User Experience is serious business

May 17, 2015

Opinions are like bellybuttons: everybody has one. It’s one of those wonderful little traits that makes us human.

There is of course a right time for opinions; a design process addressing the public interface for your organisation or service is not one of them. If the debate around (for instance) a website descends into contributions such as “I think we need to have our Twitter feed on the homepage”, the alarm bells should sound.

Protracted debate around what is understood to be the design tends to come too late in the day, and represent nothing but a distraction from deep–rooted issues that will dictate the success or failure of an organisation’s digital strategy.

Digital touchpoints now represent the de facto form of initial contact between businesses and customers. A little unfairly perhaps, expectations for these interactions have been set by the giants of the digital world – Google, Amazon et al. B2B transactions are similarly shifting towards B2C patterns of behaviour, in terms of researching and filtering suppliers. User experience increasingly defines the brand in the minds of consumers.

Faced with these stark realities, isn’t it crazy that a design discussion could fixate around colours, logo size or font selection? To put such debate into perspective – how probable is it that a website or app will fail for any of those reasons? More likely, a digital initiative will fail to meet its objectives because those objectives have simply not been defined, or are inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of user needs.

Amid the talk of ‘user–centred’ design and the ‘user experience’, it can be easy to misinterpret the message as something akin to ”the customer is always right” – 5 words guaranteed to raise the ire of many an MD or CEO.

Design for the user experience is more than gauging opinion, or paying lip service to customer satisfaction. The truth is that any effective user– or customer–centred process includes careful consideration of the business objectives for the organisation. Business goals need to be clearly defined in parallel with user needs – it is these that will most clearly define the nature of the digital transactions required for both the business AND users to benefit. This is a symbiotic relationship, not a zero sum game.

User–centred design thinking is the perfect antidote to destructive, subjective discourse. Learning about your organisation through the lens of primary research undertaken with customers and users can be a daunting prospect; it may even unearth some long–buried suspicions and fears.

Once the unknowns are known, design decisions can be informed and supported by evidence as to what is required for users to achieve the goals they want to achieve, which in turn support the business goals for the project. This necessarily brings in elements of overall business strategy, product strategy and marketing strategy.

It is essential to see your business through the eyes of those outside your organisation. Knowing what you represent to your users and customers may affect everything you had previously believed; it is also sure to empower you to focus resources on what really matters, for you and for your customers.

Formula doesn’t mean formulaic

April 23, 2015

One of the occasional criticisms hurled at user experience as a discipline is that it is simply a box–ticking accessibility exercise; that by engaging in solid research and analysis, somehow UX is the boring bitthat has to be done before real design gets a look in.

Related to this is another misconception that if a diligent user–centred design process is followed, somehow we will always end up with the same formula, the same outcome – the same design. This is part of the same myth which says that design is arrived at through inspiration alone; that ‘design’ is a noun rather than a verb; that we should ignore established best practice or patterns and instead search for true ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ (add your favourite devisive industry buzzword here).

The retort to this isn’t that UX design does not involve the use of formulae. The defence is that it is the very use of ‘formulae’ that ultimately leads to differentiation.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the Hero’s Journey. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements, a formula if you will. You can read more about it here.

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, a huge number of popular stories – be they in literature or cinema – have taken cues from the Hero’s Journey resulting in some of the most beautiful, most inspiring tales in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (a story that wears Campbell’s influence on its sleeve) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

It’s worth looking also at popular songwriting. I’m willing to bet that your favourite songs go something like verse–chorus–verse–chorus–middle 8–chorus. I’m also willing to bet that they are based around seven main chords, or variants thereof. And yet from this we get pretty much all modern popular music, and certainly some of the most emotionally resonant, moving songwriting the world has known. Even Lennon and McCartney knew the rules… albeit they stretched them more than most.

UX design is a similar: working within constraints, sometimes with familiar patterns, the unique aspects of the project – the client’s aspirations, the user needs, the business model – bring to the table elements which alter the chemistry of he process to create something if not unique, then truly effective – the most important benchmark of all.

Last year I worked on a support micro site for a minority community group. Conventional wisdom would have held that, as we were dealing with an already well–researched audience, user research would not yield too much in the way of insights. The client however was wise enough to seek validation of received wisdom and consented to a round of public workshops. One of the most valuable outcomes from these was a set of five distinct personas that the website needed to connect with and communicate to. The personas derived informed everything from navigation and wayfinding to site content and overall tone–of–voice, as well as providing themes for the associated promotional campaign.

As in music or storytelling, the basic building blocks may be limited but there are potentially infinite directions a project can take. And yes, as in those other examples, some results will be poor if a formula is relied on too heavily. What matters though is that the chosen outcome is an effective one, and one that connects with the right people.

In a changing world, where human factors consistently remain the most important elements in communication and interaction, a solid user–centred design process remains the best formula for achieving success with digital projects.

This post originally appeared on the Fathom_ blog

Usability lab hack in Yosemite & iOS8

March 23, 2015

usability-hackIf your work involves usability testing, chances are you are constantly trying to refine and optimise your testing set up.

A recent usability study had us working in a DMZ, requiring the usability tests to take place in a specific location. No big deal there. It was however the first study we had run using iOS8 in this environment; and, as we learned on the morning of the first tests, iOS Safari currently won’t connect to a secure domain running through a proxy server.

The first sign of trouble was that UX Recorder – our mobile recording app of choice – wouldn’t load the secure domain, something we attributed initially to the app itself. As UX Recorder uses the default Safari browser, this meant that our tests couldn’t be recorded.

The easy (and obvious) answer to accessing the secure domain was to download Chrome on the iOS devices, which handles https protocols in a completely different manner. But UX Recorder – and therefore recording mobile activity – was no longer an option.

By complete chance, I had this blog post open in my laptop’s browser from a couple of days before (I am a hopeless tab opener-and-abandoner) and another piece of the answer fell into place. Quicktime in Yosemite allows an alternative video source – specifically an iOS8 device. By recording a connected  device through Quicktime, we had high quality footage of the device in action. And what’s more, we could watch it being used in realtime on another screen through screen sharing.

The final problem was front-facing camera footage of the user. By recording the screen through Silverback, with the Quicktime window in focus, we had the result we needed. Okay it’s not perfect; the camera isn’t looking right into the user’s face. If they sit slight out of kilter with the built in camera, or move a lot during the test, then we don’t see them quite as well. But then this already applies to desktop tests run in Silverback anyway, so no major loss there.

The problem we started out to solve was getting through a secure site through a proxy; what we ended up with is a new way to record user activity on Apple mobile devices, and one which will now be our go-to method.

Pros

It works  well, doesn’t slow down the iOS device, plus can give you a way to remote view the device activity through screen sharing.

Cons

No on-screen activity – clicks, taps etc. (the Quicktime feature to record clicks isn’t an option in this case)

This is going to be our method of choice going forward, hope it’s something you can use in your own testing.

N.B. For all this, it goes without saying that in a standard testing environment where no proxy is involved, using Safari is not an issue.

Sharpening the saw

January 5, 2015

For many years during my early career I was immune (or certainly resistant) to business and professional development books. The thought of them repelled me; indeed many still do. The particular brand of let’s say ‘bravado’, as pedaled by the likes of Tony Robbins, leaves me utterly cold.

The later discovery then of how different Stephen Covey’s philosophy and writing is became all the more significant. And for me, that revelation came in the form of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

It is a shame how listicles – the click-bait articles that appear daily around the web (“11 awesome ideas your website must include!”) – have served to cheapen any ideas put forward in a numbered list. I say a shame, because “7 Habits…” is essential reading for any professional, and should in no way be categorised with all the poor relations in print and on the web, which mimic its title.

One of the principles Covey introduces in the book is the 7th habit, that of ‘sharpening the saw’. The phrase derives from an allegory of a wood-cutter who cuts through logs for a living, sawing all day. He’s so busy sawing he doesn’t have time to maintain the saw. With inevitable consequences.

My career has taken me in a number of directions, each of them self-initiated, and generally fuelled by a relentless fear of getting lazy, or growing complacent. Covey’s words and ideas have helped me in any number of situations over the years, and he continues to inspire. This last year though, it strikes me that I’ve fallen well short when it comes to the 7th habit.

Earlier in the year I had one of those forehead-slapping moments of clarity: the unchallengeable fact that everything we choose to do in turn means not doing something else. We have a finite amount of time available to us – as illustrated with stark clarity in a post earlier today from Chris Murphy – and if we are fortunate, then we choose how to fill that time. As competition for time and attention increases, so too does the need to differentiate between activity that helps to develop you as a person, and activity that you simply feel obliged to take part in.

As an example, after signing up in 2008 Twitter very quickly became an essential professional tool for me, a discovery engine that has without question enhanced my professional life. But at its worst Twitter becomes just a way of filling up time. “Catching up on Twitter” was at one point an additional task to fit into the day, just in case anything was missed – a link, a conversation, an announcement – that would leave me disadvantaged. Ludicrous when put as bluntly as that, but a fact nonetheless.

So it’s important then to make sure that activity is nourishing, and encourages the right kind of thinking. And overall I feel like I’ve fallen behind over the course of the last year, littered as it has been with books and articles unread, and no end of unfinished writing.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve made bad choices about what to give my time and attention to, at a time when competition for both has increased exponentially. As with everything in life, it is all about choices.

This coming year, I commit myself once again to sharpening the saw – and never letting it get to the state it fell into last year.

You can read a short passage on the 7th habit, plus the other six, here. See if they makes sense to you. It does for me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

Best behaviour

September 29, 2014

Stating the obvious, lifting a smartphone and tapping any app’s icon represents a choice for the device owner – a choice between using the app, and doing literally anything else. For successful apps, use becomes habitual. More than that – for successful apps, it must become habitual.

One of the best insights I’ve seen on this topic (I don’t recall the source so unfortunately can’t give due credit) correctly stated that establishing a new habit means creating time for it. By implication, that will almost certainly require taking time and attention away from something else.

The assumption that a product will simply be used is an optimism bias that afflicts so many entrepreneurs and technologists. Viewing the challenge of designing products as not only the creation of a compelling experience, but one that impels someone to make room in their life to use it, is a sobering thought.

The ability of an app to achieve this place in someone’s life can go beyond what it offers in terms of functionality, and certainly how it looks. Every investment in a product or app, as noted by the BufferApp blog earlier this year, is an investment in a future self; a better self. For use of an app to become a habit, it must be able to deliver a desired transformation. The transformative potential of interactive technologies is something I’ve been immersed in on a number of key projects this year at Fathom.

First alerted to the resource by a blog post from Joe Leech, BJ Fogg’s Behavioural Model has been nothing short of a revelation. Like so much of what user-centred thinking brings to the table, it comes across as simple common sense, clearly articulated. And like so many of the best tools in UX work, it offers a framework around which to plan and execute design and content strategies. Think of it as an ‘Elements of User Experience‘ for behaviour change.

Fogg is a computer scientist and founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. Although not intended specifically for UX work, the Behavioural Model finds a natural home in the user-centred design process.

The link with Stanford certainly imbues the model with academic credibility, putting it alongside the work of Weinschenck, Kahnemann et al as a reference point for designers wanting to leverage the power of psychology in their work. In use, the model excels as a starting point in assessing the nature of a challenge, and pointing the way to the response without authoring it outright.

Work on the models sadly appear to have stalled with no updates in a couple of years, and the detailed resource guides withdrawn from the website. But what remains is left is a godsend for designers hungry for another framework to bring structure to the design process.

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