What it’s like to work at Flow

Flow Interactive is hiring. I thought maybe some insights into life at Flow might be interesting for everyone – and might persuade some of you to come work with us. If you’ve got a talent for user-centred design, you’ll love it here.

Here are some quick snapshots.

Cakes, books and table football

Here are some Flow consultants eating cake. This happens every Friday. It’s a great opportunity to exchange tips and ideas, as well as to wind down for the weekend. We also have a quarterly internal mini-conference called Holy Flowday, and weekly lunchtime sessions called Flowlite. It’s a great way to learn.

Also note:

  • Football table: Esential kit for every Clerkenwell office.
  • Large shelf of UX books in the background: Not so often seen in Clerkenwell offices. We really value knowledge, innovation and best practice – not just cake and football.

Usability lab with testing underway

Here’s a usability lab. We have three of them in various configurations and with good quality microphones and cameras, plus Morae or DVD recording. You can also see the magic mirror behind which observers can lurk. There is no better way to prove the value of user-centred design to a product team than letting them watch real target users trying out the design ideas. Project politics tends to evaporate.

We also use these rooms for conducting “experience labs” – sessions where we use all sorts of techniques and games to help target users show us the reality of their needs and behaviours. The very best way to work out what people need is often go and hang out with them. Contextual enquiry and ethnography are all about getting out of the lab – a very popular activity with Flowsters.

Sticky notes and a thinker

And finally, here’s a project war-room. Research and design generate a lot of facts and ideas that need to be marshalled, soaked up and communicated. Flowsters are obsessed with using sticky notes for this purpose. So we do have a lot of project war rooms where individuals and groups can surround themselves with their work. We’re convinced that this technique leads to better quality results.

So, fancy working at Flow? It’s a chance to work on a real diversity of projects for top-grade clients, and do design the way it should be done. With a team who are passionate about UCD. In a great space. For a good salary. UCD heaven.

Designing online conversations

The gag: take the interaction that you have with friends via facebook, and transpose it into a real life conversation. It’s hilarious and cringe-provoking.

An old contact comes knocking on your door wanting to be your “friend” and brandishing compromising photos of you that he will share with everyone.

He's got compromising photos of you and he's going to share themConsternation as a friend comes round asking annoying questions

Watch the video on YouTube.

It highlights a couple of interesting points about designing online interactions.

When a new communications medium appears, it takes people a while to understand good etiquette. There are stories of people shouting at each other in the corridors when e-mail started to become widespread in companies in the early nineties. People said things to colleagues in emails and didn’t think of the real-world consequences. Similarly, I heard a recent tale of people being fired for posting defamatory comments on an internal corporate blog without thinking that everyone would actually read the comments.

Designing an interactive product like a website is designing communication. And understanding the rules of etiquette is important. A few years back, e-commerce websites had a tendency to engage you in dialogues like this…

Customer: I’d like to buy these shoes.

Salesman: Certainly. Where did you hear about this shop? And when is your birthday? And would you like me to send you some email every week?

Not appropriate in real life, and interestingly, not appropriate online either.

Site designers are becoming much better at understanding the rules. It’s now easy to unsubscribe from just about any email newsletter that’s plaguing you. Most marketers have realised that even though email is a huge driver of traffic (driving 48 dollars of business for every dollar spent), unwanted emails drive no traffic, waste marketing time and resources and have a negative impact on a customers perception of their brands. In the UK, it’s also illegal to send unsolicited email.

Gaining permission from your target customers is the trick. And that takes a long dialogue between customer and website, probably over several visits. Creating a dialogue that builds trust and engagement is one definition of good user experience design.

Thanks to Karl Sabino for the link.

iPhone: A whole new chapter in user experience

I had the experience: 20 minutes with an iphone. Thanks to Gary Marsden for the opportunity.

People have said “oh yeah the iphone is really good.” Some have said “It’s really REALLY good.” But I thought they were just Apple groupies.

They didn’t convey just how good it is. It’s astonishing. My jaw dropped. And when my wife tried it, her jaw dropped too.

Now I’m an Apple sceptic. I find Apple devices rarely live up to the hype. So this is not an Apple-worship post.

This post is about how the iPhone is ushering in a dramatic shift in the world of user experience.

Adding more feel

There’s a term that bobs around in the world of technology: “look and feel”. Look gets most of the attention, and often, feel is something we struggle to define.

That’s because most applications feel the same. We click buttons, we slide scrollbars, we press keys. Nothing has really changed in years. And we reached the point where we all forgot to look for alternatives.

What’s special about the iPhone is the feel. You use it by making gestures, and touching it with several fingers at once. You flick at long lists to make them scroll fast. You pinch photos to make them smaller and stretch maps to zoom in. You don’t just interact with an iPhone. You conduct it. You play it. You treat the things on the screen like real-world objects (slightly magical ones). Using it is a great experience and I really urge you to seek one out and have a go.

(Yes I know it’s not perfect. It’s no good if you need to operate it by touch alone, it requires two hands, and it requires us to use our thick and clunky fingers. But that doesn’t stop it being amazing).

With this new kind of user experience, we’re inching up through the spectrum – towards fuller, more engaging, experiences. We’re still miles from the rich, real-life experience of a fast drive in a luxury car. But we’re closer than we were.

A spectrum: richness of user experience. From the DOS prompt at one end to the experience of driving fast in a luxury car at the other.  Multitouch takes us a bit further along.

That’s cute, you say. It takes feel to a new level. But so what?

Well, this new kind of user experience will have a very real impact on our lives and the digital technology business.

A step-change

Think of it this way. In 1984 there was a small grey box with a mouse and some basic GUI capabilities: the Apple Mac. Humble, yes. But it was the first commercially successful GUI computer. 23 years later hundreds of millions of GUI operating systems are installed across the planet. And that has enabled us to build at least a couple of new industries, and transform the global economy. That’s right – we couldn’t have done it with just the DOS prompt.

Humble beginnings: The original Apple Mac.

The history of the internet is another great example. Only when the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, brought images and clickable hypertext to our screens, did the internet finally go mainstream.

A change in the way we use computers – allowing us to do the same things better, and tackle new things we haven’t yet imagined. Explosive growth. Life- and economy-transforming results. The iPhone is the beginning of another round of that.

What kind of company that can make things like that?

As Harry Brignull and Bill Buxton have both pointed out, Apple stood on the shoulders of giants to make the iPhone. Multitouch research has been going on since the early eighties. The games industry has been making use of gesture and natural physics for years now. And smart phones have been around for a long while.

Happy representatives of generation Y show us the future of interaction with Nintendo Wii.

What Apple did, though, was to throw out one heavily-entrenched assumption: that phones had a keypad, a yes, a no, and two softkeys. Once they did that, they gave themselves a new opportunity to pull together a range of ideas and technologies into an amazing device.

For that they deserve enormous respect. Very few organisations in the world can throw out that much inherited wisdom, and demonstrate that much innovativeness, foresight and guts. Many wish they could. But for most, the risk seems too great, the politics and processes are too stodgy, the desire to just get something “good enough” out there is too strong. (The trick: follow a user-centred design process to de-risk your innovation projects.)

Who dares wins…

Well, it looks like Apple will sell 6% of the coming year’s smartphones. And Microsoft, will sell 5%, even though they have been in the market for years with Windows Mobile and Pocket PC. That tells us something.

But whatever happens to the iPhone, we can be sure that multi-touch and gestural interfaces are going to change the experience of using computers forever.

(Thanks to Ann Light and Martin Storey for their contributions to this post).

Airline meals: beautiful presentation improves the user experience

My stats show that you everyday user experience stories have the greatest mass appeal. You seemed to like the posting about Delta airlines. So here’s another quick one.

I went on a BA flight from Capetown to London recently and was astonished to find the food was very good. They seemed to have thought hard about what they could reasonably do to an economy class meal to make the experience better. They did two things:

  1. The made it TASTE nice. Which is, I think we can all agree, the most important thing they could do.
  2. They made the packaging look nice. Often you get a mystery meal with a plain foil lid with “chicken” or “beef” dot-matrixed on the top. Here the food packs had pleasant pictures on of what was inside. They were like the gourmet-meals-for-one packaging from a British supermarket. Looking at a tray full of colourful packaging made me feel more positive about the food before I even opened the packs.

Taking a photo of my meal would have required me to leap over other passengers to reach the aisle and my baggage locker. But luckily, it seems others are better prepared. At airlinemeals.net at least 500 people have sent in pictures of their airline meals for British Airways alone. Right.

A British airways meal much like the one I had

There seem to be plenty more for other airlines too. Including Aeroflot which features this very special submission on the list:

This aeroflot meal suffer from particularly bad presentation

The Chinese airlines all seem to offer things that westerners can’t fathom. But most seem to forgive them, simply because the packaging is so beautiful. As the UX community has (re)discovered over the last few years – people respond more favourably to and have a better user experience with beautiful products.
Lovely packaging from China Xinhua Airlines

British Airways have got the right idea. Promise a good user experience with well designed packaging, then deliver against the promise with a tasty product.

The stormhoek guide to successful wine blogging

The guide I referred to in ysterday’s post is here in their archive.

It’s very short, funny and easy to read. Give it two minutes.

For example:

15. It might go terribly wrong, but that might actually be a good thing. So people read your blog, tried your wine and hated it. And now Google and Yahoo are awash with people laughing at you. Yeah, there’s always that risk. The upside is, they probably slammed you for a reason. Look on the bright side. At least now you know the truth, so you can move on to better things. Beats spending the next 5-10 years of your life flogging a dead horse.

Delta airlines – now serving lemons?

In a recent post I said that I would buy into Delta Airlines’ hyped new customer experience improvements for one trial run. If they delivered a superior experience, as promised, then great. If not then I’d know it was all branding hype.

Well Bruce Nussbaum has done the legwork for me. He went on a a Delta flight. It is was, by the sounds of it, a debacle.

Problem is, I flew on the first day of Delta’s emergence from bankruptcy and it was a nightmare. I came up from Mexico City, where a computer failure forced the passengers to wait on the plane for an extra hour–or was it two? When I arrived at JFK in New York, Delta blithely told the passengers that 96 bags had not been put on the plane because of “rebalancing” issues. Now what does that mean? That’s more than half the people on that flight.

They would arrive the next day, Delta promised. My bag didn’t arrive for three days.

Several things to draw from this.

  1. When people are unhappy they tell their friends and that damages your brand broadly, swiftly. And giving a blogger a bad user experience – ouch! (How a corporation recovers from negative blogging is an interesting topic.)
  2. The sign of a truly customer orientated company is how well they patch the service when things go wrong. If there’s a computer failure at air traffic control, that’s beyond Delta’s control. But how they make that experience bearable for their customers is very much within their control. Free drinks and nuts, fun movies, regular updates… these things can bring passengers on side.

Bruce Nussbaum’s experience was a lemon – a consistent failure. They left him sitting on the tarmac and didn’t seem to care. They lost bags and didn’t give a damn. And Now Bruce Nussbaum, with a large readership, is giving them negative press and as I write,  Delta have not done anything to respond.
I expect that Delta travellers will probably find lemons on the menu regularly.  I’ll go looking for some sweeter experiences.

Delta airlines – now serving cheese?

If you never had the experience of travelling Delta, count yourself lucky. It was austere and souless as only an old american corporation can be.

They’ve rebranded with a natty, new, all red, 3D logo. And their new site welcomes suggestions and tips from travellers in an effort to collect ‘easy-win’ ideas such as onboard multi-player gaming, buzzers to alert tell you when to go to your gate, SMS to update you about flight disruptions and a book swap at the gate. See the press release for a mix of suspicious, cheesy nonsense. Or see the delta site.

For many large organisations, even considering this kind of user involvement would be to terrifying. “What if we couldn’t implement any of the suggestions our customer gave us? What if I customers suggested something subversive? Do we really have to listen to our customers anyway?!”

So kudos to Delta for getting this far.

But at the same time, it’s still a cheesy effort. There’s an “air-punching” promotional video. And everything is very sanitised.

I don’t really know what to think. Except this. Would this new effort make me consider flying with Delta?

Answer: Yes. I’d give them one shot. If the experience really does live up to the new brand promise, then they’d have succeassfuly bought themsleves a new customer. So I suppose that means they’ve achieved something.
But it’s a big if. And I’m not holding my breath.

Thanks to Flowsters Simon Hatch and Kelsey Smith for pointing me to this.

Innovation – a long term approach that saves time

From the Nussbaum on Design blog at Business Week…

“…thinking about it in terms of “one-off” innovation (get me another iPod> quick!) doesn’t make your company innovative. But thinking about The Discipline of Innovation–and what that implies in terms of building a culture and organization–does.”

Absolutely! Brilliant innovations don’t just appear from nowhere. They can only grow in environments that support and encourage innovation.

You also need a culture that understands what worthwhile innovation really is. One interesting viewpoint:

“The only worthwhile innovation is a profitable innovation.”

This is from Payback, a book by some clever folk at BGC. And there’s a lot to be said for it. (Though there are some very worthwhile government and humanitarian services which are not profitable, surely).

The book talks about the “cash curve”, the S-shaped curve of cumulative cash spent or earned during the course of an innovation project. The curve dips below zero to start with, as you invest in the project, then, ideally, rockets above zero as sales of your product or service takes off. Except that for many projects, it never makes it back above zero, but bumbles along in the red, requiring an endless stream of further investment to keep it alive.

Successful products usually need a large volume of sales before they achieve payback. So the key factor, they point out, is not time to market – it’s time to volume.

This is great ammunition for supporters of user-centred design (UCD). Organisations that understand they are trying to reach high volume need to invest in customer satisfaction – making sure their product is easy to use and fits with customer needs. In other words, they should do UCD.

UCD is about taking a longer term view. It’s about selecting the right projects based on an understanding of user needs. And it’s about not just getting the product out the door, but getting the right product out of the door, even if it takes a bit longer. That way, the cash curve doesn’t flat-line in the longer term.

So there we are. Yet more evidence to support the UCD case: UCD reduces your time to volume.

Usable toilet doors

From BBC News Online…

‘[Virgin trains] denied reports in the Daily Telegraph about automatic doors opening unexpectedly or locking people in.

Problems with disabled toilets on the hi-tech tilting trains however were down to people not using the automatic doors properly, a spokesman said.

“There’s a button to close the door and another with a key symbol on it which locks the door and flashes when the door closes,” said David Ewart, communications manager with Virgin.

“It’s pretty clear what you have to do. We’ve even got signs in Braille,” he added.

Rail watchdog group Passenger Focus, however, said there might be a need for Virgin to have clearer instructions for customers.’

What a mad world we live in where people design electronic toilet door buttons… and get it wrong! And some poor soul ends up getting caught with their trousers down on the 9:13 from Birmingham New Street. Surely a manual door would have been ok. Then a nice handle which affords sliding would have been crystal clear.

But now we’ve got watchdog groups to make sure that the toilet doors get improved. And reporters to write stories about the whole business. And bloggers to blog about it. And Virgin has to refit the doors, and create improved signage.

Think how much time and money could have been saved if the engineer had just designed the door right, and usability tested it in the first place. Then the whole lot of us could go off and do something more meaningful. (There is a lesson here about hasty roll-outs of interactive products and the true time and cost of reaching customer satisfaction. But I’m not going to spell it out any further).
PS. If anyone ‘goes’ on a pendolino, do try and get to the ‘bottom’ of this one for me.