Ghost Accountants, Muscle Memory, and UX
I’m reluctant to admit it, but accountants and I have something in common. Hear me out.
Last night I was zoning out in front of the TV. I like watching movies, current TV shows and Netflix content on a big screen, far more than sitting 18 inches away from my laptop. I was flipping back and forth between an old movie with way too many commercials and a current show I like. The room was dark—too dark for me to see the tiny type on the remote. I typed in what I thought was the channel number. Wrong… I thought I had typed in 114, but I had in fact typed in 774. Doh!
That’s the soul of usability. Isn’t it ridiculous that we need three different remotes to interact with television, cable, DVDs, tuners, etcetera? It drives me crazy that each control is different and generally has way too many buttons to control similar but different uses. Here are a few improvements that I think could be made immediately to improve their usability:
1. Use color to differentiate the most important button controls: play/pause on/off etc.
2. Use embossed icons so you can find the right button by feel without looking. My fingers could easily differentiate the symbols for play vs. stop, the same way that accountants’ numerical keyboards have bumps to orient your fingers at the “5.”
And, dare I ask,
3. Lay out the buttons that are universal to all remotes in the same way.
But after I took a closer look, I realized I was wrong in one respect. I was typing assuming that the numerals had been arranged bottom to top. Nope; they were all ordered top down:
Why had my muscle memory led me to think otherwise? I went to consult the phone.
Analog phone: top down.
iPhone keypad: top down.
Why had I assumed differently? My husband suggested it was a holdover from a ghost-accountant memory… of the calculator keyboard.
Sure enough, My computer keypad, calculators and their predecessors adding machines are ordered bottom to top.
I spend way more time adding and multiplying than typing in phone or channel numbers. My mental model of numeric entry is bottom to top. So naturally, that model, based on physical experience, drives my keyboard expectations.
In my user experience design work, it’s crucially important to locate key functions consistently to aid the user. Especially with frequently used functions, we learn the location, then our muscles take over and “remember” the exact motion to get us to that hot spot on the screen. It allows us to accelerate our rote behaviors, because whether it’s out of laziness or a desire for efficiency, our brains are always looking for the path of least resistance.
I know remotes are on their way out, as touch screens and mobile input devices are taking their place at center stage. So while I continue my layout consistency crusade, tell me — what are the chances that the accountants will win over the old school media junkies?