Monday, December 1, 2008

The Dichotomy of being in UX

The age-old question most people in UX ask:

Am I a designer, or in research (via usability testing)?

For me, right now, I'm in both. I know under conventional wisdom of a usability practitioner or designer, this is a big no-no; though we do have at least one other person as a researcher so I'm off the hook for that. However, the second side of that is my colleague is starting to be trained to do some interaction designing. While that's good for the interim, it's not a good long-term solution. It's overhead that we don't need especially at times when much needs to be tested. So right now, we're in need of a great UX Designer.

It has been said time and time again - the people who test should not code. The people who code, should not test. And now, the people who design should not test nor code and vice-versa. But what happens when there's not enough manpower to cover the two parts required in better UX? One person does the designing, the other the testing - but we're not.

I come from a background where it was quite good training in Industrial Design to be able to design, test and redesign through iterations and different phases. And yes, it was indeed challenging to build up a certain amount of objectivity because there is so much emotional energy invested into the prototype and project. But that was a near virtual world, an ideal world where one person could do the amount of work of several, so I don't think it applies here as much.

Yes, more skills are being built and an understanding of the interaction elements in a U.I. is being formed when one person does the job of two. But it will need to end some time soon so we can operate entirely on our strengths and what we want to do, not just what we'll settle on for convenience sake.

There is also a battle in the mind whenever I come across a design I need to redo because of the test results I obtained. While I can remain objective, I can still feel it's not 100%. So now, we test each other's designs.

In the real world, there are teams of people. For a UX Team, there are people who are generalists and those who specialize. This article says it very well. I would think of myself as a generalists with some very good design skills - and I know I'm not the best designer. I also find the most challenging and rewarding part to be the research portion by heading the mockup off at the pass. I consider my analytical skills to be better than my designing skills.

I've heard somewhere:

"It's only when we can operate on our strengths can those around us operate the same way."

So, how about it?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fear and Usability

Here's a short.

Last week, I learned something that I shared with my colleagues and I am going to share with you right now.

Apparently, there was fear in our UX Team that some of our clients (who were also our participants) in our usability sessions, would do nothing but complain about their problems because of support or implementation issues. The fear was based on how they would undermine our efforts and make a debacle of testing our new application.

Well, if you happen to have such issues, worry no longer.

I told them:

"Firstly, there is no proof that this is going to happen."

"Second, if all we do is make things up and dwell on them, they just might come true. So in this sense, focus will quash any kind of worry."

One thing I said to calm my colleagues was the fact that based on my own experiences:

"Once they see a new screen and that's all they see, and you listen to them with keen ears, all their worries that could become vicious attacks, all disappear. This is because they're concentrating on giving you proper feedback to your study."

Have your participants focus on the task at hand and this will give you the results you want.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Google Chrome - Part 2

Okay, so I haven't really used Google Chrome all that much since I've installed it.  I think that say something about the new browser so many other people are talking about.

Anyway, here's some other things I've discovered:

9.  There's an "incognito" window where cookies, browsing history and other personal information that can be recorded are erased after the browser has been closed.  This leaves no trace for any websites to track the user's whereabouts and browsing habits.  How useful is this really?  Well, you can decide for yourself.

10.  I like the fact that my gmail account is integrated with my blog account using Google Chrome without having to click on the "remember me" checkbox.  A small thing indeed.  I'm just slightly hesitant on having my default Firefox 3 browser remember me for some strange, inexplicable reason.

11.  You can create shortcuts to your desktop easily of websites you've visited.  I haven't done this by doing this manually.  I'm guessing Google figured it's not being done because it's too involved?  Perhaps, but it also could be that not everyone thinks of webpages on the desktop.  The desktop is for documents and applications, not for websites.  This particular user habit would be very hard to change.

12.  It doesn't work well at all with Facebook - a site I frequent daily.  I don't know how many other applications it doesn't like.  Feel free to post a comment to let me know.

All in all, if Google is trying to shift the paradigm of the browser and the mental model of the user and they've completely failed at it.  While it may be embraceable, as it is now, it's not enough of a change to take notice - which is why I've barely touched it from the install date.  If however, they're doing it incrementally, they may have something.  But I believe most of all, it's a great browser for Google to facilitate the impending release of their new smartphone, with the Android O/S installed.  It's also a great way to increase their search engine business aided by mobile computing.

So really, Google Chrome is nothing more than just another browser, for now.  And without any sparkly bits.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

First Impressions of Google Chrome

The first thing I notice about this supposedly new browser is that the user's mental model has shifted ever so slightly.  The deviation is enough to make it different from other browsers like Firefox but not too drastic so that it's embraceable.  Here's what's different:

1.  Screen real estate has been given back to the user with the omission of the File/Edit... menu system.  Google's take is that we really do not need that technology.  The message they're sending is that the content is what's most important, not the adminsitrative functions.

2.  It's the tabs that encapsulate the experience - and because of that, the integrated URL and Search field are within the tabs, not the other way around as in Firefox.

3.  The URL and Search fields are one and the same - it's integrated.  Now is the time when simple english can be entered into the URL field instead trying to remember some dot-com address.  You can also choose your own search engine for this integration (though I haven't tried anything other than Google just yet).  This in turn means that search engines will be more important than ever in managing content on the Internet.  It's a push that helps Google's business model.

4.  I can't seem to find my bookmarks in a way I'd like to access them.  It's using cascading menus instead of the stationary left-panel which requires more motor control - which could present a problem to some less-abled users.

5.  Well, I just demoed the application to my colleague showing the integrated URL and Search field and it just crashed my Firefox as it was running at the same time.  Bug!

6.  Transparent administrative and status functions - they don't appear unless you want them or that they show something important.  I'm guessing the whole idea still is to give the screen real estate back to the user.

7.  When creating a new tab to view, you are instantly brought to your most visited sites as a layout preview as well as a short list of the most recent bookmarks.  While this is a great idea, I'm not always insterested in what I've just viewed or bookmarked.  It's a good thing they've kept the "Open in new tab" function when I come across a link.

8.  It's much faster than Firefox 3.

I'll be adding more to this in the near future so please stay tuned.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Anticipatory design done correctly

(This posting was written in November of 2007 and posted finally today.)

(Beware of some car-speak.)
I was looking for a specific part for my car because the coolant was leaking from the thermostat plug to the ground. This part was an o-ring and it fit around a plug. The problem was that I didn't want an OEM (original equipment by manufacturer) part as that part is defective and doesn't take into consideration temperature variances, hence the leaking. So began my search through the forums and I took some keywords to Google where I found a supplier. Here's the website: At first glance, I wondered if I was in the correct place. But what I've noticed in many e-commerce parts sites is that functionality is high, given that you can find the part, and the usability is somewhat low. That's evidenced by sites like NAPA, AutoZone and AdvancedAutoParts. 99% of the time, you have to go to the store to get the part for a specific vehicle. If the part isn't online after executing a search (especially on obscure parts), it's either not cataloged or the system is incomplete.

Taking a look at the McMaster website, its purpose is different. Among all the thousands of different mechanical parts, hardware and software, the user begins by generating a scent using the search functionality. However, this is no ordinary search engine. At first, I wasn't sure what to type in, so I just entered the part number I found. Results came back positive and that was easy. But the kicker came in my second search where I entered "battery terminal covers". And immediately, anticipatory design kicked-in. A list of suggestions came up for me to select. There were no part numbers or items without pictures. Upon selecting the correct category, part numbers and their corresponding part numbers came on-screen.

Now THIS is what e-commerce should be! I think those other automotive vendors could learn something from McMaster.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Be definitive in your recommendations

...especially when you know a principle you've learned and you need to share that information.

There are times when recommendations are needed because others' expertise are not sufficient. What I'm finding with most people in UX is that they use the word "depends" almost like it's their second breath. I believe there are times that the word "depends" doesn't always work. It can sometimes be misconstrued that we in UX do not know what we're talking about - and because of that, it becomes a credibility issue.

One of the things I very much dislike in people is wishy-washiness, much like how the cartoon Charlie Brown used to be. I'd rather have a definitive answer with options than to just say "depends". I think we owe it to the people we're serving because they don't think like us. To the developers, to the managers out there whom we've been confusing all those times, we need to communicate in such a way that brings home the point.

One thing I like to do is to give the people I serve, options. Options meaning ways to solve an issue or problem because ultimately, it's to the developer or the manager's judgment to go about how they will accomplish the usability objective. Their code and their management makes the product work behind the scenes, so we UX practitioners need to be definitive because the developers and managers are definitive.

No one ever got anywhere being on the fence - they usually get speared by the tip sitting on it too long.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Users will do what it takes to make it work

Are your users trying to be too nice? Are they not telling you the truth? One of the things they also might be doing is to do what it takes to make your software application work - even if it means making them cry.

From the user testing I've seen so far, time and time again I keep seeing the same thing. There are times when the user will do all this other stuff in order to make the application work. All this other stuff meaning having to create additional reports, compiling data into more usable forms, etc...

This is where usability actually fills in the gap. Contextual inquiry is the best method to get at these pain points and to create better efficiencies. It's usually the case wherever there's a case of organizational inefficiency does the user create secondary tasks to compensate for the application's lack functionality.

So build it in! I was once told by a colleague that the user should keep their calculator at hand when going through a financial transaction. That's not the point! To make the user adapt and adjust to our applications by these secondary methods only means that the design isn't good enough. And besides, isn't computing power a lot quicker than that of a calculator?

So when the next time you have a session and you see that the user is really trying, and may be going beyond their immediately means to complete the task, that may tell you something. It might mean back to the drawing board.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The IKEA experience

On Saturday, my partner and I were looking for a shelf system and I thought to look on the Ikea website, thinking I could possibly order it just like any other e-commerce website. I chose the 43" Lack system in black-brown, even though the picture didn't give me too much detail. I had, however, seen this color/grain before. So I placed the order entering my address and confirming the order details, and found out I hadn't entered my payment information. There wasn't a way to do it, and the website had confirmed my order had been placed in the last step.

Does this mean Ikea is going to give me the product for free? No. Of course not. Instead, they sent me an email stating that the order had to be processed manually. Welcome to 1995.

Another email was sent in the next few hours telling me the shipping cost ($20.10) and that delivery would take 2 to 3 weeks! The shipping cost was more than the product itself, and the time span was clearly unacceptable. Being such a large retailer, one would think that Ikea would spend more on their e-commerce site. The reason why e-commerce sites exist is because of their convenience - which Ikea did not have any. Instead, I would regard it to be an online catalog.

With the Ikea website having failed, I was determined they next day to experience their store located in Stoughton, MA. I saved their address into my GPS and we make it a road trip. It's Tim Horton's for breakfast and then we're off!

The drive takes 2 hours and several dollars of tolls. I estimate that this same $20.10 (cost in shipping) would be devoured by our time and petrol. We're exchanging this money for a road trip and to getting out of the house, relegating ourselves to the brick and mortar Ikea experience.

Let me just say - it's big! It's actually larger than the stores in Canada - and not quite as busy. Two levels of parking plus another lot on the other side. With a little bit of rain in the forecast, the covered parking was really convenient. We park in a space where there's a main pedestrian throughway to the entrance.

By the time we reached the doors, I get hungry. There's a restaurant in the upper level where they served cheap food, but good food, and enjoy a bit of scenery through their enormous windows. We ordered a chicken wrap and I had a smoked salmon salad which was branded as a "Swedish delicacy". (It was just layers of smoked salmon and some leafy greens.)

After lunch, we head on to the Ikea maze where it's akin to DisneyWorld - lots of screaming kids and lineups waiting for an exciting experience - but with furniture. While I enjoy the creatively set-up rooms and uniquely styled but affordable furniture, I dreaded having to go through the maze. We took many shortcuts to get to our product that we had to pick out of the warehouse ourselves and check-out ourselves.

So was it really worth it? After the whole ordeal was done, I must admit I enjoyed the drive more than the store. The Ikea experience wasn't what I expected online. I am very disappointed that their concept of e-commerce was less convenient than their competitors (i.e. Target). And then to get the product sooner, I had to go through the entire 1990's ordeal of getting into my car, drive four hours round-trip, wondering if I had enough toll money, and fight with the horrid drivers on the way.

I did, however, enjoy my time with my family. That more than made up for it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

When technology becomes too much

As a self-proclaimed petrolhead (aka automotive enthusiast), I've pretty much had it with technology especially when it has to do with cars. I don't mind the advanced technology involved in producing more horsepower. Nor do I mind eco-friendly concepts that makes the engine more efficient to run. What I don't like are the Swiss-army-knife gadgetry that is so sophisticated, they are pawned-off as safety features.

For example, now there's a system where it tells the driver whether there's a car coming up or driving within your blind spot. This will prevent you from making a bad lane change and perhaps sideswiping a nearby car. But - what about turning your head to check your blindspot when you make the lane-change? I mean, what's the point of driver education if we have all these devices to guide us in what's suppose to be the normal activity of driving?

Another device aids in slowing down the car when it's in cruise control, then speeds up when the traffic has either gained speed or the obstructing car moved into another lane. Yet another device does the parking for you. Short of having an IT degree, all you have to do is read a thick manual and practice and learn how to use the system before engaging it. And now with the proliferation - no, make that saturation of GPS navigation units, you can no longer get lost. Though there have been instances where drivers have driven someplace on the virtual map but found a lake in the way.

I swear, the art of driving is being lost.

So what does this have to do with usability?

Since the art of driving is being lost, the driver is no longer a driver with all these computer-nannies. The activity we used to love so much is making us, the driver, operate like a systems manager. It used to be that there were only four things to take note of:
  • the ignition
  • the pedals
  • the steering wheel
  • and the gear changer.
Now cars such as BMW M3's and Nissan GTR's Have anywhere from 8 to 14 different settings to adjust suspension, differential, throttle and traction control systems. So doesn't it seem that technology is compensating for the lack of driving sensibilities and spatial awareness?

In this sense, these gadgets and systems become interference, especially to those who have been driving a long time without these technologies - and that's a majority of the people on the road! And when technology becomes interference, they become liabilities to the user experience - too much stress, too much cognitive load, too much memory load. Quite often, these gadgets turn obsolete because all it was, was a novelty. And novelties wear out fast.

On the other side, perhaps it's a godsend. The ability to handle a 3-ton machine wrapped in glass and metal in close proximity is getting quite stressful especially in highly populated areas. So is it really better to add more stress by adding more gadgets to make sure you get to point B safely?

The automotive purist in me still says, "No." While driving is still driving, commuting is not driving. Commuting is the act of lining up to get to a place the same as 10 other people.

So what is the benefit of implementing systems such as these? In one word - marketing. In two, product differentiation. But then, ABS (anti-lock braking systems) have become standard issue because it was so good. I'm talking about other gadgets like that notorious rear-view camera.

So what to do? Reduce the amount of computer-nannying. It's almost as if the manufacturers don't trust the drivers anymore. Kind of like how TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) was legislated to be standard equipment on every new car.

By reducing the amount of computer nannying, you're eventually putting less stress on the driver in managing the computer. This is a case where more features is not beneficial. A case where keeping it simple really makes sense in reducing accidents and saving lives. A little common sense - when practiced, does way more than a computer system ever could.

And that, my friends, can make all the difference.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Basics: Stop explaining your design to users

Some people think that by offering an explanation to their users during a usability test session, it alleviates the confusion and the pain that makes users confused.

That is not the point!

The point of user testing is testing the design - not making others feel better. While it is necessary to accommodate for scheduling and to be polite, making users feel better because of confusion and bad design is not the way to go. In many of my sessions, I've had users do things that were not intended for its purpose. Certain clicking behavior and sequences weren't as I intended. It was because of the lack of better design - not the lack of the user's understanding of the design.

To explain to the user what the design was all about defeats the purpose of the usability test. It becomes a demo and not a test. And when this happens, the results become skewed and unusable.

So what happens when a user complains about the design or they're misunderstanding the product? It could be that you've chosen the wrong user. Most likely, it could be the design isn't up to what the user expects.

That's why testing and design needs to be iterative - to allow for incremental change that is better than the last iteration.

And most of all, have faith in your users. Acknowledge all their feedback. You can later filter out the feedback that are less relevant. And don't make the user feel like they don't know what they're doing. Always lead it back to the design and apologize for the design - not to yourself or any other person.

By removing yourself from the design and the test session, to remain objective, is the best thing you can do to get the best results - and without bias.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

UX Track - Mix08

I love cars. I especially love the Aston Martin brand. So I just stumbled upon this video previewing Aston Martin's new website:

Also, a great resource about user experience in the MIX08 conference. I have yet to see the videos and I'm excited about the find, so talk later!

UX Track - MIX08

Monday, March 3, 2008

UX Documents - how useful are they?

For the past several months, we've been interviewing for a replacement position to compliment our 1.5 person team. Out of one interview, we came across an example of a greatly formatted document, looking somewhat like an ISO document delineating everything from the purpose to the actual design recommendations after user testing. I hadn't had a really good look at this document,though I did see headings for it and detailed visuals and screenshots. But then I wondered, how useful is it really?

I've created documents like that and had thought in the past that they were being read and extremely useful to get the message across. Enter now, this past year, where I have yet to write a complete report, printed and bound with the best binding plastic, the clearest transparent cover and proper vinyl backing, ready for distribution to the internal masses. So what have I really done to get the message across?

At one point, I was tired of writing up something spectacular, something so detailed and thorough, and extremely well-written, so long that - no one had the time to read it. Fed-up with my old habits, one of the questions I asked myself was: "How can I serve my peers better?"

Marshall Mcluhan's most popular quote was, "The medium is the message." If this is the case, then what gives a bigger message? A slick document that nobody reads or the raw data collected by my user testing, the video footage, the analysis spreadsheet, the emails and the prototypes?

Yes, this would mean a somewhat less organized route - but hey, isn't designing and iterations always messy?

So instead of the "prized document", I helped developed better access points for the usability data online. While this was centralized, the medium still became the message: the sometimes boring footage where I forget what to say, the analysis spreadsheet that have inconclusive remarks, the emails and forum messages asking the so many questions we have no answers for, the prototypes that *almost* work. I left nothing to the imagination.

In giving my peers access to the work without a filter, the credibility of usability work has increased, the time to deliver the results decreased, and more effort goes towards to the raw work - not to polish it up for presentation.

Indeed, for me at least, the day and age of the slick document has ground to a halt. It's no longer what I aspire to - and here's hoping you do the same.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Holistic Design

I've been thinking a lot about what holistic design means and what it incorporates. While I know that the deliverables make up the tangible parts of design, there's also that innate understanding, that magic that happens when I go through all the data and all the analysis, and that whole process becomes something beyond myself, something that uses up all my faculties.

On the tangible side, the deliverables are quite simple - deliver results in a way that encompasses nearly every facet to paint the picture. This inherently also sells the process. Such deliverables and their benefits include:
  • - video footage of user testing - aids in proof of user actions and behaviors;
  • - actual scripts that delineates the user task set for testing - discloses the scientific method and its validity;
  • - compilation of the data and its analysis - introduces the thought processes (in design and the user) and frequent occurrences in user behavior;
  • - emotional metrics within its context - to learn how much users trust and feel about the application in certain instances, and how motivated they are;
  • - baseline expert review metrics - how do you know if you've improved if you don't know where you've been?;
  • - versions of the mockups, especially before and after, as well as the program/mockup used in the testing sessions.
As for the intangible parts of the process, this is where design sense comes in. Those who don't have it will struggle. Those who do have it and don't know it, won't struggle as much but the communication of it will be difficult. Those who have it and know about it will have a foundation to build upon so all the rest of the intangibles become tangible in a very instinctive way. Most of this can be communicated through design.

What I've been finding so far is that those whose approach is holistic, go farther than those who don't.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Empower your team

Do you know what kind of impact you have when you've included your project development team into your user testing? I'm sure not many realize the benefits of this. While I'm sure most researchers, kind of like the scientific type would rather hide in a dark room to do their tests and only give out findings and recommendations later on so that there are no "biases" or outside forces co-mingling to create skewed results, there are better more efficient and effective ways to get the message across.

The goal for me has been to find ways to empower our team. Find ways so that the development team create their own message from what they have seen and experience by watching user testing. No hearsay reports, no convincing, and very little person to person influencing to design decisions.

By watching user testing, the team gain a few things:

1. Perspective - It's no longer by the developers or sales, it's all about the user and how they go about using the application. While some may say the user is wrong, or they're unfamiliar with it, or they're doing things wrong, one cannot argue with their actual mental patterns, their previous experience, make up all their user behaviors up until the time of testing.

2. Thinking towards a solution - the instant the team sees a user have a problem, the team sees ways in their mind to improve the program concurrently with what just happened in testing. By doing this, it takes the pressure off the usability professional and empowers the team with instant information - a catalyst to improvement.

3. Individual contribution to masterminding - This is the last point to this cascade. We all know - hopefully, that masterminding is one of the most effective tools to get to where we want to be instead of where we don't. By masterminding our design solutions and understanding the catalyst in its different facets, the team no longer designs in a vacuum. Also as individuals, there is some self-gratification to a better job done well.

By empowering my team, I've pushed-out the knowledge to create other ideas, not from myself. The team takes ownership and makes these kind of battles more personal. And with it, the combined effort applied is greater.