Parenting’s Effect on Usability Studies

23 Jun 2003
June 23, 2003

I had a mild epiphany this morning. Movie listings are not as clearly designed as they could be. My 24/7 role as a parent has led me to this point. But it was my day job as a Web designer that opened the way.

We’ve been looking at how to incorporate usability testing in the development of our Web projects at work. When I used to teach art and design I often talked to my students about the clarity fallacy. As in art, there is often a disconnect between what we, the creators of new media, know and understand our project goals to be and how much of that is actually being communicated to our users. The object is to keep viewers on our site with good content that is easily found. Usability testing confirms just how successful we are.

Testing doesn’t always require a lab setting with a large staff and a large number of test subjects in order to come to valid conclusions. We invited a professional, schooled in these ways, to help us understand these simplified testing concepts. As an exercise (certainly not scientific), we went out into the museum and asked individuals if they could help us “test drive” our site. It only took a few minutes before I had my moment of enlightenment.

We presented them with this scenario: You’re at the Smithsonian and you want to see an IMAX movie at 1 PM. Using our site, find the information you need. We have numerous IMAX theaters throughout the many museums of the Institution. Each is playing different films throughout the day. We do have a page that lists all films and where and when they are playing. And, needless to say, watching our testers navigate the site will help us improve our information delivery.

But as I watched our volunteers search for the relevant information it hit me. We listed the films by where they were playing. Only under each museum’s listing did we display the times for each film. But whenever my wife and I go to a movie, we base our decision on what to see by the times we’ve locked in our babysitter! We need a design that allows us to easily see what movie is playing when.

The newspaper listings are providing us with all the information, but not in a format that allows us to make best use of it. It organizes its listings, first by general location (in the Washington metro region that’s either Suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia, or DC), then by theater, then by film, and finally by time. Online movie playlists like Fandango and Moviefone also work similarly.

What parents really need is a grid that lists films by general location and time —and only then by film. We need a quick way to see which films will fit into our time frame. Something like this:

Suburban Maryland
The Hulk
Hollywood Homicide
The Italian Job
4 PM Muvico Egyptian 24 (4, 4:30)
Loews Rio 18 (4)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (4)
AMC Academy 14 (4:30)
AMC Academy 14 (4)
Muvico Egyptian 24 (4:05)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (4:45)
Germantown Stadium 14 (4:45)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (4:45)
UA Bethesda 10 (4:10)
5 PM Muvico Egyptian 24 (5, 5:30) Muvico Egyptian 24 (5:45)
6 PM Muvico Egyptian 24 (6:05, 6:30)
Germantown Stadium 14 (6:30)
Cineplex White Flint (6:30)
Muvico Egyptian 24 (6:10, 6:55)
7 PM UA Bethesda 10 (7)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (7)
Muvico Egyptian 24 (7, 7:30)
Germantown Stadium 14 (7, 7:30)
AMC Academy 14 (7, 7:45)
AMC Academy 14 (7)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (7:20)
Germantown Stadium 14 (7:25)
UA Bethesda 10 (7:10)
Kentlands Stadium 8 (7:20)
8 PM Muvico Egyptian 24 (8, 8:30) Muvico Egyptian 24 (8:55) Germantown Stadium 14 (8)
Muvico Egyptian 24 (8:25)

Just a cursory look at this table immediately shows that booking a babysitter at the 5 o’clock hour would be a waste of our time (and the $8 per hour, which is the going rate around here). Television programming is conveyed in a format much like this. So, why not with cinema as well?

Since our testing, I’ve been doing a little informal polling of my own. And, as suspected, those who don’t have young children are more likely to choose a film first. Parents are more likely to choose a time first. Those without children are surprised when I tell them how we make our decisions. This might even prove useful to this demographic as well.

Somewhere someone has postulated that people with children are a completely different species than those without. Their studies have conclusively proven we live totally alien lifestyles from each other. Time in a parent’s bizzaro universe is one of the most precious commodities we have. Simple, easy-to-use usability testing was the impetus to a more functional and convenient information design. And parenting led the way!

6 replies
  1. dan says:

    Jeff– I agree with your informal poll. Invariably, we plan on going to a movie, book a babysitter for 5:30 so we can get out of the house by 6ish so we can make a 7 pm movie. Then we get in the car, look at the movies available at 7 pm, realize that the only movies we wanted to see start at 6:25 or 7:50 which is too late for a long movie, and end up going to dinner instead of a movie.
    Then the other variable is, no matter how good a movie may be or how many good reviews it received–after a long day of parenting, we talk ourselves out of any really serious or depressing movie. This doesn’t mean we only see the Hulk, but twice we have left the house meaning to see the Pianist and talked ourselves out of it.
    On a broader level, I think movie preferences and attendance go through stages during our lives. During my twenties I saw 2-3 movies a month, now, I’m lucky to see 1-2 month and my 80 year old mother will only go to Merchant Ivory films.

  2. Jeff says:

    One to two a month! If I see one every six months, that’s a lot!
    Yes, it’s true in our family too: when we finally get out of the house, we want to see something uplifting or totally escapist.

  3. Bob says:

    Abolutely right, and I’ve hopesd for this type of organization for quite some time. However, it’s selling it short to say that it applies only to parents. Often when on a business trip, I’m interested in finding a movie at a particular time (say, after a client dinner).
    Sites can be very good at localizing information of this sort based on geography (finding theaters based on a radius from a given location, for example) but not on time, and it seems that given the pace of modern life for most everyone, this may be a great area of future growth for any number of sites.

  4. Cheshire says:

    Ah, if only you’d had this idea while the VC was flowing…!
    Great post, wonderful idea.

  5. Travis Wilson says:

    This is the reasoning behind faceted classification — the general idea is, different people want to drill down through information with different priorities. Some people want to narrow first by movie, some by location, some by time — why not let people drill down however they want?
    See for a live demo of possible interfaces. You can upload your own movie data to the interface, too.

  6. Jeff says:

    Travis, this looks interesting.
    Now, all I have to do is to convince the Washington Post (or any other newspaper) that this sort of taxonomy has value.
    I called them the other day. The woman who was in charge of the Post’s movie listings listened quietly as I explained my “brilliant” idea <grin>. Afterwards, she informed me that theaters buy movie listings in their paper and so—I am interpreting—it would be difficult to get them to adjust to my new form no matter how much sense it made.

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