A positive user experience does pay off

The comparison of the Terms of Use of video hosting services garnered quite a bit of attention and I wanted to comment on a few of the reactions.

Overall it seems that quite a few Vimeo users were surprised to see their service had one of the worst terms:

I’m distressed to find where the two sites I use the most (YouTube and Vimeo) are listed.” — Tensegrities

Interestingly, current darling of the video hosting world Vimeo doesn’t come out too well […]” — Machinima for Dummies

[…] the best sites are the most restrictive.” — CoPress

Boo Vimeo! I always got the feeling they were pretty filmmaker friendly […]” — OTTfilms forum

Netribution’s (until now) prefered site Vimeo comes off the worst” — Netribution

Jim Mortleman commented this with advice to video hosting services that “[in order to be successful] you need to be clear that you’re not going to hijack [a user’s] work” – a statement in line with Lawrence Lessig‘s remarks at approx. minute 40 of his OFC conference keynote. While undoubtedly true, I believe there is a broader concept that should be targeted first, without which the legal terms are mostly irrelevant: the User Experience.

Today, a video hosting service offering a clean website with a simple and easy to use video player is simply much more likely to get new users signed up and uploading content than a service where the website is cluttered and the video player is difficult to use. User experience is the necessary enabler that must be present in order to allow a service to become successful. The large mass of users is simply not going to even look at the Terms of Use if their experience is sufficiently satisfying, which I would say is just what happened here in the case for Vimeo.

Although the importance of the legal terms might rise in the future, e.g. through growing user awareness or some services trying to monetize on their users’ content as Jim suspects, this just underscores the importance of providing a good user experience in my view. Assuming that the legal terms do matter to users, the ability of a service to win new users – as well as to not negatively surprise existing users – will then not only depend on the user experience in regard to a service’s video features but also on whether a service is able to convey the meaning of its legal terms. Providing difficult to understand legal terms will leave users with no better impression than a video player that is difficult to use, even if the legal terms would actually be very favorable for users.

It is thus critical to first ensure a positive user experience in regard to the video features and the comprehensibility of legal terms before starting to look at the actual legal meaning of a service’s Terms of Use. Addressing the legal meaning first has not led services to major success until now and I do not believe it will in the future, whereas it appears clear that by focusing on the user experience first, at least Vimeo seems to have gained a large following, irrespective of its very unfavorable legal terms.


The ease of upgrading Ubuntu

A common cliche associated with Linux is that it is difficult for non-involved users to use and especially to modify in terms of installing new or upgrading already installed software. Having used Linux for several years, I would agree that this was an issue in the past, where some Linux distributions (i.e. bundles of the Linux operating system with additional software) would occasionally stumble and leave the system in an inconsistent state after an upgrade. However, with the Ubuntu Linux distribution, such troubles finally seem to be a thing of the past.

Upgrade notification for Ubuntu 9.04 (Source: Ubuntu website)

Yesterday, I wanted to upgrade a Laptop with an Ubuntu 8.10 installation to the newly released version 9.04. Instead of having to download and burn an installation CD, all I had to do was click on an “Upgrade” button in the Update Manager. I discovered this as the Update manager is generally used for installing security updates and this time, a short text in the window notified me that the new version 9.04 was available. So after clicking Upgrade, the release notes of 9.04 were displayed and after confirming these, a final reminder was shown, not to interrupt the system whie the upgrade was in progress. And that was it.

Three clicks was all that was necessary to upgrade the entire distribution to the next major release. This is how easy it is supposed to be. Now when was the last time you went from Windows XP to Vista with that simple of a process?

Although Ubuntu seems to have raised the bar very high, there is still room for improvement. The primary complaint I would have is that not all of the screens I mentioned were fully localized. The system I upgraded was using German as the default language whereas the release notes were shown in English. Furthermore, one of the upgrade confirmation buttons was also labeled in English. This could be a major issue for some people who don’t speak English very well or not at all.

Other than that however, I was very positively surprised.

In-flight entertainment revisited

Another flight with Air Canada gave me the opportunity to inspect their in-flight entertainment system (IFE) once again. Here is a video I took of the system in action:

What has changed since last summer? I’ve listed my observations with recommendations on how it could be improved:

  • The entire system still feels sluggish for two reasons: The first is because of slow loading of screens, the second is because of slow perceived response. In regard to the loading of screens, the main screen takes four seconds to load whereas the “TV” screen even requires seven seconds. As for the response time, I can measure in the video that the cursor shows an hour glass one second after a command has been issued and the screen starts updating only one second later, in other words two seconds after touching.
    → I would recommend reducing the response time of commands in order to give users a better feeling of direct interaction.
  • Features that are unavailable are still shown in the menus, for example, “CBC News” were selectable but would lead to a “content not available on this flight” screen.
    → If a feature is not available, it should not be selectable or completely removed.
  • The language selection is still shown, even if only one language is available for a feature.
    → Given the time it takes to load a screen, this is another situation where the user has to deal with the system instead of being able to do what she wants to, namely watch content. The language selection should not be shown in this case.
  • After selecting a show or movie to watch, advertisements are shown for several minutes. These advertisements turn off user input completely so it is impossible to change volume or abort to watch something else.
    → The decision to show ads is obviously a business decision and I can understand that users are not supposed to skip ads. However, it doesn’t justify not letting them do anything while ads are shown.
  • A lot of content is still adjusted to fit the now outdated 4:3 screen ratio, therefore black bars appear left and right of the picture. Even more, for some other content such as movie trailers, the original widescreen ratio image including the top/bottom black bars is encoded into the adjusted 4:3 picture, thus leading to black bars on all four sides of the screen. This is for example observable for the advertising clip captured in my video above.
    → As the screens are in my opinion just large enough to adequately watch video, it is counterproductive to artificially shrink the image. I can imagine that this is the result of a content purchasing department that has absolutely no understanding of what content formatting is best for users to watch on their systems.
  • Lastly, the passenger announcements cause the volume to be raised to a fixed level at almost maximum volume. While I was watching a movie on low volume using my own in-ear headphones which nicely block out the airplane noise, an unexpected passenger announcement almost made my eardrums burst.
    → While I can somewhat understand that announcements are initially set to a high volume, I have no understanding for a system that doesn’t allow adjusting the volume while an announcement is made. In other words, I had to be prepared to unplug my headphones in a split-second the entire time while watching a movie. Otherwise an announcement would have blasted my ears out again. This is not user-friendly at all and the system should allow users to change volume even for announcements.

Overall, if the in-flight entertainment system is any indication, I am not surprised Air Canada is about to file for bankruptcy again. Or are the IFE systems of other airlines the same? I’d like to hear about it in the comments.

Usability of a table lamp

After another work-week with a dizzying amount of overtime, its a good opportunity to think back to a weekend trip not so long ago. There, I discovered this nice little table lamp which provided some illumination to the room I was staying in.


How to turn on or off?

The obvious main question I had about the lamp was how to actually turn it on or off. In North America such lamps typically possess some sort of knob or small bolt near the socket of the light bulb which has to be either rotated or pushed in order to turn a lamp on or off. Most of the time this means you will have to fumble around for a while because your view is blocked by the lamp’s shade, therefore always making you fear that you might touch the light bulb and burn yourself or that the entire lamp might fall off the table.

This lamp however had no apparent knob and while I was continuing my search for it, the lamp suddenly turned on. It turned out that the only thing I had to do in order to turn on the lamp was to simply touch the lamp’s base anywhere on its shiny green surface. Touch the base a second time and it would turn off again. This design might not provide for the best discoverability or affordance but pretty much anyone – people with motor impairments included – should be able to perform the task. So, overall, I find it a great example of good usability in a commodity object.

Now if only more lamps in North America would be made this way, I could finally stop fearing to tip over lamps when searching for the switch in the middle of the night…

The Nokia E71

A few months ago I wrote about the E51 which I was using. Recently, I received the E71 for which my hopes of seeing any noticeable improvement over the E51 were low, especially in regards of the small keyboard and its tiny keys. However, after using the phone for a few weeks now, I must say that I am very positively surprised. The build and haptic quality of the keyboard is just excellent. As a matter of fact, I am typing this post while driving to and from work on the subway.

One of the only notable downsides to this phone however is that the software issues with inconsistent button mapping still exist and usability in one other area has even gotten worse, namely for the Maps application. Here, the * and # characters are still used for zooming in and out. On a qwerty keypad this however means you have to press Function + u or j to get the * and # characters. How productive is it having to use both hands for zooming in a GPS-enabled maps application? Clearly this application was not properly adapted to this phone.

Other than those Software issues the E71 still is a great phone. I just cannot stress enough how good the keyboard is.

World Usability Day and the Montreal metro

Next Thursday (Nov, 13) is World Usability Day. From the description:

World Usability Day was founded in 2005 as an initiative of the Usability Professionals’ Association to ensure that services and products important to human life are easier to access and simpler to use.

This year’s theme is “Transportation”, treating various aspects of usability such as interaction, signage or security. There are numerous local events across the globe picking up this theme to one degree or another. As there is no event here in Montreal, I dediced to contribute a little snapshot I took in the metro (subway) the other day. It shows the train’s emergency brake:

Montreal Metro emergency brake

Before you read on, think about what would be the interaction you would take to activate the brake in case of an emergency.

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In-flight entertainment

When flying to Canada, I took photos of Air Canada’s In-flight entertainment (IFE) system and arranged the photos in a screen-flow chart which can be seen below. If you click on the image, you will get a high-resolution version with all text legible.

Air Canada In-flight entertainment screen-flow

Air Canada In-flight entertainment screen-flow

The system you see here is available on the airline’s most recently re-equipped planes and seems to have been designed by the Montreal company Spafax. It consists of a personal touch-sensitive screen which is located in the backrest of the seat in front of every passenger. The program is to be controlled by touching the widgets on-screen. This results in a mouse-pointer being positioned at the location of the press and the apparent internal execution of a mouse-click event, a procedure which seems to be poorly implemented or too demanding for the system, as at least one second passes after every touch event and before any reaction by the system is visible on screen. In fact, this delay was generally so significant that even the flight attendants pointed it out very clearly when they announced the system. To my understanding, a central element of touch-screen systems is the metaphor of direct and therefore instant manipulation – a design criteria which is clearly not met here.

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Nokia E51: confusing navigation

I’ve recently been using a Nokia E51 cell phone and found that the keys for navigating within applications – more specifically those within the image viewer, the Google Maps look-alike Nokia Maps, and the built-in web browser – were hard to remember. So I compiled a table of the keys assigned to some of the interactions available in these applications:

Action Image viewer Nokia Maps Web browser
Scrolling Nav-Keys or keys 2,6,8,4 Nav-Keys Nav-Keys
Zoom in 5 * *
Zoom out 0 # #

It appears that the image viewer is the application responsible for the confusion as the keys assigned to its interactions are inconsistent with those of the other two applications. That might explain why I keep pressing the wrong keys.

Proposed solution: The image viewer doesn’t need the number keys as an alternative scheme for scrolling, therefore those keys could be freed up for other commands. In turn, ‘*’ and ‘#’ would be available for zooming.


Lets start this blog off with a definition of Usability:

Usability is a term used to denote the ease with which people can employ a particular tool or other human-made object in order to achieve a particular goal. Usability can also refer to the methods of measuring usability and the study of the principles behind an object’s perceived efficiency or elegance.

In human-computer interaction and computer science, usability usually refers to the elegance and clarity with which the interaction with a computer program or a web site is designed. The term is also used often in the context of products like consumer electronics, or in the areas of communication, and knowledge transfer objects (such as a cookbook, a document or online help). It can also refer to the efficient design of mechanical objects such as a door handle or a hammer.

Source: Wikipedia