What Clues Did You Miss?

I rented a car last week for a 2+ hour drive from Portland to the Oregon coast for a workshop. I used a GPS app on my phone to get the directions. I expected the phone to tell me when to turn. It didn’t. No noise, no directions, nothing. I had no reason to disagree with the phone.

I had two other writers in the car, so I asked the guy in the front seat to please tell me the directions. He did, and we arrived on time with no wrong turns.

Returning, we had the same problem. This time, six miles from the rental car return, the guy in the back seat said, “I sort of hear something.” The guy in the front seat fiddled with the audio and sure enough, the audio had been turned down in the front seat. Because I was using my phone, and it connected via Bluetooth, we couldn’t hear a thing. He turned the audio up and voila, we could hear. Six miles from the end of our ride. We all laughed at ourselves.

I learned something very important: always check the audio volume when I get into the car. I hadn’t because I wasn’t planning on using the radio. If I had, I would have figured this out.

I expected a “working” audio system. It was, even though I didn’t expect it to work that way. It was set for someone else’s expectations.

This wasn’t a huge problem, although it was inconvenient.

We missed the clues. Granted, the clues were easy to miss. This particular car had a touchscreen with many menus and levels of menus. I hadn’t fully investigated and neither had my copilot.

The touchscreen hides the clues—on purpose. Because there are so many options, it’s not possible to create one interface that explains the clues clearly. That’s why there were so many levels of menu.

Even when the clues are right in front of your face, it’s easy to miss them. Here are ways I miss clues:

  • I think it’s just this once. I don’t notice the patterns.
  • I’m learning a new habit and I don’t yet see what I need to maintain that habit.
  • I don’t know where to look for a clue. I don’t know the context or what should be visible to me.

Maybe you have more alternatives.

For me, the biggest meta-clue is that there is something I’m missing. If it’s a “just once” problem, I won’t know that yet (till a clue hits me upside the head).

If it’s a habit problem, I need to be vigilant about my habits and context. If you’ve ever said or heard, “Just this once won’t hurt you,” you might not realize the clue is key to your success.

The case of the rental car was one of context. I didn’t know what could be visible to me.

Clues are valuable pointers. I don’t want to miss any more!

That is the question this week: What clues did you miss?

6 thoughts on “What Clues Did You Miss?”

  1. The thing about the GPS in the rental car is that you had to be able to build a system model of essentially a black box in your head to be able to solve that problem. That’s tester thinking! Most people lack those skills and for them this would have been an intractable problem.

    1. Jim, I actually think it’s system thinking :-) The real clue was that the guy in the back seat heard “something.”

      I suspect (but don’t actually have real data) that people who build and test products that delight people can do this. Not just testers, not just developers, but everyone involved. We can’t always see things at the same time, which is why a team works better (often, not always) than one person.

  2. Yep. I had a similar experience on vacation in Orlando. The previous user of the GPS had made some obscure change in the settings that caused the GPS routing to prefer direct routes, rather than fastest routes. After talking kindly to the gps several times , my kids and I finally figured out what was wrong. But it was very frustrating. As you say, too many features and assumptions hide some important aspects. If it were “my” car, I would have read the manual and be using the system on a regular basis. And that is a normally-valid assumption on car/UI design.

    1. Jack, I wonder why the rental companies (or the car companies) think people will read the fine manual. Even when I buy a car, I drive first and read later. I know, my lack of patience is so surprising…

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