Archive for the ‘Edge Case Design’ Category

Edge Case Design: Bathroom Discrimination

March 23, 2011

As a parent a trip to the mall was often fraught with difficulty – knowing I’d be juggling a toddler (and glad I didn’t have more than one to wrangle), a stroller (pram) and shopping cart I would often make a decision where to park based on what I knew about the facilities. While parents rooms are becoming more common in a smaller mall it was actually often easier to find a disabled restroom – which while offering space often didn’t feature a changing table.


Taking an Edge Case Design approach mall designers could combine the needs of two groups – parents and the disabled – and double the number of facilities available to both groups – placing a number of larger, accessible facilities with push-button doors would create more options and not make a frantic parent feel guilty for making use of the “wrong” facilities.

Edge Case Design: Deaf people watch movies, and go to church

March 19, 2011

In 2005 it was estimated that there are over 10 million Americans who are hard of hearing, and over a million who are deaf.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, the numbers are going to be around the same – up to 1 in 20 will have hearing difficulties.


Over the last decade I’ve worked on a number of projects which have involved delivering video to the web – ranging from phone camera surf reports, to 24/7 broadcasts of housemates through to online movie delivery platforms, major sporting events and even supporting a NASA educational site.


In all but one of those cases catering for the hard of hearing wasn’t an option. Either there was no budget, no resource or no-one was willing to acknowledge there was a problem that needed solving along the way.


A huge amount of effort went into designing the video playback experience. Beautiful design, hours agonizing over every pixel of the on-screen controls, optimizing the viewer area for performance and integration with the overall design.


Then came the complaints, and in some cases reminders of the legal requirements. In a panic designs were tweaked and somehow captions were shoe-horned into the experience and no-one was especially happy.


If the design had been approached from the perspective of Edge Case Design then time and money would not have been wasted on creating a panicked compromise. Ideally that design would not just to support the deaf users, but to ensure design cues were appropriate for the colorblind users and controls were accessible for those with impaired motor skills via keyboard accelerators and other control mechanisms.




As it turns out there are a large number of people who are not hearing impaired yet make extensive use of sub-titles and captions to increase their enjoyment of video content online. Watching movies when the kids are asleep; helping someone who maybe isn’t watching their native language keep up with dialogue; watching TV while your partner is on the phone; watching a video in a crowded coffee-shop or bar; watching when you don’t have headphones and don’t want to disturb others, say in a library. There are many scenarios where designs which treat captions as a first class experience are better able to engage and retain their users.


To close with a reference back to the church in the title: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod discovered that over 90% of the hearing impaired did not attend any form of Church. They realized that they needed to design services for those Edge Case scenarios and now provide a range of materials – both online and for Pastors to utilize – that make prayer more accessible.


No matter what your beliefs you have to respect that commitment to Edge Case Design.

Edge Case Design: Door Handles

March 18, 2011

I was looking for more examples to support my earlier post on Edge Case Design and walking out of the car park this evening this occurred to me:

How do you design a door handle that works equally well for a child or a basketball player?


The typical horizontal bar that works for the average height person doesn’t work for either of those extremes particularly well (and actually is awkward for a lot of sort-of-average height folks), but imagine if you were to rotate the bar so it was mounted vertically and you can easily cater for the edge cases… and in doing so have a great solution that fits all of the 80% median part of the curve as well. No matter how tall you are simply push against the part of the bar that falls most comfortably to hand to open the door.

I am starting to think that there’s something in this Edge Case Design philosophy… can you think of other examples?

Optimize UX by Designing for Edge Cases

March 17, 2011

One thing I have learnt over the years working on sites like Big Brother and rushTV with hundreds of thousands of active users is that no matter how much time you spend fine-tuning the basics it’s the edge cases that cause you most problems.

So… why not turn it around and make sure you define the problem and then focus on optimizing the user experience and workflow around the edge case and maybe you’ll end up with a pretty good solution for everyone?

For web design a lot of the outliers are going to be around usability – optimizing colors and contrast, ease of navigation and captions for audio content etc. For the real world the challenge gets a little more interesting.

At the moment I’m dealing with two examples of processes where rather than keep usable workflow front of mind they have accreted layers of complexity over time and no-one wants to touch it for fear of unearthing a monster.

The first is the US immigration process to go from an E-3 to H-1B and then Green Card. Rather than try and explain that particular problem I’d simply point you to this flowchart (just for the Green Card application) and ask if it’s rational or even fair for people stuck in the process (some steps can take years even if all the paperwork is in order)


The immigration process is, by necessity, a complex one but when you look at how the system functions today – with a lot of uncertainty for those stuck in it – you have to wonder just what inefficiencies and loopholes exist that are costing the country money and not protecting its borders in any meaningful way.

The other process that’s familiar to people almost everywhere, but particularly topical here in the US at the moment – Taxes.


Don’t over-think the problem

February 9, 2011

“That which is over-designed, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace”

William Gibson, from the book “All Tomorrow’s Parties

Banking: Still in the slow lane on the information superhighway

December 14, 2010

After over a decade as an online banking user there’s one thing that still frustrates the hell out of me here in the US. The time it takes to move money around when banks are involved.

It’s quicker to drive to Bank A, withdraw a bunch of cash, drive across town to Bank B and deposit it, than it is for an electronic transfer to complete.

With branches open until 6pm and even on Saturdays the first hurdle is that you need to make sure you have your request to transfer in the system, on a week day and before some arbitrary time (it seems to be before 4pm East Coast, which doesn’t help when you’re on the West Coast in the US – 3 hours behind). Then the process can take 3, sometimes 4 business days before the funds are available at the destination bank. What is really insane is when this happens between accounts with the same bank. Makes you wonder who profits from this delay.

For an account to account transfer within a bank I’d expect to see that reflected pretty much instantly. For a payment to a Credit Card with that bank I can’t see why it would take longer than an overnight run. For a bank to bank transfer … unless they are physically putting the money in a truck and driving it across town I’d expect to see an electronic transfer happen overnight.

Even when the money has gone from A to B you run into the Statement Balance vs Current Balance problem. Rather than show you all the transactions they know about, some banks seem to have taken the concept of paper statements and put them online. So what you get is a view into what your account looked like a day, or a week ago with some mysterious delta between what the statement knows your balance was (and the transactions that made it up) and what the bank knows about your actual money – because they can correctly track the current available balance.

This sluggish updating not only impacts customers using the banks own systems, it makes life tougher for services like Mint (who already have enough problems of their own!)

Finally… what’s with expiring data. Somewhere in the system you’ve got records going back to the dawn of time. Storing them as raw, compressed data electronically isn’t going to take up that much space or cost that much money (even with Hierarchical Storage for the really old stuff) but if I live in a country where at the drop of a hat the tax man can ask for 5 or 7 years of records… make sure they are available. Don’t charge me $25 so you can go and scan the paper copy you printed when you archived it to dead tree. I don’t mind waiting a couple of days while it gets sucked back from a vault somewhere but this isn’t rocket science.

When you look at the profits banks make, and the pitiful interest rates they pay out you have to wonder what’s going on (BTW why is it a “good” US bank is paying 1.10% interest, but an Australian bank can deliver 5%+ and still manage to get my money transferred to a different bank usually within a day)?


December 13, 2010

Following a recent scare about password security folks have been asking what they should do to keep their information safer on-line.

Well, the obvious this is not to use the same password for every site, but it’s really hard to think up and remember new passwords for each site.

A couple of quick and easy ideas are to pick a word you can remember (but not something easily identifiable with you) and add some letters from the site you are visiting to make it unique.

For instance if your chosen phrase is “cheese” and you are creating a password for Twitter you could take the first two consonants from the site name (tw) and combine them “twcheese”. You could make it more complex by adding a special character and adding mixed case “tw$Cheese” or substituting numbers for letters “tw$Chee5e”. In the same way your password for Facebook would become “fb#Chee5e” – easy to remember, because of your rule, but hard for someone else to guess. If you’re feeling like making it even harder you could take those two consonants and shift them on the keyboard… up a row or across a character so the password becomes “gn$Chee5e” (f becomes g, b becomes n. The p, l or m would wrap to q, a or z for instance)

Of course this still means remembering the passwords, and sometimes a site may have specific rules that break your usual pattern (minimum or maximum length, complexity, use of special characters etc) so it’s nice to have a tool to help with that…


I use KeePass to keep track of those passwords for me (both ones I create and also for some sites I get it to generate random ones for me). It’s especially handy because for a lot of sites I simply have to navigate to the site and hit the hot-key and it will auto-complete username and password fields for me, so I don’t have to leave any information in my browser. KeePass secures your password collection against a master password (so you only have to remember one thing) or uses a physical key (so as long as you keep them separate it’s very secure).

Because I use a couple of machines I also use the KeePassSync plugin which lets you sync between Amazon S3 storage or DigitalBucket (a free online file storage platform). The only thing I wish I could do is carry the passwords around on my phone and use Bluetooth pairing or a USB connection to make sure I always had them to hand.