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Brian Stanton


Bringing Clarity to the Cloud

Visual management for consistency

Published: Thursday, June 2, 2016 - 16:11

Doors that are obviously meant to be pushed not pulled, footprints painted on the floor telling you where to stand at the airport—these are examples of good design and usability. You don’t have to think too hard about what to do because someone else put a lot of thought into how to get across the right way to open the door or where to form a line.

As a usability expert, I spend a lot of time making sure that an object, system, or interface can be used effectively and efficiently without frustrating the user. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the cloud—that network of servers that lets you access all sorts of services without having to install them on your own computer—can help make technology more usable for a broader population of people.

My father built this so my mother could use the phone. The lever was to depress the handset cradle button that causes the phone to hang up. To dial, the lever had to be moved off the hang-up button and a pencil inserted into the holes of the rotary dial. To hang up, the spring loaded lever is moved back over the handset cradle button. Credit: Cheryl Lawrence

The idea came to me during lunch with my colleagues when we were discussing usability, as we usually do, and it dawned on me that no one ever talks about the usability of the cloud. Usability experts question a lot of things as we work toward creating objects that communicate their function to you, like that door you immediately know should be pushed. That’s the perspective I bring, so I wondered, what about how the cloud affects the end user?

One of the benefits of using the cloud is that you can access your information from many different types of devices, even someone else’s device. But if you can save your profile with your personal likes and dislikes, you should be able to get the same experience from anywhere. For example, if you rely on a screen reader or other enabling software, it can be part of your profile, and it will be available no matter how you log on. Maybe you just like a particular size font or higher contrast on the screen—the cloud could be tailored to give you your personal best experience.

This idea of adapting the environment to fit the user has given me a great deal of satisfaction in my career. I hadn’t thought about it until recently, but the likely reason for that is the house I grew up in. My mother was partially paralyzed by polio when she was young, and my father, a very handy man, adapted the entire house so that it worked for her.

In my career in the IT field, I’ve worked to make sure that user interfaces work the way they are intended. For example, when I was an intern at IBM in the 1980s and personal computers were just gaining traction, we tested different keyboard designs to see which would work best. We gave people tasks to do using various designs and measured their errors, typing speed, completion rates, and satisfaction levels. Now I can walk into any office in the United States and see the familiar 12 function keys at the top of the keyboard and the inverted “T” for cursor control and know that my work had an impact.

IBM Model M keyboard Credit: Raymangold22 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I also helped design the interface for air traffic controllers and the physical structure of their workspace to make sure things were within reach and that the important information was in an easy line of sight. With all of our computers and connected devices, there’s a lot of information that needs to be structured to make it easy to receive and process. It’s not just about receiving information, however; we also need easy ways to input information into those systems.

I think in general we all want our air traffic controllers to be comfortable and to have everything they need in easy reach. Credit: Angelo Giampiccolo/Shutterstock.com

Sometimes we also need to get a process across. One research effort I participated in helped us realize that a series of increasingly fast beeps could signal that a process was nearing its end for those who couldn’t see a green bar growing longer as a file downloads, for example.

There’s a lot of measurement in usability, and I’d like to bring that to the cloud. My colleagues and I recently released a framework on cloud usability to help evaluate the user experience. I’m really proud of this work because the potential is there to open up a whole new field of research in usability. This doesn’t happen every day, so as a scientist, it’s very exciting.

With our framework, we’re trying to define the metrics of the user experience. For example, one metric is responsiveness. How many times have we waited for a machine to come back with a response, wondering if we'd done something wrong or if the problem was the machine itself? Users also worry about security and privacy. Will wondering where their data is stored affect the cloud experience?

If we can help people define the attributes they want from the cloud experience and how to measure them, companies can work that into their agreements with their cloud service provider and we can help foster human-centered design. We can use the cloud to its full potential and make sure no one is left pushing a door they should pull, or standing in a line of one, in the wrong place.

First published , on NIST's Taking Measure blog.


About The Author

Brian Stanton’s picture

Brian Stanton

Brian Stanton, a cognitive scientist in the Visualization and Usability Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), investigates usability and security issues ranging from password rules and analysis to privacy concerns. He also investigates biometric and robotic usability, and worked on projects for the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, and with latent fingerprint examiners. Prior to joining NIST in 2006, Stanton designed user interfaces for B2B web applications.