project 2 - paper airplanes


This project involved studying how users respond to a set of written instructions (with pictures) to fold a paper airplane. I first drafted the instructions and then tested on 3 users. I observed what they had trouble with and figured out how I could improve the instructions. After making the changes, I tested another 3 users. Read on for a detailed analysis of each phase.

Phase 1 Observations

- Phase 1 Instructions are available for download as a PDF -

Name: Hasan
Gender: Male
Major: Microbiology
Completion Time: 14 minutes
  • "The directions don't make sense, but the picture does." - said in reference to the top of page 3 where you make the horizontal crease.
  • First real stumbling point was at the top of page 4 where you put all the initial creases together to form the body of the plane.
  • Initially messed up at the bottom of page 4 where the corners come to the middle, he instead brought them to the "middle of the middle".
  • Didn't fold the second triangle down at the top of page 5.
  • Wasn't sure how to fly the plane once completed.

Name: Sanam
Gender: Female
Major: Microbiology
Completion Time: 10 minutes
  • The smaller size of the picture at the top of page 3 where you make the horizontal crease led to some orientation confusion.
  • Initially folded corners in diagonally at the top of page 3 because of aforementioned orientation confusion.
  • Didn't fold top tip down at the top of page 5.
  • Didn't want to read large amounts of text, was watching Project Runway.
  • Didn't insert flaps into slits.

Name: Maham
Gender: Female
Major: Civil Engineering
Completion Time: 9 minutes
  • Didn't flip the paper over before making the horizontal crease.
  • Recovered from above mistake by recreasing diagonals in opposite direction when it was necessary.
  • Only folded one part of tip down at top of page 5.
  • Was able to successfully insert flaps into slits, but only after some confusion.
  • "I should read, huh?", "I don't want to read anymore", "I'm not even reading" - comments heard throughout the construction process.

Phase 1 Analysis

There were a few recurring themes that came up in phase 1 and so there were some obvious ways to improve the instructions.

I think the most important thing I took out of this is that users will attempt to minimize the amount of effort they put in to achieve their goal. I naively thought users would careful read all the text with each instruction, compare it with the picture, and then proceed accordingly. Instead, the general pattern was to proceed based solely on the pictures, only consulting the text if absolutely necessary. Users don't like reading, they prefer pictures. This is also due to the fact that you're competing for their attention with other things like Project Runway. You can't assume your user is going to be 100% committed to operating your design. To compensate for this advertence to reading, I imposed a strict 3 line limit on all individual instructions. In phase 1, one particularly nasty instruction had a whopping 7 lines. With a maximum of 3 lines, I think users will be much more likely to resort to reading it if they get confused by the picture.

As for specific issues with the instructions themselves, each user ran into trouble where you fold down the tip at the top of page 5. I think this is mostly caused by a general intuition that a paper airplane should have a point at the front. It didn't really occur to me that this wouldn't be obvious to users. So to compensate, I explicitly state in the revision that the tip will disappear with that step.

Aside from these two obvious changes, I made a few other wording changes and additions.

Phase 2 Observations

- Phase 2 Instructions are available for download as a PDF -

Name: Adrien
Gender: Male
Major: Computer Science
Completion Time: 9 minutes
  • Got confused briefly before folding top edge down on the top of page 3.
  • Initially folded flaps incorrectly on the middle of page 4.
  • Confusion when folding tip down.
  • Made big winglets, not proportional to picture.
  • Tried throwing it upside down.
  • Suggested I put arrows on pictures to show folding direction.

Name: Leonard
Gender: Male
Major: Judaic Studies
Completion Time: 11 minutes
  • Paused briefly before folding top edge down on the top of page 3.
  • Breezed through the initial body construction at the top of page 4. I mention this because this is where most users first stumbled, at least momentarily.
  • Folded wrong corners of diamond on the bottom of page 4. Brought the top down instead.
  • Didn't fold tip down.
  • Couldn't locate slits.
  • Flew plane upside down.
  • Many suggestions throughout to reword phrases.

Name: Sera
Gender: Female
Major: Communications
Completion Time: 15 minutes
  • Had trouble with initial body of plane on the top of page 4, but eventually got it correct.
  • The first and only user to get tip down properly, yay!
  • Didn't insert the flaps into the slits at first.

Phase 2 Analysis

With the strict 3 line limit rule I imposed on the instructions, there were no more complaints about walls of text. That didn't stop users from still ignoring the even shorter instructions though. 2 out of 3 still messed up the tip of the plane, but at least someone got it right this time around. It's looking like a better solution for this problem would have been to alter the picture, either by changing the angle or by zooming in. Whatever the case, it's clear that the current picture is misleading because only a single user was able to infer that the tip of the plane should be flat and even then, that might have been because of reading the text, not the picture itself.

Another thing that seems obvious now is that I should have had a picture at the end of the plane right-side up. Finishing with the plane upside down ended up confusing nearly everyone into thinking it was to be oriented that way when flying as well. Even with the text I added with the second version saying to turn the plane over, that got ignored. I guess at that point the user figures they're done and don't need to read anymore.

The second to last instruction seemed to give a lot of people trouble too, mostly from not being sure what to insert into where. Even if they recognized that the crease was going to be used, they had trouble narrowing down which area the slit was actually in.

I think the next logical step would be to improve the pictures that go along with the instructions. I learned early on that users really like pictures (and really hate text), so they should definitely be a priority. I created them in Google SketchUp and so many of the pictures actually have much more detail than ended up being visible, especially the simpler, earlier pictures. The later ones got a little bit hairy at points when trying to show layering and may have actually backfired in some cases. If this were something more significant being designed, I feel that hiring a professional 3D modeler would be an extremely wise decision considering how much of the user's attention goes to pictures.