Enter the maze

Wake Up! Fix it!: Critical Incident Interviews

So, you are a usability expert. You've been set the task of creating a new usable design for a hotel alarm. What do you do?

A man groping for the alarm

First thing is to understand the problem. Unless you are already an expert in the area of hotel alarms (unlikely - you are a general usability consultant) you need to find out about alarms, about hotels and about the people who stay there and their problems. You love gadgets of course. That is why you got into computer science in the first place, but you've got to remember it's not about YOU. It's about all those people who have been struggling, who now think even more than before that they can't use new-fangled technology. You are going to fix it for them.

One thing to do is find out about people's experiences with gadgets as background. Go and interview them. You've got a few anecdotes from the client, but how widespread are the problems? What do you ask? One way to start might be to do a "critical incident analysis". Big fancy words. It just means ask people to tell you stories - true stories, critical stories, stories about something that happened to them over an alarm clock.

Go and try it now. Yes you. Now. Find some friends or relatives and ask them:

"Tell me a true story about something that happened to you over an alarm clock"

Make notes of the main points of all the stories you got back...and start thinking. What might it tell you about the design of an easy to use alarm clock. How might your design, once it exists, prevent that story from happening (if the consequences were bad)? How might you help it happen (if the consequences were good)?

You have taken the first step to being able to solve the problem. What next? Explore

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The wake-up. Fix it! series of cs4fn articles is based on a Science Week activity organised by the Department of Computer Science at Queen Mary, University of London, with support from the Research Councils UK.