Recently, I’ve started to wonder what really matters to me here in life. The answers have surprised me and I’d like to share one of them with you now.
Over time, I’ve acquired more personal property than most. I have many physical things that live in boxes, papers I’ve archived and will never read again, and the still-packed remnants of my late parent’s home filling my attic.
But here’s my epiphany: most of this stuff just doesn’t matter. Except maybe the good wine glasses ☺
Oh, I love my books. I love my piano. I have some paintings that mean a lot to me. But that’s all – just a tiny fraction of the physical stuff that clutters my life. Even family photos are somewhat irrelevant; what’s in my memory is far more meaningful than faded images in a tattered folder. When I say my head is in the clouds, think in terms of cloud computing, not naïveté.
Working too hard, achieving too little
Suddenly, I realized what I had long suspected: Good user experience, UX, is a question of less rather than more. Much much less than what most practitioners…practice.
We don’t need to analyze 150 touchpoints along the customer journey; instead we should focus our attention on finding those few essential moments that make a truly meaningful difference. We don’t need 1000 pages on our website, only the dozen or so that truly tell our story. Do we really need to clutter up our message with a QR code? Perhaps not. And we certainly shouldn’t be spending more to produce strategy documents than on creating the artifacts that contribute directly to UX. Or inventing new names for time-honored techniques.
How to do it
This is the seemingly tough part. Yet in truth it is remarkably easy.
Imagine you’re about to buy a house. You walk in. You take in the big view. When you leave, you have a selection of impressions imbedded in your brain. These are the key issues. It is only when you decide to buy the house that you make detailed measurements, consult an architect and an interior designer and other specialists.
So, in terms of UX, I beg you to roll things back a bit. Try and remember the big picture, before you get bogged down in site statistics, and all the specialties that characterize our industry.
The big picture is where the true UX story lies. Is “God in the details?” Where UX is concerned, it strikes me that the Devil is in the details.
As designers, we need to take off our eyeglasses. We need to spot the big fuzzy shapes. They will almost always define the elements of UX on which we should later focus.
We must not allow ourselves to be so blinded by our amazing opportunities to examine big data, that we can no longer see the forest for all the little digital trees. Alas, it appears user experience is rapidly becoming the stooge of big data. We bow before the alter of obscure statistics. Yet, these data will never move us beyond the “what.” Our talent as designers lies in discovering the “why” and communicating this effectively. If we fail to do so, we will never convey the needed empathy toward either our users or our stakeholders.
I grew up in an unusual household. As the son of politically aware scientists, by the time I was six, my greatest passions were music, baseball, antique cars, and nuclear isotopes.
What I learned at a very young age has served me well in promoting the benefits of user experience (UX) to my clients and community. Please bear with me through a long ramble. Hopefully, you’ll think it was worthwhile.
Where I’m coming from…
My parents were founding members of the St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information, CNI. Back in the late 1950s, they realized that above-ground nuclear testing was eventually going to kill people due to air-borne radioactive fallout entering the food chain. But how could they convince politicians that this was something that should be addressed? After all, increases in thyroid cancer wouldn’t appear for another 20-30 years. By that time, the powers-that-be would be retired or dead. Clearly emotional arguments were not going to work.
CNI’s tactic was one from which the user-experience professionals could learn: opinion-based projects generally fail. Fact-based projects generally succeed. In 1959, CNI started to collect deciduous teeth and measure the Strontium-90 that children had absorbed through the food chain. The results were published in 1961. No emotion. No hyperbole. Just solid scientific data.
The work of the CNI played a key role in bringing about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Linus Pauling ran off with the Nobel Peace Prize. But the grunt work was done in St. Louis. (I was always fascinated by Pauling’s missing incisor)
Sadly, the death projections made back in 1961 have proven to be true. The evidence from the St. Louis study is so powerful that it provided the baseline from which the Japanese government evaluated the Fukushima disaster.
For those of you who are scientifically and historically inclined here’s a link:
And what can the UX community learn from this?
Today, the user-experience community is still basing far too much of its work on opinion rather than facts. And to be frank, why should our opinion weigh more than that of a CEO who wants to put pictures of kittens on the home page? Or an eager brand manager who thinks an iPhone app will further his flagging career?
This is why books like Susan Weinschenk’s “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People”
is important. And Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational.”
Or even my blogpost from 2011
about the limbic system and how dopamine production affects our ability to make rational design choices at different stages in the development process.
If our community is going to actively sell the concept of user experience, we need hard data. Yet at every conference I attend, I hear about new tools, new techniques, new processes –but almost never about unassailable scientific results that demonstrate replicability. Sadly, most of the case stories I hear are merely glorified advertising. Moreover, like touching the hot iron as a child, learning about what doesn’t work is also important.
Can we trust the source?
A few years ago, I was told by a professor at the University of Bergen (Norway) that red buttons demonstrated a 21% better conversion rate than green buttons. And if you google “submit button” and look at the images, the preponderance of red buttons suggests that there is some truth to this statement. Unfortunately, when I tried to trace this “fact” back to the source, it appears to have come from a blogpost, with virtually no supporting data whatsoever.
As was pointed out in one of the better sessions at the recent IA Summit in Baltimore, we need to show up at meetings and presentations armed with hard data. Printouts. Case stories. Anything to back up our point of view. Yet where are these reports and statistics? No, not just basic usability studies, but solid facts that establish a baseline and demonstrate concrete changes following the application of specific UX techniques.
Can we game the exceptions to the rule?
As a former smoker, I was immune to the scientific data. I knew cigarettes killed. In fact, my father died of lung cancer, yet even this wasn’t enough to keep me away from my beloved unfiltered Camels. Talk to a smoker, and you can present facts that prove that quitting will increase their longevity. But it won’t work. The trick is to show that smoking now projects a highly negative image. There’s no advantage for women to wear trendy Italian boots if their clothes stink of smoke.
Yet talk to a CEO, and you can present facts that prove that UX will improve their conversions. More importantly, if you can show that better results will improve his or her standing within the organization, you can hit two nails squarely on the head simultaneously.
The difference is one of timing (demonstrating short-term wins for a manager looking for a promotion). And killing off magical thinking (“This doesn’t apply to me,” proclaims the nicotine addict). And showing the before-and-after results based on an earlier baseline (“This is where we were. This is what we did. And look where we are now.”).
Case in point: I recently rewrote a couple of landing pages for a client (a traditional ad agency had provided the original content). My approach increased conversions dramatically. Despite my NDA, I need to find a way to document this case. Internally within the client organization, they are using the statistics to build a case for bigger budgets. And they are now giving my company thousands of dollars worth of work on almost a daily basis.
I know other companies are experiencing the same kinds of wins. But where is the data being collected? Isn’t it high time we stop talking about the tools of our trade and start demonstrating the value of our craft?
Can we circumvent the NDA?
There are lots of stories waiting to be told. Because I am discreet, many people confide in me. I mentor. I guide. And I know these data exist. But recalcitrant project managers, cagey legal departments, reluctant middle managers, and impotent brand managers team up to say: “Don’t you dare say a word about this. Our baseline is so shitty, we don’t dare admit how stupid we’ve been.” So the best stories remain behind the curtain.
Let me suggest a solution.
Let us work to create an organization that will verify the results of a project, without revealing the origin. Issuing the “trust” certificates we see on e-commerce sites. Hey, I really don’t care if Coca-Cola screwed up; what I want to know is what problem they identified and what they did to improve things. In strictly generic terms. Something I can learn and apply to my work.
There’s a business opportunity here. For the certifying organization, who will undoubtedly charge for their services. But more importantly, for all of us who are still bogged down in the Grimpin Mire where bean-counting hounds frothingly attack our methods, budgets, and raison d’etre.
Here's a list of about 20 things that you want to have with you when a hurricane strikes. Not just "around the house," but WITH YOU, preferrably right there on your hip.
No, I’m not a paranoid prepper, but my family did live in South Florida for 40 years, so I know what hurricanes can do – and I’ve been trapped in enough of them myself to know what I want close at hand in a worst-case situation.
“Worst case” can be several things. Generally, it means you are without food, water, electricity, or shelter. You may be trapped and you may be injured. My fanny pack will help you through the first 24 hours and hopefully longer.
I’m no Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. I'm not trying to be overly dramatic. I’m just a middle-aged businessman who has learned some basic hurricane survival techniques and would like to share them.
Why a fanny pack and not a backpack?
Yes, a backpack is larger. But the fanny pack is something you can wear ALL THE TIME. I discovered how important this is when I went outside during a lull in Hurricane Wilma. We were between feeder bands, the wind was low and the sun was shining. I left our Florida house, walked 30 yards to the street to check out the situation, the weather blew up and I spent an eternity clinging to a ficus tree while the next feeder band passed through. Believe me, when things get serious, they get serious FAST.
So, even though a fanny pack doesn’t make much of a fashion statement, it is eminently practical.
Why didn’t you include a cellphone?
Yes. Your cellphone is important. But in a storm, you lose both power and cell towers. Don’t count on having service after a storm hits. More importantly, your phone should be in your pocket, not in a fanny pack. Finally, unless you really have an emergency, you shouldn’t be using your phone anyway – don’t tie up valuable bandwidth updating your Facebook page – except for perhaps a single short message to tell friends that you are OK.
Here’s the unprioritized list. Feel free to modify depending on the size of your pack.
- Extra keys
- Flashlight / batteries
- Antiseptic cream
- Toothbrush / toothpaste
- Identification / bank cards
- Pencil / paper
- Cheap digital watch
- Swiss army knife
- Multi-purpose tool
- Lighter / matches / candle
Let’s look at these, one by one.
When the electricity fails, so do the ATMs. You may not even be able to get to a cash machine. So, keep cash on hand. The photo illustrates 20s, but make sure to have 10s and 5s, too. People don’t make change during emergencies. If all you have is a 20, you’re going to pay 20 for whatever it is you need.
To your house, car, office. Trust me, if you really get hit, keys tend to get lost.
If you need reading glasses, put an extra pair in your kit. This is really an optional thing, but eyeglasses, like keys, get lost during emergencies.
Keep about 4-6 feet. I prefer jute to nylon as I can break the individual strands by hand or with my teeth if things really go wrong. You’ll want this to make a tourniquet or to hold a door open or for simply securing stuff that broke. As to tourniquets, if you’re really in trouble and need to protect an arm or a leg, you can also use the belt off the fanny pack itself.
For attracting attention if you are trapped. Let’s hope you’ll never need it – like the whistles attached to every life vest you’ve ever seen demonstrated when you board an airplane. C’mon folks, nobody makes this stuff up just for their own amusement.
Flashlight / extra batteries
If you’re sitting in a shuttered house when the electricity is out, a flashlight is extremely useful. Almost two million Floridians sat through a week without electricity during Hurricane Francis. I know because I was there. Get one with a flat base so you can set it on its end, for example during a meal. The reflected light from a white ceiling can be very practical when several people need to navigate a space or accomplish a task simultaneously.
But be sensible: batteries in the average flashlight only last a couple of hours, so be conservative in your use. For example, big old D-cells in a flashlight with a traditional incandescent bulb will only last three to four hours.
Band-aids, aspirin, antiseptics
These are for small cuts and such. Water is often contaminated when sewage systems and water supplies become mixed. The idea here is to prevent infections from minor wounds, not provide full first-aid treatment for major injuries. Hence, no gauze or larger bandages. Tear your shirt if you need to make a pressure pad to stop major bleeding.
Toothbrush / toothpaste
Nice to have. Brushing your teeth makes you feel somewhat civilized when you’re stuck in a hurricane shelter with 1000 other stinky people who have been evacuated.
Identification / bank cards
Most guys carry a wallet in their pocket, so this may not be so important to them. But, women, assume your purse is going to get lost. Keep the most important things with you at all times!
Pencil / paper / post-its
Forget Sharpies and other writing tools. Get yourself a big, fat, carpenter’s pencil that won’t break. Carry a pad of paper and even some post-its so you can leave messages for friends and family.
A granola bar, a candy bar, whatever. As long as it will provide you with a little energy and relieve the hunger pains if you are waiting to be rescued. Make sure it’s something that can be unwrapped with one hand and eaten without utensils.
Cheap digital watch
Mine came from K-Mart for 10 bucks. It’s waterproof and has a lighted dial. And in a hurricane, it beats the hell out of my expensive Rolex Submariner in terms of practicality. The lighted dial is an important feature as hurricane aftermaths are characterized by lack of electricity/lighting. And yes, this is better off on your wrist than in the fanny pack.
Multi-purpose tools / Swiss Army knife
I have both a cheap, knock-off Leatherman and a Swiss Army knife in my kit. Of all the many features, the knife blade is perhaps the most important of all. The can opener can easily become the second-most important feature. By the way, if you're stocking up on food, get cans of stuff that can be eaten cold. Van Camps pork and beans are good and nutritious. Canned tuna is good. Spaghetti-Os and other stuff from Chef Boyardee are at least relatively tasty, when eaten with your fingers out of a cold can.
Lighter / matches / candle
The American Red Cross says to use flashlights, not candles. Well, flashlights have a much shorter useful lifetime than candles, and if you are sitting in the dark, a little light provides a lot of comfort. I carry a tea candle and a simple gas lighter. The gas lighter will dry out faster than matches if it gets wet, and although the flame is not as hot as a match, it’s still hot enough to sterilize a knife blade if the need arises.
A real candle will burn at about 1 inch per hour; if you have room in your fanny pack, put one in.
I guess that’s about it. Stay safe. And do take all this seriously. I know it’s all a huge laugh afterwards when the storm has passed and nothing really happened. But sometimes these storms DO hit…
A few days ago I got so frustrated with Korean Airlines’ online booking system I decided to share the horror with the rest of the world.
I admit, because of what I do I am a bit more sensitive about bad web pages. Sometimes I overreact and get cranky (you web designers know what I mean). But this is the second time I’ve ever gotten so far as to write about my bad experience on the web.
The whole thing started the previous night, when I lost my patience with their web site and called the sales line to make the order with a live person. I was surprised that the toll free number connected me to the USA (I live in Europe). The overseas call was paid by Korean Airlines so I did not care. I was connected to a nice lady, who spent about 20 minutes with me trying to find the right flight. What was very surprising to me was that she couldn’t email me the options she found, that my only options were either to buy the flight right then and there or write down all the times and flight numbers and hope I could find the paper again the next time I call the sales line. The lady was so kind and helpful I took a deep breath and wrote down all the details. Which I lost the next day, so I had to give the web a second chance.
I was buying two long distance flights for approximately three thousand dollars
The next morning I opened the Korean Airlines site, which is a narrow (760px) stripe looking a bit funny in the middle of my big monitor. Approximately 90% of the narrow space was covered with ads, menus and options I did not care about. What I needed was the flight booking form displayed using gray on gray tiny font, where the select boxes with dates are so small the data does not even fit and is partially hidden.
(This is a screenshot in actual size, the letters blending into each other is what gets displayed on the actual site)
When filling this form one has to choose the continent and then the city for the departing and return destinations. It is not possible to type in the airport code, or the date, which has to be selected from a miniature calendar. This turned out to be quite annoying when I filled out the form for the tenth time.
The next page showed the date I had selected with a price matrix displaying three previous and following days. I was flexible in the dates, so I wanted to make sure the previous or following weeks are not significantly cheaper, but I could not change the dates in the matrix, I had to go back to the home screen and keep filling the booking form again and again. Filling the stupid form from scratch every single time!
After about ten iterations I found the flight I wanted for $1200 and proceeded to selecting the flight times and other usual stuff. After 10 minutes of fine-tuning our journey to the maximum degree of perfection I realized I forgot to add my soon-to-be wife (I was booking a honeymoon) and I could not add another passenger at this point.
I had to start all over again.
At this moment I was getting really irritated, so the next obvious thing was that I made a mistake in the date. My excuse: I could not clearly see the date in the booking form, because it was half hidden in the small “select” box. When I discovered my mistake, the only option was to start all over again.
The next attempt got me almost there. I had gone through the price matrix, times, and even the inconvenient login form, this time I typed my and my girlfriend's names and proceeded to the checkout, gave my card number, billing address, expiration date, security code and all that. At the final check I realized my girlfriend will have different name after the wedding. Being so far in the process I could not believe I could not go back to change the name and my only option was to start all over again!
I thought it will go fast this time. But after filling the destinations, dates and number of passengers, the price had changed and the flights were now $350 more expensive.
And here I have to admit I lost control and almost broke the keyboard.
I had spent almost two hours with this, did not accomplish anything and felt angry and defeated for the rest of the day.
How is it possible that airlines with billion dollar budgets give such a poor user experience when they’re booking a ticket - the most crucial part of their business? Fixing this problem by adding a back button is probably less expensive then the tickets I have bought. Changing the layout of their web, such that users can see the important information, would cost less than what KA must have paid for the phone call I made the to customer support centre?
How can a company be so ignorant and blind about how users interact with their systems?
On 25th of Novemeber I have visited the conference WebTop100
and here is some notes and interesting quotes I have heard:
First presentation was given by Jiri Suchy
, the man who stands behind the redesign of O2 web pages. Link
His team tends to speak to the stakeholders and collect expectations not requirements, because expectations do not necessarily have to be implemented.
When redesigning in the corporation one good solution is sometimes forced on behalf of another good solution.
Give the job to good and motivated people. Give them the authority and trust that they will do a good job.
Programmers should not design UX but need to know the reasons behind particular decisions.
It is not possible to satisfy 100% of the users, stakeholders and your ego.
Second presentation was by Petr Štědrý
from Dobrý Web. Him and his team has redesigned a web of Sencor in just 14 days.
Petr believes, that the problems in design needs to be communicated visually and that everybody can draw sufficiently to be able to participate on the "discussion".
They have started the project by the design workshop, where all the stakeholders did 3 round of drawing of their vision.
Next in line was Daniel Frouz
, the owner of InetPrint, company providing not just promo materials and prints. He spoke about the redesign of their extensive portal/eshop, where they have reached some remarkable improvements in conversion rate.
Recomendation: leave enough time for the usability testing. Which should come as soon as possible in the design phase. During the implementation it is too late.
They started the project by setting the main goals and did a brainstorming using the mind maps.
When cooperating with external agencies, it is important to communicate extensively.
Various visual designs have to be done by multiple visual designers.
They decide to provide the prices on the web, but they plan on blocking suspicious request from their competition.
I did not make much notes from the presentation of Jiří Chromát
from Seznam.cz. Not that it was not interesting, but because I do not know much about czech Pay Per Click and their system sClick.
The next presentation was given by Petra Brodílková
from Google. The only woman on the agenda (as she has presented herself). She has revealed some nice features for the online marketers, to be used in the very near future.
Remarketing - you will be able to identify the visitors of your web pages, for whom your specified adds will be display when they browse the web. How cool is that!
She has introduced a google optimizer. A tool which automatically creates the online marketing campaigns and while it runs the campaigns, it learns itself and optimizes along the way.
She has mentioned an application Our Mobile Planet, which shows statistics of mobile usages. For some it might be a well known thing, but for me it was a cool new application.
Then she has advertised the AdMob. A system for online advertisement on mobile phones. In the Czech Republic it has 1.7M users and over 100M impressions.
Petra also spoke of the TrueView, a system which allows you to post video ads before the Youtube videos. I personally find those ads annoying and skip them, but important thing is, that the advertiser only pays, if the viewer sees the whole clip!
The next presenter came late, so after 5 minutes of waiting I left for a coffee and got sucked into the discussion with Jiří Suchý
and Ondřej Kratochvíl
about what it is like to be a UX designer in the big corporation.
The next presentation was by Ondřej Kratochvíl
, about the critical state of the UX in the Czech Republic. From my point of view this was the best speech - bold and critical.
From Ondrej's perspective thee is 3 main problems when it come to czech web pages: Trying to be different no matter what, Putting everything into the menu, Not explaining clearly what is the company about.
It is important to deal with UX as a whole, not just the usability testing.
It is important to deal with UX across the all channels, not just web.
It is important to communicate with external agencies.
UX can not be measured, and therefore it attract lots of incapable people.
The most important marker is the "customer satisfaction" (even more important then sales)
Constant patching is often so expensive, that it is better and more effective to do a complete re-design.
For the next presentation of Martin Kalda
from Mather, my attention has been weakening, so even when the presentations were interesting I just could not keep my full concentration:
Designers use the filler texts "loren ipsum", which they later replace. However they also use the filler images from the databases, which the don't! And so we have the webs full of annoying young professionals shaking hands.
- We do the webs for the companies, not for the CEOs.
By default, companies should have the brand manual and use it!
from Skype has complaint about the security of the webs. One of the sites he found so offensive, that he decided to punish the owners by hacking it (live). Unlike everyone else, I did not find this so amusing. I was thinking about the owners of the page who will have to spent their money to fix this and everyone else who has to spend our money to protect agains hackers like Michal.
At the end Jan Havel
from Actum had an interesting presentation, not just visually, about our fears and phobias when it comes to designing webs.
What stops us from doing things properly is the fear.
Clients do not improve the agency by micromanaging it. Give them the trust and authority.
Agencies fight the micromanagement using the method of ugly green stain. They place something horrible on the design, for the client to complain about it, winning this battle and not complaining about anything else.
Every self-respecting agency is counting the time and charges for extra work.
If we make a bad decision, but quickly, it can be fixed. However, if we hesitate with the decision nothing is done and nothing can be fixed.
It is important to see where the money is.
Investors have totally lost confidence in the leadership of the Danish windmill giant, Vestas. Earlier this week, on October 31, 2011, their stock plummeted almost 25% - the most recent, most dramatic swing in a roller-coaster ride that started in 2008.
This most recent disaster was triggered by a discreet announcement late Sunday evening that a German turbine factory, owned by Vestas, couldn’t deliver on time, which was going to severely reduce earnings for the year.
I’ve been monitoring Vestas for over a year, not as an investor, but because I am fascinated by how poorly this company handles social media. Let me be blunt: Vestas just doesn’t get it - and it has cost them millions.
A story about “Black Tuesday”
On the morning of October 26, 2010, I read the headline on the Danish business newspaper, Børsen, that Vestas was going to fire 3000 employees. At 9:45, someone told me that Vestas’ CEO, Ditlev Engel was holding a press conference at 10:00. Around 10:15, another colleague told me that a Danish windmill company was declaring bankruptcy and that there would be a statement at 11:00.
About 10:20, as Engel rambled on to the press corps (streamed live on the internet), the first remarks started to appear on Twitter: “So when is he going to tell us the company has gone bust?” Actually, another, smaller windmill company, Skycon, had gone into receivership. Although this news had been announced earlier that morning, the particulars were overshadowed by the happenings at Vestas. No interesting statements were made at 11:00.
However, looking at Vestas’ stock price that morning, there was a curious, minute-by-minute correlation between the tweets and the stock. About 10:20, when the stock was falling, but not yet in free-fall, the first social media messages appeared. And during the next 15 minutes, Vestas lost almost DKK 20 million in stock capitalization. After 11:00, when it was clear from the news updates that Skycon, not Vestas, had gone broke, Vestas stock rallied briefly. But only briefly; the company lost a bundle that day - the company’s communication punctuated by occasional tweets providing a link to the online video of Engel’s press conference.
Coincidentally, a senior VP at Vestas told me later that day that the company had a community manager responsible for their social media. But what does this person actually do? For the next 26 hours, there wasn’t a single tweet - during which time Vestas lost over 10% of its total market capitalization.
Late in the evening of October 27, 2010, Vestas finally posted a tweet. Too little, too late.
Could social media help?
If you had looked at social-media activity related to Vestas on October 26-27, 2010, it was clear that people - including Bloomberg - were looking for some kind of useful communication. But there was none.
On October 27, 2010, Vestas had roughly 450 followers. A couple of days ago, Vestas stock again plummeted, this time by almost 25%. They now have 3,600 followers on Twitter. But did Vestas tweet? No. A repeat performance from a year ago.
Finally, a tweet - at 9:20 AM on Tuesday November 1, 2011. Throughout the dismal Monday, Vestas remained silent.
So here’s my message, dear Vestas: people WANT to talk with you. The dramatic rise in your number of Twitter followers shows this. So why aren’t you engaging with them? Do you have a social-media strategy or are you just making this up as you go along? If so, consider taking a different approach. The most recent debacle reduced the value of your stock by 24.3%. The costs to prepare a professional social-media strategy and the salary for an effective community manager are far less. You do the math.
I am proud to announce the opening of FatDUX Prague. Our offices are located just minutes from the famed Wenceslas Square in the heart of the Czech capital. Over the past few years, our sister company, ExperienceU, has grown to become one of the most respected usability testing facilities in Central Europe. Now, working hand-in-hand with FatDUX Prague, we are able to provide a full range of UX services – from strategy and design to usability and search optimisation.
To help celebrate our new company and build our local user-experience community, FatDUX Prague is subsidising 20 registrations for residents of the Czech Republic to the upcoming EuroIA
conference. The conference is possibly the most important event of its kind in Europe. We are honoured that this year, it will be held right here in Prague on September 22-24.
Rather than the normal registration fee of EUR 430, with our discount code, you will only pay EUR 150. We will take care of the rest. For details and your personal code information, please write to me directly: stepan (at) fatdux.com
Rádi bychom oznámili oficiální otevření pražské pobočky dánské designové agentury FatDUX. Naše kanceláře se nachází na okraji historického centra Prahy. Díky spolupráci s agenturou ExperienceU, respektovanou zejména v oblasti testování použitelnosti, dodáváme celé spektrum služeb v oblasti UX, přes strategii a design po audit použitelnosti a SEO.
Abychom oslavili oficiální vznik nové pobočky a zároveň podpořili místní UX komunitu, FatDUX Praha sponzoruje registraci 20 zájemců z České republiky o nadcházející konferenci EuroIA
. Tato konference, která se řadí mezi nejvýznamnější svého druhu v Evropě, se bude konat v Praze 22 – 24. září.
Místo plné ceny 430 Euro zaplatíte pouze 150 Euro a FatDUX doplatí zbytek. Případní zájemci, neváhejte mne prosím kontaktovat na: stepan (at) fatdux.com
Are CEOs out of touch with reality? I’d say a lot of you are. Although you CEOs don’t have to go to extremes to improve things, most of you do need to do something, so listen up. If you don’t want the long backstory, skip ahead to the last subhead.
About the title of this blogpost
Undercover Boss is the title of an American reality series. The premise is simple: an out-of-touch CEO puts on a disguise, takes a low-level job within his organization, and hears the truth about the company problems. After a week of play-acting, he goes back to his office and makes everything right again.
(By the way, I write “he” as I have yet to see a female CEO profiled. But I digress…)
There’s a great review of this episode by Ken Tucker at ew.com here:
Quick recap of the “Hooters” episode
For those of you who haven’t seen the episode or read Ken’s synopsis, the “star” of this particular show was CEO Coby Brooks of Hooters.
Hooters is a chain of restaurants featuring beer and chicken wings served by buxom young women in tight t-shirts and hot-pants. FYI: “Hooters” is a slang expression for breasts. In the United States, the cute Hooters owl-logo only misleads those who are certifiably clueless (you can see it on Coby’s shirt in the photo below).
Coby Brooks (at left - duh) with two typical Hooters employees.
During the show, Coby learned (among other things), that although men love Hooters, most women feel the concept is degrading. I would have thought this was kind of a WTF “no-brainer” observation, but it certainly surprised our friend Coby as he talked on camera to random folks on the streets of Dallas, TX. (Good we got him out of his posh office and cosy private jet).
Hey, the concept is demeaning. But let’s face it, Hooters
knows tits, ass, and beer is a winning combination for roughly half the population. In the meantime, Coby is now promising to rethink the company’s image. “We’re gonna tell folks about all them Hooter gals who are now doctors and lawyers and rock stars and…”
Uh…and this proves what, Coby? Did you know that feminist Gloria Steinem was once a Playboy bunny?
Coby’s advisors look more like his drinking buddies than business executives.
Dear CEO, don’t hire your buddies. Don’t hire ass-lickers. Hire folks who aren’t scared of you. Sycophants and spies will never tell you the truth. And don’t take personal offence when someone disagrees with you.
Coby probably would have been a better CEO if his father hadn’t just plunked him down into his current position without either warning or training. Coby seems to have had a very strained relationship with his dad and it’s clearly been tough to fill daddy’s very large shoes.
Are you a CEO looking to turn over the reins of your business to the next generation? Think twice before giving the job to a family member. This has been the downfall of many a family-owned company. Put your idiot offspring in charge of a charitable fund or something else that’s fairly harmless, but keep him away from the executive suite.
Poor Coby inherits a billion-dollar business and finds out to his incredible surprise that the folks making chicken-wing sauces at his dad’s old factory in Atlanta loved his dad, but hate the current owners (er…that’s you, Coby). Why? Because Dad walked the floor and knew all his employees by name. Coby is an “absentee landlord”. The employees feel abandoned and uncared for. Which was a theme throughout this show – also when Coby visited his restaurants. Good TV. Naïve management.
Dear CEO, go “walkabout” – an Australian expression for going into the wilderness. Get your ass out of your chair and walk the floor, greet the guests, answer the phones. Honestly, you don’t need a reality TV show to get you moving.
Clients come to FatDUX precisely because we can uncover problems for them without bias – which is what all agencies should provide. The amazing thing is, the work is not always particularly difficult – although it often appears impossible to those inside the organization. That’s because it’s not enough to solve a specific problem; you have to deal with the generic cause of the problem. In service-design language, this means fixing the problem both ways. We can see patterns that are often invisible from inside an organization – the more siloed the departments and functions, the more invisible the patterns are to senior management.
Dear CEO, ask questions. Ask tough questions. Demand answers. Don’t accept “it depends” as an answer from highly paid consultants. Hell, everything
“depends” so there’s no need to dwell on the obvious.
Dear CEO, you don’t want to be on Undercover Boss.
If you’re good, you’ll never be on Undercover Boss
. You’re supposed
to know what’s going on in your organization. That’s why you get the big bucks.
Folks, it’s easy to get folks to tell you the truth. Just ask. If you’re honest, open, and fair, people will tell you things. But you do need to go out and talk to people. Talk to your customers (alas, far too many companies don’t ask because they are scared of what they may find out). If you want to align your business goals with user needs, you’d better understand what these needs are. The magic word is “listen”.
Coby didn’t learn a thing he couldn’t have learned in much simpler ways.
I am absolutely positive that someone was leaning on the Fast Forward button during April because it flew by. It is only now that I am able to see over the paper piles on my desk and talk about my fantastic experience that started my April 2011 off at a brisk pace. In early April, I was privilege to be asked speak at the Polish IA Summit
in Warsaw. My deepest thanks to Wieslaw Kotecki, Hubert Anyzewski and all at UseLab for putting together such a terrific program. And, a very special thanks to Magda Wolszczak- Protas who did such an incredible job of coordinating the event on top of taking good care of this clueless American visitor to Warsaw. It was an exceptional experience.
My colleagues have done such a fantastic job of representing the content of the Polish IA Summit that I will refer you to them for specific representations of what we learned over an inspiring two days.You will also find many tweets using #iasw
as your search term. The summit hash tag was the most popular tag in Poland for the first day of the Summit on April 7, 2011.
My personal epiphany from the conference was confirmation that the U.S. hegemony over IA/UX/Experience Design, or whatever you want to call what we do and where we do it, has long been over. We’re lucky here in the United States where we have been blessed for years with the thought-leadership of many of the originators of our practice. When we limit ourselves to conferences, meet ups, webinars and other information sharing venues from the continental U.S., it is easy to think that this is where all of the innovative, thought-leadership is happening. Au contraire. The viral nature of the Web has spread the good word far and wide. Our colleagues overseas are blazing many trails with innovative work and forward-thinking.
We service a global community that deserves a global perspective. Such perspective does not come from following the same superstars on Twitter or seeing the same people deliver similar PowerPoint slides at local conferences. I believe that a truly global perspective comes from the experience and intellect of our colleagues overseas. And for this you need to get on the long plane ride and go find it. Here are some international IA events for which I could find links: German IA Summit
, Italia IA Summit
and the EuroIA
The IA Institute site, Boxes and Arrows and other professional sites announce other events in Australia, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. I plan to do what I can to include educational opportunities from outside the U.S. in my professional development from now on as I believe strongly that it makes me a better IA. I hope that you do also. And, in the United States, it is a tax deduction.
Polish IA Summit Recaps
Martin Belem on the Polish IA Summit. Martin has done a fantastic job of bringing forth salient points for many of the presentations. He is too modest to talk about his own presentation that illuminated an interesting path from SEO to IA in Five Lessons from an Information Architecture career.
Peter Boersma did a fantastic job of sending us on our with with his closing plenary that examined the state of IA and UX, where it came from and where it is going, in UX: (still) the next step for IAs
. He also has excellent notes for many of the sessions from the Polish IA Summit
Claire Rowland and Chris Brown, from Fjord, delivered a thought provoking presentation on extending our concept of design in Designing Beyond the Glowing Rectangle: User Experience Design and Research Implications of the Internet of Things
that closed out the first day’s session.
Over the years, I have noticed a strange pattern: when executives (site owners) are asked to comment on design layouts, they often say there is too much text and demand larger pictures/graphics – whether these are relevant or not. These executives are disappointed and frustrated with the design proposals they see. On the other hand, if you listen to users (during usability testing, for example), they complain that these same pictures/graphics are getting in their way. Like the executives, they also exhibit frustration, but in a diametrically different way – “Why are you making me scroll past this crap to get to the information I really need?”
My question was simple: was there a scientific reason for these dramatically different reactions to essentially the same designs? And I think the answer is “yes”.I’ve included a few salient footnotes for those of you who are scientifically inclined.
Thesis in brief (1)
Why do two groups of people seem to consistently disagree regarding the “attractiveness” of a website design? Could it be that there was a physiological reason for these reactions? In short, was our brain playing tricks on us or misleading us? Were our development and presentation techniques actually encouraging inappropriate client reactions?
I have known about the functions of neurophysiological “reward chemicals” since my pre-med studies at Washington University in St. Louis 1972-1976. In late 2007, having spotted the curious reaction pattern described above, I started to do some more serious research, focusing on the limbic system (2) and the nature of reward chemicals (3).
I made the assumption that if the pattern I had identified was universal, voluntary intake of recreational reward chemicals (e.g. nicotine, caffine, cocaine, etc.) was probably not at the heart of these reactions. So I looked for chemical rewards produced by the body itself. Soon, my inquiry zeroed in on dopamine, a chemical messenger similar to adrenaline. (4)
Dopamine – friend or foe?
Dopaminergic neurons appear to code environmental stimuli rather than specific movements. (5) This, in layman’s terms, means that pretty pictures stimulate dopamine release, which perhaps explains why executives favour graphics over blocks of text in dummy design layouts.
Although this reaction seems obvious (pictures are more attractive than text), it was reassuring to know that there was a scientific reason for this.
The second part of my question dealt with why test subjects so often reacted badly to eye-candy (i.e. gratuitous pictures/graphics).
There are various viewpoints as to the role of dopamine and the task-completion process. For example, Pennartz et al. (6) asked in 2009:
“Given the parallel organization of corticostriatal circuits, the question arises how coherent behavior, requiring integration of sensorimotor, cognitive, and motivational information, is achieved.”
Perhaps part of the answer to this critical question can be found in Taizo Nakazato’s research, published back in 2005 (7):
“During the task performance, dopamine concentration started to increase just after the cue, peaked near the time of the lever press, and returned to basal levels 1–2 s after the lever press.”
By way of background, this study deals with rats pressing a lever to receive a food reward. In internet terms, I equate this behavior with humans pushing a button/clicking a link to receive an informational reward. In other words, task accomplishment produces a reward – in this case chemical.
Actually, though, it appears that the anticipation of task-completion triggers dopamine release (8). And it could be that executives about to see a proposed design for the first time may be anticipating the presence of pretty pictures.
Yet the essence of the problem seems to be that if something delays/hinders task completion, dopamine release actually causes post-action frustration. Dr. J.G. Fleischer describes this phenomenon quite succinctly: (9, 10)
“If the [subject] does not receive the reward when it expects to receive it, then there is a depression of dopamine release, which is consistent with the negative preduction error that would occur in that situation.”
In other words, if something gets in the way of task completion, dopamine doesn’t get where it’s needed (“depression of dopamine release”). I suggest that perhaps the pretty pictures and eye-candy that were anticipated and appreciated during the presentation phase, are actually getting in the way of test subjects who expect a more relevant response to their query (i.e. clicking on a promising link). If we make people scroll to get to the stuff they want (and expect to receive), they experience dopamine depression.
That said, a more recent study by Wanat et al. (11), suggests that further research is needed:
“[The] enhancement of reward-evoked dopamine signaling was also observed in sessions in which the response requirement was fixed but the delay to reward delivery increased, yoked to corresponding trials in PR sessions. These findings suggest that delay, and not effort, was principally responsible for the increased reward-evoked dopamine release in PR sessions. Together, these data demonstrate that NAcc dopamine release to rewards and their predictors are dissociable and differentially regulated by the delays conferred under escalating costs.”
In other words, the tougher it is to achieve a result, the greater the dopamine reward. This somewhat contradicts my thesis – and yet these findings also indicate that the response is situational. Hence, I feel certain that Wanat & Co. are actually looking at a different side of the problem, unrelated to task-based frustration, but that related to task-completion in a triumphal ”I just made it to the summit of Mt. Everest” kind of manner.
Drawing on my network
In late 2009, my online research led me to my grade-school best-friend, Jon Kassel. (12) Jon is now Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Jon’s speciality is addiction. Naturally, the effect of drugs on emotions represents a key part of his own research.
Jon and I chatted informally about the problem with which I was wrestling. And without putting too many words in Jon’s mouth, it seems my thesis holds water – certainly from a cognitive point of view, and more and more from a clinical-psychology point of view, too. I hope that Jon and I can work on this in more detail sometime.
Please note: my conversations with Jon served merely as litmus tests and should not be construed as formal endorsement of my theories on the part of Dr. Kassel or the University of Illinois.
Of course, it could be that the pattern I thought I had detected was merely a fata morgana, Maybe my community wasn’t seeing the same things I was. So in January 2010, I published a simple survey on SurveyMonkey, which I broadcast to the interactive-design community via social media and list serves. (13) All of my questions could be answered with a simple yes/no. Here they are, along with the results of the 144 people who responded within the first week:
1. Have you ever been at a client meeting where you or your company have presented detailed page mockups for a proposed website (a “comp” complete with graphics and “greeked” text)?
Note: This may or may not represent the culmination of a longer discovery/strategic/IA process, but exactly where this presentation occurs in the overall process is not particularly important in terms of this survey.
2. If you have been to a website design presentation meeting as described above, have you ever heard the client say, “Very pretty, but there’s too much text. We need more/better/prettier graphics.” (this is when clients start talking about including pictures of their pet cat.)
I see this mostly when senior officials have not participated in an earlier discovery/IA/wireframing process.
3. Having been present at the original design presentation, have you later observed (probably through a one-way mirror during a usability session) that respondents say “Don’t make me scroll through the damned eye-candy to get to the substance. Get rid of the picture of that dumb cat!”
4. So in short, do you see any correlation between requests for more eye-candy during the layout approvals, and irritation with the same eye-candy during task-based usability testing?
About 62% of the respondents were from North America, 30% were from Europe, 8% were from the rest of the world.
Even though this is a primitive survey, the statistical results are significant; the pattern I hypothesised is recognized by others by a factor approaching 2 to 1.
Today, “dopamine” seems to have become “flavor of the month”
I first mentioned this research en passant in blogpost I published in January, 2009. (14) I talked about it again briefly at the IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ in April, 2010. Today, the subject seems to be finally taking hold – most recently at the IxDA’s conference, Interactions 11, in Boulder, CO last week (February 2011). Here, Charles Hannon, presented the subject formally (e.g. as the main subject of a talk) for the first time in our community. (15) Although the subject has also been broached tangentially at EuroIA 2010 and elsewhere, I look forward to speaking with Prof. Hannon at some point; alas, I was not able to attend the Boulder conference.
A second empirical observation
When I first suspected that comprehensive design mock-ups might be creating problems, we tweaked the development/presentation process in my own company, FatDUX. Subsequently, we spent much more effort in guiding senior management through our decision-making process prior to showing actual color design mockups. Although we had always involved our clients in the earlier stages of the development process, we had never previously insisted on top-management participation.
My empirical observation is that if C-level administrators are made part of the comprehensive design process, there is less chance they will insist on bigger pictures or cuter kittens on the website. In situations where we have not been able to obtain face-time with senior officials, our designs are more often open to challenge. Only expensive rounds of usability testing have enabled us to reinstate the graphic-design best-practices we normally espouse.
Both of my parents were scientists and the value of the scientific method and controlled studies was something I learned in parallel with my ABCs. As a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis, I continued my scientific studies, although I did wind up in a so-called “unrelated field” (encouraged by my father, who helped me send my first e-mail back in 1982 (no typo) to his secretary at the University of Miami). I have since been involved in the creation and/or critique of over 1500 websites and online apps.
So in closing, I encourage you to do your own research to prove or disprove my contention. And if you’d like to share your own empirical observations and/or research, I hope you’ll leave a comment here or write me directly at email@example.com.
Here, I use “thesis” in the literal Greek fashion: as an “intellectual proposition” (θέσις), not a “dissertation” (dissertātiō).
Twitter, plus the SIGIA list maintained by the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and the discussion list of the Interaction Design Association. The survey was published on 10 January 2010.