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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Bringing Clarity to the Cloud

Blue open double doors and walls covered with computer code
Credit: avebreakmedia/

Doors that are obviously meant to be pushed not pulled, footprints painted on the floor telling you where to stand at the airport—these are examples of good design and usability. You don’t have to think too hard about what to do because someone else put a lot of thought into how to get across the right way to open the door or where to form a line.

As a usability expert, I spend a lot of time making sure that an object, system or interface can be used effectively and efficiently without frustrating the user. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the cloud (PDF)—that network of servers that lets you access all sorts of services without having to install them on your own computer—can help make technology more usable for a broader population of people.

My father built this so my mother could use the phone. The lever was to depress the handset cradle usa-button that causes the phone to hangup. To dial, the lever had to be moved off the hang up usa-button and a pencil inserted into the holes of the rotary dial. To hang up, the spring loaded lever is moved back over the handset cradle usa-button. 

The idea came to me during lunch with my colleagues when we were discussing usability, as we usually do, and it dawned on me that no one ever talks about the usability of the cloud. Usability experts question a lot of things that people don’t question as we work toward creating objects that communicate their function to you, like that door you immediately know should be pushed. That’s the perspective I bring, so I wondered, what about how the cloud affects the end user?

One of the benefits of using the cloud is that you can access your information from many different types of devices, even someone else’s device. But if you can save your profile with your personal likes and dislikes, you should be able to get the same experience from anywhere. For example, if you rely on a screen reader or other enabling software, it can be part of your profile, and it will be available no matter how you log on. Maybe you just like a particular size font or higher contrast on the screen—the cloud could be tailored to give you your personal best experience.

This idea of adapting the environment to fit the user has given me a great deal of satisfaction in my career. I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but the likely reason for that is the house I grew up in. My mother was partially paralyzed by polio when she was young, and my father, a very handy man, adapted the entire house so that it worked for her.

IBM Model M keyboard 

In my career in the IT field, I’ve worked to make sure that user interfaces work the way they are intended. For example, when I was an intern at IBM in the 1980s and personal computers were just gaining traction, we tested different keyboard designs to see which would work best. We gave people tasks to do using various designs and measured their errors, typing speed, completion rates and satisfaction. Now I can walk into any office in the U.S. and see the familiar 12 function keys at the top of the keyboard and the inverted “T” for cursor control and know that my work had an impact.

I also helped design the interface for air traffic controllers and the physical structure of their workspace to make sure things were within reach and the important information was in an easy line of sight. With all of our computers and connected devices, there’s a huge influx of information that needs to be structured to make it easy to receive and process it. And it’s not just about receiving information, we need easy ways to put information into those systems.

We also sometimes need to get across a process. One research effort I participated in helped us realize that a series of increasingly fast beeps could signal a process was nearing its end for those who couldn’t see a green bar growing longer as a file downloads, for example.

There’s a lot of measurement in usability, and I’d like to bring that to the cloud. My colleagues and I recently released a framework on cloud usability to help evaluate the user experience. I’m really proud of this work because the potential is there to open up a whole new field of research in usability. This doesn’t happen every day, so it’s very exciting as a scientist.

With our framework, we’re trying to define the metrics, or measurements, of the user experience. For example, one metric is responsiveness. How many times have we sat there waiting for a machine to come back with a response, wondering, did I do something wrong or is it just the machine? Users also worry about security and privacy. How might not knowing where their data are stored affect their experience with the cloud?

If we can help people define the attributes they want from the cloud experience and how to measure them, companies can work that into their agreements with their cloud service provider and we can help foster human-centered design. We can use the cloud to its full potential and make sure no one is left pushing a door they should pull, or standing in a line of one, in the wrong place.

About the author

Brian Stanton

As a cognitive scientist in the Visualization and Usability Group at NIST, Brian Stanton investigates usability and security issues ranging from password rules and analysis to privacy concerns. Brian has also worked on biometric projects for the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, and with latent fingerprint examiners. Brian feels strongly about good design communicating function. He doesn't want others to suffer the embarrassment of asking how to start a keyless car like he did on his last business trip. Thanks rental car guy!

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I grew up in Seattle surrounded by home tech hobbyists and took my first public school coding class in 7th grade but became a gamer instead of coder. In the very early 1990s at the University of Washington I remember contributing to, observing others, and noticing I was likely a subject other early Internet and email public release beta testing. In the mid and late 1990s at Princeton, I had similar experiences in their computer labs and libraries. I am very interested in your human centered cloud models and how it might relate to my colleagues' and my own research and publications in community network and asset/deficit mapping. Thanks for sharing this,
Thanks for your informative post. Now I have some idea about cloud usability after reading your post.

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