Property search engine usability

We’re house hunting in South Africa at the moment and we’ve tried just about every property website there is. We’ve seen some shockers, and we’ve been surprised by some very good, usable web design.

When you compare the best performer with the worst offenders, it does highlight how making your website usable really is a very good idea if you want to deliver a worthwhile return on your investment.

Compare these search engine interfaces from the the homepages of…

1. PropertyGenie

Property Genie search engine

2. Remax

remax search engine

Ask yourself a simple question: How quickly can you work out what to do with interface number 1? And what about number 2?


Ah, Remax. Why are some suburbs in dark blue with [All] written next to them? What is the suburb filter box for? Will you remember to hold down CTRL to select multiple suburbs? Which parts of step 2 will light up when? What “payment type” will you select – can you pay in bushelss of corn?

The Remax functionality is all good. Those are all criteria that users might want to filter by at some point. But most people won’t want to set most of those criteria most of the time. And providing a huge control panel to let people do all that stuff at the beginning is just bewildering and off-putting for most normal house hunters.

A couple of key lessons that good designers have known for years:

1. Don’t ask people to set search scope before when they are entering their search query. If people want to search for something, let them type it in and see how many results there are. Then when the necessity of narrowing the search becomes apparent, people will feel motviated to go to the trouble of doing so. Proprty Genie gets this right. A simple search first, supported with solid geaopgraphical data that matched my desired suburb on the first attempt. Then simple filtering controls that get shown after you’ve seen the initial search results.

2. Make easy things easy and difficult things possible. In other words, design for the main things that people want to do and make those things very, very easy. Then add the “edge case” functionality in low priority places where it won’t clutter things up.

Remax have put up an interface that ignores these two basic interaction design patterns. And as a result, I’m sure they are missing out on a lot of traffic and a lot of business. There’s a lesson for every website owner in there somewhere.

Property Genie goes on do display some fairly usable sort controls too.

Property genie sort controls

These controls show you (a) that you can sort and (b) what you can sort by. Nice. (I’m struggling to tell which radio butotn goes with which label though).
If Property Genie granted me three wishes, though, I’d ask for larger property pictures and a click through to the agent’s own site for more details.

The third wish would be a lovely villa on Clifton Beach. But that’s another story.

Those youngsters! They should straighten up and fly right.

Behind the curve as ever, I read about Andrew Keen and his “anti-web2.0” stance in the Observer. Thanks, also to Matt Buckland, for pointing me at it.

“The author and entrepreneur has stunned his adopted country with a book that accuses bloggers and other evangelists for the web of destroying culture, ruining livelihoods and threatening to make consumers of new media regress into ‘digital narcissism’.”

I think Mr Keen is doing well at generating PR and that’ll make sure he sells lots of copies of his new book. Clever chap. He’s also acting as “the opposition” and every power needs an opposition to keep it on its toes.

But there’s a lot of hot air here too.

A lot of the stuff that people worry about is teen culture. Grown-ups have always thought that teens were doing something shocking that would undermine society etc etc. And much of the blogging/community stuff that he seems to object to is no exception. Young people do dumb things and think they are clever. And they do things that look dumb and are actually clever. It’s all mixed up in there somewhere. And then they grow up, their revolution becomes mainstream and they start worrying about what the next wave are up to.

It’ll all come out in the wash.

The problem comes when we try to tar everyone with the same brush. In interaction design you divide up your target audience – using personas usually. And you don’t expect all your users to want the same things or do the same things. Some TV programmes appeal to more mature audiences, some are for kids.  Some books appeal more to women, some more to men.
It’s much the same here. Some college students will blog avidly about trivia. But that doesn’t mean we all have to. Or that we all have to read it.

But a few things I do believe:

  • There is far too much to read, and I don’t know what’s important. As a result I read almost nothing. I need to go find something that’ll digest stuff for me.
  • Anyone who wants to keep up will have to spend hours every night reading, instead of watching TV. And wasn’t it watching TV that was supposed to be rotting our minds, according to the previous generation…?
  • Most of the people who are not talented at communication and authorship will not get a big audience because people will not enjoy their stuff. And the ones who are talented deserve a chance to prove themselves without having to slog through mindless “cat-up-tree” stories on local rags. It’s a free market thing. The survival of the fittest.
  • I do believe in the power of the network and the wisdom of crowds. I think that mechanisms that let us connect and share quickly, in large numbers and with some kind of non-hierarchical structure enable us to do things that we, the human race, have never been able to achieve before. That is exciting. And I think it’s good for the world economy too. Read “The wisdom of crowds” to see the evidence that this stuff works.
  • Alas, just like in democracy, you actually have to do your bit and vote. So that means I’m condemned to wading through trivia so that I can lend my support to the good stuff. Bother.

So. Well done, Andrew Keen, for causing a stir. Well done, everybody else, for driving humanity to new levels of achievement though Darwinian crap-filtering. Keep up the good work. I’m off to stare at a blank wall for a while.

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.

Marketing AT people

The blog has been even quieter than usual, because I’ve been in the process of moving to South Africa. It has been one of the most relentlessly busy times of my life, but now that I’m here it looks like it was all worthwhile. Capetown is a great place.

I’ve seen some truly strange ad copy in South Africa – stuff which just makes you wonder “who approvated that?” But the sign below, inspired some thoughts about user experience and digital marketing tactics, so I thought I’d blog it.

A sign in a cafe in Cape town: Looking forward to our famour burgers? Rather try our irresistable wrapps instead.

I stared at this one in disbelief. It showed a total disregard for what the customer wanted. You came for burgers? Well we don’t care. Eat wraps!

(If you look carefully, it’s actually because they are refurbishing their kitchen and can’t do cooked food. But that’s a fact the poster spectacularly fails to convey).

When you see it in a real-world cafe, this behaviour strikes you immediately as ludicrous. But a lot of folk I’ve worked with have been happy to put this kind of stuff up on their website. Users usually come to e-commerce sites with goals in mind: investigate options in a product category, see the prices and features, or buy. But so often the majority of the pages they see during their journey are devoted to promoting “offers” that the marketing department want to push. Offers that usually have nothing to do with the particular goal that the user had in mind. “You wanted burgers? Well we’re devoting this page to our amazing wraps. So buy them instead.” Most people I’ve worked with in usability tests will say “this site isn’t relevant to me,” and go elsewhere.

Why do marketers keep doing this? A few reasons, I think…

  • Marketers believe they can make people think things. The old school says that consumers can be made to think whatever you want them to think just by shouting loud enough. Much research has shown that this really isn’t the case. Take a look Gerald Zaltman’s at How Customers Think for more on this.
  • Marketers have to shift product. And if there’s a job lot of product to shift, they need to shout loud about it to try to drum up some interest. This is all well and good in the short term, but it’s probably not going to have a beneficial effect on your customers lifetime value.
  • Stats show that people click on promos. A big fat promo might be the most clicked single item on the page. So it looks successful. But if you’ve got the analytics for it, you can follow through and see how many of those initial clicks actually turn into conversions. Usually, it’s not many. And if you look at the aggregate of clicks to all you navigation from that same start page, you’ll see that a much bigger total are ignoring the promo and finding another way to go off and look at what they came for.

Sales people have a much more rational approach: find out what the customer wants, and what factors will deliver or impede a sale. Then suggest a relevant product and work on those factors. Good e-commerce websites tend to use those tactics too.

But enough of all this customer experience guff. I’ve just had a consignment of fabulous electric toenail clippers delivered and I can let you have one for only $14 plus tax and shipping. Buy one NOW!

Hey, where are going….?!

Unnecessary features aimed at idiots

The Guardian’s Charlie Brooker captures user-experience rage with hilarious accuracy in his guardian column for March 5 2007:

My new mobile phone is lumbered with a bewildering array of unnecessary features aimed at idiots.

‘When you dial a number, you have a choice of seeing said number in a gigantic, ghastly typeface, or watching it moronically scribbled on parchment by an animated quill. I can’t find an option to see it in small, uniform numbers. The whole thing is the visual equivalent of a moronic clip-art jumble sale poster designed in the dark by a myopic divorcee experiencing a freak biorhythmic high. Worst of all, it seems to have an unmarked omnipresent shortcut to Orange’s internet service, which means that whether you are confused by the menu, or the typeface, or the user- confounding buttons, you are never more than one click away from accidentally plunging into an overpriced galaxy of idiocy, which, rather than politely restricting itself to news headlines and train timetables, thunders “BUFF OR ROUGH? GET VOTING!” and starts hurling cameraphone snaps of “babes and hunks” in their underwear at you, presumably because some pin-brained coven of marketing gonks discovered the average Orange internet user was teenage and incredibly stupid, so they set about mercilessly tailoring all their “content” toward priapic halfwits, thereby assuring no one outside this slim demographic will ever use their gaudy, insulting service ever again. And then they probably reached across the table and high-fived each other for skilfully delivering “targeted content” or something, even though what they should really have done, if there was any justice in the world, is smash the desk to pieces, select the longest wooden splinters they could find, then drive them firmly into their imbecilic, atrophied, world-wrecking rodent brains.’

See the full Guardian article

iphone – ibrand

Iproduct paordy

Thanks, experience curve.

iphone – it’s all been said.

I love this parody, and I’m sure the folk at Apple do too. It rams home just how strong the link is between great user experience, and loyalty. Maybe we should poke fun at these fabulously loyal icustomers. Or maybe we should wish that we had created companies that delivered such finely tuned UX to a well defined, affluent market segment with such success.

Don’t say “i could do have done that” — because you didn’t.

I have never bought an apple product for myself. I’ve bought them for staff and I’ve bought them for family. But never for me. And all the people I buy them for seem to spend a lot of their time cursing the product and battling to make it do what they want. But not caring that they are battling.

I appear not to be part of apple’s target segment. But I wish I was. They seem to happy.

CTRL-Tab: Mastery, complexity, flow

So finally here’s the follow up post to the CTRL-Tab thing.

CTRL-Tab to page through browser tabs, F2 to edit in MS Office, and my all-time favourite CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-S in Photoshop to “save for web”. Do these arcane, unguessable key combinations offer a good user experience?

Simple answer: Yes. They offer efficiency and speed for users who have had a lot of practice. And they don’t clutter up the interface for those who haven’t.

What’s really interesting is how you feel when you use the advanced key combinations.

If you’re anything like me, you feel good. Why?

  1. Complexity is like acquired taste. The first time you tried curry, blue cheese, whiskey, oysters, broccoli or whatever it was, you didn’t really like it. But after years and years, you have come to love it. And the simple baked beans you enjoyed as a child seem one-dimensional. Illustrator seems delightfully powerful and nuanced in comparison to PowerPoint, once you’ve acquired the taste. Experiences do not always have to be simple to be wonderful.
  2. Mastery is rewarding. Being really good at something is one of the most rewarding experiences there is. It’s obvious – but it’s also “official.” Psychologist Mihayli Csikszentmihayli studied the phenomenon of Flow. Flow is a state of mind we all get into when we’re performing optimally, and it’s pretty much the thing that makes us the happiest we can be. Flow is achieved by knowing what your goal is, making concrete steps towards it, and stretching your talents and skills with each step. In other words, by attaining mastery.

So. For experiences we have just once, simplicity, clarity and easiness are essential.

But for experiences we choose to engage in again and again, there’s a deeper joy to be found in mastering complexity.

Which is is why I like CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-s. Thanks Adobe.

There are some good musings about complexity, simplicty and mastery in The Laws of Simplicty by John Maeda.

I read it recently. It’s so simple, I’m going to have to read it again. At least twice.

Customer satisfaction: the lead metric (3)

This follows on from my two previous posts on this subject.

I think I’ve got somewhere with this. It has been an interesting ride. The questions boil down to:

  • How can you measure the quality of your customer experience, across multiple channels (web, store, call centre, WAP)?
  • Is measuring symptoms of customer experience, rather than the experience itself “dangerous”?
  • Are those metrics the only data you need to help you deliver a good customer experience?
  • Why would you measure customer experience related factors anyway?

And here are the answers.

How can you measure the quality of your customer experience, across multiple channels (web, store, call centre, WAP)?
Observing users, rather than gathering their opinions, is one of the cornerstones of usability and UCD methodology. It’s effective. So to measure customer experience, it makes sense to follow the same approach: observe what users do, rather than asking them what they think.

In the case of the telecoms operator I first spoke about, I think their decision to measure ARPU and churn is the right one. The observed action of loyal, satisfied customers is to stick with them and spend more. Customers vote with their wallets.

And conversely, customer satisfaction surveys are not a good measurement – those are opinion based, and opinion can’t be trusted.

I discovered a different telecoms operator that measures customer dissatisfaction on a monthly basis. This is an odd half-way meausre. If it’s done by survey, it’s not much good. If it’s done by measuring actual customer complaints across all channels, it’s better. But it’s not great. Even if you got customer complaints to zero, that doesn’t really tell you if your customers are happy – just that they are not complaining any more.

If we concentrate on the web channel for a moment, there are some unique methods of measuring customer satisfaction. Tools like Relevant View and WebIQ allow you to intercept customers on your site, track them around, and ask them whether they are getting what they want at key moments. These tools do yield some wonderful information, but for a truly multi-channel business they are not enough. If you’re working across multiple channels you need metrics that are relevant across all channels. ARPU and churn, for a telecoms operator, fit the bill.

Is measuring symptoms of customer experience, rather than the experience itself “dangerous”?
The possible issue here was that measuring a “symptom” of the customer experience (eg. ARPU) might lead the business to focus on the revenue itself, rather than the cause of the revenue (ie. customer experience).

There are three counter examples, and that indicates to me that there’s no problem here.

  • The original telco I’ve been talking about set about a program of study and experimentation to find and prove the factors that were affecting ARPU, and change them. They didn’t get too hung up on the metric, but successfully went looking for the causes.
  • Nokia meaures the sales of each mobile device it launches, and pays each product team’s bonus based on that. Nokia makes very good phones, and you can see why. The engineers know that if they make something people like, it will sell well, and they will benefit personally.
  • Apple do the same.

Are those metrics the only data you need to help you deliver a good customer experience?
No. ‘Course not. But lots of businesses have made the mistake of thinking they are.

To design a new product or service, you need to understand the motivations, abilities and desires of the target user group and deliver something that addresses those needs. UCD is great at that: start with ethnography or contextual enquiry, and later when you’re in the thick of concept and detailed design, get more user input from usability testing.

If you’re fixing an existing customer experience, you need to understand where it’s broken. Mystery shopping, diary studies, expert reviews, call log and search log analysis, web analytics and usability tests can all help.

Why would you measure customer experience-related factors anyway?
Two key reasons, that I can see.

1. Measuring hard numbers and linking them to the quality of customer experience is a great way of demonstrating the value of CX initiatives to the business. (Proof based businesses)

2. Using those numebrs as the basis for team reward, like Apple and Nokia do, is a great way to drive certain kinds of positive behaviours in the business. Supply the incentive and watch the business gravitate towards good UCD practice. You won’t have to force designers to design for user needs or conduct usability tests. When their bonusses are riding on customer satisfaction, they’ll do everything they can to engage with their customers during design. (Faith based businesses)

More about faith and proof in a future posting.

Budget user interfaces

A few years ago, my wife bought an electric blanket for our bed. She did well- it’s wonderful thing and it keeps us snug.

But the usability of the control modules is so dire that it’s actually funny. Take a look…
The electric blanket remote control


  • The cryptic red circle icon drifting between the on-light and the left hand button. Function: unknown.
  • The green left and right arrows beside the other button. How does that button allow you to go left and right? It only has a normal press action.
  • And the three way switch, that means that you can’t just turn the blanket on without really looking at the control to make sure you’re not accidentally switching into timer mode.

Still – let’s be thankful for the twisty temperature knob. It’s much better than a button-based effort.

Of course, this UI is the product of a company that wanted to save money on design. And we bought the cheapest blanket, so we really weren’t expecting the controls to be any good. It keeps us warm, and that is the most important part of the user experience.

But the issue is this. If they wanted to make the controls cheap, they should just have kept them simple. An on-off switch, a light and twisty knob would have been great. Instead they incurred extra engineering and manufacturing costs by adding timer features that no-one can use and that no-one really needs, especially not on the budget blanket.

How did it end up so?

The key fact: Simplicty is harder to achieve than complexity.

Engineers want to add features because it’s fun and challenging and because the features make sense on paper.

Marketers want to add features because they think it makes the product look more compelling in-store.

So put them in a room together and you’re not going to get anyone crossing features off the list.

Some solutions:

  • Incentivise the engineers on sales. The more of their products that get sold, the bigger their bonusses. Nokia and Apple do it like this. By all reports, it works frighteningly well.
  • Get the marketing department to start marketing the virtues of simplicity. It’s a competitive angle. For example: SimpleHuman.