Heuristics? Never heard of him.
It’s incredible the things we learn as adults that we’ve really known about since we were kids, but somehow, somewhere along the line we forgot. This week in class as we study information architecture (IA), I was taken back to my grade school days when learning about the usability, accessibility, and ethics inherent in design. After soaking it all in, I realized that we started this work by asking “who, what, when, where, why [and how]” in grade school English class. We as readers had to identify those key elements within each story to help break it down so that we could better understand the situation. Heuristics takes those questions to the next level by flipping the script so that we as designers are perceiving through the “character’s” (ie: user’s) experience rather than as an observing outsider.
I’ll let that sink in, and in the meantime I’ll share and example of how an app with these design principles changed my life for the better.
For about 5 years I lived in the Chicagoland area and suddenly found myself commuting in and out of the city for work more often than I had anywhere I had lived before. Being a major city, navigation and parking were always a challenge. I’m no Magellan, but fortunately for me, one of my co-workers introduced me to the SpotHero app early on. If you were to ask me what’s so great about it, I would tell you it’s easy to use, fast, and saves me time and money. And honestly, isn’t that enough? I think most would agree that it is. However, as a UX design student, I am compelled like a curious toddler to incessantly ask “Why?” and “How?” and “What?” What makes it easy? How does it save time and money? Why does the traditional way of parking by following posted signs at your location seem more laborious and stressful? How does using the app provide a better solution for parking?
As it turns out (and as is the case with many of our favorite products), there is much more going on behind SpotHero’s simple interface than it lets on. I’m referring here to the usability principles they’ve lovingly applied to their design. Never heard of usability principles? How about information architecture heuristics? Me either. Even though they sound like technical jargon that belong in a user manual for engineers, it turns out we all encounter them every day and nothing works without them. But… how can everything we use function on principles that we’ve never heard of, you ask? The answer is that they are built innately into every one of us in the form of intuition, so unless we are designing for others, we just don’t consciously think about them.
Let’s dig into some examples of how SpotHero uses these basic principles to create happy customers. Once you start to understand these patterns in their design, I dare you not to go back to your favorite apps and see them there as well. Trust me — you will.
The first rule of heuristics, findability, asks “Is it findable?” There’s a reason this comes first. We have short attention spans. If you can’t figure out how to do what you’re trying to do within a few seconds, chances are good you’ll quit and try something else. SpotHero does this and does it incredibly well. On the homepage, you have one option to start with if you’re new: A search field that prompts for an address, venue, or airport. It’s clear what to do and how to do it. Simple. The best part is once you’ve used the app, SpotHero remembers where you last booked parking and what areas you searched, which touches on another principle: Memorability.
The memorability principle asks “How easy will it be to come back after a time and remember how to use it?” With SpotHero, gone are the days of falling back on the “Where was that? I think it’s around here somewhere” approach while driving around a busy city with angry drivers pushing you onward. They also save your payment info, vehicle info, and account info (and an option to set separate personal and business accounts) so that you don’t have to scramble for your credit card when you’re in a hurry or hop out of your car to check the license plate # — again — on your way.
Next up are the principles of clarity and communication. These state that the content must be easy to understand to the user, and help orient them to how the product should be used. Once you’ve typed in a location to search, SpotHero takes you to a map of the area with pins that identify the price for parking at each available location. Select any pin or swipe through the mini detail screen at the bottom for more info. Tap on the mini detail screen for a one-pager that covers everything you’d ever want to know about the place: amenities, hours of operation, how to park, shuttle info, directions, etc. There are tabs separating the info so you never have to leave the page or reload, which is a huge timesaver. This also ensures that you get all the info you’ll need to book in just 3 clicks. Once you make a reservation, they make it really easy to find with an icon specifically dedicated to your bookings (past, present, and future) at the bottom of the screen right next to home. If you need to cancel or change, there’s an option on your reservation for that and it usually takes a matter of minutes to complete. They’ll even throw in free time and automatically extend your reservation if it doesn’t change the price. Imagine how much time that saves for people scrambling to change all of their plans and bookings when their trip doesn’t go as planned. It’s brilliant.
I’d like to wrap up this exploration with two principles that can be harder to define: value and delight. These ask “What about this product differentiates it and makes it extraordinary and desirable?” For SpotHero, this means they remove almost all of the pain of finding public parking from the experience. When booking with their app, you know where you are going before you leave. You have directions to get there and directions for entry and exit, if applicable. The QR code and/or entry instructions are saved in the app but can also be added to a wallet app and shared with others. Gone are the days of driving around aimlessly in a new city, looking for the elusive illuminated sign that says “Park Here!”, or trying to orient yourself with the local rules for parking on the street. With their app, there are no more lost tickets because they are tied to your account. So, even if you do manage to lose your phone, all is not lost because you can log in on another device to retrieve it. Best of all, you never have to wonder if you found the best price. SpotHero shows you the all of the available options in a search radius, which means you pick the price and criteria that best meet your needs.
The moral of the story? If you design for others, remember that it is just that: a design for a person. Bells and whistles are great but what do they do for the people interacting with them? It must start and end with people and their problems. SpotHero’s app is a perfect example of this kind of user-centered design. It takes all the dreadful moments of finding public parking and turns it into what it should have been all along. The user has all of the control, doesn’t have to think much to use it, and can float through the experience as if they had a personal assistant who worked out all of the details for them. For someone like me who gets lost in her own back yard, this one is a game-changer.