Saturday, May 1, 2010

A question of usability

Vancouver’s public transportation, Translink, has low-rider buses with confusing doors. That is, those who ride the bus are already familiar with the idea of pressing a button to open the exit doors. Bombardier (the makers of these buses) has broken convention and nicely camouflaged pressure-sensitive strips at the edge of the doors. When pressed, these strips will cause the doors to open. Some immediate problems about this new method of interaction:

  1. The trigger to open the doors is both unconventional and hidden.
  2. Those who cannot read English will not understand how to proceed.
  3. As an accessibility issue: the elderly and mentally challenged riders with visual impairments are directly affected.
  4. After pressing the trigger, no indication is provided to a user that their command was accepted by the system.
  5. Activing the trigger produces different results because in order for the door to open, the bus driver needs to "enable" the doors first.

I will be blunt in stating the most immediate and obvious flaw of this design: There is no reason for a door to be so complex that instructions need to be made. If this were a website, it would be unacceptable. Websites built with usability in mind would never have a “how to use this website” page because the site should be intuitive enough for it to be unnecessary.

Although I tend to be quite critical with my coworkers and colleagues about maintaining a certain level of usability, I will admit that the technology sector is one of the industries putting a lot of effort in pushing for better usability standards. For companies like Bombardier, their work needs to be scrutinized to an even higher degree because their footprint in society often exceeds that of any website.

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