Vodacom service: Experience the dancing bear

Signing up with Vodacom for an iPhone: it worked, but only just. Next to Apple’s amazing user experience design, Vodacom’s service design looks distinctly shabby. Sorting it out would benefit customers and shareholders.

A “dancing bear” is Alan Cooper’s term for a piece of technology that gets accepted because it does something valuable – not because it does something well. The miracle is that the bear dances. But if you needed a dancer, you wouldn’t hire a bear.

The Diamond RIO. It played music!  Amazing. But it was a pain.

The Diamond RIO. It played music: Amazing! But it was a pain.

A classic example. The Diamond Rio: dancing bear. iPod: Prima ballerina.

Service design is another form of experience design. And it can have dancing bears too.

See the bear dance

So low are our expectations of South African mobile service providers, that we applaud when they manage the absolute basics of their business: connecting new customers to their service so they can make money out of them. A service provider that actually tried to provide a real customer experience? We can bearly imagine it.

The actual Vodacom experience (as braved by my wife, Debre):
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Completed UX project: Desktop design tool for antenna engineers

“Awesomeness” was one of the project goals. User-centred design helped to deliver it.

As we use wi-fi networks, satellite TV, mobile phones, we don’t give a thought to the antennas that makes them work. But designing antennas is hard. It’s almost as much an art as a science, takes lots of knowledge, dedication and experience… and months.

Antenna Magus is a new piece of software which cuts weeks off the antenna design process. It represents a revolution in antenna design. (If you want to know what it actually does, your best bet is to watch their chuckle-provoking video).

Antenna Magus screenshots

The Magus team wanted the software to be useful and quick to use. They wanted it to be “awesome” (with tongues slightly in cheeks). Most of all, they wanted it to be exportable globally and generate significant revenue, in a shortish time frame. So they asked me to help get them there.

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Destructive excuses

Here are four excuses I’ve heard recently. Not delivered in these exact words or course. I’ve summarised them to save us all time.

I’m too busy coding to work out whether people will want the product I am trying to deliver.

I’m too busy fighting fires to make sure we have a reliable process and happy staff.

I’m too busy thinking up new features to focus on what people really need.

I’m too busy trying to push the product to think about how to make people choose to buy it.

These are the underlying thought and behavior patterns behind some very expensive mistakes.

Extreme e-commerce

“South Africans would always rather jump in the car to go an buy something than buy it over the internet,” says Andrew Smith, director of YuppieChef. He’s right. And it means that if you can design an e-commerce site that sells in South Africa, you can do it anywhere.

At the end of May, there was a free one day conference about South African, digital entrepreneurship: Net Prophet. Andrew Smith, a director of South Africa’s most delightful e-commerce site, YuppieChef, gave a great talk about e-commerce in South Africa. It was called E-commerce is not a technology problem.

Andrew Smith's recipe for a successful e-commerce site

Andrew covered user experience and customer experience in a completely jargon-free way. And he offered a great summary of the themes that an e-commerce operations needs to consider.

Of course e-commerce is not primarily a technology problem. But when you meet organisations starting e-commerce operations, you still need to spell it out every time. A great example from Andrew:  Pick and Pay’s website is high on technology and short on selling. The search engine returns results, sure, but if you search for milk, you get milk stout and milky bar buttons coming up first. Surely cartons of milk would make better sense.

(My limited experience of talking to the Sainsbury’s and Occado teams in the UK tells me that getting supermarket IA right takes about 2 years, or four iterations. So don’t give up, Pick and Pay).

Andrew also offers some great checklists for what it takes to run a successful e-commerce operation.

  • Product: Hard to find, trusted brands, easy to deliver
  • Marketing: Offline credibility, word of mouth, community
  • Customer service: Real people, in touch, full time

It’s a great introduction.  But what’s really intriguing is that online trust-building and persuasion tactics don’t seem to be enough. Andrew is convinced that in South Africa, you have to establish trust via telephone calls and offline marketing. Like I said: if you can build a successful e-commerce business in South Africa, you can do it anywhere.

Balsamiq starts to show promise

Rapid interface sketching tool Balsamiq allows anyone to throw simple clickable interfaces together quickly. But if decides to become a professional tool for interaction designers, it still has a way to go.

I made this mockup in seconds

Balsamiq is a tool for creating rapid interface sketches. Due to skilful social marketing, its reputation is spreading fast.  And at $79.99 it’s a fairly cost effective bit of software.

Balsamiq has found a great niche. A growing group of folk in the web and software business understand that they should be sketching interfaces before implementation, but feel they “can’t draw”. So making a dedicated piece of software for them is a good idea. Integration with various enterprise collaboration tools makes another nice USP.

Sketch really fast

Balsamiq genuinely allows you to produce sketch interfaces faster then any other tool I’ve seen.  You can add a window, say, then instantly customize the thickness of the status bar, and title bar, and add or remove the maximize, minimize and close buttons. You can chuck in a tree control and quickly customize exactly how many folders it is showing and what each one is called.  Everything lines up automatically so it looks fairly neat.

You can also make scrolling pages and string them together into clickable demos. That means you can mock up a simple website clickthough in a few minutes. Balsamiq also captures some of the fun and creativity that makes sketching such a joy.  Clever!

A few widgets from Balsamiq's colelction

But then what?

There are at least three good reasons to create interface sketches and prototypes:

  1. To get new ideas and quickly explore and enhance them in design sessions with colleagues. Balsamiq is right at home here.
  2. To usability test ideas with target users. Balsamiq is close to being very useful here.
  3. To explain, persuade and demonstrate to other project stakeholders. Balsamiq needs quite a lot of work here.

As an interaction designer, I also need a tool to help me when interaction design projects get big and complex. Balsamiq isn’t yet great at handling large, complex mockups and helping you to keep all the pages consistent and up to date.

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Three blades to Occam’s Razor

The principle of Occam’s Razor offers interaction designers three ways to keep complexity under control.

Razors - by Viscousplatypus. http://www.flickr.com/photos/pneumatic_transport/

Occam’s razor has been really useful to me on several projects recently. It’s nothing new. Occam was around in the 14th Century. And it wasn’t even his idea: it might well have been Aristotle’s. Perhaps that long history proves that it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal when designing user experiences.

The basic idea is something like:

“If you have two equivalent theories or explanations for observed facts, all other things being equal, use the simpler one.”

The user-centred design version might be:

“If you have two interfaces that both address user needs, go with the simpler one.”

But there are three different ways the idea gets expressed, and each form has something to offer interaction designers. Here they are:

  1. Choose simple solutions
  2. Keep merging features
  3. Don’t oversimplify

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Ten things user experience design is NOT

Whitney Hess has written a really good post on Mashable which summarises ten major misconceptions that organisations often have about user experience.

I don’t usually post straight pointers to other people’s work, but this one is a beauty.

The 10 things user experience design is NOT…

1. …user interface design
2. …a step in the process
3. …about technology
4. …just about usability
5. …just about the user
6. …expensive
7. …easy
8. …the role of one person or department
9. …a single discipline
10. …a choice

Organisations and teams that understand this will stand a much better chance of generating a good user experience, happy customers, and a profit. Here’s the full post…

Quick tip for using a big monitor productively

Last year I got a big monitor, because I thought it would boost my productivity. It did, but only after I added a special piece of window management software.

I got a 22 inch Samsung with a resolution of 1680×1050. This was a mistake: To really boost productivity I should have bought a bigger one. 1920×1200 seems to be the sweet spot.

But what really struck me is that I seemed to spend a lot of time shuffling windows around to get the applications I wanted displayed next to each other. If anything, I felt less productive.

A tidy desktop, thanks to Winsplit Revolution
A tidy desktop, organised with Winsplit Revolution

I found a piece of software called Winsplit Revolution, courtesy of LifeHacker. It lets you get windows into predefined sizes and positions quickly. Configuring the positions is still a confusing and manual process but it’s worth it.  With intuitive key combinations I can now snap windows to top, bottom, right or left, and toggle through 66%, 50% or 25% sizes.  This means I can get practical window layouts easily.

Looks like this kind of idea is included in the Windows 7 window manager.  I suspect OS X users could benefit from something like this too, although Spaces might also act as a a solution to this problem.

See also…

Telling stories

Christmas is a good time for sitting around a fire and telling stories. Practice your storytelling this Christmas, and hone your interaction design skills for 2009.

People love stories. But beyond that, stories are fundamental to the way we think as human beings. Salesmen tell persuasive stories about successful installations and satisfied customers. Social workers pass on complex case histories as stories. Just about every culture in the world passes on valuable knowledge to the next generation in the form of stories.

Christmas tree

When properly told, stories incorporate all the ingredients people need to think and learn: situation, actors, events, challenges, consequences… They help us gain a little of the benefit of direct experience, with much less of the pain.

So it makes sense that interaction designers need to be great story tellers. I’ve picked three kinds of storytelling used in interaction design…

  • Scenarios
  • Specification
  • Rationale

Scenarios: Invent a story

Because we’re not fundamentally good at imagining futures or situations different to the one we are in, we have to consciously and explicitly create stories to make sure we do things right. Interaction designers create personas (the characters in the stories), describe the context of use (situation and back story) and the personas’ goals.

Then we create scenarios. We try to tell a compelling and realistic story of how our personas will reach a happy ending by using the product. Because we’re all good at listening to stories, the team can spot the good ones, the implausible ones and the radical-amazing-breakthrough ones quite quickly.

A storyboard

Specification: Many stories

A specification – however sketchy or detailed – is a story. Actually it’s many stories, captured simultaneously. What will happen if the user goes here or there? A good specification has a lot in common with a Choose You Own Adventure story. (Did somebody say adventure? Now there’s some classic interaction.)

Choose your own adventure: Mystery of the Maya

The trick for a good interaction designer, though, is to make sure that the story of your product has no dead ends. So the best specs spend plenty of effort on handling error situations, as well as just the positive story.

Rationale: Meta-story

The importance of rationale is often underestimated. Rationale is the story of how and why a design decision has been made. “We’re doing it like this because…” When your storytelling has led you to a non-obvious (but demonstrably right) conclusion you don’t want your team and your stakeholders re-creating all the failed stories you’ve already told all over again. It takes too long.

Rationale also demonstrates how much effort has been put into reaching a conclusion, so that the team doesn’t forget how far they’ve come.

Pictures are not stories

A picture, in this context, doesn’t tell a story so much as beg for one. A beautifully drawn image of an interface, frozen in time, might look persuasive – and it might hint at past and future interaction. But it doesn’t answer many of the important questions: how do your users reach this point? Where do they want to go next? Will they know what button to choose? What will happen if they click that button? A picture on its own is open to misinterpretation by everyone who looks at it, from developer to CEO.

When you surround it with other pictures and information about the sequence they link in, then a story unfolds. And that’s what interaction design is all about.