The death of MR postponed
The US election and the #NewMR

Norman doors and online questionnaire design

In usability circles the doors in the pictures on the right are called “Norman doors.”    Their named for Donald Norman who wrote a fascinating little book  calleNelson Doord, The Design of Everyday Things. In the book Norman talks a great deal about affordances, that is, properties of objects that help us to do things with them.  Like open doors.  But the book is also about user-centered design, that is, the design of affordances in ways that make it easy for people to use them.  In Norman’s world, things are easiest when we already know how to use them, hardest when we have to read instructions to figure it out.  This distinction he calls “knowledge in the head” versus “knowledge in the world.” Entrance_yogurt_guru

To get back to those doors, often when we see handles like the ones in the pictures our instinct is to pull them. After all, that’s what handles are for.  That’s knowledge in the head at work.  The knowledge in the world says “Push,” but as often as not we don’t see that until the door doesn’t work like we expect.  If this has never happened to you go find a Norman door (they’re everywhere), sit down and watch people as they go in and out.

I sometime think of Norman and his doors when I try to do a survey that has slider bars, drag and drops and other forms of what their designers like to call “engaging designs.”  It seems to me that I spend as much time trying to figure out how to use some of the gadgets as I do coming up with answers to the questions. Worse yet, I see questionnaires that use different gadgets for the same question type. The survey becomes a puzzle to be solved. Yes, a game.  But it’s a game that sucks cognitive energy away from the real survey task, which is thinking about the subject matter and answering the questions.  I pull on that Norman door because I’m not thinking about how to open the door.  I’m thinking about something else. I instinctively pull the handle because that’s what handles are for. That is until the door doesn’t open.  Then my train of thought is interrupted while I solve the problem of how to open the door.  That's what happens when we encounter unfamiliar affordances.

The thing about those boring radio buttons and text boxes in surveys is that we all know how to use them because they are so ubiquitous on the Web.  For some of us even clicking on words like Comment, Reply or Follow falls in the same category.  It’s second nature to us.  Knowledge in the head at work.  But when is the last time you bought something online that required a slider bar?  We are used to clicking our state with a drop down and entering dates by popping up little calendars and clicking on the day, but how often do we drag something into a shopping cart?  Or sort things?  These devices rely on knowledge in the world.  We should not be surprised that “engaging designs” often produce different answers and take longer.

If we are going to have better online questionnaires we need to be sure to focus on the right things.  Make questionnaires easier, not harder.