The true cost of poor usability - a day of my life

By Peter Ballard @Ballyfool

Have you ever stood in a queue at a station, waiting to use the ticket machines, and noticed that anyone picking up pre-ordered tickets seems to go into ‘melt-down’ when prompted for their booking reference?

Intelligent adults are suddenly rendered unable to recognise the letters of the alphabet. Normally calm and peaceful people wish the person in front of them would spontaneously combust.

Two things are going on here. One is about what we’d call in UX terms, ‘cognitive load’, and the other is about failing to understand customer expectations, or ‘norms’.

The first problem is that because the references are relatively long, and a mix of letters and numbers, they are not easy to remember.

Then, when the input screen is displayed, the letters are laid out in an alphabetic ‘table’ structure. We hardly ever see letters displayed like this (unless you are aged three and on your first learn to read book) so there is no familiarity to fall back on. Your brain has to sort out the letters in sequence, and cross reference from the letter you are looking at, to where the letter you are looking for might be in relation to it. And all of this time, it’s also trying to remember what the next letter is.

Add to the problem of hard to remember codes and hard to find characters, the pressure of a long line of impatient people behind you, and it’s no wonder our brains go to mush.

This is a great example where a software designer has done what they think is ‘logical’, but in reality has made it much, much harder. Using the QWERTY layout would immediately make this so much easier for 99% of users. Nowadays, pretty much all of the population who can read are familiar with seeing letters laid out in this format, and the patterns of where each letter sits is pretty much instinctively seared into each of our brains.

In an admittedly not-too-robust bit of in-queue data analysis, I reckoned each person having to enter a reference took 9 seconds longer to complete that task then they would with a QWERTY layout. Multiply that by the number of ticket pick-ups, each day all across the country, and you have some pretty significant time costs as a result of that single poor design decision.

I’ve worked out it could be a whole day of my commuting life that I’m going to waste in front of that machine; 9 seconds x 3 days a week x 52 weeks of the year over 20 years = 7.8 hours!

Not to mention the increased blood pressure of those behind you in the queue.

Peter Ballard

I co-founded Foolproof with Tom Wood back in 2002. Today I work across a range of clients, particularly in the roles of Experience Planner and Client Partner. In my role as Experience Planner, I ensure that our design teams have access to the right insight to respond appropriately to the business and creative challenges faced by our clients.

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