Happy Staff = Happy Visitors: Improving Back-of-House Interfaces

“You have to make the back of the fence that people won’t see look just as beautiful as the front, just like a great carpenter would make the back of a chest of drawers … Even though others won’t see it, you will know it’s there, and that will make you more proud of your design.”

—Steve Jobs

In my last post I talked about improvements to online ticketing based on observations made in the first weeks after launching the Pen.

Today’s post is about an important internal tool: the registration station whose job is to pair a new ticket with a new pen. Though visitors will never see this interface, it’s really important that it be simple, easy, clear, and fast. It is also critical that staff are able to understand the feedback from this app because if a pen is incorrectly paired with a ticket then the visitor’s data (collections and creations) will be lost.

Like a Steve-Jobs-approved iPod or a Van Cleef & Arpels ruby brooch, the “inside” of our system should be as carefully and thoughtfully designed as the outside.

the view from behind a desk with screens and wires everywhere. a tablet positioned upright with some tiny text and bars of color.

Version 1 of the app was functional but cluttered, with too much text, and no clear point of focus for the eye.

Because the first version of the app was built to be procedurally functional, its visual design was given little consideration. However, the application as a whole was designed so that the user interface – running in a web browser – was completely separate from the underlying pen pairing functionality, which makes updating the front-end a relatively straightforward task.

Also, we were getting a few complaints from visitors who returned home eager to see their visit diary, and were disappointed to see that their custom URL contained no data. We suspected this could have been a result of the poor UI at ticketing.

With this in mind, I sat behind the desk to observe our staff in action with real customers. I did about three sessions, for about ten minutes each, sometimes during heavy visitor traffic and sometimes during light traffic. Here’s what I kept an eye on while observing:

  • How many actions are required per transaction? Is there any way to minimize the number of “clicks” (in this case, “taps”) required from staff?
  • Is the visual feedback clear enough to be understood with only partial attention? Or do  typography, colors, and composition require an operator’s full attention to understand what’s going on?
  • What extraneous information can we minimize or omit?
  • What’s the critical information we should enlarge or emphasize?

After observing, I tried my hand at the app myself. This was actually more edifying than doing observations. Kathleen, our head of Visitor Services, had a batch of about 30 Pens to pair for a group, and I offered to help. I was very slow with the app, so I wasn’t really of much help, moving through my batch of pens at about half the speed of Kathleen’s staff.

Some readers may be thinking that since the desk staff had adjusted to a less-than-excellent visual design and were already moving pretty fast with it, this could be a reason not to improve it. As designers, we should always be helping and improving. Nobody should have to live with a crappy interface, even if they’ve adjusted to it! And, there will be new staff, and they will get to skip the adjustment process and start on the right foot with a better-designed tool.

My struggle to use the app was fuel for its redesign, which you can see germinating in my drawings below.

some marker sketches of a tablet interface with lots of scribbled notes

After several rounds of paper sketches like these, the desk reps and I decided on this sequence as the starting point for version two of the app.

These were the last in a series of drawings that I worked through with the desk staff. So our first few “iterative prototypes” were created and improved upon in a matter of minutes, since they were simply scribbled on paper. We arrived at the above stopping point, which Sam turned into working code.

Here’s what’s new in version 2:

  • The most important information—the alphanumeric shortcode— is emphasized. The font is about 6 or 7 times bigger, with exaggerated spacing and lots of padding (white space) on all sides for increased legibility. Or as I like to call it, “glanceability.” This helps make sure that the front of house staff pair the correct pen with the correct ticket.
  • Fewer words. For example, “Check Out Pen With This Shortcode” changed to “GO”, “Pen has been successfully checked out and written with shortcode ABCD” changed to “Success,” etc. This makes it easier for staff to know, quickly, that the process has worked and they can move on to the next ticket/pen/customer.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Mark Twain

  • More accurate words. Our team uses a different vernacular from the people working at the desk. This is normal, since we don’t work together often, and like any neighboring tribes, we’ve developed subtly different words for different things. Since this app is used by desk staff, I wanted it to reflect their language, not ours. For example, “Pair” is what they call “check-out” and “Return” is what they call “check-in.”
  • Better visual hierarchy: The original app had many competing horizontal bands of content, with no clear visual clue as to which band needed the operator’s attention at any given time. We used white space, color (green/yellow/red for go/wait/stop), and re-arranging of elements (less-used features to the bottom, more-used features to the top) to better direct the eye and make it clear to the user what she ought to be looking at.
  • Simple animations to help the user understand when the app is “working” and they should just wait.

Still to come are added features (bulk pairing, maintenance mode) and any ideas the desk reps might develop after a couple of weeks of using the new version.

Imagine how difficult this process would have been if the museum had outsourced all of its design and programming work, or if it were all encased in a proprietary system.