Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Out like a lion

Late spring seems to have brought out the confrontationist in me.

First it was Donald Norman and his assertion that simplicity on the web is overrated. Now it's Lyle Kantrovich and his rail against sitemaps in Sitemaps are Stupid (Guides are Good).

Guides may very well provide distinct advantages over sitemaps. But calling them "stupid"? That seems incredibly harsh.

Once again (at least to my eyes), the author is not taking into account the special-needs user . In many cases, these text-only representations of site structure may be the only way for certain user types to navigate with any degree of confidence -- for example, those who rely on screen readers, or those who have trouble with sites containing high levels of rich media (navigation in Flash, etc.)

Sitemaps may indeed be fairly useless for "normal" people, who have good vision and/or a reasonable degree of computer literacy, but their presence on web sites seems to me to be a very small price to pay to ensure that the content is accessible to as many people as possible.

Once again, a little common sense please

A nice article by Jessica S. Ancker notes why you should not rely on the Flesch-Kincaid scale (or any other scale) for determining the readability of text, on-screen or otherwise.

To get a quick idea of why, check out the following passages and guess which one was determined to be easier to read by Flesch-Kincaid:





We are inviting you to be in a research study because you have a traumatic brain injury. A traumatic brain injury is an injury to the brain caused by something that hit or shook the head.

This consent form explains the purpose, risks, and benefits of the study. This information might help you decide whether to be in the study.

Please read this form carefully. If you have any questions, ask your doctor before you make a decision.


Answer: They were given the same readability grade.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Quick-change artist

It was to be the highlight of Year 1 at my position.

Seven one-on-one sessions with actual customers over a 3-day period, testing an intermediate iteration of my company's major new product release. Participants had been screened, incentives had been procured, facilities had been reserved and the test plan had been finalized. Everything was ready to go.

Except, as it turns out, the product itself.

Unforeseen development issues pushed back deadlines and left me with a prototype that did not allow for completing any meaningful tasks.

Nobody to blame but myself, of course. I should have had the foresight to (a) insist on a "frozen" set of functionalities in accordance with the particulars of the test plan, and (b) allow for a minimum 2-week buffer between the promised delivery date and the actual testing. Instead, I was too eager to (a) believe that everything would fall into place as scheduled, and (b) put my new Morae software to practical use. In the process, I probably did my role within the company a bit of disservice.

So what then to do?

If my UX studies taught me anything, it's that you never turn down an opportunity to glean direct user input. The opportunities, by and large, are just too few and far between. Fortunately, I was only a few weeks removed from completing a fantastic master's level class on field research methods taught by Meena Kothandaraman, and I drew on much of what she had to say to draw up an alternate plan.

Targeting three product design issues that were never quite addressed to my satisfaction, I turned what were supposed to be usability testing sessions into three-part user research sessions, consisting of the following techniques:
  • a contextual interview, to get insights into the likelihood of acceptance for a proposed functionality;
  • conceptual drawing, to discern patterns of experience and preference for the design of a field mapping tool; and
  • a card sort, to provide an organization solution for a group of functionality options within the product.

While the allotted time did not allow for full investigation into the issues, I got enough to go back to the project managers with preliminary data to be used to guide design decisions for the product's next dot version (the results of the card sort were particularly revealing). From a personal standpoint, I got to practice a few techniques with which I had very little experience.

When life gives you lemons . . .

Hints of things to come

A while back, I brought myself to task for not posting more often. I'd almost like to be able to say I've been up to my neck in User Experience to the point that writing hasn't been possible.

Truth is, I'm in up to my neck in UX, but for reasons other than project work. For some hints, check out the following from Erin Malone and Christina Wodtke.

Monday, April 09, 2007

K-I-S-S, my ass

Does the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" principle have it wrong?

Could be, according to Don Norman, who's been cited numerous times here. His recent article, Simplicity Is Highly Overrated, seems to argue that the K-I-S-S principle should be replaced by something like the K-I-S-B-M-S-I-L-C-E-S-T-I-F-B-A-M-P-D-S Principle:

"Keep It Simple But Make Sure It Looks Complicated Enough So That I'll Feel Better About My Purchasing Decision, Stupid"

The point he wishes to emphasize (located in the addendum) is that "people are not willing to pay for a system that looks simpler, because it looks less capable." In other words, systems that look more complicated seem capable of doing more, which positively effects the desire to purchase.

Josh Porter offers a great summary and commentary in Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication. Here's an excerpt:

"When users don't understand the advantages of each feature, such as when a user is buying her first digital camera, they are much more likely to avoid making a trade-off by choosing the feature-laden product . . . When users choose a feature-laden product, they may not be exhibiting a desire for complexity. Instead, users are anxious about predicting their future needs. Norman states it plainly: 'the truth is, simplicity does not sell'."

For UCD practitioners, these could be interpreted as "fightin' words" that run contrary to the principles that guide our profession.

What strikes me, though, is that neither Norman (in his essay) nor Porter (in his commentary) explicitly takes into account the age factor, which will kick in very soon when the aging boomers predominate the purchasing market.

Given the advances of the last few decades, the coming generation of seniors is probably less likely to be intimidated by new technologies. But to what degree will this be offset the various degenerations that inherently accompany aging (cognitive processing, decision-making, motor skills, peripheral vision, etc.)? Does the visibility of extra controls, or an overall high-tech look, carry any weight at all when it comes to forking over their hard-earned retirement allowances?

For these users, simplicity may indeed sell.

I think of my parents (both in their upper 60s), who, when shopping for a new appliance or gizmo, repeat the phrase "All I want to be able to do is . . ." an awful lot and are turned off by anything that they perceive as being beyond their ability to operate. What's more, they have very little motivation to learn, especially if "all I want to do is (watch TV, wash clothes, whatever)." Are they really unique to the coming generation of seniors?

To his great credit, Norman wants only for his essay to be understood, and the addendum does a good job of clarifying his intended point. However, sweeping statements such as those made in the essay cannot be fully understood until all relevant issues are included. In this respect, my humble opinion is that Norman has come up short.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Forgive me reader(s), for I have sinned

With the coming of the new year, I promised myself that this space would not fall victim to expiration -- that is, I would commit to posting frequently. Not because I expect to become UCD's answer to Arianna Huffington, but because amateur writers can be very much like infants, in that they tend to thrive on routine and regularity. I reasoned that if I could commit to posting at least once a week, I would eventually not need to remind myself to post at least once a week. (Sharp moviegoers will notice that I'm borrowing here almost verbatim from Sleepless in Seattle, so disclosure is warranted.)

So here it is, almost April, and I've not posted in more than a month. (There are reasons, as you will undoubtedly see in this space as spring unfolds, but I can't use it as an excuse.) I'm also far, far behind in the monitoring of my industry-related RSS feeds.

Leave it to the powers that be to send me a loud-and-clear wake-up call, in the form of Linda Bustos' recent article, The 10 Sins of Blog Usability.

I'm not sure whether or not the title represents a mixed metaphor -- there are 7 Deadly Sins, and 10 Commandments (I suppose it depends on the way they are worded.) In any event, I am clearly in violation of #8 -- Inconsistent Posting:

Now that you have a loyal fan base who are notified of every new
post, don’t disappoint them with time lags between posts. Pick a posting
schedule that’s realistic for your time schedule and stick to it. If you can’t
think of anything to post about, blog about someone else’s post related to your
topic and include a link back to that post . . .

(You'll note that not only does she wake me out of my self-imposed slumber, but she gives me the means of rectifying it.)

Fortunately, this space appears to hold up fairly well against Bustos' criteria -- comments are moderated, there is no advertising to "get in the way" of the message, there's no mixing of subject matter (no matter how much I might want to brag about my daughters), the pages are easy to read (dark text on a light background), and references to previous posts are link-enabled. My two failings against the list are (a) not having a search functionality and (b) an awkward means of subscribing via RSS feed, but until I noticed huge increases in my Site Meter reports, I'm going to let those pass.

What I can't afford to let pass, regardless of the size of my "loyal fan base," is old #8. My hope is that if I make my intentions public here, I'll hold myself more accountable -- or, to carry the analogy further, I'll have given myself the leeway to "go forth and sin no more."

Your kind indulgence is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

RSS Part 2: Taking Stock

The most interesting thing I came across in the study was the degree to which people equated the concept of an RSS feed with that of a "ticker" at the bottom of a TV screen, with stock prices zooming by from right to left. If this is representative of a larger portion of the population, no wonder RSS hasn't caught on -- where's the value in being forced to stare at the bottom of a browser window all day?

The findings and recommendations for content providers are as follows:

  • Finding: Although users continue to employ “hunting” methods most often when checking for added or updated content, certain “gathering” methods (such as email notifications & alerts) are used frequently and provide a sense of value for users (saving time and effort, better organization of important information, serving as a reminder for busy people to "check in" with a site).
    Recommendation: Companies investing in RSS feeds and technology should find ways to incorporate the concept “invisibly” (i.e., deliver the benefits without any learning or undue effort required on the part of the user). Read Gossnickle et al's .pdf, RSS – Crossing into the Mainstream, for more information (Acrobat Reader required).

  • Finding: There is not a high degree of awareness or understanding of the terms and visual targets used to represent “gathering” methods on websites (see Part 1); for those that are noticed, there remains a strong association with delivery via email.
    Recommendation: Aside from direct links to personalized “start” pages (“My Yahoo!", etc.), content providers should devise and use a single, more intuitive means of conveying the RSS feed concept. (“XML” is highly misunderstood and should not be considered.) In addition, differentiation from delivery via email should be emphasized and explained simplistically.

  • Finding: Understanding of the RSS concept (as a “gathering” method) can be improved by exposure to a well-written description; however, understanding of the implementation/delivery of information continues to be a problem.
    Recommendation: Short-term, companies need to make the required use of an RSS reader/aggregator more understandable to the general public, in a positive way that eliminates any association with email notifications or content “crawls” within browser windows. Descriptions and definitions of RSS require clear, plain English -- technical-sounding phrases such as "XML-based format" and "aggregating Web content" are big no-no's).

  • Finding: The already recognized benefits of “gathering” methods (time savings, organization of information, etc.) are enough to encourage further investigation of using RSS feeds. Concerns about information overload, management, privacy and technological conflict (can it lead to viruses and/or spam, etc.) can discourage investigation.
  • Recommendation: Further promote the “gathering” concept within all references to RSS on websites, while directly addressing the areas of concern as noted.

My sincerest thanks for those who took time out of their busy schedules to speak with me. Please leave a comment if you'd like more details about the study.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

RSS Part 1: Hunters & Gatherers

If you check in frequently with a news, sports or blog site, chances are you've seen them and wondered what they mean:

The Internet world remains largely one of “hunters” rather than “gatherers” – that is, we tend to actively seek out additions and changes on web sites, rather than having them come to us. Think about your favorite news website -- if you want to see what's new, you probably access the site by typing the URL into the browser's address window, selecting the URL from the address drop-down menu, or choosing it from your Favorites menu, then browse the pages "hunting" for the new, updated, or changed content.

Compare that to signing up to receive an "alert" or notification about updated content (new headlines, shopping deals you might be interested in, etc.) that comes to your email inbox. In this instance, you'd be "gathering" the new, updated or changed content before acting on it.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is the next step in this "gathering" concept, and it offers enormous opportunities for Internet users (and content providers as well, but that's another story). Its major selling point for Internet users is in saving significant time and reduced effort, by driving the content that matters most to a central viewing location automatically.

Providers of frequently updated content (news, weather, blogs, etc.) have been quickest to implement RSS strategies – for example, 76 of the top 100 U.S. newspapers offer RSS feeds on their websites. User adoption figures are far less precise – in a Pew Internet Project survey, only 9% of Internet users say they “have a good idea” of what an RSS feed is. Another study concluded that 27% of Internet users receive content driven by RSS without ever knowing it, via personalized “start” or “home” pages (My Yahoo!, My MSN, etc).

At first glance, it's another great concept that is slow to catch on. But if at least some subsection of Internet users is using RSS without knowing it, that first glance may be misleading. My questions were:
  • How well (if at all) do people understand the "hunter" vs. "gatherer" approach?
  • How much (and in what ways) do they value their "gatherer" instances?
  • Do people notice icons lie those above (or their clickable text equivalents), and do they have any idea what they represent?
  • How well can non-users grasp the concept of what RSS is? If presented with an definition and explanation, how well can their understanding be improved?
  • What would encourage people to investigate using RSS feeds? What is discouraging them?

To get some answers, I performed a very small pilot study, using semi-structured phone interviews with 7 people to try and flesh some of these perceptions, motivations and attitudes out.

Findings will be posted in Part 2 -- suffice to say that content providers need to start paying attention to their users before widespread usage of RSS can be realized.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Monday, January 29, 2007

Usability and human-centered design on 60 Minutes

The Jan 28 episode of 60 Minutes featured a segment called "Get Me The Geeks!" -- on the surface, it documents how the deluge of technology into our daily lives has made us addicted to highly complicated gadgets and products. They're so complicated that we can't set them up by ourselves and can't fix them when they crash, break, or otherwise don't work as they should.

Look a little deeper, though, and you'll see confirmation that increased focus on usability and simplicity in design is necessary now more than ever before -- and that there's no indication that the need is going away any time soon.

Dr. Donald Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things, an oft-referenced work in our field) is featured prominently in the piece, offering the following insights:
  • ("When people call up geeks to come and fix something or install it, a lot of them seem very apologetic for not being able to do it. Should they be apologetic?" ) "Absolutely not. No, it's not their fault. It's the damned designers of this stuff who have no understanding of real people, everyday people."

  • (on own his inability to install an HDTV) "Someone complained to me, ‘You'd need a degree, an engineering degree from MIT, to work this damn thing,’" Norman says. "Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT. And I couldn't work it."

  • (on a not-too-distant future where appliances run the house) "So what's really gonna happen in 10 years is, all these things are getting smart," says Norman. "The kitchen appliances will talk to each other. Can you imagine, you go to the refrigerator and it says, ‘No. I've been talking to your scale – that's not on your diet?"

Monday, January 22, 2007

The dangers of using the mirror

I recently read David Gilmore's "Understanding and Overcoming Resistance to Ethnographic Design Research" (Interactions 9, 3 [May 2002], pp. 29-35).

This article tackles the dilemma of making the case for an ethnographic approach to user research – i.e., how to differentiate it from marketing research. The critical point seems to be that they are two kinds of research studying the same thing (potential users):
  • Marketing research uses generalities to inform business decisions;
  • User research uses a true understanding of user concerns to inform design decisions.

The author argues that encouraging stakeholders to hold a mirror up to themselves -- to self-observe and to tell specific stories about their own experiences -- is a good way to open the door of acceptance to detailed user research.

Gilmore's right about the need to differentiate between marketing efforts and user research efforts. However, when push comes to shove and dollars are on the table, I’m hard pressed to believe that self-observation and storytelling alone will be enough to get decision makers on-board.

I've been involved in too many instances where those in power used self-observation to kill any efforts to research the users of their products:

  • "Hell, I go to plenty of web sites, and nobody I know does it like that!"
  • "I asked a few people around my office, and they all do it this way."
  • "Common sense should tell you that most people would do it this way."

Either that, or they use marketing/sales objectives to justify a design decision. I'm reminded of a job I once had as content administrator of a 1800+ FAQ database. Someone came up with the idea that links to purchase information should be included at the end of every piece of FAQ content. The thinking was, "while we've got their attention about the product they already own, why don't we provide a link to a detail page for one of the product's accessories? If they don't click on it, fine -- if they do, we may have a potential sale."

All well and good, but they didn't take the user into account. What if (s)he was having trouble with the product and came to the site to get troubleshooting information? These people would likely have at least a small amount of irritation or frustration that their product is not working properly -- is that the right time to hit them up for a sale? In this case, what on the surface makes sense for marketing could actually harm user relations.

Influential stakeholders may indeed need to be educated on the value of detailed user research, but deflecting the observations back on them probably isn't the answer. Better to demonstrate value in terms of bottom line (decreased calls to customer support, increased traffic to a buying environment, etc.) and of benefits that come from designing with real user goals, motivations and attitudes in mind.

As Gilmore ultimately states, "The aim should be to develop a design process grounded in the realities of people’s lives, not in stereotypes."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Giddey-up, giddey-up 508

There's nothing like the threat of being sued to force companies into "doing the right thing."

A lawsuit against the Target store chain, claiming that their website fails to meet the minimum standard of web accessibility, has put a lot of companies in panic mode. At my place of employment, the push for accessibility compliance has led to the reevaluation of almost all web-based products and software.

Web users with special needs (blind, impaired vision, deaf, cognitive difficulties, etc.) can use assistive technologies like screenreaders to help navigate websites. But if, as is usually the case, the site was designed and constructed with this group of users as an afterthought, those technologies are of only limited value.

Here's an analogy -- The designer of a beautiful new hotel realizes that wheelchair users require a ramp to gain access to the lobby from the street. He finds a way to do so without disrupting the design vision he's already established by locating the ramp in the rear of the building. Legally, he's covered. But these special needs users must go around to the back the building to get to the ramp, then navigate numerous hallways simply to get to the check-in desk. Has accessibility and accommodation really been achieved?

And the issue goes further than accommodating the disabled. As we're reminded almost daily, the graying of the US population is going to mean big changes in all facets of everyday life, and websites will not be immune. Older users means more consideration must be given to accommodating users with diminished vision, hearing, fine motor skills, memory, information processing, and spatial abilities. Forget about meeting government mandates -- failing to accommodate these users will mean risking a significant portion of overall sales markets.

Trouble is, there currently is no set minimum standard. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998) provides a mandate for government websites and is most often used as the de facto standard for private enterprise, but even this is imprecise. In the end, companies are left to do what they can given various forms of suggested guidelines, accept that trade-offs are eminent, then make a decision for themselves as to whether they are at a point where they can reasonably argue that they have met the 'minimum standard of web accessibility" (whatever that ends up meaning).

To test your favorite sites, use one of the following tools:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

From the mouths of babes

Not about usability per se, but it cuts to the quick of what's required when providing or designing something that's to be used by others . . .

From an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, written by a middle school student seeking better alternatives for keeping kids off the streets:

You should always ask middle and high school kids what they think they
need, instead of only listening to grown ups tell you what they think we

Deja-vu all over again

Happy New Year to all.

I came across a couple of articles recently that touched on a theme I experienced in previous professional life --
  • In Sale must end: should discount methods be cleared off HCI's shelves? (2002), Cockton & Woolrich assert that discount usability methods (heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough, etc.) produce results that are so error-prone as to be unreliable and of little value. Consequently, they run the risk of undercutting the validity of traditional full testing and the damaging the usability field as a whole.

  • In the Nov 14 '06 edition of Brain Sparks, Jared Spool asserts that the execution of the most recent World Usability Day draws attention to the wrong aspects of the usability profession (from a business perspective), and that it could wind up doing the field as much harm as good.
If I read both articles correctly (and my apologies to the authors if I haven't), the concern centers on the viability of the usability practitioner within the design process and the prestige of the profession within the business enterprise.

For the first 10 or so years of my professional life, I was an in-house corporate video professional. Back then (circa 1990), the buzz was that the use of video was going to explode within the communications departments of corporate America -- perhaps not to the point of full-fledged TV studios in every headquarters, but at minimum a group of professionals taking advantage of the "democratization" that the medium was experiencing.

At the same time, a number of influential people in the field worried about the possible downsides: If more and more companies had the ability to create their own programs, where did that leave the seasoned "professionals" of the day? Would select instances of a more visible and expanded role within the business be worth the risk of more and more examples of sub-standard quality -- a "dumbing-down" that would ultimately cause more harm than good?

As an active member of the predominant trade group of the day, I was very friendly with video pros on both ends of the spectrum -- heads of entire video departments in large-scale businesses, as well as "one-person shops" who were trying to produce enough product to justify their jobs. Equal amounts of fantastic work and absolute crap were produced on both ends of the spectrum. And the video revolution kept on going -- accessibility to equipment, resources and distribution expanded to the point where now you don't need any formal education or professional experience to become a video "star."

In the end, of course, the key was the ability to provide, and prove, value to the business. If the business wasn't getting adequate value for the effort, its use of video was scaled back or eliminated altogether. When I think back on most of the projects I was responsible for in those early days, I honestly wonder what my employers were thinking when they decided to jump on the video bandwagon. On the other hand, for those who were able to derive tangible value from the effort, it didn't matter what was going on in the video world at large.

I can't help but think that HCI/usability is at the same point in its development and acceptance. It's not so much of a crossroads, where the field will take one direction or another. Rather, it could be seen as a widening of the same single road forward. Providing value keeps us near the center line, where moving forward is easiest, and allows the road to accommodate more travellers. Inevitably, some who join the journey will cling to the shoulder, using means, methods and approaches that are risky. Some of those will fall by the wayside, while others will wind up providing even more momentum for moving forward.

To take this automotive analogy one final nauseating step further, my guess is that business is beginning to see enough tangible benefit to what we're doing that use of discount methods and uncertainties over self-promotion are really very minor bumps in the road. As with any facet of business, the measure of value that HCI/usability provides will be the determinant of its fate.