Designing with Peripheral Vision

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It's useful periodically to review designs that fail in order to learn from them and then avoid those failures in future designs. These seven anti-patterns all suffer from not taking context into account, or stated another way, their designers failed to design with peripheral vision.

I was working with faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) a few weeks go and during a break we visited RISD's Nature Lab. It's director, Neil Overstrom, spoke about the need for art and design students to be aware of details in their environment, in the periphery, which is why his Nature Lab includes many natural artifacts for students to study. I've been talking about designing the "total user experience" since the mid-90s, wrote about it in my 2001 book, and its central to our IBM Design Thinking framework but I thought Neil's concept of being aware of what is in the periphery through peripheral vision was a good way to frame the challenges of commercial design practice when context isn't taken into account at all or not enough. Hence the title of this post.

Here are seven anti-pattern themes with examples for each from my own experience.  

  1. Cool technology and visuals but failure to design the end-to-end user experience.
    I was excited to try out e-registering and using a digital key when I stayed at a hotel a few weeks ago. I was really impressed with the capability of the technology. I was even impressed by the rather visually engaging iPhone app (it also had an Apple Watch app but that didn't work at all). The app allows you to avoid having to register at the front desk when you get to the hotel. So, you walk right past and go to the hotel room that you selected using the app. It's rather cumbersome to navigate through the app to get to the digital key but once you get there, it's pretty slick that you can open your hotel room door by simply pressing the button on your iPhone (see top right image above). The cumbersome navigation to get to the key becomes quite annoying subsequent times that you go to unlock your door. In fact, it's way easier and faster to simply use the usual card key. However, the shock came when I noticed that I didn't have a receipt under my door on the last day of my stay. I looked all through the app to see where the option to get to the digital receipt was. I ended up going to the front desk only to be told that the e-registration still requires you to checkout by going to the front desk. I travel a lot and I haven't checked out at the front desk for years. And, checking out is the part of the total hotel user experience that is in most need of being fast and automated! So, the lesson here is that the cool technology and nice visuals on the app got me to try the new capability but the fact that the designers only used their foveal vision and didn't see the checkout process in their periphery make the entire experience a failure. This may have been their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version and they may well have the intention of eventually designing the entire user experience but I won't ever experience that because their initial design so failed to address the full user experience that I won't try this technology again. Or, at least not from that particular hotel chain. An initial bad end-to-end experience sours the user sufficiently that they won't come back.
  2. Failure to design for the full audioscape. Designers are now also asked to design audio related systems.. I experienced the public address system in one airport recently where the emergency message was completely indecipherable due to poor quality speakers and was being drowned out by the flight announcements which used high quality speakers. I'm confident that the designers of the two separate systems never actually spoke to one another or tested their systems in actual use. By contrast, a week later I was at another airport where every announcement was crystal clear and understandable. This may actually be a failure to design with peripheral hearing (if there is such a thing). 
  3. Failure to design the software and hardware experience. I use e-tickets on my Apple Watch and find it really convenient especially after gate scanners were modified to allow the watch on a user's wrist to fit under them so that the QR code could be scanned (see top left image above). However, a common problem I experience is that I ensure that the Apple Wallet app is running with the ticket QR code showing but just as I get to the scanner, the Watch display turns off and of course my other hand is holding a passport or something else preventing me from easily tapping on the watch face to turn on the screen again. When the QR code is displayed, the Apple Watch display should not turn off until you turn it off. Similar to the problem described in number 1 above, a problem like the display turning off is enough of a bad experience to turn users off of the technology altogether.  
  4. Making major gratuitous changes to an app's design. I wrote a blog post here some time ago "Fine Tuning the Design Throttle" which made the case for designing several releases out and then staging in bite sized pieces the changes so as not to cause users too much of a challenge adjusting to the new designs. I think that advice is still relevant and some recent app design changes didn't heed that advice. A good example is the iOS Camera app which changed the positions on the screen, from the top to the bottom, of the most frequently used actions. These changes don't take into account the fact that users have developed motor memory for those actions. Similarly, the iOS Mail app changed the arrows for moving from one email to the next from up and down arrows to left and right ones. In my experience, that conflicts with the mental model I'd developed from the previous design and in dealing with email clients of all sorts for decades. And the direction of the arrows seems to be the opposite of what they should be with the action to move ahead in your email now being the left arrow key, something that seems to me to be counter intuitive. These kinds of fundamental changes to the design of a heavily used app for what appear to be purely random or in fact gratuitous reasons leaves me thinking that the designers completely ignored the context of regular use and arrogantly went ahead anyway with changes that serve to annoy users. If that happens to users too often, they're apt to stop using apps from that vendor.  
  5. Failing to take mobility into account when designing wearables. If there were one category of product that really needs to be designed with peripheral vision to take the context of use in mind, it's wearables. Users are on the go when using wearables so the interaction with them has to be even simpler with less reliance on physical interaction with the device. I found it interesting therefore to discover that even though I could text message using Siri on my iPhone entirely while staying in auditory mode, the Apple Watch required me to get out of auditory mode and actually tap a small touch target to send the Siri dictated texts. If there were ever a device that required hands (and fingers) free interaction, it's the Apple Watch! 
  6. Apps that don't take the other apps screen real estate into account. Apps should appropriately adjust themselves given what else is using screen real estate. When I'm using Google Maps on my iPhone or using the phone app, the top bar on the iPhone is taken up by those running apps. However, other apps don't take that possibility into account in their design. Again, motor memory to logout of a financial app, for example, by hitting the bottom most option in a left nav, leads to unintended actions when the bottom most selection is no longer logout. Or, in a social media app I use, the upper most options aren't visible when persistent apps like Google Maps or the phone app are are in use.   
  7. Physical designs which don't take the context of use in mind. I love all of my Apple products and devices. I love how sleek, sculpted, and beautiful the peripherals that I use in the office with my Thunderbolt display are (see bottom image above). However, while the new Apple wireless keyboard and trackpad can be used while being charged with a cable, the mouse cannot. I'm not in my office very often due to travel so the batteries on my mouse and keyboard last a long time. However, the other day, I got a notification that the rechargeable batteries on my Apple mouse were getting low. I unfortunately didn't have a charging cable with me as I only charge my Apple Watch and iPhone overnight at home. A little after that initial warning the mouse died and I couldn't do my work. I then asked around the studio to see if anyone had a cable I could borrow. I found one but then discovered that the cable only fits into the bottom of the mouse, making the device useless while it is being charged. The other peripherals can be used while being charged and it's not as if the human race hasn't figured out how to attach a cable to a mouse and allow the mouse to be used while the cable is attached. All these devices for decades have had cables coming out of the top end of the mouse. Again, the context of use was either not understood (which in this case is unimaginable), not taken into account, or intentionally ignored. Any one of these reasons is totally unacceptable. I brooded about this as I sat there waiting for my mouse to charge. Another example of this problem is Google Glass, an amazing technology that didn't sufficiently take the surrounding social environment into account. Had the product been introduced without the offending camera, it could well have been hugely successful.   

Context in the environment, context on the screen, and motor memory are so important in designing for mobile and for people on the move. I'm seeing a trend toward foveal and in fact even myopic design that is focused on the technology and great visual design. Designers need to use their peripheral vision too and be aware of and design for the entire user experience for the environmental and screen context especially for users on the move. Even though the concept of "designing the total user experience" has been around for decades, it appears, sadly, that using peripheral vision to be aware of and then design the total user experience has still eluded many designers. Let's redouble our efforts to truly design the end-to-end experience. For additional information, check out IBM Design Thinking and also our new IBM Design Research information. Let's design with our full field of vision to craft innovative solutions for the entire user experience.