反映出改善用户体验的工作被普遍忽视了。通过在日常琐事(在城市垃圾箱里扔纸质咖啡杯,使用公共洗手间,或在试衣间内试穿衣服)中可发现的几个可用性示例,本文呼吁 UX 专业人员留意并改善基本人类体验的可用性,而不是仅仅关注最新最酷的设备。

The full article is available only in English.UX 전문가인 우리는 모든 곳에서 사용성 문제를 느끼게 됩니다. “사용자 경험 사고방식은 치료법이 없는 후천적으로 얻는 질병이다”라고 Jesse James Garrett이 말하였습니다. 하지만 평범한 경우에 우리는 종종 어떤 물건을 그저 단순히 좋다고 가정하거나 효용성의 표면적인 개선 사항 그 이상을 보지 못하기도 합니다.

우리 모두 공공 화장실과 같은 장소에서 열악한 디자인 의사결정에 대한 실망을 경험해 보았습니다. 바로 손이 닿지 않는 곳에 있는 화장지 걸이에서 우리의 존재를 절대 감지하지 못하는 것 같은 수도꼭지 센서까지 이러한 단순한 상호작용은 더욱 훌륭한 사용자 경험을 간과하는 고질적인 문제를 상징합니다. 매일 일상적인 일(도시의 쓰레기통에 종이 커피잔을 버리는 것, 공공 화장실을 사용하는 것, 탈의실에서 옷을 입어 보는 것 등)을 하면서 만날 수 있는 사용성 문제의 몇몇 예를 통해, 본 논문은 UX 전문가들에게 훌륭한 최신 기기만이 아니라 기본적인 인간 경험의 사용성에도 더욱 주목하고 그에 도전해달라는 요청을 하고자 합니다.

전체 기사는 영어로만 제공됩니다.Na qualidade de profissionais de experiência do usuário, percebemos problemas de usabilidade em todos os lugares em que vamos. Jesse James Garrett propôs “Esta atitude de pensar sempre na experiência do usuário é uma condição adquirida para a qual não há cura”. Mesmo assim, para as coisas banais geralmente presumimos que algumas são simplesmente boas o bastante, ou deixamos de ver além das melhorias superficiais na utilidade.

Todos nós passamos por frustrações com decisões ruins de projeto em locais como banheiros públicos. Desde distribuidores de papel higiênico que ficam fora do alcance, a sensores de torneiras que nunca parecem reconhecer a sua presença, essas simples interações simbolizam um problema mais endêmico de ignorar a experiência do usuário como um todo. Por meio de vários exemplos de problemas de usabilidade encontrados no dia a dia, como tarefas triviais (jogar um copo de café de papel na cesta de lixo da cidade, usar um banheiro público ou experimentar roupas no provador), este artigo tenta alertar os profissionais de experiência do usuário para que prestem atenção e desafiem a usabilidade de experiências básicas do ser humano, e não somente aquelas com os mais recentes e melhores dispositivos tecnológicos.

O artigo completo está disponível somente em inglês.我々はUX専門家であるために、どこに行ってもユーザビリティの問題が目についてしまう。ジェシー・ジェイムス・ガーレット (Jesse James Garrett) は「ユーザエクスペリエンスの考え方は、身についてしまった状態であり、治療のすべがない」と断定している。しかし、ありふれた日常のこととなると、UX専門家といえども、一部のことには単純にこれで十分としてしまい、実用性の表面的な改善以外には目を向けないことが多い。


The full article is available only in English.Como profesionales especializados en UX, advertimos problemas de usabilidad donde sea que vamos. Jesse James Garrett afirmó que “La experiencia de usuario como estructura mental es una enfermedad adquirida para la cual no hay cura”. Sin embargo, cuando nos remitimos a lo banal, solemos dar por sentado que algunas cosas son de por sí lo suficientemente buenas, o no logramos ver más allá de hacer unas mejoras superficiales en su utilidad.

Todos hemos experimentado frustraciones a partir de malas decisiones de diseño en lugares como los baños públicos. Desde dispensadores de papel higiénico que están colocados fuera del alcance de la mano hasta sensores de grifos que jamás parecen reconocer nuestra presencia, estas interacciones simples simbolizan un problema endémico que se relaciona con el pasar por alto la experiencia de usuario global. Por medio de varios ejemplos de problemas de usabilidad que se encuentran en las tareas mundanas cotidianas (arrojar una taza de café descartable en el cesto de basura de la calle, usar un baño público o probarse ropa en el vestidor de una tienda), este artículo intenta instar a los profesionales de UX a prestar atención y cuestionar la usabilidad de las experiencias humanas básicas, no sólo de los aparatos más novedosos producidos con la tecnología más avanzada.

La versión completa de este artículo está sólo disponible en inglés.

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