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The GoAnimate song April 19, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Social Networking, User Experience, Web 2.0.
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It’s my first time blogging about something directly related to my current job as product manager at GoAnimate.com. I am not sure why I did not do it earlier… Working at GoAnimate allowed me to switch from being an uninvolved consultant advising people to being in the “pit” fighting to make the website a success not only in terms of user experience and interaction design, but also more generally as a company.

One major realization I had while working is the power of the community. I have been humbled by what and how users have been using the platform. We first designed it for people to create short funny stories, and we now realize that quite a number of users are now using the platform to create whole animated episodes that sometimes last more than 10 minutes. We also see amazing thing happening in terms of users sharing their creations and the content they upload to the platform. Overall it is amazing to see the dedication and passion of the users on the platform.

Passion that sometimes expresses itself in some strange ways, as the following video shows:

There is no question the Internet is magical in the ways it empowers people to express themselves in such diverse ways… for better and for worse. ;o)

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Black Swans and Web Start-ups January 28, 2009

Posted by psychobserver in Social Networking, Start-ups, User Experience.
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The Black Swan

The Black Swan

I have just finished reading The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book is a great read. I already found Fooled by Randomness by the same author very interesting and this one goes further by applying similar ideas to fields outside of finance. Black Swans are basically very improbable events that are impossible to predict and that have major consequences on their environment. There is no need to look very far to find a Black Swan, as we are in the middle of one with this financial crisis (although some could argue it is a “Gray” Swan as it might have been predictable).

For me, the main lesson I get from the book is that we need to face uncertainty as it is (unpredictable) and should not let unsound theories or stories (especially success stories) fool ourselves in making wrong or too risky decisions. Most articles out there try to rationalize things with checklists, qualities of the successful entrepreneurs… stories that transform successful entrepreneurs into semi-gods who somehow possess a magical potion to make any idea successful. One of the last such article I read had: “The product does not matter” in its checklist for a successful social network. After a short state of intense anger reading this few words, I came to wonder. Is that true? Does the product really matter? Or maybe not…

As a guy focusing on user experience and being a product manager right now, I am in a totally biased position. But I will anyway try to give my personal vision of the start-up world, focusing on the people in this world. There are two main types of actors for web start-ups. The investors (Venture Capital, Angels,…) and the actual entrepreneurs (I am lucky enough to be an employee in the start-up where I work, so I may have a clear vision on entrepreneurs). Both of these parties are aware of the role of Black Swans in their business. They somehow know that only a very small portion of companies make it big.

But which one of the two has the better position? Which one is the fool in the relationship? (after reading Mr. Taleb’s book I feel that there must be fools everywhere…)

When I look at all these articles and all the press only talking about the winners in the start-up world, I definitely see a massive survivor bias (the fact that you never hear about failures) phenomenon. Talking to entrepreneurs it also appears to me that only a few are aware of the real probability (or more accurately the total uncertainty) of their business being successful. While this is good to ensure entrepreneurs have the drive and put as much energy as possible in their business, it makes them the fools in this relationship. Investors know of failures. Most of their investment are failures and that knowledge makes them better equipped to not be fools.

So, what do investors do?! Well. They are looking for Black Swans. They invest in many companies and push these companies to put themselves in a position where they have a chance of being hit by a Black Swan. Usually, this results in a total reluctance to look at cash flow and profits and only focus on expanding the community and promoting the site (the product does not matter).

What is the result of that?! Well, many companies die as a result of this, but the investors still do okay as in the lot of companies they invest in, they only need one successful one to reap a lot of return and erase all their losses. They increase their chance of facing a Black Swan by having many companies under their umbrella and pushing them into the right direction.

But, what about entrepreneurs?! For that entrepreneur who hit it big, that’s great. But for all the ones facing failure (the immense majority), not good. Their companies could have done great by taking a more product centric approach with slower development but producing returns. Their growth would have been slower, their return (in case of success) would have been smaller, but they could have built a lasting business.

So the conclusion is: As an entrepreneur, it is important to know which group you want to belong to. Being a fool can be good, but only if you knowingly put yourself in this situation. For all the entrepreneurs who prefer not to be fools… the road is longer and tougher, but it may provide more chances of success in the end. And on that road, the product does matter.

Alrite. That was my 2 cents on the issue. I am sure that all over the web it is possible to find much better articles about this (I am just an employee after all). I just felt like putting some thoughts down as I was reading “The Black Swan”.

Requesting downloads on SlideShare December 27, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Usability, User Experience.
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A week ago, I received a request from a user on SlideShare to download my presentation on “Hong Kong NowTV Shop“. I am not sure why I did not allow everyone to download the presentation in the first place, but now it allowed me to take a look at this specific process on SlideShare, a very useful type of interaction for social networks.

There are two actors in this interaction: The reader and the author.

The reader, browsing SlideShare (or more probably searching on Google) for content related to his study or presentation, finally finds something on SlideShare inside a presentation. Too bad though, the  author of the presentation decided he would not allow readers to download the presentation.

SlideShare has well addressed this need in their design. In case a presentation can be downloaded, the interface displays a clear “Download” button just on top of their slideshow, and if the presentation is not downloadable then the button is changed into a “Request Download” one.

SlideShare

SlideShare

That’s where unfortunately a nice dedicated feature breaks as the reader upon clicking on this link is thrown back into a generic messaging interface. The reader has his goal in mind already, so it is possible for him to refill the whole messaging form and explain his request. But wouldn’t have it been efficient to propose an already prepared message for him or her to use/customize?

SlideShare Messaging Form

SlideShare Messaging Form

Not only would it be more efficient, it would also add better control when the other actor in this interaction takes over. The  author is informed that somebody sent him a message, but no mention is made regarding the fact that the reader wants to download his presentation, that is unless the reader took the time to write a clear message explaining exactly what is needed.

… And even if they do, the  author is then faced with the task of turning the download option on for the presentation. As the original flow is related to “request download” one could expect that the option to turn this on would be clearly highlighted on the interface next to the message, but nothing like this is offered to the  author who if he is not using SlideShare on a regular basis (like me) is left wandering around the options of the presentation and missing the little checkbox on that page several times before being able to complete the task.

SlideShare Private Message

SlideShare Private Message

To go a bit further, we may also consider that if the  author made his presentation “non-downloadable” he or she may have had reasons for doing so. In that respect it may be useful to offer the possibility to the  author to let another specific user to download the presentation rather than having to allow anyone to download the presentation.

Oh. No! It sounds like my entirely objective blog post became a rant… :oS … Sorry for that. The aim is just to point out that a flow has to be thought from beginning until the end in order to be successful (including all actors in that interaction). A button on an interface is not enough in most cases… And thus now I will look back at the feature we have been building on GoAnimate and see where we may have fell into this trap as well (which with daily turnarounds like in any start-ups is unavoidable)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

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.

Open your mind… and dream: Nokia Morph February 29, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Concept, Innovation, Mobile, Trends, User Experience.
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This is a concept video from Nokia. You can download it from Nokia’s website or watch it on YouTube (embedded below).

Concepts have been used a lot in the car industry to spur design ideas and creativity. I think this video does an amazing job at setting a vision for the future of mobile. It is crazy and … and a very long term vision. But it is also based on actual technology and actual constraints we have today with mobile devices (like features integration, screen size). Just like in the car industry where we don’t see concept cars in the street, there is very little chance we will see this concept out at all. Still, just like in the car industry, some of the features in these concepts can make it to the main stream products. I can’t wait personally how screen size limitations are addressed with new technologies… See Philips work… or Modu Mobile.

Usability Sense: Navigation hierarchy February 28, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Usability, User Experience.
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DISCLAIMER: I meant this post to be quite short… and I just realized I am writing more and more. As a result, the post covers stuff like information architecture as well… but maybe not in a way that is a thorough as it should be. I hope the result is still comprehensive enough…

The navigation is arguably the most important area in a website. From the navigation, the user should be able at a glance to create a mental model (definition on Wikipedia) of what the website is about and what it has to offer (be it content, services or products).

That’s where Information Architecture comes in. Information Architecture is basically two things: labeling and grouping information.

Labeling
Labeling seems straight-forward at first, but is a quite political issue. Good labeling should be clear and intuitive, meaning that when the user reads the name of a section, he or she should be able to guess what kind of content is included in it. The usual conflict when it comes to labeling is with the marketing department. In terms of branding and “sounding cool” many marketers come up with fancy names for sections they want on the website. Problem is,… these names require more effort on the user’s side to learn and thus affect usability. Not that they are always bad. If a “label” is consistently used throughout an organization regardless of the channel (online or offline), then it could work. As usual, the answer to that problem is: it depends on the context of use (like most usability problems).

BC Magazine - website navigation
An example with unclear naming… good or bad?!

Grouping
Grouping is the second aspect of information architecture. Grouping relates to how the content is put together to form sections, sub-sections, etc. Grouping is really key in supporting users in building their mental model of the website. A good grouping is hierarchical by nature and this hierarchy should be reflected in the navigation of the website. It is usually good to have a primary grouping where each piece of content resides in a single group and then if needed build multiple ways to navigate that information from different angles. Below screenshot shows this. On the International Herald Tribune, content is organized by topics first, but then it is also possible to browse according to location as well.

IHT homepage - navigation problem

But that’s where the problems start (and where the actual blog post I meant to write start as well). The way the grouping on IHT is displayed really does not do a good job at helping users build a clear mental model. The design of the navigation creates the impression that regions (americas, europe,…) are subsections of the main iht.com section (that appears selected). That could work, but let’s look at what happens when we decide to look at business articles…

iht business section - navigation problem

As the user is interacting with the navigation area, this same area should provide a feedback of the action that took place. Unfortunately at this stage, nothing happened. The homepage (iht.com) still looks selected, what looked like sub-sections (americas, europe,…) did not change. The mental model that users had build based the homepage does not hold anymore. Of course, the content below changed, and the page has a title “Business with Reuters”, but the job is not done. Users are also not given the opportunity to drill down more into sub-sections under business (possible at the bottom of the page), which I would say is a pretty important features.

Anyway. My post is pretty long already. To sum up: A navigation should support users in building a mental model of the website. That mental model should be reinforced as they browse to different pages. Easier said than done…

Concept Models – Dan Brown’s presentation at Interaction 08 February 26, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in IxDA, Tools, User Experience.
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Experientia has posted a list of all the presentations made at the IxDA Interaction 08 conference with synopsis and videos. That’s a nice little source to spend rainy week-ends…

The first video I wanted to highlight is the one by Dan Brown about concept models (watch it on Brightcove or get the slides on Slideshare). That video had a big impact on me, as it made me basically put a name and reserve a space for an activity I was already performing in my projects. Without really making it formal I have been drawing concept models for most of my projects somewhere in between research (when we can actually perform any) and wireframing… or after… or at the same time…

That was the problem. Concept models had no timeframe and resources allocated to them, but somehow where necessary in order to formalize the solution that was being developed. From now on, I will dedicate specific time after research to working on these concept models whenever appropriate. I feel like a gap in my work process has been addressed here!

I have also started to read the book “Communicating Design” by Dan Brown. Although a bit too basic in some respect, it does a good job as a checklist to use during projects when you want to make sure you are on the right track and want to manage your project efficiently.

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…

The web auditory experience January 22, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Innovation, Trends, User Experience.
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For a long time, the Web has been about having a visual experience. But now, there are signs that it is changing. With more and more videos on the Web, with Skype causing (or maybe causes are elsewhere) people to wear headsets in office and with music being added to websites, the Web now has the opportunity to deliver a richer experience using both visual and auditory cues.

Click-2-ListenIt looks that the first focus of this evolution is to tackle one of the most critical problem with the Web, the fact that people don’t read. I was reading (… so people really don’t read?) an article today and next to the title was a button saying: “Click-2-Listen”.

Out of curiosity, I clicked on it and listened to the article being read to me. In the end, I missed most of it as my colleagues were talking to me and I could not be bothered to press Pause/Play all the time. The quality of the speech although impressive is nothing like a real human talking. In the end, I think I prefer by far reading.

I guess the nice thing with this text to speech service is that you can download the media file and play it later maybe on your mp3 player when you are on the way home. It seems to me that if we are in front of our screen, we’d rather read through an article which is a much more flexible task rather than listen to the article. The service could then be much more targeted towards people who download the file for later.

Two companies offering the service are:

  • News Worthy Audio
  • Odiogo (I really like the tagline: “Gives your text content voice … and legs!”, which plays much more on the listen later feature of the service)

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.