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.

Customer satisfaction: the lead metric (2)

In an earlier post I pondered meaningful approaches to measuring customer satisfaction.

I’ve bumped into a couple of items about measurement which I enjoyed. Nothing conclusive yet.

  1. Hilarious article by Joel Spolsky about how management consultants get big businesses to pay money for nothing, because they persuade those businesses to pay attention to the wrong metrics.
  2. Interesting article from Fast Company about how business folk like to measure and prove, but designers like to peer into customer needs and desires, then have ideas based on those insights and push into the unknown.

I’ve also found out a bit more about the approach used by the telecoms operator I mentioned last time. It seems they picked a metric to tackle: churn was the first. Then they used several qualitative research methods to understand the factors affecting the metric. And then they rapid prototyped some solutions in a small area of their customer base to see what impact they could have.

Again, it seems to come down to…

  • Business metrics to identify problem areas and measure success
  • Qual research to discover how to improve the metric


I just discovered you can use CTRL-Tab to tab through windows within an application. Things like workbooks within Excel. Or tabbed browser windows within Firefox.

This is fiddly, but I’m pleased that there is at least some kind of shortcut.

You knew this one? Oh ok. It was news to me. And I found it just by a slip of the finger on the keyboard!

Another one that people often don’t know about is F2. In Excel or Powerpoint or Explorer, hitting F2 allows you to edit the text inside something. Be it a cell, a shape or a filename.

What does this have to do with user experience? While I work on a posting about it, why not try using the shortcuts for a while and see what you think.

Customer satisfaction: the lead metric

I ended up in a discussion with someone working for a mobile phone operator the other week. They were talking about performance metrics:

“We’re measuring ARPU (average revenue per user), signups and leavers,” he told me. “Oh – and customer satisfaction. But we don’t really worry about that much. And anyway it’s very hard to measure.”


Why do customers use services on their phones and generate revenue? Because those services are well designed and offer a good user experience.

Why do customers leave? Because they are unhappy with the customer experience (including price, in these days where mobile operators are now actually trying to retain their customers).

Why do customers sign up? Because the company has a good reputation, and offers a good customer experience.

So surely measuring customer satisfaction would be a good idea. If customer satisfaction goes up, you can be certain that all the other metrics will follow.

Trouble is, customer satisfaction is hard to measure in any meaningful way. Surveys are glib, and your customers often can’t imagine what would make them more satisfied. “Yeah, it’s fine” is not the same for your business as “I love this thing!” But surveys can’t tell you how to get from one to the other.

Measuring “symptoms” like ARPU and churn might be the best answer. But it worries me. What gets measured gets done. So measure customer exerience, and your organisation will focus on it. Measuring symptoms could make your organisation focus on the symptoms and start trying to tinker with them, without really understanding why customers are behaving as they are.

Measuring what people do with a service as it stands tells you something about the popularity and performance of the service over time. But it doesn’t tell you why the service is or is not popular. You can speculate about why. But you’ll never really be able to deduce user intentions from the data. And without undestanding user intentions, you’ll struggle to predict what would make your design radically better. Which leaves you in the realm of tinkering, rather than changing the market.

I suppose what I’m concluding is that measurement isn’t a great tool for innovation. It’s a good tool for proving the value of innovation – or the need for it. But if you want to create services that customers love, you’ll need to use techniques that help you understand their desires, needs and abilites. Qualitative, ethnographic techniques are the way to go there.

World *usability* day

Jared Spool put his finger on (or close to) something that was bothering me.

“Usability” doesn’t improve the world. In fact, it doesn’t change a thing. […] It’s the practice of design where the change comes from.

I must say, I have a problem with where the word “usability” has ended up.

Usability practitioners have a reputation for being pedantic, and focussed on listing problems rather than proposing solutions. Some of the reputation is deserved. I know many who are quite happy to write down generalised recommendations to usability problems in longhand, rather than engaging with the real complexity of the problem and drawing the answer. Just writing “recomendation: make the submit button easier to find” does not constitute a solution at all in my book.

The term usability was officially defined as “efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction […]” in the ISO document, and the definition referred to “specific users doing specific tasks in specific contexts of use”. Once you understand those words, that covers a lot of ground and shows the very best intentions.

But somehow, usability has ended up, in the minds of many, as being just the “ease of use” part. “Can I find the button?”
The terms User experience and customer experience seem to have won the day. Those terms have a breadth to them that works. They seem to capture something important: that with great product and services, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In some cases, you can have bad parts, and still have a great user experience.
An example. There’s a lovely gastro-pub just down the road. It is decorated with cream wood panelling and amazing pink wallpaper. A warm inviting glow reaches out as you pass in the damp November street. The food is delicious, the wines well selected. Wood fires crackle happily and charming, chunky stoves. The staff are jovial, the customers are happy and all seem to be in the mood for a chat. But when you come to leave, the door need to be pushed, even though it has a pull handle!

Focussing on the handle seems churlish – even pointless. The landlord of the pub has achieved a customer experience which is truly delightful. The unusable handle is insignificant in comparison. At its worst, usability has become associated with people who would obsess about the handle, and miss out on joy of the amazing pub that surrounds it.
But ultimately, as Jared Spool says, you need a verb – design. Sitting around listing problems is at best a first step. Working out viable solutions is better. That’s why I’m proud to have been a small part of the MakingLifeEasy blog, set up for World Usability Day. There’s a lot of intelligent ideas in there for improving the designs that get listed – even the good designs. (Admittedly, the next step would be to include drawings too).  If we’re going to talk about usability for a day, we should be as constructive as possible.
Despite my reservations, I admit that considering usability can still bring joy. I went to visit my sister on the weekend before World Usability Day. She said, “I’m too stupid to know what all those buttons on the microwave do.”

My wife (UX fanatic too) set her straight. “If you can’t use it, it’s the product’s fault, not yours. That’s what usability is all about.”

“Well,” said my sister. “That is a refreshing perspective.”