Posts tagged ‘Usability’

The importance of prototyping a design

I recently completed an industrial design project. Sadly, I ignored or dismissed a very important step in any design project – prototyping.

The project was a new instrument panel for a tandem seat aircraft. (Readers may recognize this as a redux of a similar project 2 years ago.)


The panel cutting was done by a third party so the process began with a sketch by me. I then generated a high fidelity mockup from the sketch. It took about a week of "an hour here and an hour there" until I had a a mockup which I really liked.


The fabricator then worked with me on several iterations to create a CAD drawing of the new panel. Version #6 was the final drawing. I signed off on it and the panel was cut and shipped. During the iterations we addressed various physical requirements such as the width and height of the actual switches and breakers, the mounting bezels for the GPS and screens, etc.

Once the panel and all of the equipment was in my shop, I settled down to the task of wiring. This started by temporarily installing all of the equipment into the panel and then working from the back side to deal with all of the audio wiring, data & communications, and then all of the power connections.


After the basic system tests were completed, I disassembled everything and took the panel to the pain shop for base coat, labeling, and then clear coat finish (with a flattening agent to reduce reflections). I was very happy with the results.

I reassembled everything and then installed the new panel along with some new components in various locations in the airframe in support of the new panel.

All of the basic tests passed. The new panel was ready for flight testing, calibration, and training.


The first test flight exposed a fundamental user experience error. Do you see it in the last picture ?

Here is what happened …

  • My sketch was done on paper.
  • My high fidelity mockup was done on the computer screen.
  • The layout and labeling was done on the cut panel.
  • Initial testing was done on the bench

All of these were looking either on a flat representation or looking strait ahead at the panel.

When you sit in the airplane, the pilot’s eyes are approximately 20" from the panel and the pilot’s sight line is level 10" above the center of the panel. The pilot is looking down between 20 and 30 degrees at the panel. As you can see in the final picture, a portion of the labels are obscured because the center display’s bezel is 9/16" deep at the bottom.

A physical mockup would have detected the viewing angle and the label position could have been adjusted.

Foreflight is better than Garmin Pilot App when it comes to usability

I used Foreflight on both the iPhone and iPad for two years. I am now 6 months in to using Garmin Pilot App. The differences are significant (and I might even say staggering).

The over all impression is that Foreflight is integrated, seamless, and cohesive whereas Garmin Pilot is functional, disconnected, and rigid. Let me describe a common scenario …

A pilot is thinking about taking a flight from his home airport to an airport 600 miles away. He wants to do a little sight seeing along the way. He knows, to be safe, he wants a fuel stop somewhere in the middle. He pulls out his tablet (iPad) to plan his trip.

In Foreflight, the pilot start on the map view and enter the two endpoint airports into a route field at the top of a map. The map is most of the screen. The line appears on the map and the pilot can immediately start to pan and zoom around the map to choose additional points along the route. There is a pull-down tab so the pilot can see the details of the flight plan being created. At any time, the pilot can decide to file the flight plan with the FAA, get a DUATS brief, share it via email, save it.

In Garmin Pilot, the pilot start on the flight plan view and enter the two endpoint airports into a route field in one half of the screen. The map is the other half of the screen. The line appears on the map and the pilot can immediately start to pan and zoom around the half map to choose additional points along the route. The details of the flight plan are visible on the other half of the slit screen. At any time, the pilot can bookmark the flight plan for later use. To get a weather brief or file a flight plan, the pilot used the main menu pull-down to switch to trip planning. The app automatically is synching his trip plans to a cloud service every time he uses the trip planning feature. This takes several seconds so he waits. He creates a new trip plan, imports the flight plan he was working on, and then uses the briefing tab to get DUATS. He can choose to file the flight plan using the "file" drop-down menu.

The pilot see that there is a fly-in event near the end of his flight and decides to change his destination to land for the event.

In Foreflight, the pilot touches the map for the current destination airport and drags it to the new airport, then clicks for an updated DUATS brief before updating the flight file with the FAA.

In Garmin Pilot, the pilot can not edit the start or end point of a trip plan. Using the flight plan view, the pilot touches the current destination airport and drags it to the new airport. To get the updated weather brief or file a flight plan, the pilot uses the main menu pull-down to switch to trip planning. The app automatically is synching his trip plans to a cloud service every time he uses the trip planning feature. This takes several seconds so he waits. He creates a new trip plan, imports the flight plan he was working on, and then uses the briefing tab to get DUATS. He can choose to file the flight plan using the "file" drop-down menu. He then opens the trips menu to delete the old trip plan.

  • The Garmin Pilot App does have the ability to clone a trip plan and edit it but for some reason, editing the start and end airports is not an option.
  • Foreflight has one end-to-end flow with all the typical tasks a pilot will need – planning, updating, weather, filing, flying, sharing, etc.
  • Garmin has three different features which are not seamlessly integrated.
  • Foreflight saves flight plans locally on the device and can share plans via email. If the email recipient is a Foreflight user, the Foreflight can be automatically launched and load the flight plan.
  • Garmin saves all plans locally and automatically syncs them to the cloud.

From the perspective of the pilot, Foreflight is much easier to use. For most pilots who want ADS-B weather, the choice will depend on which ADS-B box they choose. Foreflight only works with Stratus and Garmin Pilot only works with Garmin GDL39.

Given I get my ADS-B data on a dedicated aviation GPS and as a backup there is a minimalist iPad / iPhone App for the GDL, I will plan to switch back to Foreflight once my current subscription for Garmin Pilot expires.

User Experience – the challenge to satisfy left and right handed consumers

It's hard to define “user experience” but they say “you know it when you see it”. I say, “you know it when you feel it”. User experience is more than visual. Perhaps the best urban description it to say it is visceral.

Recently, I was reviewing ideas with a group do user interface designers. We were discussing software applications for smartphones.

While the design patterns being discussed were important, what was missing was attention to the person who would eventually hold a device in their hand. All of us in the meeting had a smartphone and yet, there was very little thought to “would I like to use'this thing we are designing?”

Precision vs non-precision gestures

Mobile devices support a number of different input. While shaking, bumping, and rotating the phone can be used, the majority of input comes from tapping and swiping. Tapping is typically a precision gesture – tapping a button, selecting from a list, typing on a virtual keyboard. The user must hit a specific target for a specific amount of time and not move while doing it. Contrast this with a swiping gesture where the user can typically start in any of a large part of the screen and only needs to slide the finger (or thumb) in the general desired direction. Thus, swiping is a non-precision gesture – scrolling a list, sliding between two screens, opening a menu at the side or bottom, exposing a drop-down from the top (for examplr the iPhone notifications page).

When given the choice of implementing a precision vs non-precision gesture, it is “kinder to the user” to go with the non-precision choice.

Left vs right handed users

A smartphone is not a large device – even the comparatively huge 5″ devices. Most smartphones are designed to be usable with one hand (as seen in the photo). The user is cradling the phone and only has their thumb for interaction. The thumb naturally follows an arch from the upper corner closest to the hand to the lower corner farthest from the hand. The challenge is that these locations are dependent on which hand hold the phone. In the right hand, the ease of access starts with the upper right, then lower left, then upper left, and finishing with the lower right as the most difficult location to reach. A user holding a phone in the left hand would reverse these to upper left, lower right, upper right, and then lower left.

So where do you put input control when you have both left and right handed users?

Part of the answer flows back to precision vs non-precision input. The more non-precision input you achieve, the less challenging to left and right handed users. Next, the comfort of top buttons exceeds that of bottom buttons.


There is no perfect answer. However, by thinking about “how” a user will interact with a mobile application, (in addition to why and what-for) you will achieve a better user experience and a happier user.


Most hated new iPhone 4 feature? MULTITASKING !

brain I’ve had the new iPhone 4 for about 48 hours now and the number one most used button sequence is …

Home  +  Home-Home  +  Press-n-Hold  +  Tap  +  Home  +  Home

That’s what it takes to really shut down an app now. When you are in an app, you press the "home" button to get to the home screen. Then you double press the home button to get to the "background apps". Next, you press and hold on an app. A red minus appears and tapping it will shut down the app. The you press the home button again to get our of this mode. Finally you press the home button again to get back to the home screen.


I have 75 apps total on my iPhone. Of those, there are 4 that are better for being able to run in the background. Of those, Apple already had Mail (push) and iTunes running as background apps. So they created a UI that favors the two rather than the seventy-one !

Facebook needs to hire some UI designers

facebook_logo I’ve been on Facebook for less than a month (give or take) and in that time, the service has managed to be so frustrating that I announced "on my wall" that I was taking a hiatus for two weeks. What drove me away ? Well …

First, I blog and I found that FB was too limiting for my writing style. One of my very first "status" was more than some strange tiny limit and so I had to rewrite it.

First note to the yet to be hired UI designer if you are going to have a character limit, have a counter like nearly every cellphone SMS and Twitter.

Next came the "Facebook-lift" where they dramatically changed how the home page updated and what it showed. Worse still, FB decided to have two choices with similar and confusing labels *AND* the content on each was close but not the same. If you did not know what each page meant, you were often left thinking FB had lost your comments and updates.

Second note to the yet to be hired UI designer if you are going to change a primary feature *AND* still keep it around, make it clear *AND* make it easy for users to set it they way it was. Also, make it sticky so users are not required to change things every time they log in.

In an attempt to really immerse myself with FB, I had it on my PC, my iPod Touch, and my Blackberry. I regularly (read that always) got inconsistent results for the "feeds" between the three devices. I finally realized that the way each updated was partly to blame. But here’s the kicker, often, I could make a quick update from the iPod and not from the PC.

Third note to the yet to be hired UI designer don’t assume everyone has a fiber optic line to their PC. A dial-up user should have a good experience. A 128KB connection should have an excellent experience.

I am forever making typographic errors. On a PC, the newest browsers highlight miss spelled words. The latest Blackberries and the iPhone try to be smart and fix typing errors automatically. They don’t always get it right. When the get it wrong, it can be very wrong. On the PC I can delete or remove a post … well, it says I can but sometimes, I can click the button and nothing happens. I finally concluded it was the network bandwidth issue and either some JavaScript had not downloaded or there was some AJAX backroom traffic getting stuck.

Fouth note to the yet to be hired UI designer people are human and we make mistakes. It’s not rocket science to allow someone to edit a mistake. Web forums do it all the time.

I could go on for a while but I don’t get paid by FB to do their testing and I didn’t submit my resume for the "yet to be hired UI designer" job.

Today is day one. There are 13 days to go. FB, I’ll see you then.

BTW: my blog still posts to my Facebook wall so you are welcome to read my posts … at least 240 characters of them!

Windows XP thumbnails for web pages

I may be late to the party as I just discovered, if you have a Windows folder of links to websites and you switch to “thumbnails” view, you actually get thumbnails of the web sites !

I like a clean desktop. However, I occasionally want to grab a URL off a website to be used over the next few days. I don’t want to bookmark it because I will be throwing it away after a short time. Also, putting them on my desktop (directly or indirectly) serves as a reminder or to-do. Today I was looking at the 7 or 8 URLs and they all just blurred together on me. It was not quickly evident which was which. Then it struck me – “what are the odds that switching the folder view to thumbnails would actually show me the website?” – IT DID !

Here is a folder of 30 links. I used the Windows XP Power Toy, TweakUI so the thumbnails are 128 px. If I am doing research, I occasionally have a temporary fold for links. I’ll be using this same trick for those as well.