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Usability in everyday life

By Mårten Backström, January 2003

Many people may link 'usability' with easy to use web sites or software. However, throughout our everyday lives we often use things which would benefit from improved usability, though we might not think about it at the time. In my case the poor usability of 'everyday' interfaces is very noticeable - when my friends visit me in my new flat there are a series of usability problems they must overcome before they even get in the door!

Not long ago I moved into a newly renovated block of flats in a suburb of Stockholm. I like living there, but from a usability perspective there are a number of significant usabilty improvements that could be made in the building. These problems are highligted when people attempt to visit me...

The first problem a visitor faces is when trying to get into the building:

Door entry phone
"Ring/Öppna" (Call/Open) must be pressed twice - first to call a resident, then afterwards to open the door
  • In order to enter the building the visitor must use the entry phone to call me in order to be let in. So far, so good. However, for mysterious technical reasons in order to actually open the entrance door, not only must I press a button on my telephone but the visitor must press another button on the entrance phone before pulling on the door.
  • This extra step is both unnatural and unexpected, resulting in numerous attempts and general irritation. More often than not this is followed by mobile telephone calls from visitors still stuck in the cold wondering whats going on!

Once actually into the building then the visitor must use the elevator to reach my flat. Again, not particularly challenging, you would have thought...

  • The floors are numbers from 1 and up (the 1st floor being the one directly above the ground floor). The location of different flats also correspond to this floor numbering scheme.
  • Unfortunately once into the elevator then its a different story - "3" corresponds to the ground floor (1 & 2 are cellar floors). I live on floor 11, which corresponds to "14" in the elevator.
  • Visitors usually tour the building a little before resorting to a "floor by floor" approach to solving the problem, or alternatively further phone calls. Making matters worse was the fact that upon reaching a floor there are no number signs on the floor itself.

This is of course all very illogical for visitors - just the other day I found an elderly woman who had got so lost that she wasn't even sure she was in the right building. However, I myself don't use the entry phone and of course I know which button I need to press to get to my floor.

People move in and out of many different buildings every day - imagine if we faced these sorts of problems with every building? Moving around town would become as irritating and problematic as moving around web sites or computer software...(!)

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