Who ordered pizza?

SIM ordering pizza at thinkport.org

In the above picture a newbie gamer has organised a telephone for his Sim so that it can order pizza. Unfortunately, in the series of pictures which follows, the delivery girl arrives too late and the Grim Reaper delivers the pizza which means that the Sim dies of starvation. Apparently, Sim starvation is common in The Sims 2.

I laughed when I read this blog as this is what would happen to customers if usability/user experience consultants were to design pizzerias. Oh yes! This question is often asked, I am sad to say, at interview and in human-computer interaction (HCI) exam papers for undergraduate students. It is a terrible question which encourages ridiculous answers. Interviewers and examiners should know better.

When asking any question it is necessary to put constraints around the solution space to indicate to the interviewee the sorts of solutions you desire. This pizzeria question doesn’t have any such constraints and allows the usability consultant to redesign the infrastructure – which they would never do in real life. The most excitment they get is recommending the movement of one button to the opposite end of a webpage.

When usability consultants deliver a report on recommended improvements to a website they would never offer recommendations on the content management system (CMS) or the hosting package which sits behind the web pages they have analysed. In many cases the consultants haven’t the skill set (but that’s another blog) and also because it’s not what the client has requested. I have worked with clients who have terrible CMSs which put a blue line at the end of each page but because the line doesn’t affect the usability of the web pages I have tested with users, and the client doesn’t want to hear about it, I don’t comment. Many clients are aware that their CMSs need to be updated but history and politics prevent them from doing so.

Since your usability consultants look at the highest level – often they don’t even look at the code (they don’t understand it) – why ask them to design a whole restaurant? The PC moved off the desk top some time ago into a brave new world. Ubiquitious computing has been all the research rage since everyone realised the difficulties of maintaining virtual and augmented reality. Though virtual and augmented worlds are often successfully employed in a range of domains from medical to miltary.

Alas, most usability consultants won’t have worked in knowledge-rich domains. They won’t have much knowledge even after performing their ‘research’. Thus, they won’t know about health and safety building and fire regulations which are required by law in restaurants. If they did, then they could bring some constraints to the problem solving exercise. And do we really have a user experience in a restaurant? We have an experience but we are not users. We are consumers which is different and are we mixing up marketing with usability?

I have met many usability consultants with a marketing background which can be a useful skillset but it conflicts with the essence of providing good usability. Good usability is about improving the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which people can use an interactive product and borrows a lot of its techniques: interviews, focus groups, and even its interviewees from the market research world. Good user experience is more about improving the experience a user has with a product in terms of aesthetics, entertainment, and emotions amongst other subjective benchmarks.

In its crudest terms marketing is about selling. Nowadays, marketing promises nothing less than a better life – more excitement, more sex, and more admiration – if you buy this washing powder/car/pair of trainers. User experience research helps identify what subjective benchmarks of ‘happiness’ companies need to flog their goods and this research is commonly known as customer experience. And most usability companies would sell their grannies to get into this big money spinning lifestyle instead of fiddling around with the billion useless UK government websites all the while preaching the joys of accessibility whilst their own markup is full of tables and spacer gifs.

But back to our pizzeria. Do we need to think about pizza satisfaction and the more exciting life it can offer? During interview or exam a good question should allow the candidate to offer some book learning and some application of the learning to produce a satisfactory solution. This pizzeria question does neither. It has very little to do with usability and more to do with business and benchmarking and standard goals of promotion, product, price and placement. You don’t need to know about HCI to talk about pizzas. What ever happened to the standard ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ (Answer: far away from you).

I remember talking to a HCI academic once and we were standing near a hammer which had a label with a set of instructions on it. This person actually said that the hammer didn’t have good HCI. I think he meant that the label wasn’t very well written. He couldn’t possibly have meant that he thought that interacting with a hammer was similar in complexity to interacting with a computer and as such needed to be studied. That would have made him a goon. I just decided he wasn’t the best world’s communicator.

Which brings me back to the pizzeria question. If a different goon expects you to answer this, make sure you have googled for the million solutions which exist out there on the Internet (you will find them sandwiched between UK government websites) and present them all! Then ask him to put constraints around the question and establish a specific context of use. He won’t be able to of course and as he flannels for a while, please, don’t ignore the nagging voice in your head and do what it says: Get out now before he offers you a job.

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