Book section ‘fixed’

The last few times I casually visited my page of books, browsing the pages in your own website can only be the result of procrastination, I noticed how the display was more askew than normal. Quick looks at source gave no answers and I silently cursed myself for letting my web development skills fall into a state of uselessness. As it turns out, it had nothing to do with my quirky source but everything to do with a conflict with Pinterest’s Safari extension. Thanks Pinterest, and goodbye extension.

My books section is a curated list of books I have relied upon, read, referenced, used as a doorstop, in an effort to give myself a decent education into the field of user experience and design.


Long deliverables

I was about to launch into my normal rant about how 30-page research presentations and enormous PowerPoint decks full of qualitative data are horrible wastes of time and how they must be avoided at all costs, but I’m tired of giving that speech. Instead, I sat down with the person and started asking questions. What I came up with was this framework.

At the start of any project, or when entering a new project, I always spend a considerable amount of time on some kind of research. Whether that is combing the internet for related research (mining data from documents), reading blogs, articles, case studies, becoming familiar with the full range of competitors products or more formal methods like interviewing users. I attempt as quickly as possible to become as much of an expert as I can be within this new realm — this way I feel I can give a greater contribution and perhaps use this data to inform design. But most companies I have worked with don’t have a robust system for sharing this knowledge and it seems selfish to keep it all to myself (and rather selfishly I also want to give teammates some indication that I did this work in the first place), so I end up writing long briefs with all the accumulated knowledge. I’m received some push back to this habit, as many people don’t have the time to read pages of briefs.

I feel that combining illustration with hyper-summaries would help but my poor illustration ability would only make the results less clear. I’m still working on an ideal solution that works for me and the people I work with.

Laura Klein has some ideas on how to organize your ideas on the topic in her article Creating effective UX research deliverables.


People need to feel in control

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From Close door buttons on elevators are designed to be utterly useless, which reveals how elevator close door buttons and pedestrian crosswalk buttons don’t actually map to any function. Pushing buttons, even when they don’t really do anything, makes us feel better. Psychologists believe the perception of control is beneficial in helping to reduce stress.

Dr. Albert Bandura, an influential social psychologist, coined the term “self-efficacy” to describe people’s internal beliefs about their ability to have an impact on events that affect their lives. Your self-efficacy is your belief in your own effectiveness as a person, both generally in terms of managing your life, and specifically with regard to competently dealing with individual tasks. In the context of stress, self-efficacy describes your beliefs about your ability to handle stressful situations. A large amount of research has demonstrated quite convincingly that possessing high levels of self-efficacy acts to decrease people’s potential for experiencing negative stress feelings by increasing their sense of being in control of the situations they encounter. The perception of being in control (rather than the reality of being in or out of control) is an important buffer of negative stress. When people feel that they are not in control, they start feeling stressed, even if they actually are in control and simply don’t know it. Another reason that people feel stressed is when they feel out of control because they do not possess the appropriate coping skills, resources, etc. to adequately cope with the situation.

When a given demand (e.g., passing an exam, winning a race) is perceived as something you can handle because you expect you will do well based on preparation or past experience (e.g., because you have studied for the exam or trained for the race), you are likely to perceive the demand as a challenge and as an exhilarating experience. After the event is over, you may even have a resulting boost in self-esteem because you worked hard to meet the demand and succeeded. If, however, the demand seems beyond your abilities, you will likely experience distress. Across time, feeling unable to respond effectively to stressful situations can further decrease your sense of self-efficacy, making you even more prone to experience distress in the future.
Self-Efficacy And The Perception Of Control In Stress Reduction

Think of this the next time you are designing a UI or task flow, especially when the UI or task may involve a certain amount of stress in your users (I don’t mean give them useless buttons to push). Giving users the feeling of control, proper feedback, and a feeling of accomplishment will increase the positive feelings they have when using the product.


Spark Synchronisation Dialog

Shouldn't that be Synchronising?

Shouldn’t that be Synchronising?

This simple dialog from the iOS email app. Spark illustrates how you need to consider different possibilities when creating copy for dialogs. In this dialog, “Please wait a minute” might seem like a great choice, it’s polite and gives what could be an accurate estimation of the task completion. The graphic also gives the user a sense of progress. Unfortunately in this instance there was an error which prevented the process from being completed, turning an estimated 1 minute task into 5 or more. It’s hard to accommodate outliers but it’s how you handle these instances that make a greater impact.

In the absence of accurate data (this I am sure was supposed to be a very short process so they likely decided not to include a progress bar) it’s important to properly set user expectations, well it’s always important to do so. Copy plays a big part in this.


Icons need text labels

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently staring at ambiguous icons trying to guess their meaning and offer suggestions, it’s a fascinating study and mind numbing at the same time.

When designing icons for interfaces it’s important to note that a user’s understanding of an icon is based on previous experience. This came up recently when evaluating an interface’s usage of the checkmark symbol as a signifier of a change of state (in this instance selecting a photo). In my experience this has always signified completion or success when working through a task or a process, but it seems Apple and Google both are using this in entirely different contexts.

In her article “Icon Usability” Aurora Bedford argues that “due to the absence of a standard usage for most icons, text labels are necessary to communicate the meaning and reduce ambiguity”. I’m not sure this is possible in every instance but it’s a valid argument.

Icon labels should be visible at all times, without any interaction from the user. For navigation icons, labels are particularly critical. Don’t rely on hover to reveal text labels: not only does it increase the interaction cost, but it also fails to translate well on touch devices.

Via: Icon Usability


Persona definition

persona

From Aurora Bedford:

The field of user experience centers on the idea that we must design products around people, rather than teaching people how to use products: user-centered design (UCD), not technology-centered design. In order to do so, we must understand people—their behaviors, attitudes, needs, and goals. […]

A persona is a fictional, yet realistic, description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people.

The description should be thorough, including details about the persona’s needs, concerns, and goals, as well as background information such as age, gender, behaviors, and occupation. This focus on a singular individual—or a small set of individuals, if using multiple personas—fosters empathy for the specific users we are designing for, and helps us break away from the attempt to design for everyone. A persona doesn’t need to document every aspect of the imaginary individual’s life, but rather should focus on those characteristics that impact what is being designed. It is likely that a business will have several personas to cover the various aspects of their organization, with one or two of them identified as the main targets for each product or service, feature set, or content area of a website.

Common pieces of information to include are:

  • Name, age, gender, and a photo
  • Tag line describing what they do in “real life”; avoid getting too witty, as doing so may taint the persona as being too fun and not a useful tool
  • Experience level in the area of your product or service
  • Context for how they would interact with your product: Through choice or required by their job? How often would they use it? Do they typically use a desktop computer to access it, or their phone or other device?
  • Goals and concerns when they perform relevant tasks: speed, accuracy, thoroughness, or any other needs that may factor into their usage
  • Quotes to sum up the persona’s attitude

Via Personas Make Users Memorable for Product Team Members


Perfectly executing the wrong plan

I’ve always felt that starting from the perspective of solving a personal problem or pain is a great way to start a product idea. But Tomer Sharon suggests otherwise in this video From Google I/O, which makes sense when you are in a position of using someone else’s capital investment. It takes very little time to validate some of your basic assumptions.

App developers ask themselves excellent questions about their users: Do people need my app? Can people use my app? Why do people sign up and then not use my app? However, app developers answer their excellent questions in invalid and unreliable ways. It is shocking to see how much effort app developers put in writing elegantly structured, refactored code, with good unit test coverage in an agile environment, and yet, their apps fail miserably.


Notes on Digital Storytelling

I’m not a real writer by any stretch but I have been thinking of stories lately as a means to explain information to both my kids and coworkers. As a designer I think it’s important to develop some kind of narrative to communicate a message, give a device a sense of humanity, and as a means of conveying data (which hopefully changes data into information). I did a rough presentation a number of years ago on the topic and below are snippets from my notes.
Digital Storytelling feels like a dated term – not sure what else to call it.
Digital Storytelling is a fundamental way of organizing data. “For example, I’ve heard that when the U.S. Secret Service needs to convey a lot of important information quickly – say, briefing the Secretary of State during a ride across town – they use a storytelling format”. [source]

We believe that literature isn’t just for English majors, art isn’t just for pouty snobs, and life is about collecting and sharing true stories. We believe that the web gives us a rare and wonderful opportunity to create shared story spaces, and those shared spaces help remind us that we are not alone. -The Fray

Intuitively we all know what a story is, although we may not be able to articulate all its elements. Generally, a story is an organization of experience which draws together many aspects of our spatial, temporal, and causal perception.

A story is… “that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.
Aristotle, Poetics [source]

Digital Storytelling is the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Throughout history, storytelling has been used to share knowledge, wisdom, and values. Stories have taken many different forms. Stories have been adapted to each successive medium that has emerged, from the circle of the campfire to the silver screen, and now the computer screen.
Digital Storytelling uses digital media to create media-rich stories to tell, to share, and to preserve. Digital stories derive their power through weaving images, music, narrative and voice together, thereby giving deep dimension and vivid color to characters, situations, and insights. The digital environment provides a unique opportunity for stories to be manipulated, combined and connected to other stories in an interactive, and transformative process that empowers the author and invests the notion of storytelling with new meaning. Using the internet, and other emerging forms of distribution, these stories provide a catalyst for creating communities of common concern on a global scale. – Story Center

One of the most important yet least appreciated facts about story is that perceivers tend to remember a story in terms of categories of information states as propositions, interpretations, and summaries rather than remembering the way the story is actually presented or its surface features [source].
Resources: Hilary McLellan’s Story Link, Storybox, Second Story.


Singapore MOE vs. Taiwan MOE

One can only be amazed (or perhaps disgusted) at the differences between Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE) website and Singapore’s.
While I could nitpick, Singapore’s MOE site gave me the information I needed quickly and clearly. It looks like it was built with a goal of actually helping people find the information they need.
Taiwan’s MOE is a confusing mess of political and organizational data of interest to only those who wrote it. Their English site is useful to no one. It’s the type of masturbatory exercise so prevalent in many government information dissemination efforts here.
If you believe that what and how an entity communicates is an indication of the organization itself, by using their websites which organization do you think has their shit together? Which do you trust?
The signal to noise ratio is so out of whack, it’s no wonder people try to circumvent the system. One could spend their whole life trying to find accurate data (or do as we do pick up the phone and ask directly).
These problems have little to do with the lack of knowledge or practice in usability, design, or simple customer advocacy. There is talent here. It’s politics, poor organizational management, and lack of vision that creates these black holes.


Designing the Mobile User Experience

“People use their mobile phones in environments in which there are hundreds of distractions competing for their attention. In such environments, services that require complex interactions fail.”
“Achieving simplicity and speed of access is the key to expanding people’s perceptions of the mobile Web to include information, entertainment, and commerce services.”
“Your first step is to determine the contexts in which people will be using your mobile service.”
“What you can’t overcome is choosing the wrong technology for a particular context of use.”
Designing the Mobile User Experience – Richard F. Cecil


Twelve days to a positive user experience

From the hesketh site and possibly written by Steve Champion. A bit early for an article with a festive theme but here in Hsinchu the Christmas lights stay up all year round. A few brief points:

  • It’s not the number of clicks to complete a task it’s the amount of thought that goes into these clicks(but reducing clicks is not a bad metric either)
  • Don’t produce a diarrhea of wordage … cut cut cut … think Miles Davis not John Coltrane
  • formal testing is not as important as testing (and iterate) if it means not testing at all

“So how do we create a positive user experience? Remember this mantra: User experience should be useful, usable, and satisfying. As you assess, architect, and measure the real experience of your users, you will craft better user experience…which leads to more value…which leads to increased profitability”.
In the words of my daughter, you can read the article if you like.


Luke Wroblewski on Refining Data Tables

Luke Wroblewski writing for UX Matters:

After forms, data tables are likely the next most ubiquitous interface element designers create when constructing Web applications. Users often need to add, edit, delete, search for, and browse through lists of people, places, or things within Web applications. As a result, the design of tables plays a crucial role in such an application’s overall usefulness and usability. But just like the design of forms,there’s more than one way to design tabular data.

Refining Data Tables on UX Matters


Research as a Political Tool

This is exactly what lead to my interest in user research and the formation of our user experience group at a former employer. The “value of user research is often to cut through the politics and convince stakeholders to make good design decisions”. (Adrian Chong)

Next time you read an article about a user research success story, ask yourself if the conclusions of that research weren’t just common sense (or at least common sense to good UI designers) to begin with. Ask yourself if a good designer couldn’t have concluded the same conclusion that the user research seemed to reach.
Then ask yourself if you could articulate your “common sense” recommendation to a person who doesn’t understand design at all. To someone who may, in fact, be hostile to your so-called “expert” recommendations?
This is one area where research can help: explaining a user interface design strategy to stakeholders, peers, and bosses who have their own agendas and biases.

The comments to the article are quite informative.
User Research Smoke & Mirrors, Part 3: Research as a Political Tool.