I'm really looking forward to yet another whirlwind trip to Canada and the United States next week! In addition to MeetUps in Vancouver and San Francisco, courtesy of the brilliant folks at the IxDA, I'll also be holding two UX workshops in Los Angeles. I'd love to see you!
Psst - if you use the discount code "quack" you'll get a $50 discount on each workshop! Registration info is at the bottom of this page.
“Usable Usability” will be held Saturday, October 13th
Lean UX is about applying common sense to create better user-experiences. Come to this half-day workshop and I'll show you how to start this process through simple usability improvements. Basically, I think usability and UX are built on three E’s: Ease of use – the product does what the user wants it to do; Elegance and clarity – the product does what the user expects it to do; and Empathy - understanding and addressing the needs of the users. During our four hours together, I will show you how to evaluate and improve products and services in a truly lean and agile way – a method that has proven successful with clients, business students, and seasoned usability professionals alike. The method even includes a hands-on technique for individuals within a large organization to carry out guerilla-style usability hacks that show the value of usability to the people in charge of budgets.
“Writing for Interactive Media” will be held on Sunday, October 14th
Let's face it, without content, you can't have content strategy! In this half-day workshop, I'll show you how to create findable, scanable, skimable, and readable on-line content that creates understanding, builds trust, and increases conversion rates. Topics include: Why writing for the web is different; Navigation - it’s about labels, not graphics; How to build shared-references with your audience; The importance of core content descriptions; How to use contextual navigation (locally relevant links); What is information architecture from a content-provider point-of-view; What is responsive content from a reader and device point-of-view; and How to build landing pages and conversion funnels that win customers.
Both workshops are scheduled from 8:00am – 12:00pm at NextSpace in Culver City. I'll also sign copies of my new book, Usable Usability: Simple Steps for Making Stuff Better, kiss babies, and do interpretive dance as appropriate.
For additional info and registration, please visit:
Writing for Interactive Media
(and remember to use your discount code, "quack")
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
My wife and I recently received a wonderful gift: an electric juicer. Normally, I fight to keep contraptions like this off our kitchen counters, which I view as workspace, not storage or display. But the juicer is a really neat machine (albeit a bitch to clean). Here it is:
Great piece of kitchen kit!
Our friends brought along a whole shopping basket full of berries, apples, oranges, limes, red beets, ginger, celery, and other goodies to stuff down its plastic gullet. But what was the best way to combine them? I needed some advice.
Alas, the user manual looked like a thousand other user manuals:
- exploded diagram showing all the parts
- lots of warnings to unplug the unit before doing anything (except using it)
- "Make sure unit is plugged in"
So much for creating a good experience...
What's wrong with this picture?"
Having created a great product, why didn't the manufacturer, OBH Nordica, try to inspire me? Why didn't they include a couple of simple recipes to get me started? Why didn't they tell me about how this monster conserves vitamins and gets them from their
mechanism to my
metabolism? Why didn't they follow through and help me complete the experience they were helping to create?
"That's what our advertisements are for," explained the myopic marketing maven I spoke with.
The sale is NEVER closed!
It's a big mistake to assume that once the sale is made, everyone will be happy. In fact, several software producers have asked us to help their customers get better results from their products. Lousy implementation will kill any product, no matter how well-designed it is. Right now, my twisted mind is wondering what would happen if I stuffed oysters into our shiny new juicer...
"Nobody ever reads the user manual"
Wrong! We might ignore a user manual if you also give us a well-written "Quick start" guide. But most people glance through the real user manual at some point - particularly for devices that feature:
- moving parts that need maintenance (cars, lawnmowers, sewing machines, etc.)
- disposable/replaceable bits and pieces (vacuum cleaners, coffee machines)
- bizarre behaviour when you push a particular button
And folks will always
read the manual if your product's user-UN-friendly interface is particularly antisocial. My Danfoss ECL Comfort 200 home heating controller, for example.
The exception is Sandberg
I recently bought a USB hub. Naturally, it came with a user manual. Here's the EU-friendly cover - featuring all the flags of all the languages in which the manual was printed:
Cover of the Sandberg USB-hub instructions
Now, as this is basically supposed to be a plug-and-play device, I was sorry to see that Sandberg thought a user manual was necessary. So imagine my delight when I opened it up:
What a delightful surprise! Very cute, indeed.
The Sandberg people apparently felt that a user manual was as unnecessary as I did. So they turned the whole thing into a joke - boring cover, but with useful suggestions inside. Great. I'm a fan. Sandberg is a brand I will look for in the future.
And that makes user manuals part of the business model (wink, wink)
What is YOUR product?
Nokia's "PC Suite" software is arguably the most distributed in the world. But it crashes many computers. Apple's iPad and iPod are slick physical objects and the user interfaces are pretty good as these things go. Yet iTunes (the software key needed to get anything into these devices) ranks as one of the worst programs I've ever used. Sears Kenmore vacuum cleaners are great, but the bags are pretty much only available from Sears, which usually means driving quite a distance (I couldn't find the "replacement part number" I needed on their website - or even at the outlet store to which I was sent).
In short, don't think that you can get by with a great product. Your documentation and support mechanisms are key parts of the entire use-experience scenario.
Have you heard about “content strategy”? If you work in website development, the chances are you have. But what is it exactly?
What is content?
In the online world, “content” means stuff you put on a screen – words, pictures, videos, animations, sounds. Of course, there is also offline content. For example, when Tommy Hilfiger stations cute little pippins in tight dresses around your local department store to hand out white paper strips that stink of some expensive smell he’s created, well, that’s content, too. The sexual allure is content. The fragrant strips of paper are content. The Tommy Hilfiger logo is content. In my world view, “content” affects all five of our senses.
But for the most part, “content” means words and pictures on a website or application. OK?
What is “strategy”?
In the military, there is talk of “strategy” and “tactics”. Mostly, strategy relates to goals whereas tactics relate to the methods needed to achieve these goals.
Strategy (as expressed by the Lieutenant): “We need to take that hill, men.”
Tactics (as expressed by the Sergeant): Fat guys behind rocks. Skinny guys behind trees.”
What is “content strategy”?
“Content strategy” means giving visitors – to a website or department store – whatever “content” they need to make a decision or carry out a task. The strategy part lies in how we present this content to influence these decisions and tasks. If we’re doing a sitemap for a website, we call this “information architecture”. If we station a girl in a department store, we call it “service design”. But it’s all closely related.
Here’s an article that shows how many content strategists view themselves:
Please note: I take exception to a couple of the things said in this article. I include it mainly to provide equal time to the hard-core proponents. I’m not out to declare war on anybody – but I do have a low tolerance for bullshit.
Birth of a buzzword
How did the web survive for so many years before “content strategy” came along? Surprisingly well - because “content strategy” has always
been part of the picture. It just got a new name and has since become a buzzword. I’ve had it on my business card for years simply because my clients didn’t understand the term “information architecture”. Incidentally, when I googled “content strategist” back in 2004 (when I first put the title on my card), there wasn’t a single hit.
My story isn’t unique. Many folks came to information architecture from a writing background. Think of “content strategists” as librarians who read and
write. Since we understood the content and were often providing it, too, we were the ones who got to create the sitemap.
Just for the record, my very basic description of information architecture is this:
- We gather stuff into convenient categories
- We call stuff by names people will recognize
- We put stuff where people can easily find it.
Remember, this is IA on a high, strategic level. Naturally, when you get down to the tactical nitty-gritty of information architecture, you’d better understand taxonomy development and the other cool stuff they teach at library school. This is also why there are no easily defined borders between the worlds of IA and CS. And if you ask me, who really cares as long as the job gets done properly – and in a way that provides measurable benefits.
Content becomes valuable by virtue of context
Here’s a piece of content:
“Strandøre 15. A ten minute walk north from Svanemøllen Station”.
For 99.99% of the readers of this blogpost, this snippet of content is irrelevant and therefore worthless. But if you were taking public transportation to the FatDUX office in Copenhagen, the content becomes useful and therefore acquires value. If content is king, then context represents the kingdom.
Information architects need to understand content. Content strategists need to understand context. In terms of traditional sitemaps, the boxes have no value without the interconnecting arrows. And the arrows have no meaning if there are no boxes to which to point. And that’s why there is so much gray area in the definition – and why the pedants will spend years fighting over definitions in the years to come.
Form cannot exist without content
There’s a video on YouTube that has achieved cult status. It is of the Russian singer, Eduard Kihl, featured in a 1966 video where he “sings” his hit song, “I Am Glad I'm Finally Going Home”. Actually, in the repressive Soviet Union of 1966, the lyricist apparently was unable to write a suitable poem that would meet with Party approval. So Kihl simply trololo’ed his way through the melody and today we giggle at the results.
My point in mentioning the "Trololo Video" here is that form without content becomes absurd. And now that I've provided some historical context for the video, perhaps you'll see that it is actually more tragic than comic.
The most attractive website cannot survive without meaningful and useful content – content that is arranged in a meaningful and useful way. And somebody needs to do the work - no matter what their official title.
Contrary to popular belief, Apple Computer didn't invent gesticular interfaces. Take a look at this short clip from the Warner Bros. Vitaphone production Gold Diggers of 1935
(at the 27 minute mark of the movie). Choreographer Busby Berkeley seems to have figured out some key movements back in 1935.
In this scene, tenor Dick Powell is taking poor-little-rich-girl Gloria Stuart shopping in the basement arcade of a swanky new hotel. I apologize in advance for the quality; I simply used my camera to record my iPad in a decidedly analog fashion. (Don't even ask why this movie is in my iPad to begin with).
Notice, too, the graphic incorporation of metadata. Each department is coupled with the name of the woman in charge. For example, in "Lingerie", we find "Annette". Pretty sophisticated "menu" considering that this footage predates the birth of the web by 65 years.
If you want to see the entire number, here's a link: