Observations from an impromptu user research session on the streets of Huxton

A middle-aged Black woman — from what I could glean, an overseas transplant here in London as a caretaker for the elderly — came pattering up to me and asked for my help finding her way to her destination, the address of which she pointed out at the bottom of a paper printout.

She had an iPhone 5 or 5S: a decent phone, but at least a couple years old, and a little worn. She showed me the screen of her phone, where she had put the address into Google Maps, but it wasn’t returning a result and she was clearly feeling a bit frantic about getting where she needed to go.

Google Maps has a lot of issues with UK addresses; apparently the key is to strip the addresses down to the postal codes which are uniquely identifying. Putting in the street address in addition to the postal code often doesn’t work; it’s gotta be just postal code.

I told her this and she tried to search for the postal code: watching her engage with the UI / UX was the ultimate in cringeworthiness. She struggled a few times to delete the street address from the search input field because the box was too small and she couldn’t get the cursor in; and then when she switched tacks and tried to hit the “x” to clear everything and re-enter the postal code it was too small of a tap target so she missed many times before she got it. Although Google Maps is case-insensitive, which I take for granted (and I would posit most tech-savvy people do too), she wanted to make sure she got the postal code exactly right and kept hitting the Shift key to make sure she was capitalizing her input. Which she ended up mis-entering anyways because it’s hard to type with thumbs on a small screen. I asked her if she wanted me to help her on the phone and she was so relieved and grateful to hand it over to me.

Google Maps was happy to return a result for just the postal code, but she had it set on walking directions; so she was happy at first to see a result but then immediately worried when she saw the estimated time to be 44 minutes. I switched it to public transit directions by tapping on the walking man icon, but I also realized how completely non-intuitive it is to have to do that. From there, she was still squinting to figure out where she needed to go, and asked me to read the instructions and tell her. I scrolled down to see which Tube line, direction, and exit she had to take; read them aloud and pointed out to her where on the screen she could see that information, which was fine, but also frustrating to me to see how difficult it was for her to figure it out on her own.

As creators of technology, we still aren’t doing a good job serving people who aren’t us. “Us” usually being young, mostly male, mostly White and Asian, tech-savvy urban professionals with disposable incomes and the latest shiniest devices and apps, with a strong geographic bias to SF / Bay Area and maybe NYC. It’s still very impressive that this woman will eventually get where she needs to go… But we still have so much room to improve if even some of the best of what the tech industry has produced — the Apple iPhone, Google Maps — is so deficient.


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