Household heuristics – why a flashing light is good UX

22 Dec 2015

Instinctively, we all want software and products that just work. Confusion, frustration and general faffing about are signs of bad user experience. We feel joyful about things that are simple or intuitive, but when we’re stopped us in our tracks by poor design, things get ugly – fast.

We all intuitively have a sense of user experience, and we’ll all have encountered usability issues – positive or negative – countless times in our lives, without necessarily ascribing them to this thing called “UX”.

A long-standing and well known list of usability guidelines is Jakob Nielsen’s “10 usability heuristics for user interface design“. Around in its current for since 1995, it goes to show just how universal are the basic principles of good usability and how they persist through upheavals in technology.

Nielsen’s background is in software and his heuristics were developed with digital user interfaces in mind. However, most of them apply equally to physical products.
For example, item one:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

For my birthday a few weeks ago my wife – perhaps concerned at my increasingly scruff-bag appearance – bought me a beard trimmer.

A already had a beard trimmer but it was getting on a bit. I was glad to upgrade to the latest in trimming technology.

There were features of my old trimmer that I now realise I took for granted: a flashing orange light when the battery was running low; a flashing green light when the battery was charging; and a steady green light when the battery was charged.

Not so in Trimmer: The Sequel. The instructions said to charge before use, but there was no indication of whether it was doing so. A light, a vibration, a beep: anything would have done. My instinct was that I’d made a mistake, but no: it all checked out, and the next morning it had charged. And when the battery runs down, I won’t know until the trimming stops: hopefully not leaving me with demi-trimmed facial hair.

Feedback – expressed by Nielsen as “visibility of system status” – is something so basic and so ubiquitous that we take it for granted, and we miss it when it’s not there. I’m frustrated at the designers of the beard trimmer: did this issue not come up in their meetings? Did they do any user testing? Had they ever read Nielsen’s heuristics? These things aren’t minor; they have a big impact on our relationship with a product.

Looking around a house, interface feedback is everywhere. From the battery indicator on our phones, to the standby light on the telly, to the LED display on a modern electric oven, to the light on the kettle, to the beep after a completed dishwasher cycle, to the vibration of a linked set of baby monitors.

Do all your household appliances provide the best possible feedback? Had you even thought about it? Like most of us, I only tend to notice these things when they’re absent.

Software or product designers would do well to read over those ten ever-so-simple, 30-year-old heuristics from Nielsen now and again. That’s not to say they can never be broken (rules are there to be broken), and they’re no substitute for user testing or a shortcut to success. But life – and my new beard trimmer – would be that little bit more satisfying if they were followed more often.

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