Finding Steve Fossett: When good UI design can mean life or death

dConstruct 2007 User Experience Design conference is mere days behind us. Having been inspired to create websites which are easier to use, I am horrified by the lack of thought behind the design of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Amazon’s phenomenal success as a book store has never been attributed to its frankly poor visual design. This week my criticism of it has become quite topical.

Mechanical Turk is currently in the news because it’s being used to help in the search for Steve Fossett, who went missing in his aeroplane in the Nevada desert last week. Mechanical Turk users are reviewing the latest satellite images of the area from Google Earth, looking for anything which resembles a crashed plane.

The problem, I found, is that the process is arduous and the user interface too complicated. For a start you need to be logged in to the site, although this seems pointless given that users are not rewarded for this task and forcing people to register first is a massive deterrent. Once you’re logged in, and in the ‘Find Steve Fossett’ section, you have to accept the project (or the ‘HIT’, as it’s called), then…

  1. Scroll down to the photo to review it.
  2. Scroll down further to the form.
  3. Probably click the radio button for ‘No, this image contains nothing of interest’.
  4. Scroll either to the bottom or back up to the top of the page.
  5. Make sure ‘Automatically accept next HIT’ is checked.
  6. Press the ‘Submit HIT’ button.
  7. Repeat.

Given the time-sensitive nature of the task, with a little thought this 7-step process could and should be condensed to just one-click, with an easy to understand user interface and no need to scroll or even move your mouse between each HIT. In my rudimentary test, this reduced Amazon’s 10-second per photo process to just 3-seconds per photo (most of which was just the time taken for the next photo to load).

Providing a better user interface would allow each photo to be checked in about a third of the time, in turn encouraging more people to help in the search. The overall time saving would be immense, and could literally mean the difference between life and death for Fossett.

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7 thoughts on “Finding Steve Fossett: When good UI design can mean life or death

  1. I felt exactly the same about the task.

    I can understand the first time they want people to read the details of the task but after that you just want to get through as many photos as possible. Adding a preloader would be useful too so it is just a case of look, click, look click etc

  2. A few months back someone put up a little Java app, which showed frames of Michael Jackson’s first TV performance of Billie Jean, and got users to drag a square around where his white glove was.

    I guess it’s easier to craft the UI when you’re the only person writing the software (as I assume that person was), but it’s always important.

  3. Amazon’s website was never designed to be a search and rescue platform, so you can’t really blame them, I think. That said, the sooner they upgrade the layout, the better.
    I need about 3 seconds per photo, because I scroll down while the page is loading, press the no button and hit ‘enter’ after I’ve seen the image.
    Another great feature would be a ‘back’ option, because I tend to make mistakes every now and then.

  4. Paul I completely agree with you, Mechanical Turk’s UI design is simply awful and I wrote as much in my own blog post earlier this week.

    It always amazes me that companies as big as can do such a bad job of UI design. There doesn’t seem to have been one ounce of thought into usability or function. I can not imagine how much potential effort that could have been used looking for Steve Fossett was wasted on the clunky process that is Mechanical Turk.

    I will disagree, however, about requiring people to log in. I see this as very valuable in tracking reporting habits. As an evaluator, I would want to know if reports are coming from someone who has an excessively high rate of reporting leads. At the same time I would take keen interest in a lead posted by someone who has looked at lots of photos, but made very few reports. I also see requiring logins as reducing the potential for mischief.

  5. I couldn’t agree more! As a person with (beginning) arthritis and full-on mouse-elbow, I know my head and heart could go a LOT longer working HITs if my poor old body didn’t give out first!

  6. I would add that some exposure corecting software would also be very useful. Some of the images are very dark, and yet the information is there. It takes a long time to save the picture, then fix it using Adobe Photoshop or whatever, then go back to mturk to report. A simple “fix the exposure” buton would make the user’s task much simpler. Of course, this is a substantial programming effort but a lot of mturk tasks are based on photographs, so such a feature would be useful long after the Fossett search is over.

    I agree with requiring a log in, any life-and-death task must have at least a minimal amount of accoutability involved.

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