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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)

Latest Jakob Nielsen Alertbox March 18, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Research, Tools, Usability.
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Three types of projects
Just received Jakob Nielsen’s latest Alertbox today. It is an interesting discussion on different design project types and the need for each of them to bridge the gap between the actual designer and the users. As interaction designer I consider myself mostly working on level 2 (the designer understands the product) and 3 (designing for a foreign domain) applications, rather than the level 1 (the designer is the user) type. That is, from my point of view. But I work with actual “designers” quite a bit who believe all projects are level 1 projects.

The important take-away from the article for me is the need at the beginning of a project to assess what is the knowledge level of the design team and plan for research as appropriate. If the design team is representative of the target users, then little research is required at the start, but usability testing is still a good way to fine-tune the design. On the other hand, if the design project is targeting a very niche user base, then user research is necessary from the start – before any actual design happens. It takes a lot of selflessness from the team to admit that their knowledge is limited on a topic and can be tricky as well when facing a client of some sort. That is the biggest barrier in that case. The fact that good design is a highly contextual matter is still not very well understood (at least in this part of the world).

Google Search usability test
The other interesting point in Jakob Nielsen alertbox is the test they did with Google Search showing that “only” 73% of users they interviewed managed to complete a Google search. Very striking statistics indeed! Google searching for people in the Web sphere is considered the most basic of tasks and should have success rates close to 99%. So what happens there… And if some people have a hard time completing that task, consider the complexity of the tasks on your website and ponder… how many users will actually complete this…

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…

Web Wednesday Hong Kong February 14, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Hong Kong, Web 2.0, Web Wednesday.
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Yesterday night was another edition of Web Wednesday Hong Kong. The interview this time was of Argha Sen who is Head of Marketing for Toys R Us in Asia. It was quite amusing to witness the difference between the talk yesterday and the talk from the last event. Last event was about EditGrid, a Hong Kong online spreadsheet start-up, and it mostly revolved around getting excited about Web 2.0 and getting investment (even though you have no idea how to make money with your company).

In contrast yesterday Argha was on the total opposite side of the spectrum. His approach was show me the money, show me the numbers that supports me getting into that Web stuff and then I will think about it. Obviously the audience at Web Wednesday was not expecting this, and it did not make for a very entertaining discussion, but reality checks are always good. Doing something without thinking about the money and a sound business model first is like entirely relying on luck! It might work, you might get bought by some big guys… but the drains are full of the “hidden” majority of these company who tried to follow that path.

… just my take away from yesterday’s talk…

Update: Listen to the podcast of the Interview on Web Wednesday Blog 

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!