Archive:
User experience

Designers are defining usability too narrowly

Another call on designers to think more widely when they are working on digital products. Khoi Vinh saw a Nielsen Norman Group report on best practice on websites aimed at children — but he felt the report focused too narrowly on usability.

I don’t dispute the findings at all. But it’s disturbing that the report focuses exclusively on usability recommendations, on the executional aspect of creating digital products for kids. There’s not a single line, much less a section, that cares to examine how design impacts the well-being of children…

We’re moving past the stage in the evolution of our craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice. At some point, making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.

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Thinking in triplicate

This is a very strong piece by Erika Hall, raising some seriously good points and questions about where user experience design is, and where it needs to go. It is well worth reading the full piece, and me pulling out a quote cannot do this justice. But here are some selections I particularly liked:

If good design entailed good business, women’s clothes would come in a wide range of sizes with usable pockets and our social media feeds would unfurl in reverse chronological order with an unremarkable absence of Nazis.

While most of the designers I know are far from objectivists, design as it is currently practiced is tantamount to Ayn Rand’s radical selfishness. We design for the experience of a single user at a time and expect that the collective experience, and the collective impact, will take care of itself.

It’s much more pleasant for designers to talk about empathy in one room and MBAs to talk about profits in the other and have marketers in the middle like an injectable filler.

This is exactly the sort of article we need to be seeing more of.

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Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy

Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.

“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”

Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.

Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.

See also:

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Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps

An excellent article from Jared Spool on the difference between proactive design and reactive design — and the importance of making your work more proactive.

Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”

Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made.

Interestingly, he also makes the point that it is easy for design teams to get sucked into doing reactive design, because it becomes comfortable for teams to do:

They like the wireframes and usability tests.

They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process.

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Why Gov.uk content should be published in HTML and not PDF

How to give up PDFs and improve your higher education website’s user experience

The crusade against PDFs has been one of my constant hobby-horses over the years. It has also led to some of my toughest battles in my work.

Users hate PDFs, because it makes it harder to use content. But content owners love PDFs, because it makes it easier for them to create content. It is the ultimate in user-hostility. “Who cares about the users? PDFs make my job easier for me.”

So it was great to see two trusted sources reiterate the importance of getting rid of PDFs, within days of each other.

This has also reminded me of a small project I promised I would do, but never got around to — to publish my dissertation as an HTML webpage. The idea was to demonstrate how versatile HTML is, even for things like technical or academic writing. Maybe I’ll return to that this autumn.

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Readability guidelines

I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.

I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.

What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?

We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.

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The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals

Why are digital assistants almost always given female-sounding voices?

While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.

…BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.

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Annoying online ads cost business

Results from a study of users of Pandora has quantified the effect of shoving adverts in users’ faces. As part of the experiment, a section of users were served fewer ads than normal, and another section were served more ads than normal.

…after 1.5 years of being exposed to the experimental conditions, people did use the service more, the fewer ads they were served. At the end of the experiment:

  • The low-ad group listened for 1.7% more hours weekly than the control group.
  • The high-ad group listened for 2.8% fewer hours weekly than the control group.
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What is this thing called design?

I got out of bed and, in roughly an hour, hammered out a kind of primer on UX/UI design, which I’m publishing below. It’s a very unformed, rambly screed that I won’t pretend is at all definitive or even fully accurate. In fact it’s still basically a first draft; I literally typed it out in bullet point form, as shown below, a trick I used in order to absolve myself of the responsibility of writing a fully articulated essay.

Despite Khoi Vinh’s self-deprecation here, I think this is an excellent attempt at explaining what design is. For those who are frustrated about having to explain that design isn’t (just) about making things pretty, this blog post provides an excellent introduction to why — as well as helpfully explaining why this perception exists in the first place. Not bad for an hour’s work.

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UX Scotland 2018 — my day-by-day notes

Some more follow-up to the UX Scotland conference, which I have published over on the University of Edinburgh Website Programme blog.

I set myself the challenge of writing a summary of each session I attended at UX Scotland, as a way of forming my own thoughts on each topic, and to make sure to follow up on everything I wanted to.

This resulting blog post is long. But I am sharing this on the basis that others might find it useful and seek to learn more about these topics, as I did.

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How context is bridging the gap between UX and service design

Interesting on the similarities and differences between user experience and service design.

Service Designers generally approach digital as one of a number of interconnected touch points. They will usually figure out how all these touch-points work together as a cohesive ecosystem, before handing the design of the specific touch points over to experts.

UX Designers usually approach the problem from the other direction. They start with the core digital experience before exploring the connective tissue that joins their touch-points together. Service Designers tend to have a broader but shallower focus, while UX designers go narrower but deeper.

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The problem of zero and one

Excellent piece by Wojtek Kutyla on why UX needs to get out of its comfort zone, and an excessive focus on technology — and the temptation to make binary declarations.

We are all reasonable creatures and we know how to seek rationale when we’re dealing with daily tasks. If we’re hungry, we’ll ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat? Eggs? Avocado? Or a burger?”. If we’re planning to buy a new car, we’ll consider it carefully, basing our ultimate choice on how functional the vehicle is and whether we can afford it.

Yet, when faced with a design problem in a professional setting we’d often go for a solution that does nothing else but fulfils a set of requirements based on assumed values communicated by stakeholders. All too seldom we’re doubting their choices and ask “what’s the rationale — where did this come from?”. Perhaps we should start doing that?

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After the hiccup

Most customer relationships don’t stumble because something went wrong. Your best customers know that mistakes happen.

It’s what happens next that can cripple the relationship.

I would be tempted to agree with Seth Godin here. But it actually reminded me of the recent incident with Ghostery.

Ghostery is a browser plugin that is supposed to protect your privacy online. But on Friday, when attempting to email its users about GDPR, they accidentally leaked the email addresses of hundreds of their users by CCing them into the email — the most basic and facepalm-worthy data breach of all.

I once briefly used Ghostery. But I uninstalled it after I found it kept on crashing my browser.

My response in this case was to find it deeply ironic that Ghostery should fail at the one thing they were meant to do. It’s true “you had one job” stuff, this. So I deleted my Ghostery account entirely.

Perhaps if my prior experience with Ghostery had been more positive, I would have been more lenient.

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Your employees’ user experience should be a strategic priority

Enterprise software is notoriously bad — and that’s bad for business.

A poor user interface sends a message to employees that their time and commitment have little value, and that — just as my engineer colleague believed — the problem is their own fault. Then leaders wonder why their people don’t innovate or embrace change…

There’s a lot of good stuff here, so I had some trouble picking just one thing to highlight. Read on to see why actually watching people try to use your design is vital.

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Design flaws in electronic health records can harm patients, study finds

We know that poor usability can lead to disastrous consequences. Think to the recent case of the accidental missile alert in Hawaii.

This is a more rigorous, academic investigation into the negative consequences of poor usability in electronic health records. The study even suggests that bad usability may have caused deaths.

Some 557 (0.03 percent) reports had “language explicitly suggesting EHR usability contributed to possible patient harm,” and among those, 80 caused temporary harm, seven may have caused permanent harm and two may have been fatal.

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Crying over spilt milk: An empathy map example

Example empathy map

I have recently been involved in a project with the University of Edinburgh UX Service to conduct user research for the API Service.

In one of the workshops we ran, we wanted participants to work with empathy maps to give us an insight into their experiences.

This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines how I introduced workshop participants to the concept of empathy maps, with an example around my own experience of buying milk.

Buying milk is a simple task that most of us carry out on a regular basis. But this example showed how using an empathy map can reveal a surprising amount of detail about the behaviours and feelings someone goes through when completing a task.

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Presenting findings of our user research for the API Service

User experience research for the University of Edinburgh’s API Service

I have been leading some user research for a project at the University of Edinburgh to develop API Service. This post on the University Website Programme blog outlines the steps we went through in the first phase of the research. This included interviewing developers, running workshops, and developing personas and journey maps.

This has been a successful and rewarding project. It has been particularly interesting for me to do some UX work that wasn’t necessarily to do with a website. There will be a couple more blog posts about it to come.

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Twitter gets message order wrong

Philip Hunt on how bad Twitter’s user interface has become.

When Twitter started out, it was such a simple concept. Just straightforward status updates; no real interaction. (When I joined Twitter, @ replies didn’t even exist yet.)

Over time it has added more and more features — replies, retweets, quote retweets, threads. Seemingly it has not been thought through properly.

If you spend a lot of time on Twitter, you catch onto these user interface quirks pretty quickly. But new users must find it so intimidating. So it is little wonder Twitter struggles to attract and retain new users.

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The secret cost of research

A belter of an article on why it is difficult to persuade people to undertake user research:

Research is simply asking questions about how the world works. And asking questions about how the world works threatens established authority.

I especially love the section “Bad research is good theatre”:

Focus groups look like how people imagine research looks. In a special room, controlled. But just because you have a 2-way mirror doesn’t make it anything more than a tea party. Actual ethnographic research happens where the people you’re studying do the thing you want to learn about. It’s often unsatisfyingly messy and low tech.

Fake research makes people money, and it makes people in charge feel good, but it’s useless and potentially dangerous to a design project.

So how do you get decision-makers to see the light? Understand them as people, like a good UXer should!

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Unsexy fundamentals focus: User experiences that print money

An extraordinary example of someone trying to give a publisher a lot of money — and the publisher making that experience as difficult as possible.

I’ve said before that I don’t have much sympathy for most publishers who are struggling. This is one example of exactly why many of their struggles are largely their own fault.

It beggars belief that a publisher should make it so hard to buy their product online. Many of them have a long hill to climb.

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Liminal thinking

A powerful explanation of how beliefs are formed, and what little resemblance they have to reality.

Your beliefs form the fundamental model that you use to navigate the world, to think about things, to decide what to do and what to avoid, like a map. We form a lot of these beliefs by middle childhood.

And since you’re the one who built the map, it’s natural to believe that it corresponds to the territory that you are navigating. After all, most of the time, your map gets you where you want to go. So much so that when the map doesn’t get you where you want to go, the first thing you question is not the map but reality.

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The 9 rules of design research

One of the hardest things about design or user research is convincing people that it actually needs to take place. That is especially maddening when working for an research organisation.

(Researchers themselves are sometimes the most reluctant to undertake user research before spending serious amounts of money on ineffective websites.)

So this snippet, among a series of useful rules of thumb, made me cheer. 🙌

If you’ve ever worked with a leader who was resistant to doing qualitative research as part of a million dollar project, ask yourself whether they would skip doing their own research before buying a $50,000 car.

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Subverted design

As designers have gradually become more senior (or perhaps more experienced), their role in organisations has evolved. But it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Products will always be made through compromise. But in a world where Designers are focused on balancing business needs against user needs, while other stakeholders are focused exclusively on business needs, these compromises will almost always favor the business.

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What is design ethnography?

A useful overview of how you can apply principles from ethnography when designing. You are unlikely to be able to use a fully ethnographic approach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate elements of it.

Our view is that, if we liken traditional ethnography to a prize heavyweight boxer, then design ethnography is more akin to a street fighter. It doesn’t follow all of the rules but it gets the job done.

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Then and now: The Bauhaus and 21st century design

Don Norman assesses the Bauhaus movement, and its relevance to design today. He notes that despite its widespread cultural influence, it failed to produce a single object that significantly improved people’s lives.

Consider the “Curriculum Wheel”… developed by Walter Gropius in 1922… It contains three years of study, starting with form and materials, moving to advanced topics in materials, composition, and construction. Never a mention of people. Never a mention of usage. It was all about form.

Elements of this remind me of contemporary debates around flat design and other superficial user interface decisions. This form or that form isn’t right or wrong, unless you know you are meeting people’s needs.

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Net promoter score considered harmful (and what UX professionals can do about it)

You have probably been asked in a customer satisfaction survey how likely you would be to recommend a company to a friend or colleague. This is used to measure the net promoter score, and it has become very popular.

Here, Jared Spool has comprehensively outlined why net promoter score is not as valuable as businesses hope.

As usual, the problem is that net promoter score is a tool that has been sold as a silver bullet — “This number is the one number you need to grow. It’s that simple and that profound.” And businesses looking for a silver bullet have lapped it up.

But of course, reality is much more complex than that. Net promoter score, when applied consistently by a business, probably does have some value. But it should be used as just one tool of many that you should be using to ensure you are meeting your customers’ needs.

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