User Studies Matter: A True Story


Icon Sleeve designed for the 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display laptop

Recently, I bought a 13” MacBook Pro Retina Display laptop. While the processes of buying and setting up the machine went very smoothly, I encountered an unexpected problem: find a sleeve for the laptop.

Exploratory research. Initially, I searched online in Amazon for sleeves, and found a variety of designs for 13” laptops. So, in my next trip to the office supplies shop, I bought a CaseLogic sleeve for 13” laptops without hesitation. But when I tried it out with the new laptop, it was too big! My first learning from this experience: 13” MacBook Pro Retina Display laptops are quite smaller than a ‘normal’ 13” laptop.

Focused research. So, I decided to conduct a more focused search online for my sleeve, and found that Incase had an elegant, ‘unconventional,’ new sleeve, specifically designed for MacBook Pro Retina Display laptops: ICON Sleeves with TENSAERLITE. The sleeve is as slim as the laptop, hugging and protecting it with a material similar looking to neoprene, but instead of a zipper, it has a big magnet that closes the sleeve from the side.

Field research. Although the sleeve looked very elegant and of the right size, we went to the Apple Store and checked it out instead of ordering online. We spent a good half hour there trying all possible 13” sleeves. Finally, despite the price, we agreed that the ICON Sleeve from Incase was the one (compact and protective). Just before paying though, we checked the online reviews about the sleeve, mostly to know if anyone was reporting problems with the durability of the magnet.

Findings [Full story]. The sleeve was highly rated in the first reviews, but then we found one that described an uncharacteristic problem of a sleeve: it could trigger the laptop’s sleep mode. We learnt that when the laptop is turned on and resting on top of the sleeve, the magnet of the sleeve initiates a magnetic connection in the computer which makes it go to sleep mode. The laptop turns on again when it is removed from the sleeve. The problem can be avoided if when the laptop is placed on top of the sleeve, the part of the sleeve with the magnet is turned away from the power connection and battery of the laptop. This means that the magnet should be on the right side of the laptop, instead of on the left side when the laptop is resting on top of the sleeve. We did verify whether the problem and the solution were real. Surprisingly, they were: this sleeve can put a laptop to sleep instantly.
Of course, if you didn’t work with your laptop resting on top of the sleeve, you would not have noticed this inconvenience or if you knew, you wouldn’t care. However, if like me, you did work placing the laptop on top of the sleeve, this could be a headache.

Long story short: I bought a slightly bigger, but conventional and safe sleeve.

Reflections on the experience

As a designer, researcher, and user, I cannot stop thinking:

  1. Whether any user studies have been conducted to learn the different ways people work with laptops and use sleeves.
  2. Whether the sleeve has been ever tested before it was released. Or if so, whether it has been tested with the appropriate methods.
  3. And how such an oversight (or flaw) could have happened with a (new) product that has been specifically designed to protect a laptop.

This is a clear example of the key function and relevance:

  • that user studies have at the beginning of the design process
  • of designing in response to our intended-users’ needs
  • that evaluation studies have during and at the end of the design process

This has been an anecdotal experience, but with a very important learning: All solutions must be tested with their users to determine their effectiveness and performance, and to identify (any) parts that need improving.

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