illuminating usability issues

eco thoughts – packaging crisis

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I just had to contact Rachel’s Organic after noticing this excess of packaging:


I’ve sent them the following comment (via the website)

“I recently saw some of your organic rice puddings (pack of 2) in my local Real Foods shop. I suspected it would taste good, which it does, but the reason I bought it was to make a point about the amount of packaging involved.
The shape of the tubs were much larger than needed for the portion, but specifically enlarged at the top which then required an over-sized foil lid. Finally, two such pots were packaged together in a huge cardboard sleeve to be sold as a pair. I hope you can see that this appeared excessive.
Your company seems to be committed to being green – you mention on the website that you have made steps to reduce packaging in other areas of the business. Therefore I hope you will also reconsider the packaging on this range in the near future.

The website thanks me! “Thankyou for your feedback, if your enquiry requires a response someone will get back to you shortly.”

Hmmm. I wonder how they will respond…

Written by cath

February 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm

What have Heston Blumenthal, Little Chef and Usability Engineering got in common?

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I was watching the TV series following Heston (the fancy chef) and his team and their mission to revamp Little Chef…it was an interesting show, but I want to talk about how it reminded me of key usability principles.

One thing that came up a few times which reminded me of usability and my world was Heston’s comments that he considered himself a “normal bloke” (and therefore what he would like to see on the menu is what other customers would also want to buy and eat).

Surprisingly, this is one of the most common flaws in design. We all like to think that we are fairly normal people, but years specialising in a particular area means a lot of distance between you and an average customer. It takes time and effort to ensure that you remain in touch with the real “normal people” who are your target market.

For the restaurant biz I would have liked to have seen much more research into the tastes and preferences of the Little Chef customers, particularly in terms of how much and what they want to eat, and what they want to pay for it too.

A first principle of usability is to know your user – and that the user IS NOT YOU! If you know how to design or build something, then it unlikely that you will also represent the typical user of that thing. Making and using are two very different activities.

At the end of the first show, Heston delivered a menu which some customers even called “poncy”. Suffering from a lack of real knowledge about the customers, the result was that it failed to win over the standard menu choices. “Why wasn’t he out there talking to customers before starting his menu plans?” I kept grumbling! Well, finally, he was listening to some feedback – but from a usability professionals viewpoint, this was too late in the day – such a lot of effort had already been made in the recipe selections – much of which needed to be chucked away.

Recommendation: Get listening to real customers first – before you put pen to paper!

Of course, it’s also a great example of how you can learn from failure – but that is another story…

Another amusing part of the program were the scenes involving the big boss of Little Chef, with his continual calls for “blue sky thinking” and whose vision appeared to be of the radical dishes that Heston’s restaurant is famous for. This guy did not seem to be in touch with his customers, or able to describe or explain what he expected.

Well, this is a bit tricky, I bet many people work for someone a bit like this and lets face it they are paying the bills…but part of the job they are paying for has to be for the “designer” or whatever you want to call it to refocus the whole team – get them to focus on the needs of the intended customers.

In usability this is a main part of the job. If you can get everyone in the team focused on the consumer, understanding them and their requirements from you, you may have a chance of coming up with a successful idea.

Eventually, the “blue sky” thinking went onto the ceiling of the redesigned restaurant interior – the best part of the show for me – that is precisely where it belonged, not in the dishes chosen for the menu – a job well done?!

As the series progressed, it was interesting to see Heston follow some more intelligent lines of inquiry, taking a lot of time to understand the capabilities of the staff (Little Chef cooks) and the equipment they had to work with. Following this line of enquiry, and having listened to feedback from his failed menu, finally things started moving in a positive direction, but still it seemed he was reluctant to throw off all of his personal views…

In something of a cook-off against a rival fry-up van at a rugby match, Heston’s new breakfast went down reasonably well with customers, but not as well as the one which included baked beans.  The staff had mentioned this a few times…but with the scores counted up, and the feedback collected, the importance of beans was obvious.

This is another valuable usability lesson…listen to the staff – that is real frontline staff. The staff from Little Chef, and from the rival fry-up van,  insist that customers will want beans with their breakfast.  The cook-off indicates that customers also agree – a famous name may get you somewhere, some interest, but what customers want gets you real business. And this seems to be how baked beans made it back onto his menu.

I was also pleased to notice another usability lesson – that of staff buy in. As Heston started making changes which reflected the staff comments, capabilities and opinions, they became invested in the whole process. It was clear that over time he beginning to win them round. In doing so, they became spokespersons for (some of) the changes he was proposing…making it more likely that his ideas will spread throughout the chain.

When staff feel valued – that their ideas and needs are being listened to and met, they will be motivated to help sell the ideas to others. When they are ignored (for example, the case of the baked beans!)  they will undermine the changes (the staff suggested they would offer people beans instead of tomatoes, even if not on the official breakfast menu.)

The main idea throughout the show – to improve the quality of ingredients which go into the dishes in the Little Chef chain and therefore improve the food and get more customers back in – it is a commendable idea. I believe in this principle myself, but am I typical of the general public? As a usability expert, I know to assume that I am not.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to pay more for better quality food. This position was clearly portrayed in the show – customers and staff alike commented frequently that it was quantity that was key – filling the plate, providing value for money. One of the final comments from the third show, with the Little Chef cook, Ann, commenting on the quality of the food (fish and chips) being good, but portions – well…

What happens next – remains to be seen.

As I said, and interesting show – and I’m sure there was much that went on that we didn’t see…However, the lesson for me was that simple usability principles have their application everywhere. I believe that in spending more effort at the outset working out customer requirements, staff views and getting them on-board, the whole experience might have been a more pleasant one for Heston and his team. If they could make life a bit easier – surely these principles are worth a try?

Try out some usability principles in your work – whatever it is, the idea of customer-centered design is always a good starting point.

Written by cath

January 23, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Apple iPhone

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About time the mobile phone market started taking user-interface usability seriously. Let’s hope that the iPhone by Apple lives up to the hype. I expect it to provide a simple, clear, easy to use interface for the phone that does it all – my fingers are crossed.

Despite their plaudits, I simply don’t believe the current smart phones are doing their magic reliably – I will be getting a “user rant” from someone who tried but had to give up that technology – check back for it soon.

Maybe it won’t happen straight away, but it would also be fantastic if other phone companies also had to take up the challenge to improve the usability of their interfaces (fumbling with your mobile phone buttons anyone? See this article from the BBC News blog…

I’m inspired to complete my review of my current mobile phone, sad to say, it is not a design and usability champion.

Written by cath

January 11, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Posted in mobile phone, usability

This is Usability –

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Hug LogoEver shopped online? This is a great example of usability in the online shopping experience – and by that I mean the WHOLE experience. is the company, they sell a small range of fairtrade organic cotton clothes for women, men and children, is the Website (opens in a new window).

This is why I think this company is a great example of usability in action.

  • The Website is OK, it was easy enough to choose my product and size, there are good photos of most things (although some could be better).
  • So, I quickly filled my basket and filled in the typical form to complete the checkout process…there is always room for improvements and this website is no exception, but the functionality is basically there…and it works!

Having chosen some products and checked out, this is where user-interface usability needs to turn into process usability…and this is where the company has done excellently.

  • The packaging that they use is small, fits through even my small letterbox at home – no staying in to wait for the delivery or getting annoying “whilst you were out” cards from the post office – the items simply arrive through my door whilst I’m out…finally, user-centred delivery in action.
  • Now, some even better news on other persistent eCommerce usability issues – returning goods that (in this case) don’t fit…a nightmare right? Not with Hug, the packaging is easy to open and just a couple of details to fill in on a form enclosed with the item and a bit of selotape to close the package again, stick on a freepost return label and it fits right in the postbox to go back…all done and dusted in about 10 minutes and no problem with my refund…

Hug packaging means delivery usability for eCommerce

The Packaging – easy delivery for the postman and easy pickup for me!


Now that was user-friendly. I’ve used this company a few times now, it’s so easy, and I’m reassured by their customer-orientated delivery and return service. I can cope with a few Website usability niggles because the main bulk of my concern is always with the delivery problem and what happens next.

If delivery and return were that simple for all online shopping, I’d be doing it a lot more. Congratulations to Hug for delivering great usability for online shoppers.

Let me reassure you that I have nothing to do with this company, other than being a customer who was really impressed by their vision for a usable online shopping experience.

Written by cath

November 21, 2006 at 8:14 am

About Usability

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If you want to know more about usability, this will give you a start:

Usability is about designing and making something which fits the purpose it was meant for. It’s usually all about making sure the people who will want or need to use it, can do so, learning quickly how to use it and remembering how (whether or not it is frequently used).

In terms of design, that means thinking about: who will be using it? what will they use it for? where will they be using it? how will they control it? is it efficient? does it work? do the people using it find the experience pleasing?

If you smile every time you use your Nokia mobile phone, there must be a reason for that – is it the fact that you can wander around pretty much anywhere and still chat to your family and friends? or is it something special about this particular phone design that makes it a better experience than something else?

And if you tear your hair out in frustration every time you get to work on your very important, long document in MS Word, is it because you’re struggling with the content of your work? or is their something about this particular tool you are using that although it is supposed to help you create the document, it is actually getting in the way of your writing instead?

If you’ve had experiences like these, good or bad (hopefully both), then you’ve experienced usability in action, and you may enjoy my rants on good design, bad design, possible solutions and the documenting of usability issues that really need to be fixed!

Finally, you may also be interested in my Usability Links, where other people are also trying to get the message out there, each in our own way doing our bit to get designs working for real people.

Thanks for reading!

Written by cath

November 8, 2006 at 1:08 pm

Posted in information, usability


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Welcome to theNightLight blog.

This is a diary of common real-world usability issues and design ideas that could improve our lives.

Our mission at theNightLight is to see the world through the eyes of everyday people going about their daily lives. We aim to make a positive difference and help improve their experiences with everything…design, technology, architecture, transport, and much, much more.

For information on our usability services please see theNightLight webspace.

Written by cath

November 6, 2006 at 10:37 am

Posted in information, usability