Thursday, December 10, 2009

Design Decisions by the Percentages

I've learned a long time ago in hockey about the concept of "playing the percentages". What this means is that a certain action or play will have a particular success factor over others given the situation. For instance, in a power play when a team is shorthanded one person, one of the best (high percentage) ways to get the puck into the neutral zone and out of your zone is to shoot it off the boards or the glass. The only risk here is having an unpredictable bounce off the glass and the puck stays in the zone. The alternative is to shoot it out in the center through a gap and risk the puck staying in the zone with the opponent quickly covering any gap. One last alternative is to actually carry the puck out of the zone in risk of shorthanding your defense further if the puck-carrier makes a mistake.

So how does this apply to the field of UX?

Well, if a certain play has a specific percentage of success, something that can be measured, it can also be applied to making design decisions - could it not?

The reason why I'm exploring this concept is because we're currently developing a U.I. Pattern Library. (Here's a case study.) And because we're rapidly developing these patterns, there will be some that need to be used immediately and thus cannot be tested right away. So we need to explore all options for a solution to a pattern. There are indeed some patterns that are "straightforward" but then there are those requiring a little more work. And with this work, we need to figure out the best solution. How better to do this than by design by the percentages?

The fact is, most UX designers and analysts have basic knowledge to design based on past data and experiences. (e.g. We know when to use radio buttons instead of checkboxes.) The caveat is that an untested pattern may be completely wrong, especially if after testing, we find out the user behavior and expectations are mismatched. By designing by percentages, we mitigate enough of the unpredictable and also keep cognoscente of our decisions and how they came to be. (This also means that there needs to be documentation that will log these decisions.)

So how can this be used immediately? To me, it's more of a concept I keep in the back of my mind. I think of alternatives and go through a cognitive walkthrough to anticipate what the user may interpret and thus behave when interfacing with the product. However, doing just that may not be as rigorous as some might like. To make is rigorous and more apparent, documentation can accompany each decision made along with alternatives and why they were not chosen. While it can take long to do, at least when the patterns are tested afterwards, the assumptions can be referenced and validated/invalidated.

In the end, this concept is not 100% correct though it does give you progress because you're spending time worthy on exploring the pattern probabilities. To adopt Bill Buxton's axiom that you can only design the framework and not the user behavior, design by percentages can at least get you one step closer to designing an effective framework that gets you eventually closer to influence user behavior.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video game review - Need for Speed Shift for PS3

I've rarely written about video games. Usually, I just like to play them, experience them and just enjoy it. However, there's this one game I recently bought that haven't met my expectations, and I'm ready to return it to the store. Electronic Arts just released Need for Speed: Shift. It was a big deal in the E3 gamers expo with better graphics and supposed better gameplay. It was suppose to match the caliber of Gran Turismo 5, GRID and Dirt. Let me just say - it doesn't. NFS:Shift follows the formula that the Gran Turismo series uses. Beautiful graphics and theatrics in the beginning so that the petrolheads of the world can salivate over, awesome music and even more awesome exotic, high-performance cars. NFS:Shift even has features to modify your vehicle so you can go with any kind of paint scheme you want and upgrade your car to perform better. Sound familiar?

Where NFS:Shift fails is in several areas:

1. From the start when the game is trying to determine the level of play and control settings, you are sent through a trial by driving a car on a course. If you do well, they may increase your level by reducing the number of computer nannies controlling your car and set the artificial intelligence engine to a higher level. If you do poorly, the game piles on the computer controls to a point where you don't actually drive your car anymore. Guess how I did? And this was very disconcerting because I had played driving games since Gran Turismo 2 (GT2).

For a good 15 to 30 minutes I was looking for the settings to change the level of play and rid myself of most of the computer nannies.
As for the cause of this poor performance? The controller settings forced me to use a specific set of buttons for certain controls instead those I was acclimated to on Gran Turismo. Perhaps this is their way of forcing gamers to buy the overpriced steering wheel control that has a flimsy ergonomic infrastructure to support it. (Yes, I know I'm not being nice.)

2. EA put what's called, "EA Messenger" in a horrible place where it can be easily pressed by accident and pause the game. This feature is activated by the same mechanism as the accelerator (the right thumbstick) by pressing on it (R3). Unfortunately, because of this new paradigm forced upon me on the controller settings, I've actually crashed my car because of where this function is located. Obviously, there wasn't enough usability research done to foresee such an instance. 3. Loading the game is an extremely boring process. I've counted that I had to press the "O" button ("X" on NA consoles since, mine is a Japan console) 5 times to load the game all the while watching different progress bars do their thing.

Why couldn't these processes be done automatically and without my knowing? Wow me with your car graphics and not your system messages.

All in all, I really wanted to love this game, I really did. Driving the new cars make this game addictive - but each and every time, it also makes me wince because of the lack of respect of these three crucial things in the user experience. Back to GT5 for me.

Here are my recommendations for racing games for the Playstation console, best user experience listed first:
2. GT5 Prologue
3. GT4
4. GT3
5. Colin McRae 2
6. Colin McRae 1
7. WRC
8. DiRT
9. Ridge Racer 5
Dead last perhaps umpteenth million NFS:Shift

Friday, October 23, 2009

Learn from Polyphony

We can learn a lot from game development companies like Polyphony, who is more concerned with giving their followers a great user experience instead of putting out a product out on time. The company who has developed the screen interface for the navigation and on-board system metrics in latest iteration of the Nissan GTR is doing us all a favour not to get hung up on time-to-release. And this makes sense, especially since I've been reading Alan Cooper's book, "The Inmates are Running the Asylum". Take a look at page 45 and then you'll see.

But for now, follow me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Testing for Learnability - the quantitative side

A question was posed by a good friend and colleague a while back about testing for learnability. The discussion was quite good in terms of defining possible qualitative data to compare. However, what I'd like to know, is there a simple, quantitative way of testing for learnability?

Here's my take, and unfortunately, it's only a theory for now because I haven't practiced it:

There's one metric that hasn't been mentioned and that is
time-to-task. Now, what if time-to-task can be measured several times on the same task as opposed to just once? If the user is suppose to learn about how to use an application, shouldn't the time-to-task be reduced on subsequent tries? Isn't that an indication that the user have learned how to use it? When we play video games, the second or third time around seems easier to get through a level, doesn't it? So in that sense, how do we test for it?

After determining what kind of learnability you are testing for, a possible usability session may consist of the following guidelines:

1. Have the participant perform a repeated task.

2. In the series of tasks, mix in another task that could be something completely different (or something related). This disjointedness could test the user on how well they remember to perform the previous task again.

3. Increase the time between the first time and the subsequent times of performing the repeated task.

This method can be a sure way of quantifying the learnability of a particular function or process because what will happen with a successful design is that the time-to-task should be decreased with each repeated tries. Something that is very learnable may takes significantly less time than the initial stab. If there is no difference on subsequent tries, well, you know it isn't learnable.

The idea is to reduce the learning curve (dictated by time) and with this method, the time-to-task metric can be used to its full potential.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

PSN Home - It's not what Sony planned it to be, I'm sure.

It's been 2 months now that I have been on the PlayStation Network and Sony's PSN Home Beta. I've gotten accustomed to some of the people there, especially those at Sully's Bar. Speaking about PSN Home, I have a feeling that Sony hadn't planned on what kinds of people would be hanging out at certain places. If you've been on PSN Home, you'll know what I'm talking about. For the majority of you who don't, let me explain.

Recently, I decided to veer away from my I-am who-I associate-with String Theory. This was a double-edged sword - it was my biggest mistake and I learn something valuable. The place I was accustomed to were real people. And apparently, they hang out as I do just like in a real bar. Bar things happens, like a bit of harassment and fun banter, maybe a real drink transposed into the virtual world, it's all good.

However, when I went to this place called the Gamer's Lounge - basically a place I haven't frequented when it was busy, it was an entirely different world. In a place what was suppose to be bright, clean, modern and very friendly, the people inside this space were none of those things. At one point, I thought I had made a friend - only to find out that he was as socially inept as all of the other people in this space. The words from another person stated it all too clearly, "Oh, great! Looks like you finally made a friend!" At this point, people were starting to harrass
me for no apparent reason - only because I was different in some way. I then took my last breath and left on the spot without any regrets.

The one thing I did learn, which is very personal to me, is that I shall always be grateful with the people I associate with on a frequent basis. But I digress.

I digress because I am certain that Sony had not planned on it being this way. I am certain they thought all places could be for everyone and everyone is welcome to hang out anywhere without cause of fuss or anything appauling. Well, there's this thing called human behavior where people seem to cluster around because of who they are and what they think about. That in itself is user experience - or human experience.

There was also an instance where moderators would come online thinking they'd be doing their jobs, when all of a sudden, they learn something about the human order and behavior. In fact, and especially in Sully's, there is no need for moderator because everyone there knows everyone else and police themselves accordingly. Yes, while reporting (ratting), blocking and muting tools are available and can be quite useful in some respects, the ultimate experience is self-policing.

One other example is the fact that you can decorate you personal room in any way you want. But did Sony think about putting a couch on the roof through the ceiling? Or how about placing furniture upon other furniture so they can explore or get a different vantage point of the entire 3-D space?

I guess what I'm trying to say here is:

1. Whatever you design for, there will always be someone (or group) that will use what you designed for something that wasn't intended;

2. While tools provide a means to mitigate certain pitfalls, human behavior can always do more than just the tool.

3. And of course - sometimes humans can be tools.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Support IxDA

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We thank those who have made a contribution!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Are we speaking Alien?

I have a good feeling - and I'm sure many other usability practitioners have come across this - that we tend to speak a different language from developers. (Developers meaning the true sense of "coders" for lack of a better term.) Let me explain.

We recently had an educational series about UCD principles and it was well-received. It was for the developers and apparently, they learned quite a bit about what people in the UX field are most cognoscente about. And of course, everything that was taught was new to them. How could they know?

And this brings me to the point of what I dislike about about some people in our profession. There's this "we" and "them" mentality - we, being the people in UX, them, being developers or anyone else who may be labeled as ignorant. While we do know it exists, sometimes it's also all in our own mind. Yes, I used to be one of them many years ago - but that's only because I didn't truly understand what this game was all about.

It's not about battling each other because of egos (even though that's the case sometimes), and it's not because "they" didn't want to understand. It's because "we" as people in the field of UX aren't speaking a language that ordinary people can understand. (Yes, we are weird.)

We talk of wireframes and task analysis and layouts and personas, user profiles, U.I. standards, U.I. patterns and card sorting, usability testing, heurisitics, VIMM models and it goes on. So what really is this language? It's all jargon that we use to explain ourselves, but it doesn't get the message across. So what to do?

We in the UX field need a translator. It can be in the form of another person or ourselves. Either we learn the language (of ordinary English) or the Developer needs to learn our language. Which do you think is easier?

Ok, so we opted for the latter, but it wasn't easy. And we had to put it in plain english or it wouldn't be understood. Sometimes we get so caught-up in our research and our own mental models that we're not doing an effective job.

The point is, we really need to be more sensitive to our developers. We're sensitive to our users, so what makes development any different.

If we're here to serve our users, let's also serve everyone who's related to them either directly or indirectly. We're looking to make our users' life easier and so it starts by talking to development properly. It also takes some education, on both parties.

So, how about it?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Research Data needs to be told in story form

A while back, I wrote about how I wasn't about the polished document. While that is still true, it also confused many of the people I served because they could not put the pieces together to make a story or even give a good interpretation. So because of this confusion, I had to review my approach. I had to make it easier for the everyday sales person, for the everyday developer and the everyday manager to review the research data.

What I found was that giving a compelling story was much more effective in communicating what is really needed from the UX perspective. While the story could be somewhat long, the point is that all the important bits are included. What also helps in such a report is credibility with the usage of direct quotes from participants, and highlight videos showing the exact problem.

So instead of just pushing out the data that I've collected, effectively leaving recommendations out of the picture (and later discovering no one else was qualified to push out recommendations), in essence, my job has also includes the translator or interpreter of users' feedback and problems. While I knew this, I didn't act on it.

Now I know and I'm better for it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Get ready - FIGHT! Delta vs. Southwest Airlines

With the previous collapse of the airline industry and now a financial crisis, the climate for competitiveness is now more important than ever. Those who take the time and revamp their customer/user experience will win. Those who do not take the time to redesign their experiences will fail and wither. Here, I will review two different airlines and what they have to offer.

Delta Airlines - Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA (with return)
I took this flight a while back for some HFI training. It was pretty straight-forward to check-in. There was a service agent there to help with everything and checking in baggage was a breeze. There also wasn't much to be said about the flight itself. However, once I got to my destination, I found out my bag had been placed on a plane two hours behind me. I had to find this out after queuing for an hour behind 100 other people at the Delta customer service desk. So I had time to kill in the airport in Atlanta - and since it was enormous, it wasn't too much of a problem - that is, until I got bored. And once I got my luggage, there was no apology, no service. I just went to the carousel where the flight had my bag and left.

On the flight back, checking-in was a little different. To deal with the sheer volume of people and flights, Delta had kiosks. Each kiosk had about 100 sqft around it so everyone had a bit of personal space (especially with luggage). The interface was a little difficult to manage - but no matter. All you have to do is call on an agent and they were more than happy to help. After using the kiosk, you line up to check your bags, which was actually quite swift. Though, after that, the experience was much the same - just get me to the destination (with my luggage) and I'll be happy.

Southwest Airlines - Manchester, NH to Orlando, FL (with return, vacation)
This airline is now known to have a good reputation for its customer service. I must admit though, when I first lined up to check-in my luggage, this wasn't the case. The queue was long just to access one of the kiosks that were lined-up along the long check-in desk. It was also chaotic. Because of the long line and the many people already at the kiosks, it was difficult to see which kiosks were open. And then once at the kiosk, there was little to no indication what we were supposed to do - contact an agent or proceed with the kiosk. With that conundrum, I waited an extra 5 minutes to ask the busy agent walking up and down the area what I should do. Apparently, once we got started, we printed our luggage tags and still had to check-in our 1-year old which took another several minutes.

With the bags checked and security checked, we headed to the gate to relax before boarding. And this is the interesting part. Since there were no assigned seats, there were instead, assigned boarding queues. Anyone could sit anywhere but 99.9% of the time, the ones boarding first sat near the front - so they could get out first. (FIFO) Because of this different procedure, I had to review the process for boarding online - and they had a specific website where you can do that.
Now I must ask - how motivated do you think you'd be to go to this website to learn what Southwest's procedures are? Booking the flight was easy when done online. I didn't have to have an agent book it for me. It was all self-serve. So that must mean learning the procedure can also be self-serve.

And when we were on the plane, the customer service didn't end. Humor was injected anywhere Southwest could. There was the pilot's immaculate imitation of Porky Pig singing a carol, the attendents' most genuine smiles, and the returning pilot telling everyone "Okay, get out," once we were docked.

The other greater customer service experience came when my mother's bag went missing. She flew Southwest as well but from Buffalo to Tampa. Southwest informed her to get to her destination and they will have it shipped to the nearest airport. In this case, it was Fort Myers. When I drove her to get her bag, it was quick. Her bag was there at the agreed time (one day after) and there was a note attached to the bag which was meant for the service agent saying, "Bag was not picked-up at Buffalo. Apologize a lot". She ended up with a $75 voucher for her next flight.

The conclusion is simple. And the difference between these two airlines' customer/user experience is simple. Make the journey memorable. Aside from the chaotic check-in for newbies, Southwest makes it pleasant. Delta on the other hand...