Design problems and design solutions

There is no shortage of people willing to pass judgement on what they see as the weaknesses of a user interface. But it takes more than design opinions to make a usability professional. What distinguishes good practitioners is that they also come up with design solutions to the problems they find.

There are lots of techniques for finding problems, such as expert reviews and usability tests. But there are no standard techniques I know of that help you come up with suggested fixes. For that, we can turn to a particular creativity technique that will help you come up with lots of design solutions to the problems you find.

Generating design ideas

SCAMPER is a checklist of questions you can ask yourself to generate design ideas. I first came across this creativity technique in Michael Michalko's book, Thinkertoys. The basic idea is that you ask SCAMPER questions about each step of a process or idea and see if the question makes new ideas emerge. Mochalko writes that asking the questions "is like tapping all over the challenge with a hammer to see where the hollow spots are".

SCAMPER is an acronym for these techniques:

  • Substitute something.
  • Combine it with something else.
  • Adapt something to it.
  • Modify, magnify or minify it.
  • Put it to some other use.
  • Eliminate something.
  • Reverse or rearrange it.

Although you can use these questions to generate ideas to any problem, I want to show how we can apply the techniques to solving usability problems.

Substitute something

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for replacing something in the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "Instead of… the interface could…" As you "tap" your design problem, you ask questions like, "What can be substituted?", "Can we use another approach?" and "What other UI control can we use in place of this?"

For example, imagine this usability problem: you observe that during a task where participants need to change their account details, few people choose the navigation link that the designers have titled "Update". Reviewing the "substitute" questions, we might suggest that the term "Update" is replaced with something more meaningful, like "My account". Or we might substitute the approach and argue that an address change should be carried out during the next order completion. Or we might change the location of the navigation item and place the "Update" button in the body of the page.

Combine it with something else

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for amalgamating things in the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The interface could bring… and… together to…" Questions you can ask to generate ideas to combine things in the design include, "Can we create an assortment?", "Can we combine UI controls or labels?", "What other control could be merged with this?"

For example, imagine we have observed the following usability problem: When completing an insurance application form, participants encounter problems selecting from a long list of potential titles (such as 'Mr', 'Miss', 'Dr', 'Rev' etc). Reviewing the "combine" questions, we might suggest that we provide an 'assortment' of titles: perhaps we could have just 4 or so titles and ask uses to choose using radio buttons. Or we could combine the title, first name and surname fields into one field, with a label like, "How do you want to be addressed?"

Adapt something to it

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for adjusting things in the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The design team could adapt… in this way… to…" Questions you can ask to generate ideas for adapting the design include, "What can we adapt for use as a solution?", "What could we copy?" and "What other process could be adapted?"

For example, imagine we have observed the following usability problem: participants are reluctant to add comments to a page because they don't want to create an account at this web site. Reviewing the "adapt" questions, we might suggest that we adapt the interface to allow users to use their Facebook, Google or other identity to sign in and add a comment. Or we could treat it like a traditional newspaper's 'Letters to the Editor' page and allow people to submit comments by email.

Modify, magnify or minify it

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for transforming things in the design, for example by making them bigger or smaller. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The design team could transform… in this way… to…" Good questions to ask include." What can be altered for the better?", "What can be magnified, made larger, or extended?" and "Can we make it smaller or more streamlined?"

For example, imagine we have observed the following usability problem: On a form with an 'address finder' button, some participants miss the button and complete all of the fields manually. Reviewing the "modify, magnify and minify" questions, we might suggest making the 'address finder' button larger or changing its colour to create a stronger call to action. Or we might suggest removing the address fields, and showing them only after someone has clicked on the address finder button.

Put it to some other use

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for changing the functionality of things in the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The interface could re-use… in this way…  by…" Questions you can ask to generate ideas for putting things to some other use include "What else could be made from this?", "Are there other extensions?" and "Are there other uses if we modify it?"

For example, imagine we have observed the following usability problem: The registration form has placeholder text in the fields but the placeholder text simply repeats the label (e.g. 'enter first name'). Reviewing the "put it to some other use" questions, we might suggest changing the text so it is more helpful, or moving the text outside the field so that it is permanently on screen and not overwritten.

Eliminate something

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for removing things from the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The design could eliminate… by…" Questions you can ask to generate ideas for eliminating things from the design include, "Can we divide it up, split it up or separate it into different parts?", "What's not necessary?" and "Can we reduce time or reduce effort?"

Eliminating things is the bread and butter of usability professionals, so it hardly needs an example. But let's try one anyway. Imagine we have observed the following usability problem: users seem reluctant to scroll the page. Reviewing the "eliminate" questions, we might suggest removing the advertising banner to allow more task-oriented items to appear above the fold or removing the horizontal rule at the bottom of the first screenful that acts like a scroll stopper.

Reverse or rearrange it

The aim of these questions is to generate ideas for reorganising things in the design. You would phrase your suggested usability change as: "The design team could rearrange… like this… such that…" Questions you can ask to generate ideas for reversing or rearranging items in the design include, "Can we use another pattern or another layout?", "Can we use another sequence or change the order?" and "Can we change pace or change schedule?"

For example, imagine we have observed the following usability problem: When users attempt to access content that is for registered users only, a 'Register' pop-up form appears. Participants appear surprised by this and describe it as a jolt to the user experience. Reviewing the "reverse" questions, we my come up with ideas like changing the order in which we solicit information for the form or even do away with registration completely (so-called lazy registration).

Applying the techniques

The obvious time to try this technique is the next time you're facing a usability problem and just can't formulate a good solution. But you should also consider it for those usability problems where an obvious solution presents itself. In this situation, the SCAMPER method can still help you because it will prevent you getting fixated on only one solution. After all, there is more than one way to skin an interface.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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