By: Trey Mitchell, VFH Webmaster

The Design of Everyday Things book cover Inspired by Don Norman’s fantastic book The Design of Everyday Things, I set out to identify usability issues in the things I encounter every day.

1 – The lock on my car door
2 – My Samsung Galaxy Tablet
3 – The toilet down the hall from my office

1 – The lock on my car door

I’m old enough to remember a time when all car doors had to be locked manually. Growing up, we had many cars with the little post sticking up just inside the window. You pushed it down to lock it and you pulled it up to unlock it. It was simple and clear even if it didn’t have the convenience of being able to unlock the car with a remote from halfway across the parking lot.

Photo of the locks on my Subaru.My Subaru Impreza (which I love despite its door locks) manages to thoroughly confuse this concept. There’s a door lock rocker switch on the arm rest that you rock back and forth to unlock or lock the door.

Forward is locked, backwards is unlocked. Easy enough, but the lock on the door itself rocks the opposite way. Forward is unlocked, backwards is locked.

Consequently, every time I’m trying to unlock the doors from the inside to let a passenger in, I have to click the button at least three times before I manage to successfully unlock the doors.

2 – My Samsung Galaxy Tablet

This issue is a lot like the one with my car door locks. For the record, I love my Galaxy Tablet. It’s a fabulous device that’s elegantly designed in every way but one.

Photo of Samsung Galaxy tablet volume controlsRemember the first time you held a tablet (probably an iPad) and rotated the device from portrait to landscape? It’s a magical feeling when everything on the screen shifts, flips, and reorganizes itself to remain perfectly usable. You can even rotate the screen upside down and everything just flips with you. Well, everything except for one thing.

It’s surprisingly hard to photograph a bright LCD screen but I hope you can see the volume slider on the screen. In this position volume up is to the right on the screen, but the buttons on the edge of the device work the opposite way. The buttons are oriented perfectly if you’re holding the device in portrait mode with the volume buttons to the top-right. Flip it any other way and the rest of the device will bend over backwards to make sure everything looks and functions properly, except for the volume controls.

This creates a little cognitive dissonance in me every time I use the device. I’m distracted by the technology as I have to think about which way to push the button to raise or lower the volume.

3 – The toilet down the hall from my office

This is one of those great ideas that’s just not quite right. Someone installed a water saving mechanism in the toilet in my office building. It’s a much better approach than the “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” method of reducing flushes.

Photo of a toilet flush handleHere’s how it works: You pull the toilet lever up for half a flush (if it’s yellow). You push it down for a full flush.

Here’s the problem: Before encountering this toilet I don’t think I’d ever pulled up on a toilet flush lever in my life.  Apparently neither has anyone else because as you can see, there are two separate instruction labels on the toilet. There’s also a sign on the wall behind the toilet (in color) just to make sure you get the message. Yep, that’s three signs instructing grown adults how to operate a toilet. That’s three too many in my mind. If you have to go to these lengths to explain to people how to do something they’ve been doing since childhood, you probably need to rethink your design.

In this case the perfect solution would be a lever that goes half way down with a gentle push for half a flush and then continues with a little additional pressure. You might still need a label on the lever, but the action will be a lot more natural and therefore require less instruction.

What About You?

These examples, like the many in Don Norman’s book, are reminders that usability is a field of study that predates the web. We encounter usability and user interface challenges all the time in everyday life. But I find it’s actually a lot easier to screw this kind of thing up when designing a web interface or a mobile app because there are very few natural laws at work to stop you from doing something very, very wrong.

Paying attention to the usability issues you encounter online and in the “real world” can help you avoid making these mistakes in your own designs.

What sort of usability issues do you run into every day?

Want to hone your user interface and usability skills? Then consider joining us for edUi this November in Richmond, VA.