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Usability Sense: One Control to Rule them All!? March 23, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Newsweek, Tools, Usability.
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Following my post on the article “Revenge of the Experts” in Newsweek two weeks ago I spent some time looking at their website. The overall look & feel of the website is very pleasant. It does the job. I find it makes the reader feel like reading their articles and highlights other stories pretty well, which a publication website is supposed to do. But wait! I am a Usability guy… Enough of being positive like that! I have to find errors, mistakes, areas for improvement, write a report, do recommendations, etc.

Luckily, I found something to criticize and something that allows me discussing a bit about interface controls, an issue people take too much for granted. When designing an interface, every time there is an interaction, you need to identify the best “control” to make this interaction happen. Should I use a button? Should I use a check box? A scroll bar? Build a navigation? Or just use a plain old link? The way I see this, making this decision is both a very rigorous process and also a highly contextual one. For every kind of interaction there is a set of appropriate controls that are more effective at enabling that interaction. Depending on the rest of the interface a specific control may also be much better than another one. That is if you are not the super control that can enable any kind of interactions! Yes, there is a perfect control out there that solves all problems and looks “cool” in your interface at the same time.

The magic word ladies and gentlemen is “sliders” . Yes, sliders. I remember not so long ago designing a form for one project and one of the stakeholders told me: “Optimize it for users, but… make sure there is a slider in there as well!”. Well, turns out, sliders are not that great at solving any interaction you have to design. That’s what I’d like to highlight in this post using Newsweek website as an example. Sliders on their article page are used in two places: first, as a way to change the font size on the interface, second, in a “widget” to control the date range to retrieve popular stories. In both instances, a different kind of control may have worked better.

Newsweek font size selectorFont size selection is for good reasons fast becoming a must have accessibility feature on text heavy websites. The task here is simple. A user finds the font is too small. The user could be a person with a partially impaired vision for example. In this case the website offers a way to increase the size of the text font. How well does this particular control address this issue? Well, not too well. First there is clear inadequacy between the control design and the task at hand. The task addresses the need of potentially visually impaired people, but the active part of the control (the small round cursor) is so small that even a person with no visual problem will have problems clicking on the right spot. Second, does the task require the user to select a value within a wide range of options (a task the slider is good at addressing)? No. The user just wants to increase the size of the font (or reduce it maybe) and see the result right away. In that sense, why use a slider? As an interaction designer I would stick to the good old “-” and “+” button here that are much better control to address the task at hand.

Newsweek popular stories widgetWhat about that second slider on the interface? Well, I would argue that it does a pretty bad job as well. In a “widget” in the right column of the website, a list of popular stories is highlighted. By default this list highlight the day’s popular stories, but users (via the slider) can select articles from a different date range. Again, different problems with this control. The first is in its design. It is usually advised to display values on a slider to let users know more about the range they are choosing from. Here, there is no way before interacting with the control to know in advance which value I will be able to choose.

The second is related to the task at hand. In this respect, I do not have enough experience with publication websites to know if my point is valid or not. I am wondering what kind of range people are interested in selecting when they are looking at the most popular stories. My guess is that today’s most popular stories is good enough for most readers, but if they want to change, why limit the user to 7 days max? (the case today on the website) And why letting users select a range like the last 4 days? Maybe user research actually showed this was right, but I am not convinced it is at this point. What of three buttons or a kind of navigation that says “today”, “last week”, “last month”? Would that be enough? I am not sure, but although the slider looks cooler, in the end users will care about efficiency and effectiveness, especially on a website like Newsweek.

Follow-up on user-generated content… March 20, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Advertising, Newsweek, Strategy, Trends.
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Here is an article from Wharton “The Experts vs. the Amateurs” that is related to the article I posted about from Newsweek: “Revenge of the Experts” (my post here).

Despite its title, I think the most important issue raised in this latest article is the one about business models. With the “everything is free” idea going on (thank you Wired) everybody is running around trying to come up with an “hybrid business model”. Indeed, current free models offered by formerly paid publications are not sustainable as they don’t generate enough to cover for the loss of subscription money. So, is there an hybrid free business model? … I tend to think there is none. If you want quality, reviewed, edited content, … well it makes sense you have to pay for it somehow. And there is only so much advertising money can cover.

The big problem is that the line between Expert and Amateur content is very blurry as the article states, so it makes matters worse. What makes it even worse is that as human beings we are really bad at reacting to a situation until there is a big crisis. So, as long as old-fashioned professional publications survive, we won’t realize that we actually want to pay for quality content. Personally, I do a lot of consulting work, and I am happy people are actually willing to pay money for my work, instead of having to watch a 5 minute advertising video before every meeting they have with me. I can imagine it is the same for a reporter or an editor. My feeling is that paid publications will come back in the end… I can’t help but think that the whole “free” thing will quite quickly disappear… not that I am an expert on the issue in any way, just a thought.   :o)

The end of User-Generated Content? March 8, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Innovation, Newsweek, Social Networking, Trends, User Experience, Web 2.0.
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The end of user-generated content? Really?! With social networks, blogs, wikis and more new similar applications appearing every day, who would defend such an idea? It is at first glance what Newsweek seems to be doing with their article: “Revenge of the Experts” (found through Putting People First blog). But is it really what they are saying?

Revenge of the ExpertsThe debate is not really about whether user-generated content will disappear or not. People will continue to generate content. And with the increasing power of applications and tools we have within our grasp, we will continue to generate more and more content. But it is the role of this content that we generate that will be changing. With all the excitement brought by “Web 2.0” (for lack of a better word) about common user doing the job of experts and companies using them to build a business model, we forgot that experts did not appear out of nowhere. Experts are here because, well, they are experts! They are much better at doing something than other people, and they should be rewarded for that. The tools that we now have available helped closing the gap between real expertise and perceived one, but the difference remains nevertheless.

The fact that blogs exist for example does not mean we can all be good reporters or journalists. It only means that we can all publish stuff. The fact that we can now comment on articles on most of the major magazines and newspapers, does not make us more expert than the person writing that article. And actually if we go beyond the facade of user-generated content, we discover that most content, as highlight in the article, is generated by a very small group of people. In the end, to create quality content to all can refer to, you need experts. Wikipedia just showed that an amazing tool could be created by offering a place where experts from a wide range of fields could aggregate all their knowledge, but it omitted to include a clear accountability review on the quality of each contributor.

In every such discussions I have these days everything boils down back to the word “good”. In the recent discussion on the use of personas, the conclusion basically is that if the person is “good” then personas are great. In this case it is the same. If a person is good, or an expert, then we can trust his or her judgment. This means that we need expertise, and we need ways to identify who has that expertise. After all the excitement, we could very well see more old fashioned business model that we thought were dead make a come back.