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.