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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