About Me

July 17th, 2012

User experience designer, design researcher, analyst extraordinaire, pattern-spotter, empath, mother, artist, and pet-owner who likes to build her own furniture, paint, and take bizarre self-portraits.

The Competitive Advantage of Usability

May 24th, 2013

User adoption is the primary competitive advantage for businesses today. The web or mobile interface that is the easiest to use is the one people will use. And that’s how market share is won. But what is this elusive quality called “usability?”  And how do you know if you have room to improve the usability of your web or mobile user experience?

If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, the user experience could be improved by optimizing usability.

  1.  Does the interface require training to use it?
    Usable interfaces train users through the experience of using them and don’t require extra time to learn how to operate. If the user can’t find and start using it, they will likely move on to use something else.
  2. Does it take less time to have the experience offline than it does online?
    The user interface design should help users complete tasks more efficiently than they could in real life. User interfaces should optimize, not complicate, tasks. If it is easier to make a phone and call for help than it is to find information online, the user will use the phone and the business will pay for the call. Or, the user will reach for a competing product that does a better job of optimizing their performance.
  3. Is it more enjoyable to have the experience offline than online?
    Some experiences will always be more fun in real life than they are online. We can’t design a digital hug. But user experience can be more than functional, it can be enjoyable. For example, people sleep with their iphones. People form emotional bonds with interfaces that provide them with positive experiences. The user experience should be optimized not just for function but for actual user enjoyment and consequent bonding.
  4. Does the experience require a moderator to run the experience?
    Generally, users expect a product to be self-service and do not want to invest extra time or resources into running it. An educational module may have good reason to use a teacher as a moderator, but designers can consider ways to make the interactive serve the moderator role.
  5. Is there something you could take away from the user experience and have it still run? The user experience should be free of unnecessary distractions. Simple isn’t easy, but it is the work of the user interface design to simplify decision-making for its users and optimize decision-making.

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, consider the following user research methods to discover how objective design solutions to optimize product usability:

Heuristic Evaluations are a fast and affordable way to get insight into how to improve your product usability. A usability practitioner evaluates and existing application or prototype on its ability to support user decision-making. The interface should work with the users decision-making abilities. When there is high usability, users make decisions quickly, accurately, and with precision and are able to find all available solutions. When there is low usability, the interface works against the user’s decision-making ability, obscures solutions, slows decision-making, and supports inaccuracies.  A heuristic evaluation will uncover usability problems, often discovering specific design solutions to improve product usability.

Ethnographic Research recognizes and describes the cultural qualities of a user group and notes how culture and experience affect user decision making. Ethnographic researchers go to the field – a user controlled environment – and observe people using the interface on their own devices and settings. It is important to conduct observational research because users have a very hard time describing how they make decisions. There are rules of thumb, cultural guidelines, they go by, that are assumed by their social groups, but not usually described.  An ethnographic researcher uncovers and documents these unique qualities so that the user interface design can work with and not against the user’s decision-making strategies.

In the end, any user research is better than none. Designing usable interfaces requires insights into the unique needs of the end users, the people who will actually be using the system. In the end, it is they who are the final decision-makers.

UX Rockstar

May 13th, 2013

iggy

I’ve worked with UX rockstars and noticed that they share some common traits. They are clever, creative, and extremely opinionated. When recently talking about this topic with a project manager, I learned that the last trait is the one that most distinguishes the UX rockstars from the UX regulars. “The people who freak when I suggest they change a scroll bar, for example, are the one’s who tend to be the most innovative.”

Hmmmm…

The truth about user experience design is that it is entirely subjective. User experience includes the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes of the user. We can’t optimize design solutions for usability without gaining observing how beliefs, experience, and attitudes impact user decision-making. Some users like print-format forms and making reservations by phone, and they can’t say why and might not admit it even if you asked. Design is problem solving. As UX practitioners, we optimize decision-making. We must observe, listen, and learn what the user wants. We can’t just crunch survey results or check out the competition and call it understanding.

I can see where the rockstars are good to have around. They take away indecision. And there is value in that. We can’t navel gaze our way through projects. We have to get a design done. We have to make decisions quickly and deliver results on time. So, I realized that I am the most un-rockstar of the UX world. Because I don’t know the right design decision without putting it in front of the user.. Ultimately, its their user experience and they will decide if its a positive one or not.

I think too often we UX practitioners skip that process: the part where we talk to the actual end users. I’ve heard lots of excuses as to why. But, honestly, the biggest obstacle to user-centric design is the consulting services sales models, which manages the project to delivery, not results, as a target. The UX rockstars are the one’s designers who claim to know best and they can’t be proven wrong as long as the project is delivered. They work well in the service industry. User adoption rates, task times, and user satisfaction is what we are selling when we sell user experience design. And if we track no metrics of success, we’re just moving boxes and dollars.

Gender Preferences: Scroll versus Click?

May 13th, 2013

GenderNeuutral

I was recently assigned to redesign an interactive education module for 12-17 year olds. I found myself at a disadvantage because I haven’t worked on educational content before and I am not 12-17 years old. The project has no user research budget. Since I need user input to design, I sent draft designs to colleagues with children in this age group to get some user feedback. After all, any user research is better than none.

An interesting pattern emerged. From my sample size of 5, the results were clearly split along gender lines. The design that presented content in a slideshow format (more clicking, less scrolling) was preferred “by a mile” by males. The scrolling design was “strongly” preferred by females.  Both groups justified their preferences by calling their design choice “more interactive.”

What gives?

While I’d love to do more research, I am left to wonder. It isn’t easy to snag up 12-17 year olds for questioning. “My wife likes to know the end of a movie at the beginning” one colleague quipped. Which got me thinking about gender differences when watching TV. I know for myself, in my previous married life, I felt on the verge of seizures when trying to patiently wait for my spouse to stop flipping through channels with the remote. It seemed in those dark nights that flipping the remote was his version of watching TV. I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t care if the show was boring. I was ready to commit to it.

Could it be that there is a true gender divide? Do women want more control, to know how the story ends, to be able to scroll down to the last sentence before going back to the top? Do men like taking action, even if its repetitive? As one user explained when said he’s have to wait for each page to load “I don’t care. How long does it take for a page to load?”

Here’s hoping I get a chance to turn this sample size into something more meaningful. For the project, I it was good to know that scrolling wasn’t going to make-or-break the design. Because trying to get everything above the fold was going to add a lot to front-end development time. However, the question lingers…are men and women really that different in their interaction design preferences? (shudder)

Penney’s

March 16th, 2013

jc-penny

My Mom has worked at JC Penney for nearly 30 years. She told me they removed the registers and gave sales people tablets to use to check out customers. She said they recently had a bunch of markdowns, so people were buying tons of items. She had to hold the tablet and manually override each item. “Man, my wrist hurt at the end of the day” she moaned. I am trying to picture how checkout works when a person clears a rack of items marked down to $9.99. Where do they lay their pile of stuff? Because that’s how Penney’s shoppers shop. And I don’t want my Mom’s wrist to get broken from markdowns.

“Customers hate the new tablets” she told me. Her customers are concerned about security and ask her “Is my credit card information stored in that thing?” And she doesn’t really know how to answer them. She tells them its OK, but she’s not really sure. “I think it does keep their information” she confessed. She spends a few minutes each transaction coaxing her customers through the process.

I did a couple of runs as a Penney’s employee myself while working my way through school. I learned about the quirks in the corporate culture, like how they kept no dimes in the tills because James Cash Penney hated Roosevelt; and how they (used to) pay employees time and a half for working on Sundays. James Cash Penney started his career at a line of shops called “The Golden Rule.” When I think of my mother’s wrist and the anxious customers, I wonder where the move to tablets will fit in narrative of the brand’s history.

Embrace the Unknown

August 25th, 2012

SmallMagellanicCloud

“The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Asking open-ended questions makes a lot of people nervous. For example, a technical project manager kept pressing me for my specific list of questions for a stakeholder interview we were working on together. I had submitted questions in advance weeks before. As the meeting neared, she kept asking me for more. I could feel that she was nervous about wasting the stakeholder’s time, by looking unprepared or uninformed.  She showed me her specific technical questions and system architecture diagrams. I told her I didn’t need to understand why the system was the way it was, I needed to understand how it should be.  I was confident that opened-ended questions about business processes would give me all the information I needed to know. I told her I would take the blame if the stakeholder didn’t respond well to the interview, but that I wasn’t going to change or add to the questions on my list.

We went to the meeting and I asked open-ended questions about business goals and processes first. As I talked to the decision maker in a conversational tone, the technical project manager took notes and chimed in with follow-up questions. After I finished asking my questions, I asked her if she had any more. She looked at her list and said no. As we exited the room together, she told me “Wow, I got all my questions answered without evening asking them and discovered a few things about systems and processes I didn’t know before.”

You can’t conduct discovery without allowing for all the questions you don’t know that you need to ask. No matter how certain you are that you know the client’s goals, objectives, and priorities; no matter how long you’ve worked for the organization or how glaringly apparent the usability problems are, if you are revisiting design, you must ask the decision maker open-ended questions about why.  The need for the redesign comes from within the organization somehow, before the technical talent comes on site. You must discover something new about the business process that has created the need for your services to fuel each iteration of design. Showing up as a know-it-all blocks elegance and creative insights.

Embrace the unknown in your questions. Start from a clean slate. Let the story unfold its self again, new. And use what you discover about the nuances of change to fuel user scenarios you want to test in research.

Callers

July 20th, 2012

bread

One of the first creative exercises on any UX project is figuring out what your measure of success is going to be and identifying some metrics to track return. Usually, identifying metrics comes first because measuring success objectively is a challenge. At what time is “success” attained? Quantifiable data like traffic statistics, survey results, or call center volume are pretty standard success trend trackers. But, using a decrease in call center volume as a measure of success may be wrong for the project. You want to set the proper expectations with the client. What if your core audience is callers, people who find phone conversation an essential part of the user experience?

As an introvert I have a hard time understanding why someone would want to do by phone what they could do online. But user research has shown me there are at least two demographic groups that prefer to pick up the phone:

  1. Luxury brand consumers
  2. The elderly

Luxury Brand Consumers

In user research for one luxury brand I was astounded to hear user after user say they would pick up the phone to make a transaction, even if they were online at the time. It didn’t matter if it was a male 27 year-old promoter or a female 53 year-old lawyer they all agreed that they would want to talk to someone on the phone. Their reasoning was that on the phone they’d get a better price and personalized service. Personalized service is important to this audience as is the idea of having “people,” contacts, networks, names that get them in the door, even if the door isn’t closed. For them, the phone call is about exclusivity and status.

The Elderly

The elderly are the underdogs of the online world. Small text sizes, the popularity of low contrast designs, and cluttered pages with information overload make life online more difficult for them. On top of those basic usability problems is the question of trust. The elderly don’t have a problem giving up their social security number when needed – they grew up filling out paper forms. They are used to following process and procedure and not really knowing why it has to be done that way – it just does. That learned behavior sometimes makes it hard for the inexperienced user to understand the context online. Plus, they get targeted for scams. “I would pick up the phone right now and ask them ‘Are you for real?’” one elderly user told me in research.

I understand the motivations of both demographics to call and wouldn’t want to take the call experience away from them. It’s nice to go where everyone knows your name. And it’s nice to talk to the business you’re interacting with, particularly when you feel lost in a web of content you can’t read.

Still, I am a UX designer, so I ask myself “What would it take to convert more behavior to online behavior for these audiences?” Online transactions are going to be cheaper than face-to-face or phone-to-phone transactions. I like metrics and a challenge.

Some Ideas

Appeal to the Caller. If you know your users are going to want to call, make an 800 number part of the online experience. Put it front and center, where your purchase or reservation button may go. And make it a 800 number because even if luxury consumers can afford to dial direct international calling is a headache and making them do it is low class.

Transition to Digital. Have people on the phone trained to gently, personally encourage users to move toward digital behavior.

For the elderly, this could be explaining to them all the things they can do online, guiding them through a task, sending them links via email. Make sure the email template is styled in the authority of brand voice. It’s about building trust and user confidence. Plus, the users you train will likely tell their friends what they can do online and help train the audience for you. Talking through a task invites them to participate in the online world and maybe they want to be included. It’s a worthy investment.

For the luxury consumer, this could be taking note of their personal preferences and transitioning them to a mobile experience. Load personal preferences for them. Don’t make them do the data entry. Give them a local number. Send them a text. Get them started and put it on their phone so they feel close to you.

Of course, these are just some general ideas. The point is that just as print is part of user experience, so is the phone. Weaving different communication channels together is part of the art of user experience. Don’t discount the callers.

Usability Starts Off Line: Pay Attention­ to the Print

July 19th, 2012

I recently worked on the redesign of a web application for a client. We agreed that measures of success for the project would be improved customer satisfaction scores from online surveys and fewer calls to the call center. I came up with a concept and created a prototype to use for research. The client’s call center recruited users and we did multiple rounds of qualitative user testing. During one research session, I had a few technical glitches and the user began to tell me more about her experience with the brand overall. Listening to her talk, I made a surprising discovery: the client’s website starts off line. In fact, the main navigation path to the website is off line.

I wonder how many other clients position their web product and address within print mailings that a UX team would never see? Often times, those materials are created by a marketing or policy group who may not be involved in the redesign, particularly of a members-only application. The print materials were the main navigation path to the application I was designing and I hadn’t seen any of them.

On this particular project, customers were notified by snail mail that they were able to use the online application. At the same time they were given some intense deadlines to respond to. It was the harsh tone of the deadline that most concerned the user I spoke to and prompted her to call the call center. “I want to know what information they have about me” she said. And I knew my client’s goal with the scary deadline was to get her to do just that — verify that her contact information was correct. The business goals and user goals were aligned. But fear isn’t the best user experience. The frightened customer called the call center. The call center representative led the user through the process of setting up an online account over the phone. However, her call for help had nothing to do with the usability of the web application. The call was prompted by her anxiety over the tone of the print materials. As the user told me “it’s the easiest thing in the world to use” about the prototype we tested, adding “I don’t see how you could make it any easier.” Yet, her call to the call center would likely count against the project’s measures of success even though the usability problem was off line. Revising one paragraph of the client’s print mailings made a world of difference in tone and helped set user expectations. The usability problem wasn’t where I expected it to be, but I’m glad I found it.

My advice to anyone redesigning their web product is to review and revise your print materials as part of the redesign. Include the revised print materials in your research scenario. Aligning print and web content and labels builds consumer trust whereas dissonance between the two creates user doubts, maybe even fear, and diminishes brand legitimacy. Reviewing print materials may require talking to people who aren’t immediate stakeholders in your project. Print marketing and web marketing and policy are often disjointed within large organizations. But if the customer is getting print mailings that lead them to the website (rewards promotions, account notifications, statements, etc.) those mailing are part of the user experience. Pay attention to the print.

10 Tips on Doing User Research with No Budget

July 18th, 2012

You can’t do good design without doing user research.  As UX professionals, it’s our job to make sure we produce good design. Ultimately, it’s the user who decides if we’ve done our jobs or not. Whether or not clients pay for user research, they are certainly paying for good design. So, here are my 10 tips on doing user research when there is no user research budget.

  1. Use existing analytics. If you are redesigning a site or product, review all existing data on traffic patterns, errors, and any survey results since the product’s last launch. Get a sense for what is going right and what is going wrong with the existing product. Don’t expect a single point of contact on the client side to have all the information you need. Do the leg work and pull the data together.
  2. Add the call center to your list of stakeholders to interview. If your client has a call center, interview the call center employees.  Observe the call center at work if you can. Even just an hour is great. The call center knows better than anyone else in the business what the user problems and perceptions are. And when you interview stakeholders, ask them about analytics.  Try to make questions open-ended so the answers can surprise you. Surprise is good.
  3. Identify key scenarios. Once you’ve reviewed existing analytics and aggregated stakeholder requirements, you can begin to sketch out key user scenarios. Make sure these scenarios come with measures of success so you can plan to gather analytics for the next product launch. UX is cyclical – line up your next success early. Ground scenarios in the return on investment they can demonstrate.
  4. Mock-up the concept by any means necessary. Sketches, HTML prototypes, iRise, Axure, comps; use whatever works for your timeline and your team to get the concept to a point that it can be shared. It’s better to get user feedback too early than too late.
  5. Users are humans. Remember – what you are testing for is human computer interaction. So, it is vital that you test with a human. Even if the user comes with a bias, even if the sample size isn’t statistically relevant, it’s better than nothing.  There are humans around you. User research is always possible. If your client is targeting a particular generation, try to get users from that age group. But, first and foremost, test with a human.  If you are going to use colleagues or friends as for testing, give them a persona so they have context for testing.
  6. Revise between tests. Don’t wait for multiple users to report a problem. If a problem is spotted in the first test, fix it before the second test.   Adapt and evolve your concept rapidly and trust the process.
  7. Use the tools.  Moderated, unmoderated, remote, field, lab; there are a lot of ways to structure a usability test. My personal favorite is watching users in their native environments. But there are a lot of tools out there to help you conduct remote unmoderated tests. They won’t give you much qualitative insight into user behaviors, but they basically run themselves and are way better than nothing.
  8. Don’t judge the user. I’m always surprised at what users have to say. I’ve seen users misunderstand scenarios and I could not fathom how they could be confused. That is why user research is so important. Take all feedback into consideration, even the seeming outliers. Stay objective. Don’t be afraid to get a little off topic. Sometimes the golden insight is found when the user drifts off your scenario. Trust the process.
  9. Don’t make it a separate deliverable. If your client isn’t budgeting for user research, don’t turn the research findings into a fancy deliverable. Take the notes you need and put your energy to use refining design.
  10. Defend design decisions. Armed with analytics, interviews, and user research, you will be able to objectively defend design decisions. It doesn’t mean you will win every argument. But you will be able to elevate your view to fact in a sea of opinion.  Advocate for the user, always.

Are you a UX pro? How are you keeping users a part of your UX design process?

UX Manifesto

July 18th, 2012

revolutionary

  1. Users are human.
  2. Watch what humans do, not what they say they do.
  3. Do not judge the user.
  4. Leave no user behind.
  5. Embrace the unknown. You cannot know everything a user needs without research.
  6. Do user research. Advocate for users backed by facts not opinions.
  7. Welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong.
  8. Maintain relevancy through evolution, adaptation, and innovation.
  9. Let go of the past.
  10. Listen to your clients. And then lead them to best product/solution possible.

Are you a UX practitioner? What’s your manifesto?

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