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A Usability Fairy Tale

March 12, 2007 — By Dr. Pete

Once upon a time, on a small island in the middle of the sea, there lived a princess named Kala. She was about to celebrate her 18th birthday, on which she would have to take the traditional test of princessdom. A small pea would be placed under her mattress; if, in her refinement and sensitivity, she sensed the pea, Kala would officially be a princess. Kala's father, the King, was concerned; being islanders, even royalty on their island preferred to sleep on hammocks, so Kala had no experience with mattresses. The King decided it would be prudent to order a mattress early and let Kala get accustomed to it.

After the first night sleeping on the new mattress, the King came to check on Kala. "How did you sleep, daughter?", he asked. "Not very well, father." answered Kala, "I kept rolling off of it." The King looked at the mattress and shook his head; Kala had placed it on its side and had been sleeping on the edge. "People traditionally sleep on the wider part, Kala." "Oh," said Kala, "that's how they brought it in, so I just assumed that was the proper way."

The second night passed and the King once again went to check in on the princess. "How did you sleep, daughter?" he inquired. "Poorly, father. I couldn't balance properly and kept spinning off onto the floor." Confused, the King looked, and realized the princess had tied the mattress to her hammock posts. "Kala," he said, shaking his head again, "the mattress should be placed on the floor. You use the piece against the wall; it's called a boxspring." "I see..." said Kala, a bit frustrated at this entire mattress experience.

On the morning after the third night, the King again went to visit the princess. "How did you sleep, daughter?" he asked again. "Worse than ever, father." replied Kala "This boxspring is very hard and something kept poking me in the back." Looking closer, the King realized Kala had placed the boxspring on top of the mattress. Patiently, he showed her the proper way.

The fourth night was the eve of the princess' birthday, and the King decided it was time for the test. He placed the mattress properly and then, while Kala was away, put a small pea under the boxspring. The next morning he returned. "How did you sleep, daughter?" asked the King. "Very well, father." replied Kala. The King was concerned, as the princess test was not to be taken lightly. Probing a little, he asked "Are you certain? Nothing seemed wrong?" Kala replied, "Well, there was that pea that kept poking me in the back, but compared to the last three nights..."