Lessons To Use The Blissfully Usable iPod, from Selfridges

Despite being one of the most celebrated gadgets in modern times and having been (almost) universally championed for its intuitive usability, the iPod is apparently still baffling to some.

I was astonished, as a recent purchaser of a Nano, to discover that there are people out there who would consider handing £60+ to Selfridges to be shown how to use one (The Register and MacWorld all have articles on this). This despite the fact that Apple stores operate a free Genius Bar (just down the road in London) where you can be shown the product by the company that makes it. Never mind the fact that the device is practically child’s play.

iPod and iTunes Workshop
Learn how iPod does much more than play music. Use it as a portable hard drive, store important info with the Notes Reader, or sync your contacts. Find out how its seamless integration with iTunes and the iTunes Music Store make iPod the world’s best digital music player.[Source: www.apple.com/uk]

It goes back to the idea, perhaps, that “All Users Are Stupid” … or does it just say more about the gullibility of the public and the skill of the marketers to shout loudly that people just need this stuff.

I normally consider myself to be an early adopter of technology but held off on the iPod front because they were expensive and bulky. The Nano is still expensive and under-specified in terms of capacity, but its sheer design quality (physical and interactive) was so overwhelmingly high that I had to have one.

What I wasn’t considering was how it would pervade my life. The blissful simplicity of synchronising tracks, rating favourites and creating playlists meant I was an expert within days. A vast user community (everyone’s got one!) meant there’s no shortage of people to ask about things like:

- Does my play count in iTunes take into account the play frequency on the iPod?
- Can I use two iPods with the same copy of iTunes?
- How do I rate tracks on the iPod?

It says so much about Apple’s confidence (even arrogance) in the interface that there is no printed manual supplied. In fact, the clickwheel does have its problems (sensitivity mainly) but it’s widely accepted that the device overall does its job effortlessly.

I should admit one thing, I seriously took my time in doing things right when installing my iPod … purely because I’m a bit anally retentive and wanted it to be filled with only the best tunes, to synch first time every time and to avoid cluttering up my laptop or iPod with anything unnecessary. I know, however, that if I’d wanted to be running tunes on it in three minutes I could have been.

My final admission is that, ironically, I have had to swathe the iPod in layers of iSkin to protect its screen and body from even the most minute damage. Completely undermining the quality of manufacture, I just want it to look brand new for ever. They might as well have made it with a bomb-proof silicon case.

Anyway, back to the point, why on earth moneyed individuals feel they should part with cash about how to learn to use their new toy remains beyond me but fortunately this says far more about an individuals’ susceptibility to marketing initiatives than it does to the quality of product from Cupertino.

Links (also in article above)
http://kaedrin.com/weblog/archive/000994.html iPod Usability
http://www.unc.edu/~bretd/222ipodusecritique.htm Bret Dougherty’s Usability Critique
http://www.gizmodo.com/gadgets/portable/frog-design-mind-124912.php Physical design and perception of cleanliness.



More evidence of CAPTCHA's failings for impaired users.

Since yesterday's post on the inaccessibility of CAPTCHA, I've been made aware of two additional links. One from Slashdot entitlted "How Would You Design a CAPTCHA for the deaf-blind ?" ... which seems like a heck of a challenge. And another, more militant one, calling for signatures to an online petition to remove the inaccessible CAPTCHA on their services.

On a lighter note one The Register reader noticed that they'd be asked to enter (the word) minge during one application.

I'd be more than happy to accept further correspondence on this issue, add your comments by clicking the links at the bottom of this post. Thanks!


The Usability And Accessibility Problems With CAPTCHA

I’d never considered this problem before as anything other than a frustrated user. And that’s why working in usability and customer experience gives you a different outlook on problems to just wandering the web passing comment.

Then a few months ago I (like many others) started experiencing problems on this blog. Rogue comments were appearing, I was getting fed up with being spammed and I turned to Blogger for help. They recommended I turn on the verification feature whereby users have to complete a challenge-response question based on a distorted image above it. And I did, and the rogue comments have been almost stopped.

The ‘almost’ comment is very important because it means it hasn’t fixed it. The common belief is that it solves 95% of the problem.

This CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) system is designed to ensure that only humans are completing forms online. Apparently it’s a simple process to develop a program (internet bot) that automatically completes and submits forms and these are used to abuse this functionality on a range of sites. Blog comments is one, insurance quotes is another, loan applications, search engines, online banking and so on. These malicious scripts can then pass data back to attempt work out insurance ratings, banking passwords or even set-up thousands of free email accounts to send spam with.

The problem for the user is that it requires them to do an additional task – and one that does not, at first, appear to benefit them in anyway. Of course, deeper reflection might allow them to realise that the additional server load and security issues that automated form completion causes does actually affect them in the long run but that really is still the form owners’ problem – not theirs. Anything that requires the user to perform increasingly more complex assessments of visual or linguistic perception (other implementations ask natural questions such as Q: what type of food is a banana? A: fruit.) is open to serious accessibility issues. How are the visually impaired supposed to complete such tasks, or individuals with low levels of literacy of linguistic comprehension. When a site requires this sort of challenge-response for every visit, this provides an insurmountable obstacle – potentially leaving the site developers open to litigation for non-compliance with local accessibility law (UK: Disability Discrimination Act and Web Accessibility) . As countermeasures technology improves and the CAPTCHAs get ever more complex, even sighted and educated users can find themselves up against an undecipherable task. There is an excellent document on the inaccessibility of CAPTCHA by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).

Finally, the problem can be (if not particularly easily) circumvented. Sophisticated Artificial Intelligence and peculiar schemes whereby people are employed to solve them have been suggested by the W3C alongside more straightforward automated attacks like PWNtcha as methods of bypassing this type of test.

Given that the implementation is clumsy for the user, breakable and therefore ineffective in at least 5% of malicious attempts and that it presents serious (potentially litigious) issues of accessibility, it is my opinion that CAPTCHA is not a viable solution to the problem of automated form completion.

15:32 17.JAN.2007 Audio versions of CAPTCHA have recently been spotted. But (as the comments on that post show) they do have other associated problems.

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Ikea Moves To High Street & Enhance Online Experience

The ever-useful Telegraph podcast revealed last week in an exclusive that Ikea were moving to the British high street (or read the BBC article). "Great" I cried on the 08.09 to Norwich. Great for several reasons. Economically the move to support Britain’s dusty, forgotten town centres is a good thing. Environmentally, the decision to accept the government's tougher stance on green-belt development is a noble one. And finally, for us shameful capitalists it's yet another opportunity to source flat pack with even greater convenience.It does also raise some interesting ergonomic considerations. The smaller high-street units will not be able to follow the same format as the gigantic hangar-style design that Ikea currently favour. For those of you that have not experienced the store you should know that the idea is that Ikea take you on a journey through their products. First through large mocked-up sitting rooms, bedrooms, offices and kitchens featuring their products in all sorts of (quite un-British) configurations. This whets the appetite and the customer is then fed (maze-like) down past the products in question, laid out in row after row of category-specific displays. Finally you end up in a huge warehouse with vast racks of flat-pack furniture on shelves. The idea is that you are, by this point, armed with reference numbers and you select the items you want and wheel them to the checkout and thence your car.These stores are not without their critics. The maze-like experience is drawn out (unless you're an expert and can short-circuit it), it becomes very crowded despite the hangar environment, it's so children-friendly that it encourages families more than other stores and it necessitates a car or van to make the most of what have to be scheduled trips. Quite how the central stores will attempt to solve these problems remains to be seen. One of the major stumbling blocks will of course be space. Will there be substantially less products but the same format, or a different format and an small reduction in choice? What would this new format take? The most obvious solution would be to have a small number of key mock-ups which change regularly and then have a limited homeware-style browsing area. Presumably any other items required could be ordered in or identified at out-of-town stores. The most challenging aspect is delivery. Town centres are clogged with traffic or pedestrianised, not really conducive to backing-up the family car to fill it with flat pack is it? Customer experience is a definite corollary of store design in the traditional retail environment – as much customer experience is of web site design. (Here's a good piece on store design and customer experience).

Currently, Ikea’s online experience has come up for some criticism. Take this observation for example (which holds true as at 16.01.06): "Take IKEA's search box. If you do a search for "sofa," you get 21 product hits, none of which are actually sofas. The hits include Ice Cube Tray SODA (for the uninitiated, IKEA names all of its products) and Pillowcase SOVA....If you navigate to IKEA's products page and pull up sofas, you see plenty: over a dozen fabric sofas alone. None of these, however, show up from the search box." [source: Line56.com]

Clearly here there is a disconnect between the in-store experience, where the Swedish naming convention is actually quite a quirky way of identifying a particular product, and the on-line experience where it hampers a natural search. There is, of course, a basic fix here – applying a category marker to products that is identified in the search but it the online team at Ikea haven’t spotted this in a major online marketplace such as the US, you do fear for their implementation in the UK. Ikea’s current UK site is a dumb product catalogue, where you can browse for items and find out id they’re in-stock at your nearest store. The most customer-centric element of their site is a Lingubot, ‘Ask Anna’, which, unlike some implementations, actually appears to be quite effective in solving problems and making suggestions – even serving-up relevant page content.

I look forward to seeing how Ikea progress online and in-town. My guess is though that they’d have to make some pretty big mistakes to dent what is perceived as being a very attractive, customer-centric brand.