Saturday, December 16, 2006

News of note

Once again, the result is wasted time and wasted money.

The NBA has reversed its own decision to use a new microfiber ball and reverted back to using leather balls, due to player complaints.

In other words, they didn't check in with the users before making a design/implementation decision.

(My wife is the one who mentioned the connection between this story and the field of usability, so either the concept really makes sense, or I'm talking about it way too much.)

Also in the news . . .

Time's most recent cover story, How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century, outlines the 21st- century skills that leaders of business, industry and education say that our children MUST have moving forward. Among the notable quotes:
Jobs in the new economy -- the ones that won't get outsourced or automated -- "put an enormous premium on creative and innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos," says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Traditionally that's been an American strength, but schools have become less daring in the back-to-basics climate of NCLB. Kids also must learn to think across disciplines, since that's where most new breakthroughs are made. It's interdisciplinary combinations -- design and technology, mathematics and art -- "that produce YouTube and Google," says Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author of The World Is Flat.
Sound familiar?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Clips from here and there

I'm neck deep in accessibility issues and need another week or so to get back to active posting.

In the meantime, a few interesting clips regarding the usability of voting machines and automobiles:

In the first one, a documentary filmmaker shills for his latest project by noting the
flaws in testing the machines for the state of New York. Aside from his central point about full disclosure (an important one to be sure), the testing approach appears to be flawed. What kind of result are you getting if you instruct the participant in how to use it beforehand?

In the second one, a representative of the MIT Media Lab provides a
demo of a new voting machine prototype. Not sure I'm on board with all of the decisions they've incorporated thus far, but it appears to be a step in the right direction.

Finally, an amusing look at the attempts to implement
new automatic parking features in automobiles. The actors are playing it up, but the point is made.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Look beyond the numbers

Information visualization teaches us the intricacies of displaying data graphically, and how one must look beyond first impressions to see the "truth" behind the data (you can see a gallery of "best" and "worst" examples here).

To take a (presumably) fictitious example: a line chart showing how the cost of living has gone down at the same time that sales of the automotive Big Three has gone up. A politician representing Michigan might be able to get considerable mileage (no pun intended) out of a chart like that. Problem is, the data tends may be true in and of themselves, but by placing them together, the impression is given that they are interrelated, when in fact, it's very likely that they're not.

The lesson is: the data doesn't necessarily represent the picture it intends to portray.

Recently I came across a website for an elite boarding school in the Northeast. In the Admissions section, there is a page detailing grants and financial aid, with the following sentence:

"Intent on enrolling an economically diverse student body, (the school) offers
financial aid to students, based on financial need. In this school year, $2.8
million of financial aid was awarded to 28 percent of the student body. "

A very admirable goal, and with board-in tuition at just shy of $39,000/year, $2.8 million in grant aid is truly nothing to sneeze at. This chart is offered as an outline of their distribution method:

Income LevelGrants more than
Grants from
$15,001 - $30,000
Grants up to
$0 - $ 25,000900
$25,001 - $ 50,000510
$50,001 - $ 75,0001361
$75,001 - $100,000562
Over $100,0009227

After looking at it for a while, I decided to do the math, using the maximum dollar amounts for each grant award type (i.e., for this example, "grants more than $30,000" equals the full in-board price of $38,800) and came up with the following:

Income Level

% of
grant recipients

% of
grant money
Grant $ awarded
(in dollars)
$0 - $ 25,00010%12.5%349k
$25,001 - $ 50,0007%8%224k
$50,001 - $ 75,00024%25%699k
$75,001 - $100,00015%14.5%404k
Over $100,00044%40%1114k

Let's take it a bit further -- remember, according to the opening statement, 72% of the student body is not receiving any grant aid, and it's reasonable to assume that those students come from households earning more than $100,000/year. If almost half of the remainding 28% are from >$100k households that are receiving grant aid of some kind, that means that roughly 85% of the total student body falls into that income category.

So, upon closer examination of the data, those for whom "economic diversity" is a major concern might want to start asking some detailed questions.

Of course, there is equal danger in using this data to make a potentially false judgement of the school as a haven for the well-to-do -- after all, I'd venture to guess that many of those >$100k households are middle-class two-earner families, just trying to stay afloat while giving their children to an academically advantageous environment.

The point here is not to use data to make snap judgements, but rather to advocate for a healthy skepticism of data representations, so that more informed decisions can be made.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Label, baby!

A central tenet of user centered design (UCD) is that the people who create a product -- content experts, technical experts, marketing, management and other stakeholders -- are not actual users of the product. Each has biases (both positive and negative) that are brought to the table and are inherent in the input and feedback that they provide. Armed with credentials in the UCD/HCI/usability field, part of my job is to hammer that concept home as much as possible.

So it's particularly humbling when my own biases are put on display.

One of my current projects is a new version of an online learning management system (LMS) that allows instructors to offer exams, training session, or a combination of the two to their students. Once once of these modules has been created, it can be scheduled according to preferred parameters and made available to be taken by students in the class.

In the programs current version, the interface has two views -- Instructor and Student. On the student side, these modules labeled Assignments. On the instructor side, they are labeled Scheduled Items. Part of the challenge of the new program version was to come up with a single label, to be used in both views, that best encompasses all three types of modules.

"Common sense" -- always dangerous in this line of work -- told me that Assignments was the best choice (i.e., a task or duty created by one person for completion by another), but debate within development and stakeholder meetings was spirited. Ordinarily, this would be a perfect opportunity for a card sorting exercise -- instead, I was asked to sit in on several design feedback conference calls with customers and try to glean consensus, which was not productive. Assignments did not have strong support, nor did Scheduled Items. One participant lobbied hard for Activities, which made everyone on our end of the phone roll their eyes.

With no way of gauging accurate preference or consensus over the phone, I decided to create an online survey and solicit input from my non-professional contact list. After providing some basic context information, I posed the following question:

In your opinion, which one of the following labels best describes the three types of modules outlined above?

  • Assignments
  • Tasks
  • Exercises
  • Projects
  • Activities
  • Other (Please Specify):
40 invitations to take the survey were sent out, with 20 people responding. The results:

  • Assignments - 2
  • Tasks - 1
  • Exercises - 2
  • Projects - 6
  • Activities - 7
  • Other - 2
Needless to say, this was eye-opening on several fronts. Project stakeholders started gaining an appreciation for the actual science behind UCD, understanding that conversations taking place in a conference call does not make for a foundation for good design decision-making.

For me personally, it was a huge and much-needed reality check. I am expected to be the in-house expert on such things, but when push comes to shove, the biases I bring to design can be just as potentially damaging as those of a "non-expert." Only by clearly defining and identifying the needs, challenges and preferences of actual users can information be effectively used by stakeholders to guide critical information design decisions.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

"Is it safe . . .?"

I usually don't dedicate much time attention to visual design, as it's not (nor has it ever been) my strongest suit, but I can't resist with this one . . .

A former colleague, David Cugnasca, is very heavy into pinhole photography and has been selected to participate in an international conference/photography show later this year.

Here's the poster for the event, which immediately brought to mind Laurence Olivier wielding a dentist's pick as a tool of torture in 1976's Marathon Man:

Poster for Camera Obscura:International Pinhole Photography Exposition

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Get a load of this

It's been a while since I hit on something fun, so here's one for the files . . .

While on the Online Store website for a highly recognizable brand name, I noticed the following box:

Online Store's list of resources

I assumed that Site User Guide would be a link to an online help environment, a series of tool tips or FAQs, or -- at worst -- a Flash-animated tutorial on how to use the site to make online purchases.

Instead, Site User Guide actually links to a 38-page downloadable .pdf document, covering everything from how to login to what the site's privacy policy entails.

My favorite part is found under the section "Navigating the Site":

You will find site navigation simple and intuitive. To move from field to field, use either the Tab key or point and click with your mouse. To go to different site features, point and click on the menu item. To return to a previously viewed screen, press the “back” button on the browser toolbar.

This company's bread and butter is consumer electronics, so I can understand the probable emphasis on printable user guides within the corporate culture. But I never thought I'd see the day when a "simple and intuitive" website would require a set of printed instructions.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Here's the pitch . . . and it's a bit outside

Career counselors and placement services emphasize the importance of the "elevator pitch" -- the 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do for a living that is used in networking and interview situations.

I have never been able to perfect this concept, even when I held positions that people seemed to grasp right off the bat (video producer, web producer, editor). It's become even more challenging since I entered the field of "Human Factors in Information Design." It takes me more than 30 seconds to inadequately "pitch" the concept of Human Factors, and another 30 to "pitch" Information Design (again inadequately).

friends and relatives continually ask, "So tell me again what it is you do?" My uncle Tom seemed to grasp the concept to a certain degree when he said, "So what you mean is you got a master's in 'user-friendly,' right?" From the layperson's view, he's not far off, but of course it's more than that.

So until I can an adequate "pitch" down (and for anyone who's stumbled here wondering what the hell I'm talking about), I'll analogize, courtesy of Hollywood . . .

Anyone who's seen Big (1988), starring Tom Hanks, probably remembers the "I don't get it" scene -- Hanks is a 13-year old who's made a wish to be "big" and wakes up the next day in the body of a 30-year old. Through a series of misadventures, he is named Vice-President of Product Development at a major toy company. A couple of rival execs are in a conference room, pitching their concept for a bulky robot toy to the company owner, using every bit of marketing and analytical data they can get to justify its development. Hanks tries playing with it with no success, then raises his hand and says,
"I don't get it . . . this is a building that turns into a robot, right? . . .
well what's fun about that?"

The rival hands him a graph showing increased demand and market share for robot toys, to which Hanks replies, "I still don't get it." (Here's a link to a clip of the scene -- you'll come across the scene about halfway through the clip.)

In reality, it's the rival execs that don't get it. All of their data may have supported the toy's concept, but they never consulted the users -- the kids that would be playing with it -- to see if they "got it."

The online revolution is still a recent development, and web sites and software have a notorious history of being designed by committee. Tech developers, marketing people, graphic designers, support staff, and upper management all have a vision for what would make for a good and useful product, and the result is often an attempt to satisfy all of these stakeholder groups. What gets ignored is contact with the user -- making sure that the design does not get in the way of being able to do the work people need to do, and uncovering all potential issues early in the design process so that money and resources are not wasted further down the product development line.

So that's what we're charged with -- being a "user advocate," if you will, who uses research and testing techniques to (a) mitigate early design and development costs for computer-based information products, and (b) help ensure a satisfactory user experience.

Not quite the Jonathan Papelbon fastball I'd like, but at this point I'll settle for not having Steve Blass disease.

Brain lock

Let us pause for a second and leave the world of information design to look at a more mechanical situation, and how violating an accepted mental model causes problems in how a system is used ...

Donald Norman's seminal book
The Design of Everyday Things devotes a significant amount of time to the design of doors and locks -- and, it turns out, for good reason. It's amazing how so seemingly simple an item of everyday life can be made complicated by non-intuitive design. (The design of my car's power lock system provided enough fodder for a 12-page paper.)

By virtue of our proximity to the local airport, my wife and I recently were awarded a substantial amount of sound-proofing work on our home, including specially designed outer doors. The doors themselves are fantastic, from a sound-proofing and insulation standpoint. However, almost immediately, our downstairs tenant started complaining that the locks were "sticking" and were extremely difficult to open from the outside (she almost broke two keys trying to do so).

The inside knobs look like this:

Nothing too complicated here -- based on my life's experience, you rotate the small switch in the center of the inner knob clockwise to keep the outer knob from turning (thereby locking the door), thus requiring a key to unlock it. Turning the switch back counterclockwise allows the outer knob to turn, allowing entry without a key.

Or so I thought.

Turns out, our locks come from a new series design. Locking the door as described above is accomplished by pressing and depressing the switch in the center. Turning it clockwise and counterclockwise activates a new "pickproof" feature that keeps the door from being opened even if a key is used.

The worker who was called to the house explained the operation of the locks to my wife and tenant, then commented that most elderly customers are having so much trouble using the new locks that they're asking to have the old locks reinstalled, an expense incurred by the management of the soundproofing program.

How's that for wasted time and money?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Gone fishing -- Back soon

Taking a much needed break until the week of September 12.

Until then -- if you want to see something supremely cool, check out Jeff Han's presentation in Feb 06, in which he demonstrates his intuitive, "interface-free," touch-driven computer screen, which can be manipulated intuitively with the fingertips, and responds to varying levels of pressure.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Worth a thousand words? Part 2

Worth a thousand words? asked readers to look at the following series of icons (taken from an active interface in a web/software product) and describe what type of function the user would expect to access after clicking on each:

In actuality, the icons (from left to right) are meant to be representative of a logical learning procedure, from reading about the particulars of a task (for example, "cut and paste text" in MS Word) to actually performing it in a training setting:

  1. Prepare -- Information is presented on-screen as it would be in a study guide or text book. Students read an overview of the task, the various means of accomplishing it, and the advantages that the task provides.
  2. Observe -- An animated video clip demonstrates step-by-step how to accomplish the task, with both an audio description (can be toggled on and off) and descriptive text in the event the sound is turned off or otherwise not available. The clip runs continuously from start to finish, though a VCR-type control can stop, revert to a previous step in the process, or skip to the next step.
  3. Practice -- A self-paced version of the clip in "Observe," with accompanying call-out boxes that guide the user through each step of the process.
  4. Apply -- The user is asked to actually perform the task based on commands generated by the system. The user is allowed a specific number of tries for each step, and the system provides feedback as to whether the steps have been performed successfully or unsuccessfully.
  5. Exit -- Closes the content player window and ends the training session.

I suspected that at least 3 of the icons had a huge gap between the image and the function it represents, and the responses I received provide confirmation:

  1. Pencil (Prepare) -- All responders expected this icon to lead them to an environment where they would be able to "write," "edit" or "draw" -- not read information off of a page.
  2. Eye (Observe) -- One responder wasn't sure whether this was in fact an eye at all, but all expected to be able to "view," "preview," or "read" something. Technically speaking, this could be interpreted as being a successful representation of the function, but I would submit that an eye is far too abstract -- i.e., every facet of the content must be viewed in order to be useful, so why would an eye make particular sense here?
  3. Hand/pen (Practice) -- Half of the respondents said they expected to "write" or "edit"; the other half thought the image was too similar to the first one to be of any descriptive use, which is another way of saying that it does a poor job of communicating the concept of practicing something.
  4. Mouse (Apply) -- All respondents said that the icon indicated an action related to the mouse, either "move mouse," "drag-move," or "click here." Because actually performing the task(s) requires heavy use of the mouse, I would argue that the image might make a fairly good representation of the function, but that alternatives should be explored.
  5. X (Exit) -- As one might expect, all respondents correctly identified this icon as a "close" or "quit" function.

Next time, my suggestions for changes -- though I would be greatly interested in (and grateful for) any suggestions or thoughts. As always, feel free to email me directly or send a comment using the link below.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Worth a thousand words?

Not quite a month into the new position, and already I'm being thrust head first into a number of facets of HFID. Among the projects I've been called in for varying degrees of consult, design and/or recommendation:

  • Review and recommendation for an e-commerce environment
  • Redesign of a content player
  • Redesign of an LMS (learning management system)
  • "Usability test" (really a series of user design feedback sessions) of a sub-site

Of these, the content player project provides my first opportunity for using the blog to hopefully gain some insight into an HF issue:

Most computer users are familiar with the many banks of icons featured in browsers and software applications, such as the following from Microsoft Word:

The power of good iconic representation is that it provides an instant visual cue for the functionality that it represents. Even someone not well-versed in Word should be able to determine that the second icon from the left represents Open a File, or that the second from the right represents Print. These are examples of icons with a good semantic distance (closeness between the image depicted in the icon and the function it is intended to represent).

The content player in question exists as part of an software package that helps instructors teach students how to use different software applications. By launching the player, students can view descriptions and demonstrations of tasks that aim to help them learn to use the application more easily.

Among its design features, the player has a bank of icons similar to that of MS Word. In offering design recommendations, I have to be able to provide some user-based rationale for either (a) keeping one or all of the icons as they are or (b) recommending alternatives.

So I put it to you, the readers . . .

What type of action does each of these icons represent?

Feel free to email me or post a comment directly to this blog entry. I'll reveal the answers in the next entry, as well as what readers have to say about them.

As always, my sincerest thanks in advance for your assistance.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A break in the madness

The ol' blog has had to take a back seat for a few weeks -- a new job, home maintenance emergencies and typical summer time demands have severely restricted my "think" time.

It may be a few more weeks before I truly get back into the swing, though material for the fall looks extrmemely promising -- Universal Design (design for the elderly, children, handicapped and Section 508) and Medical Informatics (not sure what exactly that means yet) beckon from September through December.

In the meantime . . .

I came across a good article from Lanford and Hubscher (2000) about the facets involved in establishing trust in e-commerce enviroments (and how usability plays into it):

A trustworthy web site should therefore attempt to minimize the amount of uncertainty involved in the user’s decision making. Furthermore, if a decision can be postponed or even altogether omitted, the need for trust, and thus, risk, can be even more reduced.

Hope the summer is going well.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Musical Journey Shuffle, Part 2

In Part 1, I posed a question I pondered while doing some product development research for a recent client:

When listening to music, creating iPod playlists or compiling music CD's, are people more inclined to the "shuffle mode" (random generation of songs in a collection, creating a new listening experience each time) or to the "musical journey" (purposeful ordering of music in a way that is meaningful to the listener)?

I generated an online survey, sent it off to 30 people (with instructions to pass it on, if possible) and collected data over a bit more than a week. The questions attempted to gauge preferences across several different measures (musical tastes, listening habits, musical collections, etc.) that I hoped would provide some insight on the question posed above.

The results:
  • A strong majority identify themselves as having "eclectic" musical tastes (rather than being limited to only a few genres), and as listening to a variety of radio stations (rather than sticking to one or two stations on the dial).
  • A strong majority say they enjoy having many different genres of music in a single playlist/CD, rather than listening to a single genre at a time. When creating a playlist or CD, they say they prefer to include many different genres of music, rather than sticking to a single genre.
  • A strong majority say they like to be surprised by the next song in a playlist, rather than knowing what comes next. However, about half say that they intentionally randomize songs and genres in playlists/CDs, while the other half say that they carefully order their music in a way that makes sense to them.
  • Similarly, about half of respondents believe that the songs in their playlists/CDs follow a natural progression, while the other half compile playlists with little regard to order.
  • A majority of respondents say that they don't like being "jarred" when a slow song is followed by a fast up tempo one (or vice versa); however, about the same number say that are indifferent to having a song be radically different from the one preceding or following it.
  • Finally, a strong majority of iPod users surveyed (4 to 1) say they listen in shuffle mode more than 50% of the time, with half of those indicating that they listen in shuffle mode 80-100% of the time. However, while most couldn't venture a guess about the habits of family and friends, those that did estimated that family and friends listen in shuffle mode less than 50% of the time.

The first two bullet points weren't at all surprising -- it's almost expected that people consider themselves as having broad musical tastes and having listening habits that support them. Such data would seem to set the table for a preference toward "shuffle mode."

However, the next three bullets would seem to indicate that there is no clear cut preference for either practice. Even the iPod usage data in the last bullet is confounding -- it's almost as if users think that "shuffle mode" is a cool functionality that only they know how to use.

One conjecture was touched on in Part 1 -- that people do indeed take time to create "musical journeys," but mostly when they have a specific task or reason for doing so (to create a workout mix, mood music for a function, etc.). Otherwise, the explosion of iPod usage has made random generation of music from entire collections the favored choice for recreational, "non-task" listening.

Whatever the interpretation, it would seem that future developers of online music experience and delivery systems would do well to allow their users to do both, rather than emphasizing one over the other.

My sincerest thanks to all who participated.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Turn the page

It's been a very eventful 20 days since my last post.

Tomorrow is my last day in the position I've held for the last 6 years -- one in which my day-in and day-out focus was to manage a multi-channel self-service knowledge database and email routing support system that has reached and maintained a consistent 98% success rating (i.e., 98% of visitors to the Support site never submit an email -- the assumption being that the vast majority find value in the content posted there, so that contact with the support reps isn't necessary).

It's a position I've taken very seriously, and one which I felt was a natural gateway to the field of usability/user experience. I owe a great debt of gratitude to those who originally brought me into the position, as they instilled in me the need to push the system to its limits and always always ALWAYS provide the analytics that prove the system's value, to both the end consumer AND the company.

The past year has been extremely challenging -- the company's culture has changed to the point where it's been akin to pulling fingernails to get upper management to pay attention to the fact that, as a vice-president said in a recent conference call, "there's gold in the hills" to be had, if only the desire is there to put the work in to find it.

Starting next week, I embark on the next phase of my career, one that will focus almost exclusively on "mining the gold" of user input and inquiry in the development of software and web-based products. The education I've received in Human Factors in Information Design has paid off in spades, even though I have yet to finish the program.

Subsequent posts here should be far more informed and robust, from the viewpoint of a full-time practitioner in a company that already has "buy-in," rather than from someone who's constantly trying to make people sit up and take notice of what the field has to offer.

Needless to say, I can't wait to get started.

Somewhat of a parting shot from the usability gods -- as I went through the formal exit interview today, my supervisor informed me of some benefits-related information, supposedly available on the company's intranet, that I might want to look at. She searched in vain for about 5 minutes: "It should be HERE! Where is it? No . . . No . . . No . . . Why isn't it under here? . . ."

I just couldn't help but say it: "Sounds like a usability problem."

Friday, June 30, 2006

Lost in information space, with help from Seinfeld

My current usability test project (see The Eagle Has Landed?) is off to a good start -- plan in place, participants scheduled, etc. -- yet it seems that the educational and evangelical process will be ongoing, at least until the results are in.

The overriding concern, as it was explained to me, is "Can customers get the information they need on our site?" I outlined my plan to come up with a set of basic information tasks that would provide insight into this question:

  • Find out the dimensions of the (product)
  • Find out the warranty period for the (product)
  • Find out how much the (product) costs
  • etc.

The email reponse was that these questions didn't address the overriding concern, and that "look for information on the (product)" should suffice as a task: "Most don’t visit a website simply to window shop – but to research (aka “look for information” on) a specific product."

That very day, Gerry McGovern's newsletter provided the diplomatic ammunition I needed to make my case:

Great websites are task-focused. They help people quickly and simply complete boring tasks, such as booking a flight or renewing a driving license. People constantly tell me that they don't have tasks on their website. They say that customers come "looking for information." (This phrase should be banned.)

The more impulsive side of me wanted to say, "Then my job is done before it even starts. We've already got a site that allows customers to look for information. They can be like the Robinson family on "Lost in Space," looking forever for what they're after, without even the benefit of a robot saying WARNING! WARNING! when they head down the wrong path. What we need is a site that allows customers to sucessfully find specific types of information."

It reminded me of the classic Seinfeld moment at the rental car counter: "See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation. And that's really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them."

No one said it was going to be easy.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Musical Journey Shuffle, Part 1

In another life, I spent some time making money as a club deejay. Many factors contributed to my short stay in the field -- short money, bad hours, and overall lack of talent, among others. One in particular stands out, however -- it was pointed out more than once, by more experienced deejays, that I wasn't very good at creating the "musical journey."

According to this concept, you start from a musical Point A to a Point B, with each song feeding from and building on each other in a seamless flow of melody, rhythm and tempo. So, for example, Point A would be the unobtrusive music played as patrons arrived at the club, began ordering the first round, and scanned the club for new faces. The goal would be to take everyone steadily along for the ride to Point B, when the dance floor was in full swing, the waitstaff couldn't keep up with the drink orders, and the music ruled the room.

The musical journey is also prevelent in the way people made mix CDs and, now, make playlists -- aerobics instructors are notorious for this, starting the music at "warm up" and building a steady seamless journey up to "total impact," then down to "cool down." (Runners do this too.) I recently burned a CD that went from Lounge to Soul to Blues to Bluegrass to Folk/Pop to Classic Rock, all within 24 songs. (And the result wasn't bad -- my old DJ cohorts would be proud.) Listening to songs in a pre-programmed, "natural" order would appear to be the result of humans' innate urge to interpret and make sense of all experience.

What, then, to make of the popularity of "shuffle" mode?

"The Serendipity Shuffle," by Leong, Vetere, and Howard (2005), suggests that listening to familar songs in the context of "shuffle" mode helps facilitate serendipity (an instance of making fortunate discoveries by chance or accident). In effect, they say, shuffle mode creates a random event never before experienced by the user, allowing him/her to make new discoveries and unexpected connections to memory, sensation, emotion and environment in a way that is personally meaningful. While cautioning that such experiences cannot be determined solely through design, they maintain that a deeper understanding of serendipity and an emphasis on facilitating it through design will broaden the parameters for determining what constitutes a rich and satisfying user experience.

While doing some product development research for a recent client, I came across a lot of literature indicating that the future of online music delivery and experience will lie in the ability to help customers make more personally meaningful experiences through music -- which presumably would take on the dynamic of the musical journey rather than the shuffle mode.

While I would assume none of us prefers one over the other all of the time, I'm wondering which is the more viable concept that designers should be focusing on. Does our innate urge to create sense of the chaos tip the scales in favor of the musical journey? Or has shuffle mode so infiltrated our conciousness that randomness is now the preferred choice?

I'm planning on conducting a little informal survey of friends and family, iPod users all, to see what their opinions are. Results (whenever I can get them collected and analyzed) will be forthcoming in "Part 2."

Friday, June 16, 2006


The field of user experience (and all that it encompasses) is both exciting and intimidating, and I sometimes I can't tell which is the result of the other. Maybe it's both. Wrapping your brain around some of the developments within the field can be difficult, but something is most definitely going on, and it's fun being a part of it.

I pulled jury duty yesterday. Waiting in the quiet room for the court officer to make the inevitable "thanks for sacrificing your day to fulfill your civic duty" speech -- 6 hours later, of course -- I had an opportunity to read a multitude of magazines. According to one of them, Vice-President Quayle is getting some flack for criticizing an episode of "Murphy Brown." But a more recent edition of Time features essays about the world's 100 most influential people, including the founders of MySpace and Flickr. They owe the success of their sites to a trend called CUSTOMER-MADE, which I found recently on a site called

The site defines the trend as follows:

CUSTOMER-MADE: “The phenomenon of corporations creating goods, services and experiences in close cooperation with experienced and creative consumers, tapping into their intellectual capital, and in exchange giving them a direct say in (and rewarding them for) what actually gets produced, manufactured, developed, designed, serviced, or processed.”

It's incredible what some companies are doing to "co-create" products and experiences with their customers -- take a look at the Trendwatching site for examples.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that, in a sense, the web truly is in its infancy with respect to how it's used, by both users AND by content/service providers. Companies used to publish what they wanted, and what users saw is what they got -- sort of like traditional newspapers and magazines. Online polls, user feedback forms, etc. all provided a modicum of insight into user behavior and/or satisfaction, but served only to provide some guidance for the next cycle of company-focused content. Then came user groups, blogs, ebay, etc.

This trend -- using technology to engage meaningful, active collaboration between companies and its customers to produce products and services people will actually use -- would appear to be a ground-breaking and innovative concept. But is it really? "Giving them what they want" is a concept as old as commerce itself (an echo from a previous post). Knowing what they want -- and why -- is the tricky part, and that's where the field of online user experience comes in.

Gerry McGovern summed it up thusly: "The websites that succeed are customer-focused. The websites that fail use organization-speak and are technology-centric. It's as simple as that."

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Eagle has Landed?

Some of the laments of those in my profession served as the basis for launching this blog, and were laid out in my first post (Introduction - Thoughts at Launch).

Five days later, I was sitting in my supervisor's office, receiving a debriefing of a two-day meeting she attended at the parent company's offices in the Midwest. She laid out all of the particulars that applied to me -- short-term solutions for interface changes, attempts at a longer-term strategy, who contributed to discussion and who didn't, etc. -- then gave me a set of documents to copy for my own reference. Upon returning the originals, she said, "Oh, by the way -- I want to do a usability test."

I almost wet myself.

Seems she had taken to heart much of Steve Krug's book, "Don't Make Me Think" and decided that his "10 cents a day" approach to usability testing is just the thing that's needed at this point in the evolution of the company's IT development process.

Damn - I should have started this thing months ago.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

You can't always get what you want, but . . .

What makes for a more satisfying online experience -- being given the experience you expect, or being given the experience you want?

It's been suggested that the answer depends on whether you've used a product or service one or more times before -- in such cases, an expectation has been set, against which future performance can be compared. Some research indicates that this is true -- if so, it may be equally true that desired performance is more important when a product or service has not been used before, since there's no basis for comparison.

The answer to this question has implications for the design of online e-commerce, marketing, service and support initiatives – all of which require high levels of customer/user satisfaction to sustain customer retention and increase market share.

In 2005, I conducted a pilot study to determine whether the role of desires exceeds that of expectations when familiarity and/or proficiency with a system type (or particular system) is low.

Data was collected by way of an online survey, generated by an online customer service engine after the resolution of an email submission. Both desire and expectation measures were taken for each of three aspects of the online support experience:

  • information provided by the support representative who handled the email;
  • courteousness of the reply; and
  • turnaround time.

One additional question measured overall satisfaction with the online support system. The final sample consisted of 30 participants, or about 17% of the total number of surveys sent.

Examination of the data determined that the satisfaction of desires (what a customer wants) does not necessarily play a more critical role than the satisfaction of expectations (what a customer expects) when overall satisfaction is high; however, desires may play a critical role when overall satisfaction is determined to be low.

Accordingly, from a business perspective, desires cannot be ignored and should be a necessary part of any customer satisfaction measure.

When overall customer satisfaction is high, the assumption that the customer is being given what he/she wants may be well founded. When overall satisfaction is low, the company would do well to ask, “ . . . but if we’re meeting expectations, what does that say about our product?”

The answer may lead them back to one of the most basic tenets of any business enterprise – “give ‘em what they want.”

(All data, analysis and findings are contained in a formal report -- contact me for more information.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Let's start with something fun . . .

As someone who's been heavily involved with the creation and editing of online content for almost 7 years, I'm always amused when the intended delivery of information comes up short (unless, of course, I'm the culprit).

The day after I created my introductory posting, I received a bit of spam in my inbox with the following information:

From: GrantWritterPro
Subject: You ticket to an great education

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Introduction -- Thoughts at launch

This blogging adventure was born as the result of a multi-person rant I was a part of recently in a private online discussion forum that I belong to.

A fellow member bemoaned that fact that in his workplace, ". . . usability seems to be becoming a household word -- and not in a good way." More than 20 postings were added to the thread before the end of the day, from people representing all walks of the online human factors spectrum -- usability professionals, information architects, content developer/managers, etc. Almost all had similar stories to tell: companies think they're doing it because they've learned the terms "usability," "HCI," "user experience," "information design," and so on. (One contributor joked that the creation of buzzwords from useful concepts is what keeps MBAs entertained and employed.)

For those of us trying to evangelize these concepts, however, it can be very frustrating to see them hijacked by those who end up turning into the buzzword of the day, and eventually rendering them meaningless. Anyone who works for a firm that boasts of providing "word-class online service" knows exactly what I'm talking about.

I suspect that when you combine a healthy and admirable concern for online customer interaction with a misunderstanding of what usability and user experience truly entail, the best case result is "interaction design." What's missing, of course, is the most important ingredient -- feedback from, and contact with, actual users.

I recently asked the head of an online design team what her company's success measures are for the interaction designs they implement. She replied that the decisions they make are "based on the work the group's been doing for the past 12 years, as well as feedback we get now and then from our client partners." Nothing about return on investment via measurable ease of use, better time-to-task, improved user feedback, etc. (To her credit, she said up front that formal usability teating and tracking isn't something that was possible in her company's current situation.)

I witness the buzzword, "jump-on-the-bandwagon" mentality quite often -- I'll start talking about inserting some small-scale usability initiatives into our online development process, and I get reactions akin to "Aw, isn't he cute?" Then someone will show me with a screen shot of a proposed design and say, "Hey, take a quick look at this and tell me if it's usable." Eventually, it's going to take a constant, rigorous and tactful education process (backed by definable success measures) that will eventually (and hopefully) win the day. I just wish it didn't have to be so painful.

Now that the rant is over, I envision this effort as being part commentary, part reflection, and part personal development log, with hopefully a few fun things mixed in. As with all things virtual, however, nobody knows what's around the next corner, so we'll have to see what happens.

Thanks for looking in.