Usability testing for agile software teams

I did a talk at Agile Africa last week.

A couple of key points:

  • The really valuable kind of user feedback often doesn’t just come to you. If you want good quality feedback, you have to go get it with usability testing.
  • It’s easy to forget to gather user feedback because Agile projects deliver incremental, gradual change… so you don’t notice how far your interface has come.

A unified product management framework

If you want to succeed as a digital businesses you need product management. But understanding what product management is, or what a product manager does, can be difficult. I thought a diagram might help.

Part of the problem is that product managers need to adapt their approach based on context. You might be product managing a startup, searching for a killer business model. Or working in a large corporation, creating a digital interface to an existing business product. Or perhaps you’re managing software that has been around for years, with dedicated and vocal users.

Tactics will be different in each case. But there are some fundamentals about the process that stay true regardless. So I came up with this.

The product management process

Three phases, four tracks

All in all there seem to be three phases. They can vary in length and importance, and there are different tactics you can employ in each one. But there do seem to be three. I’ve called them product discovery, ship MVP and grow incrementally.

And in each of the phases, you should be doing some of everything: Designing, planning, building and learning from customers.

What changes from phase to phase is the balance and purpose of the activity on each track.

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Designing journeys from the hamster’s point of view

Want to be “customer-centred?” Instead of designing from a birds-eye view, the simplest change to make is to use journey maps and design each step as the customer would experience it.

On Saturday mornings, we occasionally build mazes for the kids pet hamsters out of Duplo. This is fun for everyone, including the hamsters who get a chance to come out of their cages and stretch their little legs.

As the architects of the mazes, we come up with various features that make the mazes more interesting to us. Rooms full of tasty treats at the end of long and complicated tunnels. We even did an elevator once. Here’s a typical maze…

A maze for the hamsters, made of Duplo bricks and viewed from the top

The hamsters have different ideas. They rarely go for the tasty treats because they are rarely aware they exist. From the their perspective the maze looks like this…

The hamster's view of the maze. Just a few walls and a left or right turn.

As you can see, it’s pretty hard to tell where the rewards will lie. To the left? Or the right? That’s all the hamster can see. Very often, the hamsters choose to escape from the experience altogether. (It’s amazing how tall you need to build the walls to stop this. That’s a lesson in itself.)

The hamster pops out the top of the maze and stops playing.

To make a successful maze that the hamster will run around it, we have to appreciate that the hamster can’t see the whole maze at once. They can only live through the experience of it step by step. And if a given step isn’t easy and clearly rewarding, then they won’t take it – even if there’s a mountain of popcorn waiting for them just a little further on.

As Flow has worked with various corporations in South Africa, it always seems to come down to the same key activity: Helping teams think through “what would our customer want to do next”. The simple act of viewing an experience step by step, as a customer would, solves squabbles, uncovers points of pain, and drives out simple new ideas that make things work better for everyone. Without doing this, business units and dev teams tend just to think about the component parts and how to click them together. And customers are faced with fragmented experiences that range from irrelevant to downright bizarre.

A sample scenario/simple journey map

The tools I’m talking about are just personas, scenarios, and journey maps here – techniques that are as old as the hills. But they’re still fundamental, and if you do them earnestly and intelligently they make all the difference.

UX innovation in Africa: Culture and relevance

It’s rare to find black women working in technology. So, last week, I was delighted to find myself the only “pale male” on the panel at the Interact2013 UX in Africa discussion.

The other three panelists were women from Kenya engaged in different aspects of UX design.

The Interact2013 UX industry in Africa panel
Left to right… Susan Dray (Panel chair). Shikoh Gitau, who works for Google. Me, Phil Barrett. Kagonya Awari, a UX reseacher at iHub’s UX lab in Nairobi. Edna Chelule who manages design and UX at DSTV.

The panel discussed a couple of interesting points about UX in African Countries:

  1. Traditional culture in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa, does not foster innovation.
  2. Poor people in Africa want what everyone else wants, but in more affordable formats/portions.

Traditional cultures and innovation

There was general agreement that traditionally, Kenyan culture maintains unquestioning respect for leaders and this can stifle innovation or prevent successful adoption of new ideas like user-centred design.

Shikoh, who has a PhD in HCI and computer science, talked about her experience of that ingrained respectfulness. When her opinion differs from that of a senior person in an organisation, she said, she’ll often have to check herself to make sure she doesn’t just stand down immediately out of deference to their seniority.

Mobolaji Ayoade, from the audience, described a similar issue in Nigeria. His strategy was to voice his opinion clearly and then bide his time. When the leader ignored his advice, and encountered problems, he was around to quietly say “Let’s try it this way instead.”

Kagonya described how the iHub has a very flat organisational structure and this causes amazement and admiration from Kenyans who visit, but it takes a bit of explaining.

Kagonya also told me she believes that respect for authority can cause people across Africa to withhold complaints or feedback about poor service. This is bad for them, but also bad for the growth of UX as a whole. It’s hard for organisations to appreciate a business need for an improved customer experience when no-one complains about the current experience.

Update from Kagonya, after reading this post…

Quick correction: I wouldn’t boldy say that traditional culture does not foster innovation in Kenya, but more specifically traditional office culture. The reason being that culturally, while all Kenyan tribes push for respect for elders, I do not think that this always and therefore results in the hindrance of new ideas. Most communities have avenues where the young can pass on their ideas to the old and by these channels create room for new ideas.

Similarly, “traditional culture in Kenya does not foster innovation” may perhaps be too broad a statement? Maybe, “traditional culture in Kenya and other Africa countries, may hinder innovation”.

Poor people in Africa want the normal stuff

Shikoh and Kagonya agreed that many efforts at seed funding African startups are misguided. Well meaning NGOs and investors want tech projects to tackle the “big” issues – like AIDS for example. But the target users of the technology aren’t interested in that. They tend to be interested in the same things everything else wants, like entertainment, beauty and communication.

Both Shikoh and Kagonya said (slightly flippantly) that they could get venture funding in minutes from well-meaning investment funds, just by putting together a powerpoint slide mentioning Kibera (Nairobi’s largest slum), AIDS and mobile apps. But the product that such a venture would deliver would have little or no impact because people wouldn’t make time for it in their lives – or space on their phones.

As an example of what poor people in emerging markets do want, Shikoh gave the example of Unilever. They market the same face creams to several different market segments. But they make the creams available in small sachets for customers on the tightest budgets.

We talked about South African companies that do an excellent job at making products and services available in formats and at price points that people can afford. PEP’s focus on minimising overhead lets them save several cents per rand on distribution costs relative to competitors. DSTV offers pay as you go pricing. And Mxit offers messaging and photo sharing with minimal data usage – something that its loyal customers really appreciate.

Black, South African UX designers

The panel was great fun and very informative. I just wish there were more black South African UX designers who could have participated. Perhaps South Africa’s newly emerging middle class prefers its young people to study law, medicine or engineering? A shame from my perspective, since design thinking in South Africa is just as likely as any of those disciplines to change life for the better.

How to decide which form fields to delete

We often see marketing teams asking for heaps of information during signup. “How did you hear about us?” “What is your title?” (I’ve seen a title list that included not just Mr, Mrs and Ms, but His Royal Highness and Admiral. I kid you not.)

I appreciate that marketers want to know these things to help them in their jobs. But adding fields will cost you users. So here’s a handy guide to deciding which fields you need to get rid of…

Form-Field-Prioritisation

Work around your own irrationality and be better designer

We’re irrational. People like Dan Ariely and Daniel Gilbert have convinced us of that. Irrationality affects us in our roles as entrepreneurs, product managers, designers and developers. And it affects our colleagues too It can lead us to make make poor business decisions and deliver failed user experiences.

I did this talk for a meeting of the SA UX forum. It looks at three patterns of irrationality: loss aversion, the Ikea effect and the identifiable victim effect, and how to work around them to get the best from yourself and your team.

Flow project: 25% increase in registrations for MXit

Flow helped MXit create MXit 6: a stylish and easy-to-use new version of their mobile phone software across three types of handset. The project delivered a 25% increase in daily registrations in the first month, to over 60 000 registrations per day.

Delivering a great user experience across the widest range of handsets is key to our strategy. Flow has been an essential part of the process for us. – Juan Du Toit, Head of International Business Development and Marketing.

MXit_handsets

MXit_Usability1

The Brief: Design a new user experience for MXit on Java, Blackberry and Android devices.

MXit is Africa’s largest mobile social network. It earned this position by offering cost-effective access to messaging, gaming and information services on more than 3000 models of handsets, which include low-end feature handsets.

But the minimalist approach that gave the platform such broad reach tended to make MXit hard to understand for first-time users, and less appealing on smartphones.

So Flow was asked to help create a new vision for MXit, called MXit 6, The aim being to improve the user experience and make it more appealing to more users on more devices.

What we did: Research, concept design and detailed interaction design in an agile software development process.

Usability testing on the existing product showed that Read more

Handing over control of your social profile?

Registering for a site using Facebook connect, or connecting an app to your Twitter account, asks such scary questions that you could be forgiven for backing out of the process.

Zynga wants complete control of your Twitter account. Does that feel safe to you?
Zynga wants complete control of your Twitter account. Does that feel safe to you?

Gowalla wants to access your private Facebook data while you sleep. Spooky.
Gowalla wants to access your private Facebook data while you sleep. Spooky.

Who’s fault is this? I think Facebook and Twitter need to provide a better mechanism for companies like Gowalla and Zynga to explain their privacy policy and how they will really use the power you are granting them. Then again, maybe Zynga is being a bit greedy with the permissions it is asking for.

We’ve seen it in usability tests and we feel it as users. It’s too scary and unless the motivation is sky high. And we ain’t playing.

Launch and learn – don’t crash and burn

“Launch and learn” is a great way to tune innovative, digital products to customer needs. But at worst, I’ve seen “launch and learn” used as an excuse for lazy, dysfunctional teams to launch ill-thought-out products that don’t provide customer value. And then listen in all the wrong ways.

Digital teams can behave in strange ways. Designing software can do that to you. To highlight how launch and learn can go wrong, let’s try a thought experiment…

If the Johannesburg’s rail link had been launched by a digital team

Johannesburg’s airport rail link, the Gautrain, was launched in 2010 before it was finished. But they did a pretty good job. I was happy to put up with the unfinished stations because they provided something essentially valuable to me from the start: fast transport with no traffic jams.

But if the Gautrain had been rolled out in the style of many a digital innovation, the process might have looked something more like this:

Gautrain, rickshaw, skates

Version 1.0 Beta

Open the tracks between Rhodesfield and Marlborough, two small stations. Don’t run any trains. Let customers walk between the two stations.

User opinion: Read more