This morning I had to sign for a package being delivered by UPS as our front-desk receptionist was out at lunch. This was something I've done many times but not recently, and the electronic "clipboard" that the delivery man handed me was different than the ones I've used before. It was much more rounded and "ergonomic" looking in the stereotypical sense, but the layout of the controls and the signing area was different than I was familiar with. To top it off, I couldn't for the life of me find the stylus. After a few seconds of me bobbing my head trying to find it, the UPS man angled the leading edge of the unit toward me. I still couldn't see anything. Then he said to pull out the black stub on my left side. Finally I realized that the black rounded piece of plastic that looked more like a lanyard hook was actually the end of the stylus. Pulling it out I was at last able to sign for the package.
OK, so maybe I was dulled by a low blood sugar given the time of day, but I couldn't help thinking that this was a rather poor design. Take a look at these pictures to see what you think.
The second picture shows the underside, you can see how they have exposed the stylus so the UPS person can push the stylus out for grabbing by the customer. Good idea, but why should this be necessary? Why isn't the stylus in an eye-grabbing color, like the top of the oil dipstick in this Audi engine bay? UPS already has yellow/gold in its color palette, that would be a good starting point as a touchpoint color.
I asked the UPS man if this was a common problem. "All the time," he replied. For a company that aims to optimize efficiency of every step of its delivery chain, this seemed a glaring oversight. Years ago when working in a photography store I noticed that the UPS man who brought our daily delivery of Nikon lenses and Kodak film always had the truck keys on the same finger of his hand. I asked him about it, and he said that was part of the training - one little detail that shaved precious seconds off a stop and got him back on his way that much quicker. In contrast, this unfindable-stylus problem is a whopper.
For regular signers of UPS packages this is something I expect they get used to. Even then, I think the positioning is awkward and causes a strange social interaction with you having to stare down your chest and necessitating a long loss of eye contact). It puts a lot of cognitive load on all users, but especially on infrequent or new users like me. Also, while 90% of the population is right-handed, the stylus is on the left side (perhaps the UPS person uses it as well, in which case it's in the correct spot for them - ah the vagaries of designing for multiple users.)
Balancing the needs of new versus experienced users is a common problem in product and interaction design. The iPod, for example, is clearly geared toward a shallow learning curve to get new users into the fold easily, but it's menus, while easy to learn, are cumbersome after a short while, requiring lots of clicks back and forth to do relatively common activities. (Example, from listening to a song it takes 5 clicks, a wheel spin, a click, a wheel spin and another click to turn shuffling of the playlist on or off. On a Sony Discman from 15 years ago it was a single button click at any time.)
There was a discussion recently over at another blog (sorry, don't recall which now, if someone knows I'll link to it) that talked about faucets in hotel bathrooms, which have many of the same issues. A faucet or shower control that is OK at home because you only need to learn it once, may not work well in a semi-public setting such as a hotel, since a large proportion of your customers/users will be first time (and may not come back for a second if you sufficiently confound them). The learning curve in such a context should be non-existent and make use entirely of knowledge in the users' head, as Don Norman has put it.
I don't want to slam on the designers of this product too much as I'm sure there were constraints up the wazoo. Still, I think the clipboard metaphor perhaps adds confusion because it mimics a paper clipboard in the gross sense, but confuses in all other ways. While the stylus on the bottom is "logically" easier for the user to access, it confounds our archetypes about where pens live on clipboards - on the top surface at the trailing edge, instead of on the bottom surface of the leading edge. For frequent users like a receptionist, perhaps OK (even then, I don't think it's ideal). For infrequent users and first-timers like me, it's probably just cost UPS about $0.22. Multiply that by 14.8 million packages a day....