Usability in the Real World

Having being trained as a designer in the late Eighties - early Nineties, that is when designing had more to do with wood, metal and plastic than screen estate, I still consider hardware design a somewhat important and fairly captivating part of my job, even after some straight sixteen years struggling over the immaterial whereabouts of the digital trade.

So, being all wrapped up in usability and accessibility issues as I am recently, when I came across this thingie, this automated kiosk for payment of medical tests (a ticket, in Italian. Well, sort of.) located in a neighborhood public medical center (Italians only: a CUP) mostly used by mothers with children and elderly, retired folks, I was offended, amazed and vastly impressed all at the same time.

Ok, the hulk can barely satisfy the requirements for physical access to its functions say from a wheelchair or from people with reduced mobility, but that is trivial and after all we won't celebrate a thirtieth anniversary until 2011 1. But what about the rest? What about the engaging restyling it went through? At some point, someone in the labs or offices noticed that help was needed to use the kiosk. And helped they did. Sure thing.

I'll just list the major informational features 2 and provide a picture for your own further enjoyment:

Said kiosk in all its pen-and-paper glory

  • its name, written in the usual obscure bureaucratic Italian, has been mercifully half-hidden by a white sheet of paper which reports a phone number and a number of stroken-out sentences.
    The reasoning is simple and sound: everybody knows what this is, no need to explain. After all, we take tests here, hu?
  • A yellow button has been renamed using a pen, another one has been 'added', a small note warns not to choose the bottom-right one.
  • A printout says 'To pay tickets', with 'Not' and 'for the Azienda ospedialiera' (the local sanitary company / organization) added in a red pen, thus making it 'Not to pay tickets for the Azienda ospedaliera'. This is followed by a somehow puzzling detailed step-by-step walk-through of the payment process, which insists on the fact that bills have to be introduced slowly.
    This same printout half-covers both the original instructions and a previous note, which obviously is not useful anymore. That is, apart from that 'B' button.
  • An almost worn out but still perfectly readable note says that the kiosk won't accept certain specific bills. In Lire.
  • The kiosk actually details payments in Lire, although we are reminded by another small note top-left that the kiosk will accept 5, 10, 20 and 50 euro bills. These notes all sit peacefully and gracefully as apart as they can.
  • There are six different slots for money, coins, cards, receipts, unspecified tools, plus a small keypad for numbers and the letters 'A' and 'C'. No 'B', at least.
  • As a final consideration, please do not fail to notice that, Italy being so devoted to officiality and legal formalities, all notes bear no signature nor official stamp or mark, and they could have been placed (or torn away, for that matter) literally by anyone.

Basically, there is no help here. Worse: there is no social nor cultural recognition of the benefits and values of actually helping out citizens or customers.

Even without considering our national anti-technological demeanor 3, how come Italy gets to lower its digital barriers and actually start designing infospace if it still has troubles producing and maintaining usable and accessible tools in the real world?

Now, usability. Bigger fonts. Where was I reading?

  • 1. That is, in 2011 Act 118/1971 prescribing accessibility rules for public places and services will be 30 years old
  • 2. And these do not include the fact that information is delivered in Italian only. Now that would definitely take us too far. Please. Gimme a break.
  • 3. And current scarce e-literacy. See the current Eurostat report. Eurostat is the Statistical Office of the European Communities
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