My first experience with Xbox Live wasn’t entirely pleasant. This is why usability is such an important issue in design in general, not just when creating applications.
First off, a little bit of background. With Xbox Live you can connect your Xbox game console to the internet and play select games online against other people, all over the world. One of the very cool features is that the Xbox Live Kit contains a headphone / microphone ear piece, allowing you to list and talk to the players that you’re playing against. The audio adapter plugs into the controller, and the earpiece plugs into the top of the adapter.
The earpiece microphone has two modes of operation. One mode transmits everything you say to other players, the other mode allows you to silence your microphone so you can cough or talk to other people in the room without the online players hearing you. There is a button to change between the modes, but it is not a stateful button. That is, the button doesn’t stay “pushed in” or not - to change modes you just push the button again.
Because the button doesn’t provide state information there is a toggle light to let you know what mode your microphone is currently in. This is where the problem is. Here are two images that show how the light works in each mode.
From these images, can you tell which mode is “recording” and which is “muting”? Is it obvious? My answer to that is a resounding no.. and here’s why.
A few things I’ve learned about user interface design:
- Avoid modes wherever possible. Modes require the user to remember something. If you need to implement a mode, be absolutely sure that the user can easily tell what mode the system is currently in.
- Metaphors are a great way to enhance usability. Users can understand metaphors because they can relate to them in the “real” world. Requiring your users to remember less can increase usability (knowledge in the head vs. knowledge in the world).
- If you use a metaphor, make sure you get it right! Ensure that the user’s conceptual model accurately reflects the system model. Bridge the gulfs of evaluation and execution.
- Users never, ever, ever, read manuals. Never. If the system needs a manual to figure it out, chances are it wasn’t designed well.
So… Miscrosoft did a good thing. The microphone has two modes – record, and mute. In order for the user to not have to remember what mode is which, they’ve used a metaphor to indicate what mode the microphone is currently in.
The problem is, they got the metaphor wrong.
The metaphor they picked, green meaning “go” and red meaning “stop”, is a metaphor that everyone understands. However, green and red don’t make sense at all in this context. If I had to guess, I would say that “go” meant the microphone was recording, and “stop” meant that the microphone was on mute.
However, another metaphor, speficially related to the microphone context, is that “off” (no light) means “not recording” and “red” means “recording.” Remember that old tape player that you had in 1990? Remember when you went to record a song off of the radio, there was a red light that illuminated to signal that the tape player was recording?
So which is it? Is green “record” or is red “record”? In my head, I picked the radio metaphor over the stop/go metaphor because of the microphone/voice context. I assumed that when the light was red that everything I said would be transmitted over the internet and when the light was green the microphone was muted and I could talk freely to myself.
As you can guess, I picked the wrong metaphor.
The button on the controller is used toggle between the two modes. Aside from the color, there is nothing else to indicate what mode the microphone is currently in.
Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that my random coughing and commentary had been heard by numerous people when I didn’t intend for it to be. Imagine my frustration when people were talking to me but I couldn't respond back to them. Believe it or not, I actually had to read the manual to figure out what the colors meant. I consider this a failure on the part of Microsoft in the design of the adapter.
How could the adapter have been designed better? Personally, if a metaphor had to be used I think more people would be familiar with the radio vs. the red/green one. Of course, this is a baseless claim.. just because I’m more familiar doesn’t mean everyone else would be… which is why it’s essential to perform usability testing. Maybe Microsoft did, and their target audience (which is probably younger than me.. but I’m only 23) understood the red/green one more a higher percentage of time?
How about a different idea – instead of a stateless button, have a stateful switch on the side with two positions, record and mute. The record position has an icon of a microphone, and the mute position has the microphone icon with the classic “circle with a line through it.”
Taking that one step further and combining with a previous thought – keep the stateless button, change the light to a microphone icon, and have a the “no” ciricle light up red when the microphone is muted. I think that would offer less ambiguity and would reduce misinterpretation. Again, that is a baseless statement… it would have to be proven through user testing.
The point of all of this, as I’m sure you’re aware, is that user interface design is important in all things. If you build something that other people need to use (from a teapot, to a doorknob, to a software program), you need to build it with the other people in mind. The architect, programmer, designer, etc. is not a good judge of “simple,” and usability testing is very important.
What do you think about the Xbox Live toggle light? Did you guess the right metaphor? How could the design be improved?