The '58 sound

Design for life part 1

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One of the great things about my job as a researcher with a focus on accessibility and usability is that I can happily justify going all reflective on an everyday event, wondering why it happened, and what could be done to change it in the future – especially if it involves some user interface design quirk or flaw. Recounting this can provide valuable insight and encouragement to improving the quality of interface design – just Ask Tog!

That’s why earlier this year I found myself in the longest queue for the ticket machines outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid, because I was curious to know why nobody seemed to be able to make it work (the answer was confusion caused by two user interfaces – one for selecting tickets, one for the credit card reader positioned below).

Yesterday, I had to send someone a fax. I’d sent the same person a fax last week, and made the common mistake of sending the fax to a telephone number instead of using the fax number (there is a peculiar and specific embarrassment of hearing a disembodied voice try to answer the fax machine’s call while you can do nothing about it). I was so determined not to make the same mistake again…but I did.

I can’t blame what I did on the fancy document-management machine we have in the office that supports printing, copying, scanning and faxing. So I looked at the document I was trying to send, on the second page of which was the fax number.

This was the first problem – the destination fax number was on the document I wanted to send, and being too disorganised to write it down somewhere else, I had to quickly mentally note the number, type it into the machine, and put the document back in the slot ready for scanning.

The second problem is the obvious one. Below the fax number was a phone number. Fax numbers are in an identical format to phone numbers (at least here in the UK), and most commonly will start with the same digits as a phone number: (0nnn) nnnnnn. Chances are the area code and first few digits will be identical for an organisation’s phone and fax number, which means without a distinguishing label it’s impossible to tell whether a number is a fax or phone number.

So when the two are placed close to each other on a document – even when clearly labelled as ‘fax’ or ‘phone’, the chances of entering the wrong number are pretty high – and as I just proved, even when the consequences are known. Just like Derren Brown‘s TV ‘experiments’ where people  press a big red button despite (because of?) being told not to and being shown the consequences.

OK, you’re probably wondering what my point is – we must have known about the problem of fax numbers for years, and aren’t faxes yesterday’s technology anyway? But in 2009, here I am, making the error – twice – so what could have stopped me?

The problem was the presence of two pieces of similar data – one important to the task, one irrelevant. The information design on the document was such that the two very similar numbers were physically close to each other. I didn’t need the phone number to send a fax, so it could have been somewhere else in the document, or not there at all (As it happens, there was also an email address beside the phone number, but I would bet very few people accidentally send faxes to an email address).

It’s a simple information design lesson – think carefully about showing information that may hinder successful completion of a task. If it’s not essential, don’t show it, otherwise position it away from where the user’s focus will likely be.

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