Are your abstractions too abstract?

A recurring theme in user-centred design is making sure that your technology is speaking the same language as its users. In web design failure to do this can┬ámake┬ánavigation difficult at best or frustrate users into leaving your site altogether. However, it is an extremely common problem – partly because the process of generalization (grouping related things under more abstract headings) is a powerful tool in building systems. Take Microsoft Outlook for example. Outlook manages email, appointments, contacts and tasks. This works fine for users when they are looking at the separate user interface elements with these names, but what on earth is an ‘item’? An item, it turns out, is any one of these things that Outlook manages. So when you are creating an email in Outlook and want to attach another email or a calendar entry, what do you do? By far the easiest thing is to drag and drop the attachment needed, because most people do not realize that the menu equivalent needed is called ‘attach item’ (more recent version of Outlook have a ribbon icon that helps a little, but not enough to get over the terminological issue).

So, when we start trying to get computers to do the things they are good at, we invent abstractions of related concepts and make up names for them (a C++ programmer can wax lyrical on this topic – just mention polymorphic collections and inheritance!). The step that frequently gets omitted is that if any of these names find their way into the user interface or web navigation, do users actually understand them? One very effective way of finding out (particularly if you have a lot terms or concepts to test) is to use card sorting. We are running our one-day card sorting course in London next month where you will get first-hand experience of both paper-based and online sorting. For more details and online booking, see http://www.syntagm.co.uk/design/courses.htm (early booking finishes on 11 June).

If you can’t make it to London, you will find that we have lots of free card sorting information and tools (including analysis software) at http://www.syntagm.co.uk/design/cardsorting.htm

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