Usability by design, and the attendee experience

Bill Rowan | 08.29.12

Note: This post also appears on ASAE’s Acronym blog as Lessons on Usability From #ASAE12.

In a previous life, I must have been a zookeeper. Or a penguin.

You see, as soon as the closing general session with Daniel Pink concluded, I dashed to the Dallas World Aquarium. It’s my personal goal to visit the zoo and/or aquarium in every city I visit, and with the DWA just 10 minutes from the convention center, I couldn’t resist.

It was there, at the aquarium, that I started thinking more deeply about usability, and how usability contributes to or detracts from real-life experiences – not just online ones.

The DWA has touchscreen displays at exhibit groupings – not at every animal exhibit. An accompanying booklet is also provided with your ticket. But I found myself longing for old-school signage that quickly identified the animals on display. Even after two trips through the aquarium, I was at a loss for what was what.

Despite its desire to provide “a learning experience for everyone” and “an in-depth study” of the animals and habitats, the DWA’s touchscreens detracted from this visitor’s experience.

If the touchscreen is occupied, you’re out of luck or forced to wait.

The animal you’re trying to identify not in the touchscreen computer? Out of luck.

Enter the exhibit from one end, only to find the touchscreen upon your exit at the other end? Out of luck, again.

Taking in as much as possible in the short time you have because the aquarium closes at 5? Try again.

Trying to navigate the exhibits using the paper guide? Well, walking and reading is a hazard unto itself, and even with the guide it’s impossible to locate and identify the enormous variety of animals inhabiting DWA. (This is no run-of-the-mill aquarium.)

The DWA is a beautifully designed space filled with wonderful creatures, but my inability to connect with the exhibits in my preferred (and most convenient) way was missing. I left disappointed and undereducated.

When I returned to my hotel, I started more carefully observing other physical design choices that influence usability, atmosphere, and experience. The most obvious was the circular check-in station at Aloft Dallas.

A far cry from the boring bank teller-style stations at most hotels, the round, airy check-in area at Aloft was an informal, friendly, and delightful surprise – and only slightly bewildering. I observed how it facilitated teamwork. On the flip side, I wondered if staff ever felt trapped there, or how difficult it might be to move/expand the round concrete desk, if needed.

Walking to and from my hotel to the convention center was easy, but the crosswalks presented another design/usability dilemma. All the crosswalks in that part of town are brick – an upscale design choice, for sure, but much less obvious than the standard reflective white paint that pedestrians expect. Worse, the crossing signals rarely flash "go"; one step into the brick crosswalk and the red flashing hand urges immediate caution. Not what a person crossing a 4- or 6-lane street wants to see!

Once inside the cool, safe zone of the convention center, getting around was a breeze. The multiple levels provide interest and break up the space, without creating hazards or conundrums – most of the time. Most importantly, restrooms were easy to identify and find! Other convention centers, airports, and large spaces rarely get this right.

How did these design choices and observations affect my ASAE Annual Meeting experience? For the most part, they made it an easy one to take in. Sessions were easy to find, hear, and even choose, based on a well planned guide and apps (more on those in a minute). All of that made me a very happy camper – er, attendee.

As an exhibitor in the business services section of the hall, I am accustomed to traipsing long distances to perform routine activities or get help at the service desks. To my dismay, I found myself at nearly the farthest point from the exhibitor service area. When it was time to pack up, I was too tired for a lot of back and forth, resulting in some communication struggles.

“Did you label all your boxes?” a Hargrove staffer asked. “No,” I said, “but I will as soon as I get back to my booth.” She wasn’t having it, and initially didn’t trust me to do it when I returned. Logically speaking, how is trusting me before turning in my bill of lading any different than trusting me after? No one’s physically observing or checking! What’s clear here is that there are usability choices in process, too.

Now, what about those apps? Well, I’m a split user – I have an iPad, but my phone runs on Android. I downloaded both apps, but found myself only using the iPad version because it provided exactly what I was looking for and was easy to use; I simply didn’t need the Android app once on site. So I spoke to another attendee who used both of the i-related apps.

“I downloaded the iPad app, selected my sessions, and mapped my Expo hall itinerary before the iPhone app was even launched,” noted Sandra Giarde, CAE, executive director of the California Association for the Education of Young Children. “When the iPhone app was finally released, it didn’t sync with the iPad app, and I had to spend extra time repeating everything I had already done.”

Sandra pointed out some helpful features within the iPad app, such as toggling between Twitter streams within a session screen, that enhanced her learning experience. Ultimately, Sandra said, “I use the apps differently – one on the go and one in sessions – but they really need to talk to each other to avoid frustration.”

What does all this mean? Usability is everywhere. It impacts not just your constituents’ website experience, but also your meeting experience, your membership experience, and – ultimately – your brand, the impression you leave on your constituents. #ASAE12 opened my eyes to all these details. My impressions of the ASAE Annual Meeting experience extended beyond the session walls to Cowboys Stadium and Fair Park – a whole, complete, and mostly well done experience.

It’s true: if you haven’t been to Dallas lately, you haven’t been to Dallas (as the Visit Dallas folks told us). But if you do go to the aquarium, be prepared for a beautiful, unusual, and difficult-to-comprehend experience.

New Call-to-action

Subscribe to receive new DelCor blogs!



Peek into your org's IT Maturity with our self-assessment


Find our best events, white papers, and more.


In a fix, intrigued, or can't find what you're looking for?