11/20/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Orca and Usability

Imagine that it's a few months before the Presidential election. You've just received a call, asking if you'd be willing to offer your services as a usability consultant on a political software project. You're curious; what would something called "Orca" be for? You decide to do it. You're shown a few screen shots, along with brief written instructions for using the system.

Here's how your conversation with the development team might go.

Project Orca images, via Huffington Post



"Will this be an app or a Web site?" you ask first. "On the second screen you have a Back button on the top left, like an app, but there's also the browser Back button at the bottom. Do they do the same thing? You should probably decide one way or the other--app or Web site.

"There are a few fit-and-finish issues I assume you'll take care of. In the list of voters, the label for each of the 'switch' widgets should be completely visible. I can read 'ot Voted' as 'Not voted', but it doesn't look very good. And we see mixed case on the button labels on the first screen ('Search Voters') but all uppercase ('SELECT AN ISSUE') on the second screen. These aren't critical issues, but people often judge the quality of the underlying system based on the interface. You want people to be confident that it's all solid.

"You should do something about the instructions, so they're as clear as possible. For example,

Search the below list between people who have 'Not Voted' and 'All Voters' then click 'Search Voters.'

"This isn't native English. A good tech writer should fix this, and could also make sure the instructions are consistent. In some places you have users 'tapping' a control, but in other places they're suppose to 'click'; some of the questions and answers about what to do are mixed up.

"The instructions also say that the alert icon on the top right of the first screen is for 'Legal Questions'. Would a question mark icon be more accurate? If not, change the instructions.

"One last visual design issue--look at the list of "all" voters. Which ones stand out? The blue 'Voted' ones. So in this mode it's more important that users be able to see who's voted, rather than who hasn't yet. Is that right?

"Now let's talk about your users. If they're like the general population of voters, then about 15% of them will be over the age of 65, and more than half will be 45 or older. There's some evidence that older users find it easier to read dark text on a light background than the reverse; it would also be worth checking whether the text is large enough on the screen.

"Speaking of text, are the voter name fields long enough? The Christopher Blake, 23, entry takes up almost all of the space on a single line. Will Elizabeth Williamson or some other combination of long first and last names fit? Most of the time it should be fine, but you might check to be sure.

"Let's move on to efficiency. I assume that's important for this system. The first screen shows four lines for voter names, with more than half of the space taken up by search functionality. I'm guessing you expect users to type in partial names and scroll through the results. But typing is slow and mistakes are common on touch keyboards. Have you thought about other ways to navigate lists? How many elements are we talking about in total?

"Now notice that on the second screen, a user first taps "SELECT AN ISSUE" and then chooses from a list. Would it be reasonable to show that list immediately? That would save one action, and after that choice you could handle entering text.

"Also on this screen, it looks possible to "REPORT ISSUE" without first choosing an issue or entering text. Do you want to allow that?"

You talk for a while longer, spending some time on platform conventions--the system combines iPhone conventions with Android conventions, and violates a few guidelines for both platforms--but mostly you're urging the team to get end users on board to test the system before it goes live. "You wouldn't just roll this out at 6 AM on the morning of the election, would you?" you say. "That could be a disaster."

We know how Orca actually turned out, of course, and the interface we see was actually rolled out on election day. Usability was the least of its problems. It's interesting, though, to be able to do a post mortem on the interface of a failed project--there are useful lessons for other systems.