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:
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!