I’m James Francis, one of the senior interaction designers here at Companies House.
My job involves the iterative design of services. We rarely get it right first time, but through testing things with real users – prototype designs, concepts and ideas – we, by a process of continual improvement, eventually end up with a service that meets the needs of our users.
Some of our services are really old and so may contain what could be considered (by today’s standards) ‘bad’ design. We’re not the only ones who make mistakes, though. Here are some of my favourite interaction design fails in some of my favourite fictional sci-fi universes.
I’m sure you’ll have your own, please add them to the comments below!
Star Trek: The Next Generation
The bridge and hallways of the Starship Enterprise are home to a bright, colourful computer interface, which all diehard Trekkers know is called LCARS. It looks beautiful, and seemingly poses no problems to Picard and his loyal crew.
However, aside from some voice-activated functionality, it’s primarily a touch-screen interface apparently designed only for human (or humanoid) sized fingers.
What if you didn’t have fingers? What if the Enterprise took on some sort of giant tentacle-based alien as its new helmsman? How would such a creature manage to interact with the computer with no fingers, only tentacles?
Building services that everyone can use is an important part of the work we do at Companies House.
This truly epic design fail is common to many, many sci-fi films: semi-transparent displays (as seen in many of the lab sequences on Pandora, home of the Na'vi).
Yes, there’ll be scenarios where such a display might be a good thing; in advertising maybe, or in the form of a ‘heads-up’ display (more of that later). But, on a desktop office computer, it would be a nightmare.
Badly designed services put unnecessary items in front of the user which distracts them from their goal – auto playing video content and pop-ups are two of the things that most annoy me in the real world. Now, imagine that with the added distraction of being able to see things moving behind your screen. Talk about information overload.
If you’re piloting your X-Wing fighter at incredible speeds, on a mission to destroy an evil Empire’s Death Star, you may find yourself needing the assistance of a computer to help target the thermal exhaust port.
However, a targeting computer that covers one of your eyes and half your face, at a moment when depth perception (to judge distance) could be critical, probably isn’t the cleverest use of technology. And of course, you can now no longer see anything out of one side of your X-Wing. So, you’d better hope any attacking TIE-fighters are all on the side you can see out of!
My advice would be to switch off your targeting computer and use the Force. In this scenario, a transparent (heads up) display would make sense – interaction design is often about choosing the right interface at the right time.
When designing for our users, we endeavour to keep things as simple as possible. ‘One thing per page’ is a guideline we try and follow – meaning don’t overload the user! However, sometimes complex systems are unavoidable, and interfaces end up containing many elements, so it’s important that everything is clearly labelled.
Forms make up a great deal of the services we build for our users, and every form element (or ‘box’) will have an associated label to inform the user how they should interact with it; ‘Name’, ‘Date of birth’ and so on.
Now, imagine a system that had literally hundreds of identical elements, maybe in the form of small lights, but not a single one was labelled with its purpose – you’ve just imagined ‘Mother’, the computer mainframe on the spaceship ‘Nostromo’ in the classic film ‘Alien’. Compare that with the cockpit of a 747 – a similarly complex system, but everything is clearly labelled!
Sometimes I have to work under pressure – for example, to meet a critical project deadline – however, I’ve never had to try and accomplish an important task while genetically cloned velociraptors try and break into my office (and I pray that I never will).
If such a catastrophe did occur, and I needed quick access to some critical computer files, I’d want a simple, intuitive navigation system. Not some ridiculously complicated, slow-moving, 3D monstrosity with dozens of confusingly identical icons labelled with hard-to-read skewed text. But, that’s the exact type of system that runs Jurassic Park!
It’s no wonder John Hammond’s top-secret venture failed before it even opened. To be fair to him though, he did do the right thing and test ahead of launch. That’s how we do it at Companies House, which is why I’m happy to report that (at the time of writing) not a single one of our users has ever been eaten by a dinosaur.
So, in conclusion, designing something that looks cool is quite often not the same as designing something that’s usable. For government services, usability (meaning the needs of the users) should always come first – however, if the interface looks cool too, then that’s a bonus!