Sometimes the difference between technology that doesn’t work at all and tools that work great can be really small.
On a recent research trip to Chicago I had the opportunity to use the city’s Divvy Bike rental service. The bike rental works like this: There are bike docking stations all over town, and you swipe your credit card at a station to get a 24 hour rental for $7. The catch is that each bike can only be used for 30 minutes before you must dock it at another station, request a new rental code, and retrieve another bike to start the clock all over again.
The Divvy Bike App
There are enough bikes and docking stations in the center of town that make this all a fairly easy proposition, but how do you know where the closest docking station is to your next destination? Well, there’s an app for that, as they say. And the Divvy app for the iPhone is a really nifty idea. It shows you a map of the city, your current location, and the locations of all the nearby bike docking stations, along with information on how many bikes there are at each station and how many free slots there are to dock your bike.
After all, you don’t want to walk to a docking station to find there are no bikes (which isn’t very common); or almost as bad, you don’t want to ride to a docking station, get there with a couple of minutes to spare, and find that there are no free spots to dock your bike (this seems to be a more common problem, especially around popular attractions, as this did happen to us at the Chicago History Museum).
Anyway, brilliant idea, but the app was missing a couple of obvious things — and this made it very difficult to use. First, there was no search feature on the app, so you can’t just search for a landmark and see where the bike stations are around that landmark. You have to scroll around and find stuff. Not too bad if you actually know the city, I guess, but for a first-time visitor, this was very frustrating. However, the worst part about the app was that there was no way to map your route from one station to another. Instead, you have to open up another map app, like Google Maps, and map out the route using vague cross street reference points, hopping back and forth between the app and your map to get things right. Besides the incredible inconvenience and lack of precision this caused, this also meant that I always had two apps running GPS at the same time, draining battery life pretty rapidly. I think my fully charged battery lasted something like four hours before I ran out of juice.
This Also Sometimes Happens with Education Tools
My point here is that this app, so beautifully conceived to help you interact with the real world, has some glaring flaws that make it pretty hard to use. And the same thing happens every so often with online education tools like Blackboard. Getting it right means understanding how human beings work and matching the technology to meet our own expectations and abilities, and I see more and more potentially useful applications out there that never seem to take the average end user into account. Case in point: Here at W&M, we’ve just implemented Blackboard’s inline grading feature. Students submit papers to Blackboard, and faculty members can then grade those papers in their Web browser.
The problem, as you can see from the screen capture above and to the right, is that you can’t really see the student paper large enough to do any grading at all. There’s just too much stuff on the Blackboard Grade Center page to make grading possible. And the solution is simple, that’s the annoying thing. All they need is a button that says “Grade Paper” that will open only the paper in a new window. But there isn’t one. Now luckily, I discovered a workaround (provided you’re not using Internet Explorer). In Firefox (and maybe Safari and Chrome), you can right-click (or control-click on a Mac) on the paper and request to open this frame only, then you can actually see the paper large enough to grade it.
But this was news to the folks at Blackboard, who thanked our Blackboard expert, Rachel Kleinsorge, when she mentioned it to them, but the problem is that they did not see this as a problem from the beginning. I’m guessing because they don’t think like end users? Anyway, I guess my point is that you need to speak out when you see the possibilities in a new piece of technology that’s not meeting it’s full potential.
I guess I’d better write a message to the developers of that Chicago bike rental app. Now where did they put the “email” button?