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.