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.

Continue reading “Balsamiq starts to show promise”

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.

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

Continue reading “Three blades to Occam’s Razor”

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.

Sideloading free content from the sneakernet

Mobile devices are the primary experience of personal computing for most people in emerging markets. Accessing content at prices these users can afford is all but impossible. But using sideloading and sneakernet, content can spread for free.

I was lucky enough to watch a great talk by Gary Marsden at the recent SA UX meeting in Cape Town. He talked about many interesting things, but this one captured my imagination the most.

In developing markets, mobile devices have much greater market penetration the personal computers. In South Africa, for example, around 77% of the population have mobiles but only 12% get online with PCs. So for hundreds of millions worldwide, the main, everyday experience of digital technology is probably a phone. When a phone is one of the few pieces of technology you’ve got, it’s amazing what you will use it for. In emerging markets, mobile phones are becoming a primary mechanism for reading text, storing photo albums, watching video and listening to music.

Nokia has recently announced their $50 2323 phone, along with a suite of carefully targetted custom content to address this developing market demand.

Nokia lifetools promo extract

But nearer the “bottom of the pyramid” the the cost of mobile data services is too much for most people to afford more than a trickle of bytes. Typical data consumption for a young South African might cost them around R7 per week, which is around 50 pence. Downloading MP3s or ebooks isn’t realistic. So instead, some content is percolating across the community using bluetooth sideloading and sneakernet.

Sideloading sneakernet

Sideloading is a newish term, still ill-defined. But one meaning is that people can share content from one mobile device to the next, rather than downloading it from network servers.

Sneakernets are a venerable concept, still used by even the largest companies when the cost of electronic data transfer is too high. It just means that you carry data from A to B on a storage medium, instead of sending it over a wire. Google, for example, used blocks of disks to transfer 120 terabyte files.

If you put the two together you can transfer data to mobile devices for free, across any distance. Basically, one person sends a piece of content to another using bluetooth. The recepient can share their copy with more friends, and from them it can go on to more. The potential rate of distribution grows exponentially.

Riding the sneakernet

With only 6.6 degrees of separation between everyone on the planet, it’s not hard to see that this could let content percolate quite fast. But our daily face to face contact is with far fewer people than our total network, so content will percolate more slowly, really.

Targetting connectors will help. The Tipping Point tells us that a few people in the world are connectors – they know a lot of people. To get a message out over a sneakernet, it would make sense to ensure it gets to the connectors.

In reality, it may be that most content won’t hop quickly or reliably enough from user to user for many applications. So providing physical severs in public spaces to allow bluetooth content downloads looks like a more controlled option.

Bigboard, and one example content square

To do just that, Gary Marsden’s team at the University of Cape Town, along with Microsoft Research have invented Big Board. It’s a digital message board that allows people with ordinary, bluetooth-enabled phones to download text, images, audio and video for free. Most important, it requires no extra software on the handset at all – most phones can already receive mutimedia messages via bluetooth.

What content is worth distributing? For big board, community and local content make sense. Big board can also allow content to be uploaded to it, making it true, digital message board. Education and entertainment also fit well, and are good sneakernet fuel too. I’ve heard plans for using soap opera mobisodes to provide health education and AIDS awareness messages…

Further reading

Designing future happiness

Humans are not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future. Designers need user centred design techniques to help them to overcome that limitation.

We don’t know what’s good for us

In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, describes recent research on “prospection” – the act of considering the future. Our ability to simulate future experiences is one of the things that makes us human. But our experience simulator (the pre frontal cortex) makes lots of mistakes. A key mistake is to imagine the future will be like the present.

Will people want to live in homes like these? Nope!

For example, past visions of the future included rocket cars and jet packs, but usually the people’s behaviour didn’t change a bit. Mom still hung out in the kitchen, even though the work was being done by machines. And people lived happily in high-rise, concrete complexes. Today, retro-futuristic visions are more a quaint commentary on the time when they were made than a relevant description of the present.

Yummy duck dinner. FotoosVanRobin:

On an individual level, we’re bad at predicting what experiences will make us happy in our own future. After finishing a delicious roast duck dinner at a favourite restaurant, I will be full and I will have “habituated” to the duck. So future duck dinners will not seem so appealing to me. If asked to pre-order for my next visit in a month’s time, I’m more likely to choose something other than duck. But when I arrive at the restaurant a month later, I am more likely to actually choose the duck again. When I made the choice about my future, I assumed it would be like my present, where I’d had enough of the duck. But when the future came, I was actually hungry – a frame of mind that I did not predict.

Methods for predicting the future

On a straightforward level, designers need to make this prediction: “What will people want to do with this product?” For example…

  • Will people want to shop on my website by brand, price or by specification?
  • Will people want to devote full attention to this mobile device or just glance at it?
  • Will people want to watch a 30-second animated intro to my website?
  • Will people want to click a button to clear all the data from a web form ans start again?

In all these real-life situations, the designers had to imagine future usage of their product and make decisions accordingly. A lot of them got things wrong, because they imagined that when using the finished product in the future they would be in the same frame of mind as when they were designing it.

Bringing the future to the present in a usability test

Since we’re actually better at thinking about the present than the future, designers who want robust results need to bring the future into the present. In some respects, that’s what user centred design is.

  • Ethnographic studies: Since target users are (usually) human they can’t predict accurately what will make them happy in the future. So it’s best to watch what people do instead. Study what makes them happy, and what unhappy moments you can address with design.
  • Iterative prototyping: The future product isn’t finished yet. But make a mock-up of it and get target users to try it out. By simulating real usage, you’re simulating the future more accurately than you can imagine it.
  • Scenarios and cognitive walkthroughs: Be methodical and write down what people’s future situations might be. Then you’ve got a better chance of predicting their future behaviour.
  • Field trials: For particularly huge and life-changing ideas, your prototypes need to be a bit more solid. Leave them with a select few for a while and see what you get. For example, Microsoft’s SenseCam and whereabouts clock. Or Bill Gaver’s Flight tracker.

Field trial of the  Whereabouts clock in a  family kitchen

Making future happiness evident

Designers are often asked to design things that look desirable – that convince people to buy, rather than to deliver ongoing satisfaction. In a way, the user experience design movement has been about changing that: creating products that make people happy over time.

But since our customers can’t predict what will make them happy, they might buy the wrong thing. Something with lots of impressive-looking buttons, for example. So not only does the product have to make people happy, it has to look like it will make them happy.

One trick is to emphasise simplicity (which is what seems to make most people happy) as a feature. Sometimes it works.

Using the Microsoft Ribbon without anyone getting hurt

Designing an effective Microsoft Fluent/Ribbon toolbar is not for the faint of heart. You need to understand your users’ activity in detail and plan a consistent overall experience.

I’m working on two WPF applications at the moment. For both, we have to decide whether to use traditional File/Edit/View menus or an MS-Office-style ribbon. It’s not an easy decision…

MS Office Fluent Interface Ribbon
A piece of the Ribbon, from MS Excel 2007

Pro: It appears to be built on a sound theoretical basis and Microsoft tell us they’ve researched it to death with hordes of real users. They also say they’re planning to use it more widely.

Con: Key players on both the teams I’m working with are against the ribbon. They say “I use Office all the time and I really don’t want one of those things on MY software.”

Con: Jakob Nielsen raises an eyebrow that a number of the best new applications of the year use ribbons. He points out that Microsoft have not always come up with the best interface innovations in the past. Pro: But he grudgingly admits that maybe “the Ribbon has legs”.

Con: Some surfing around yields plenty of blogs posts from frustrated ribbon users.

Pro: The techsmith team implemented a ribbon on snagit 9 and say their research showed it worked well.

Con: And a couple of bits of software that allow you to replace the ribbon in MS Office 2007 with a more traditional menu bar. That’s a sign that there’s a potential market of people desperate enough to pay to get rid of the ribbon.

So what’s going on?

Good if used with UCD

My analysis: The ribbon is a decent piece of interface, but like most things in UX, it’s hard to design it well. And to design it well you really have to understand your users’ needs, behaviours and work practices.

That’s because the ribbon tries to show commands grouped together based on what users are most likely to want to do. So in Word 2007, for example, there’s a tab for mail-merge, and one for page layout and one for referencing, whereas in Word 2003 those features are pushed lower down in a more generic menu structure. If you get the groupings right, your users will always find the selection of controls they need right there in the ribbon. But if you misunderstand what they need to do, they’ll get an irrelevant list and you’ll get complaints.

Microsoft have got a lot of it right, but a bit of it wrong.  And with Office’s massive user base, an angry, vocal minority is still a million people or more.

Three ways to get Ribbon design wrong

  1. Choose groupings that don’t mirror real-world workflow. If you group menu options together in ways that don’t reflect the way that people really work in the real world you’ll cause frustration.  PowerPoint 2007 Beta 2 had some problems with this.
  2. Make groups the wrong size. If a group isn’t properly broken down it could end up displaying too many icons on the ribbon at once, making the ribbon hard to scan. Making groups too small means people might have to hunt through have too many tabs with not much on each.
  3. Options that move about too much. If the same control appears in different areas of the Ribbon for different tabs, it becomes hard to know where to look to find what you want. For example, in PowerPoint 2007, the shapes gallery appears on several tabs in different places. If I’m in format mode, I’ll find my shapes on the left. But on the home tab, I’ll find them on the right. This makes the core activity of drawing a shape surprisingly hard to engage in. I think this sort of thing is what makes some people complain that they “can never find anything” in Office 2007.

Powerpoint ribbon: Same controls, radically different locations depending on context
The shapes gallery appears on the left of the format ribbon and the right of the home ribbon. This makes it a lot more effort to locate a key feature in PowerPoint 2007

This last point is, I think, the key issue that makes me feel uneasy about the Ribbon. As humans, we’re not very good at remembering which mode or state a machine is in. We need to look at indicators and control panels to see it. But we are quite good at remembering where a given resource or tool sits in our environment. This is because of the way things behave in the real world. Our frying pan doesn’t magically reposition itself on the hob just because we pick up some bacon. It stays put in the cupboard and we know where to find it.

So with interfaces, we might well expect that the controls we want will be in a fixed place. Remembering what mode a piece of software is in, and remembering a different control layout for each mode, is just too much. If we look up at the Ribbon and (fail to) see controls in unexpected places, it causes cognitive friction.

Update: guidelines from Microsoft

I’ve discovered some updated guidelines from Microsoft that really help. Along with other nuggets, this one addresses dockable palettes issue below…

Ribbons must be used in place of menu bars and toolbars. However, a Ribbon may be combined with palette windows and navigation elements, such as Back and Forward buttons and an Address bar.

The opposite of dockable palettes?

Dockable windows or palettes are by definition always there, regardless of what mode the application is in. That’s very different from the spirit of the Ribbon, which is supposed to be all about contextual relevance. Can the two co-exist?

Snag-It 9 seems to have included dockable windows in their interface. And even Powerpoint does actually have a few non-modal dialogs (windows you can leave open all the time while you’re doing other things) – the format shape dialog, for example. So perhaps it’s ok.

Proceeding with caution

I think I’ll suggest using a Ribbon for the applications I’m working on. We’ll need to look carefully at sensible task groupings, and make sure that features don’t jump around too much. Then usability test it a lot.

If I find any specific reasons why the Ribbon doesn’t work, I’ll post.