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Reading Ahead: A Research by Portigal Consulting August 29, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Ethnographic Research, Innovation, Research, Trends.
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Investigating the “reading experience” and “physical versus digital books” has to be one of the most interesting research topics available out there. Reading is one of the deepest experiences we have with “things” / “content” and it is presently facing (and resisting still) the new technologies available and other tensions that could entirely change that experience.

Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg from Portigal Consulting just released the findings from a really interesting research study they performed on the topic called Reading Ahead (study performed out of their own interest). I strongly recommend checking out their different blog posts about this and especially listening to their findings presentation.

Basically it is so good it got me to post again after such a long time away from my blog…

Note: I won’t summarize the study here as my post is already pretty long, so to fully put my reflections below into perspective, it’s better to look at their slides and listen to their presentation first (the presentation lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes).

There are several thoughts that came to me as I was listening to the presentation. Let me try to structure a few below.

Device Integration: Loss of Important Emotional Stimuli
Steve and Dan go through a lot of impacts arising from going towards a digital reading experience. One impact they mention is the loss of a direct link between the object (the book) and a set of memories or emotions. A book is a physical object and it ages. When you see it on your shelves or take it in your hands, it will automatically trigger specific memories (when you bought it, where you read it), specific feelings or moods. Taking an ebook reader in hand, will stimulate an emotional response as well, but using a single device for reading will make this response much shallower and less rich, as the response will mostly be linked to the device instead of the individual book.

As I listened to the talk I thought about a similar revolution that happened in the past when emails appeared to replace normal mail. Letters are single objects in themselves and are directly attached to memories, moods and other people. In the past, we were free to store these letters in different places according to the emotions they would trigger. Now, with emails (and this is re-inforced by the huge quantity of emails we receive), this link has totally disappeared. Going back to our archive in our email client and digging an old email will not have by far the same effect as reopening a box where we stored all our love letters. And this leads to a different type of emotional attachment, where users are attached to the device (the email client or the eBook reader) rather than the actual content (mails or books).

A changing world: Speed Versus Reflection
Right after listening to the presentation, I read this article from the Los Angeles Times called “The Lost Art of Reading” by David L. Ulin. This article strongly reinforces the insights extracted from Steve and Dan’s research to show how deep the reading experience is. It also highlights a very important fact which is that books are not only fighting a war against technology. They are also fighting a war against our changing way of lives.

As the article discusses, we live in a world where speed is of the essence – where we need to react to information we gather in the next second in fear of losing our edge. Books are all about a different way of life. Books can take years to write and for the most part could not care less about current events happening on the day you read them. Books are about unplugging (term used in Steve and Dan’s study) yourself from the world. Books are about reflecting on things. And these are less and less tolerated in the world today… but I am wandering off topic here (as I usually do), as this concerns the future of reading books in general and not the tension between physical and digital books.

Design Opportunities: Giving Life to Notes
Steve and Dan at the end of their report go through some opportunities that digital books’ designs can integrate to make the digital reading experience a stronger contender against the traditional reading experience. One that they do not discuss (unless I missed it) is notes. I would split notes into two categories in the reading experience: notes from the author and notes from the reader. Both of these categories of notes could be revolutionized by the advent of digital reading.

What would added interactivity do to author’s notes for example? What if you could click on a referenced article the author mentions and read that article the next second? Or even get a review/summary and ulitmately purchase another book the author also happens to cite? This would add a new depth to books and provide an exceptional experience to the reader (not to mention a great marketing opportunity for publishers). As Steve and Dan discuss in their presentation, this can of features would have to rely on a great ecosystem to provide this integrated experience. That’s something not in place at all today (especially outside of the US).

The other category of notes is user notes and this is where to me there is an even greater opportunity. Right now, you can highlight things in a book or put sticky papers on pages you think are interesting. What about searching for a term you saw in the book after you finished reading or looking up all the pages where another author is referenced? What about building yourself a set of quotes and comments about the book that you typed as you where reading and that are organized and retrievable anywhere after you’re done reading? What about co-reading even? See what people felt or commented as they read the book you are reading. What if the digital book allowed you to share your experience with other readers thus giving the digital book a life of its own, turning each book into a vertical social network almost…

As usual, I am just following a spur of the moment to write this post and I ought to have put more reflection into it (sorry… I am a product of the new changing world where speed is everything), but I do hope that it can even so modestly contribute a tiny bit to the discussion surrounding books and the reading experience. I am personally a big fan of physical books, but if the digital reading experience and a good ecosystem were in place, I would definitely juggle between both physial and digital reading (similarly to the way I do with CDs and digital music).

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Goal-Oriented Design October 12, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Hong Kong.
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I guess goal-oriented design is one of the first and more important principle of user-centered design. If you design something, better make sure what it is you design will help somebody out there achieve a goal. Whether it is a product or a feature on a website, it will always help throughout the design process to remind yourself of that goal and make sure the end product is truly the best way for the user to achieve his or her goal.

It seems like a simple enough design principle, but it is actually one that is very easily forgotten. It could be the technology guy who is more interested in developing a technically challenging feature rather than a useful one. It could also be the marketing guy who decides what is in the best interest of the users forgetting simple privacy concepts. It can also be that the project team just loses its focus during the design process and comes up with a final solution that lost entirely its touch with the initial goal.

While I was visiting Ocean Park (one of Hong Kong’s main theme parks) two weeks back I saw a sign that reminded me of a simple design projects going wrong.

definition of queue jumping

definition of queue jumping

This sign was positioned in front of the queue of a specific attraction. The aim, it seems to me, is clear. Some visitors of the park must have complained about queue jumping, or the staff in the park witnessed visitors jumping the queue and did not know how to react. As a result, I’d say the goal adding of such a sign was to warn people that they should not jump the queue. A simple enough goal it would seem.

Nevertheless, the park seemed to believe that the best way to achieve that goal was to provide visitors with a definition of queue jumping. No warning. No directions saying what would happen if some people are caught jumping the queue. Not even a mention of whether queue jumping is good or bad.

It must be that at some point in this tiny project of designing a sign, somebody raised the question: “But what if people argue about what represents jumping the queue?” and somehow (like it can happen in any projects) this question took over the process, leaving behind the forgotten initial goal of the sign and leaving visitors to the park (at least me) puzzled at seeing a sign like that in front of the queue of an attraction… so at every stage of a project, remember to take a look at the initial goal and make sure your solution addresses that goal.

Note: Of course, all this only holds if the initial goal makes sense in the first place…

Agile User Research February 20, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Ethnographic Research, Hong Kong, Research, Trends, User Experience.
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On February 5th, Hong Kong had the chance of having Martin Fowler speak about Agile Methodology. I have to admit that I was actually dragged to the talk by my developer colleagues… I did not really feel like going to a very technical presentation where I would be totally lost. I was really wrong not to want to go. After I actually understood that XP did not mean Windows XP, but eXtreme Programming (he he… embarrassed smile) I really enjoyed the talk.

There are two main points that made me think about how Agile methodology could have an impact on my work: user experience / user research.

1. How can we make research more agile?

The Agile concept is to break down every project in small fully functional modules that can be delivered in a very short period of time (could be 2 weeks for a development project). This helps focusing on the core features of the project, while leaving the rest for later. This also helps starting the design even without knowing all the business requirements and actually supports better defining business requirements along the way as the client sees the system build itself from scratch.

In this post, I will just focus on the research part of user experience. Indeed, the interaction design part can be incorporated quite easily in an Agile methodology, but the preliminary research appears more tricky to me. Indeed, when we start a project we first want to know what the customers or users want. We have an array of tools to address this from quantitative ones like surveys to qualitative ones like usability testing or ethnographic research. Studies like this can actually last for quite a long time and from the client’s point of view it is hard to visualize what they will get out of it. What if we could break down any research into small items that would last maybe under a week and deliver clear conclusions at the end of each week. Being new to Agile stuff, I still need to think about that some more… the first problem I see is how to perform a relevant study (in terms of sample size for example) in such a short time… But with this in mind, making research more iterative helps design a better research in the end by fine-tuning the study objectives bit-by-bit.

2. Should I work towards not having a job?

From Martin’s point of view and following Agile concepts, the developer and the client should be in direct contact. This makes the role of the Business Analyst on such projects redundant. Of course he mentioned that on most projects Business Analyst are actually key in creating a bond between the different parties, but that made me think… Are researchers like business analysts?… In an ideal case, if my client (I mean, the operational teams) could talk directly to his or her customers, everything should be better. What if instead of designing punctual studies, researchers should all strive to design systems that allow their clients to stay in touch with their customers on a continuous basis, making our role as researchers redundant.

That’s pretty much the concept of customer experience. Stay in touch with your customers on a continuous basis so that you can better design your products and services depending on their changing needs. Still maybe more could be done to integrate advanced qualitative methods into the operations of a company. We see more and more ethnographic research within companies… but my feeling is that more is possible.

Just some unfinished thoughts…

Forced opt-in by the French government January 29, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, France, Hong Kong, newsletters.
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Yesterday, quietly minding my own things, I received a strange email in my personal inbox:

From: Nicolas_lassus@yahoo.com (That’s me! … usually a sign of a spam email or virus)

Subject: (French Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau) Confirmation (in French of course)

Email from French Consulate

Seeing the subject line I thought that the consulate was reminding me that my new passport I requested was sitting in their drawers waiting for me to pick it up… but wrong I was! Although I cannot recall ticking a box saying I want to receive anything from my dear Consulate when I applied for a passport a month ago (my last interaction with the consulate), here I get a “confirmation” for my subscription to the Consulate information newsletter.

Luckily there is a link for me to modify my subscription in the email. This leads to a page where I can choose between HTML and text format, and where I can unsubscribe. Note though how the link says “modify your subscription” and not “if you want to unsubscribe bla bla bla”. But then I stop… would unsubscribing from this newsletter make me a bad citizen? Will the government flag me and check my tax receipts for omissions (I actually never worked in my own country, and thus never had a tax declaration done there)? Anyway. I decided that it was safer for me to at least pick up my passport before removing my name from the distribution list… or at least see what the first newsletter will look like.

It is funny how governments in the UK and Canada seem to be at the forefront of user experience and accessibility… and how the French government still does not get the concept of letting users opt-in to a newsletter… scary!

Online World vs. Real World – An Increasingly Blurry Line January 14, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Innovation, Strategy, Trends, User Experience.
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A great article featured on Experientia’s Putting People First: “Technology and the World of Consumption” from the blog apophenia. The article is interesting already and the discussion below is even more.

“her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume”

The whole idea can be summarized by the quote on the right. Up until now, the real and the online worlds have been considered as entirely separate, selling different products and services, and addressing the needs of different customers. But more and more these differences are disappearing. With the new generation growing accustomed to the online world, the distinction is less and less relevant. Consumers are learning how to adapt their shopping behavior to optimize their experience regardless of how retailers are thinking and planning their offering.

Thus behaviors like searching online and buying in the real world, or the reverse – searching in the real world and buying online – becoming common place. This transition is far from an easy one. If we look at the services industry for example, banks have been struggling for a long time to move their customer from branches to the ATM and then online. Only now are they seeing younger customers using cheaper channels. In the case of the banks, cost has been driving the transition and helped companies doing the necessary changes pro-actively (even before customers actually wanted those changes).

But what about retail? The cost component and the complementary of both worlds is not self-apparent. That could explain why companies are slower to react. But react they will have to. Both real and online worlds have their place. They both address different kinds of needs, but surely both will have to adapt to the changing habits of consumers. Personally I see this as one of the most interesting potential for innovation and changes in customer experience.

Changing the advertising experience? December 7, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Advertising, BusinessWeek, Customer Experience, Innovation, Japan, Strategy, Web 2.0.
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BusinessWeek published an article entitled “In Japan, bloggers get to pick their ads” on December 5th 2007 about a new ad network aimed at bloggers called AdButterfly (website in Japanese). Advertising arguably creates one of the worse experience not only for online users, but for people in general. However it is done, advertising is most of the time perceived as intrusive.

I guess we could categorize the reactions to that fact into two. The reaction that seems the most common around the World and especially here in China is to consider that a negative experience with advertising is a given and cannot be changed. If that cannot be impacted on, the important objective for advertisers is to be seen and hope that will create brand awareness (or unintended clicks that would result is a purchase maybe?). If the user is in some ways “forced” to see the ad, the advertiser (or should we blame this on media placement companies?) is happy.  The growing focus on ad clicks only solves part of the problem. Indeed only some advertising campaigns can be measured in terms of clicks, while others are just supposed to raise awareness, or create brand associations. And because of the focus on clicks, the websites where the ad is displayed have an incentive to have flying ads all around, hoping users may click by mistake.

We can definitely put the new venture in Japan mentioned above in the second category. On AdButterfly, although I am not sure about the details, bloggers will be choosing which ad campaigns and brands to associate with. With bloggers endorsing the ad, it is thought that the experience created by the ad will be much more positive. It is very probably true. If I read a blog and I know the ads there have been selected by that person, I would certainly (even though maybe unconsciously) pay more attention to them.

What about the advertisers’ side of the story? Potentially companies with great brand equity can greatly benefit from such a platform. But companies with lower brand equity may be totally blocked from getting access to the network by users. A pretty scary thought for the advertiser who is so conscious about keeping the brand image under control. Scary yes, but maybe a good thing. If people’s experiences with ads can become more positive, everybody is bound to benefit from that. In any case, AdButterfly is a great experiment! I wish I could read Japanese and try the service…

Social Networking: The growth dilemma… November 25, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Hong Kong, Social Networking, Strategy, Trends, Web 2.0.
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I recently did some work for a mobile social networking start-up here in Hong Kong helping them with their interface and their user experience in general. Although my focus was on the interface (and the project very short as usual) we happened to talk quite a bit about strategy. In fact, I always find it hard to focus on user experience and user interface without poking my nose into the overall strategy behind them (I’d like to spend more time on that, but it is not the point of this post… maybe for a later one).

Anyway, it seems to me that there is a tough dilemma when building a social network. The problem is that the number of users and the amount of interactions going on in the network is everything. Indeed for most social networks (excluding a few business-related or referral-based ones), the networks do not have a clear revenue model. As everything is advertising-based the indicators to get funding and be recognized in the industry are basically number of users and page views. Unfortunately, these indicators in some cases go against user goals and go against the long term survival of the network.

We are now all used to this. We grow a social network and at first all is going well. We have our close friends there and we are having fun exchanging news, pictures, videos, etc. However after a while, our network grows, previous friends, former colleagues, people we actually met via our social network gets added and all goes out of control. Indeed the whole concept is based on encouraging users to “make” more friends. Games are put in place to push them to add people to their network, and simply when somebody asks sombody to be his or her friend it is really hard to say no. It feels like a no return kind of decision. Even though we might never meet the person in real, we just cannot say no to people that easily. And once they are added to our network, we have little control over what they do with their access to our information, thus the beginning of the end and often users drop-out from the network.

Although it means taking more time to grow the network it seems to me that social networks should learn from real life more. Instead of just facing a “friend” or “not friend” situation, users should be able to grow relationships slower and keeping them under their control without feeling like they are making others feel bad (or having themselves the perception that they could make the other person feel bad). It works in this way in the real world. When we meet somebody for the first time, we do not usually invite them home to look at our family pictures or read our private diary. It is just normal that relationships take time to build. It should be the same online. It is of great convenience to be able to exchange information with friends online, but users should not pay the price of this by losing their right to privacy… and if social networks do not realize this, they will all sooner or later face the fact that when the hype is gone, people will choose privacy over convenience.

With all this said, the problem still remains. In a short term focus world like the one we live in, we demand quick results and a slow growing network just does not make sense… or does it?

I design experiences… huh?! I mean I manage experiences… October 29, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Trends.
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I guess “Experience” and “Design” are two really trendy terms and it is only normal that they are put together to form “Experience Design”. Nevertheless, it really bothers me to see them put side-by-side like that, as the resulting meaning is really misleading. As Wikipedia puts it:

Experience design is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, and environments — each of which is a human experience — based on the consideration of an individual’s or group’s needs, desires, beliefs, knowledge, skills, experiences, and perceptions.

Wait a second?! Say that again. Experience Design is not about designing an experience??

That’s right!! Experience Design is about designing the elements that will contribute to creating the experience, like a product, or a service, not designing the experience itself.

So, I cannot design an experience?

No, an experience cannot be designed! An experience is created out of the interactions between a company and an individual, and most importantly is anchored in our unconscious / emotional selves. As such an experience is non-tangible and different for each individual. Good luck designing that! (refer to my older post for more on what is Customer Experience)

For example, if you are in a bank queuing up and the guy behind you stands too close. This will affect your experience with that bank, but it has not been “designed” in the system (one should hope). Or if your teenage kid installed some weird flashing animal-shaped cursor and changed the mouse settings on your computer, this will affect your experience with a website. Even more simple, if you are in a bad mood that day, that will affect your experience with any company. The experience a person will have with a company just cannot be designed.

Hasn’t Apple designed a great experience!?

Apple is usually mentioned as delivering “THE” most impressive experience among companies. But that is a terrible mistake. Apple, as great as it is, does not deliver one single great experience. Apple has designed great products, great strategies and a great system in general to reach customers on an emotional level and lead them to develop their own positive experience with the company. If you ask Apple fans around the world each will have a different story about why they love Apple. There is no Apple experience… but a multitude of people having great experiences with the company.

What do I do if I cannot design an experience?

Not being able to design an experience is not a problem. The right way to do is to manage the experience people have with your company. This is really well explained in Lewis Carbone’s “Clued In“, where he sets up the standard approach to follow to manage experiences.

I have been pretty happy with the term “experience management” on my side. I think it conveys very well that you cannot control every aspect of an experience and that the best you can do is try your best to manage it and make sure that all the negative uncontrollable factors affecting your customers can be minimized.

As part of the effort to manage experiences, designers (in the general sense) are indeed key. You need to design workflows, design interfaces, design products, etc. to make sure your customers can have a positive experience with your company. It is just that you are not designing the experience per se.

Coming from the usability field, I like it when the “labeling” of something is clear and prevents confusion or misunderstanding. As such I think the label experience design really does a bad job…

Buy on Hong Kong Now Broadband TV: Short Review October 3, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Hong Kong, Innovation, Trends, Usability.
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I discovered yesterday that I could buy stuff on my broadband TV access. I had no idea and I am not sure when it was launched. Here is what PCCW – Now Broadband TV says about the new channel (that channel 501 for those using the service):

A new shopping concept has hit town!

A PCCW service: now shop (channel 501) offers you local and Hollywood hottest DVDs, top-selling books, console games, electronics , lifestyle products and other services including movie ticketing and the No.1 Shopping Gallery. The new Stock Market Express, the new pay service providing Real-time stock quotes , FX spot rates and Gold prices for you to grasp every investment opportunity.

I have been taking a few pictures of the interface (accessible on Flickr)and I prepared a small presentation where I put my thoughts about the service. I also reviewed some elements of the interface from a usability perspective.

I prepared all this pretty quickly and did not do research about similar services in other countries. It is quite rough, but I hope it can be interesting to some and a basis for discussion on the topic of buying through interactive TV.

Let me know your thoughts…

Bookstores and signage – Shenzhen September 14, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in China, Customer Experience, Signage.
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Shenzhen Book CityI was in Shenzhen yesterday afternoon making a trip to the biggest bookstore there. It was indeed pretty massive! 6 floors full of books and with people reading in every corner. Pretty nice place. I was most impressed by the computer science and programming section of the bookstore. I never saw so many books about C++, Photoshop or Dreamweaver… Just insane!

The role of knowledge and books in Chinese society is really important. And we can really feel that in the bookstore. While in France we may read more comic books or novels, Chinese bookstores are mostly dedicated to “learning stuff”. From literature to  design and… anything really, it seems that if there is no learning from a book, then it is  not interesting. So, simple novels have very little shelf space.

During my other trips to Shenzhen, I really had a bad impression of the city. It was dirty and had a gloomy feel to it. But that district around the bookstore, with brand new shopping malls like Citic and MixC, is quite impressive…

Anyway. I was trying to find the bookstore at some point and I thought it would be a good idea to follow signs… ha ha ha

Signage in Shenzhen

Signage in Shenzhen

Okay… I make a turn…

Signage in Shenzhen

Oh… A dead-end…