Thursday, July 9, 2020

In my opinion, no single design is apt to be optimal for everyone. (Don Norman)

And that’s why we have personas. Now, without them, there are several defaults. Don touches on one of these – trying to be all things to all people. Other possibilities are designing for yourself or designing something so bland and noncommittal that you’re really not designing for anyone at all.

So, how to avoid all that? Right off the bat, you know that you can’t create a persona for every possible user or customer out there. You do have to narrow them down. 

But how many do you need? Personally, I generally let the data speak for itself. Now, I can guarantee that there will definitely be more than one. Chances are, though, that there won’t be more than 5 or 6. And, even then, you can typically divide your personas into primary ones and secondary one. Just make sure you focus on those primaries!

The important thing is that you are designing for someone specific. But, if the personas have been designed properly – with believable stories, and real names, and realistic photos – it will be hard for the team to not do so.

Once you have your personas, you now have several ways to do deal with them. You might, for example, come up with multiple designs. Or, you might want to design for one of your primary users, but make sure that other personas can still get to what they need (just don’t throw it in everyone else’s faces). You might have levels – like in video games. Finally, you might want to simply make a business decision and focus on your primary personas (probably your main source of revenue anyway) and let the secondary ones go.

That said, I have also seen designs that do cover multiple audiences quite well. I’m thinking, of particular, of long sales pages, where the user simply keeps scrolling until their sold. For the detailed-oriented type, they’ll be scrolling through the whole thing. For the shoot-from-the-hip type, it’s a few bullet points and a CTA. For the socially-oriented, reviews and testimonials are often what they’re looking for. For the hard-sell, show-me-the-money types, it’s usually showing your low fees, or your high interest rate, or how your price compares to other vendors’.

Do note, though, that this is definitely the exception. The rule is exactly what Don says.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A bad website is like a grumpy salesperson. (Jakob Nielsen)

One favorite metaphor I like to use with design teams is that of simple, face-to-face, human interaction. Since I’ve worked in banking most of my career, that typically involves talking about bank branches. You know, where you wait in line for a teller, then go up to the counter, hand material back and forth, talk about the weather, then get a receipt and a lollypop and leave? I think there actually might still be a few of those left.  ;^)

Anyway, what I like to do is contrast the interaction that the user is having online with what the user might experience in a branch. Would a teller really be that abrupt? Wouldn’t they normally be a little bit more friendly in this particular situation? Would a teller really just stand there looking at you after you did x? Wouldn’t they say something to acknowledge you? Wouldn’t a teller give you a little more information than just that? Wouldn’t they explain some of this a little better? Wouldn’t the two of you have a fairly strong, agreed-upon recognition of what constitutes the beginning and the end of the transaction? Why did you leave the user just kind of standing there?

Now, I’m not saying go all out on anthropomorphization. I’m just pointing out that users already have a mental model in their head (and do tend to anthropomorphize computers anyway), and that keeping that model in mind can definitely help things run a little more smoothly.

Needless to say, these kind of IRL metaphors apply to any kind of online interaction – shopping, asking questions, searching for information, scheduling things … So, if you’re in the business of UX – IA, ID, graphic designer – this is going to apply to you too.

One thing I’ve found particularly useful in these situations is something I learned in linguistics, Grice’s maxims. These are basically the linguistic rules for meaningful conversation to happen:

  • Quantity – where one tries to be as informative as one possibly can, and gives as much information as is needed, and no more.
  • Quality – where one tries to be truthful, and does not give information that is false or that is not supported by evidence.
  • Relation – where one tries to be relevant, and says things that are pertinent to the discussion.
  • Manner – when one tries to be as clear, as brief, and as orderly as one can in what one says, and where one avoids obscurity and ambiguity.

Follow these in your designs, and you’ll have that human-interaction template down pat!

One final thing … I love Nielsen’s metaphor here, but am a little surprised he didn’t take into account another of his famous maxims:

"The web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything. It is so easy to go elsewhere; all the competitors in the world are but a mouse click away."

In other words, it’s lot easier to go to another site than go to another brick-and-mortar store. The Internet is not your local mall.




Friday, June 12, 2020

Users do not care about what is inside the box, as long as the box does what they need done. (Jef Raskin)

Think of your car. If you’re like me, you know that you put the key in the ignition, you start the thing, and you drive somewhere. Oh, sure, there are some other details – turning signals, reverse, headlights, filling the thing up, taking it in to get the oil changed ... But that’s pretty much it.

I can’t remember the last time I opened the hood. Actually, I do!. But it was only because something was wrong. My battery had run out, and I had to get a AAA mechanic to come give it a charge. I opened the hood for him, then peeked inside. Yeah, I could make out a few items – the battery, the air filter (which I never change), maybe the windshield washer fluid, perhaps the radiator cap …

Honestly, though, I’m not a mechanic. I just care that the thing takes me where I want to go. 

Now, here’s the thing. As a user researcher, you may very well work with a bunch of mechanics. This goes without saying when it comes to the developers. I’m always kind of amazed, though, how interested designers, and business owners, and even content types are in technology in general and the inner workings of whatever they happen to be working on in particular.

If you think about it, though, they kind of have to. They really can’t help themselves. If they’re going to produce something, they have to care about the nuts and bolts, they have to get involved in the details.

User researchers, on the other hand, often stand a little apart from that. Our identification is primarily with the user. And the typical user is not the mechanic type, but really just someone who wants to buy a book, transfer some money, stream a video, reserve a plane ticket …

And what that all means when working with your team of “mechanics” is several things. First, there is the advocacy aspect. I find personas really work great here, but simply speaking up and getting teams back on track in general can be really useful. Another important thing to do is to occasionally bring up the idea of mental models – in particular, what they are, that users have them, and that the team’s mental models will tend to be a lot different than the users’. A final idea relates to pushback. I’m always a little amazed when I hear developers say that they can’t do a modal here, or that a table would be too much work there. I often think it’s a knee-jerk reaction, and the team really needs to orient less around what’s difficult for them and more around what’s good for the user.

For, in the end, your user base is going to be a ton more people who really just want to do the online equivalent of getting to work, or going shopping, or picking up the kids from soccer practice. Anything beyond that – or anything that gets in the way of that – may be of interest to a lot fewer users than the team might think.


Jef is mainly known as the guy who created the first Mac
(and, I guess, whatever weird thing that is on his head)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

If the standard is lousy, then develop another standard. (Edward Tufte)

Standards are good. Heck, standards are great!

They should not, however, be set in stone. The world changes, people change, technology changes. New data comes in, old theories are disproven, new ones arise. 

That something violated a standard should never be the end of discussion. I’ve run into plenty of instances where a standard might be out of date, or perhaps whoever put the standard together didn’t have all the information, or maybe the standard applies in 90% of the situations but definitely not in this particular one, or even that theory got in the way of actual data.

Indeed, that last point is a particularly important one. For me at least, these issues typically come up, not in some general philosophical discussion, but as the result of actual user research. So, if a test tells me that some standard got in the way of my users and their goals, I think it’s worth pointing out. Now, the reasons for the original standard may indeed still win out, but I definitely think it’s worth bringing up and talking about. And this is especially the case, if it comes up on not just one test, but multiple ones, or – heck! – one right after the other.

Case in point. My company likes to put FAQs on the right rails. In fact, we’ve got a standard for it! 

What I’ve been noticing lately, though, is that users tend to miss them when they’re over there. Those same users also point out that they typically expect to see them at the bottom of the page (and also that they really do value FAQs).

In other words, there already seems to be a standard out there. Perhaps we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel here, folks. Perhaps we should take a look at that old standard and see if we might want to tweak it a little.

Honestly, what are the point of standards? Now, a lot of designers will point to efficiencies, saving time and effort, not endlessly hashing things over … as well as presenting a nice, clean look to the world. 

For me, though, it’s all about the user. Standards help users take a complex online world and make it a little more predictable. Whether internal (within your site) or external (with all the other sites out there), standards are crucial in making your design adhere to that classic user adage from Steve Krug, “Don’t make me think!” 


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Data don’t generate theory – only researchers do that. (Henry Mintzberg)

Data doesn’t speak for itself. In fact, data can be sometimes used like a ventriloquist’s dummy – parroting whatever the ventriloquist wants to say. It takes someone with some real skill to get the data to really talk. And a lot of hard work as well.

Now, data alone will tell you that something did indeed happen. That, though, is kind of like learning that your car won’t go. Well, why won’t it go? What can you do to make it go again?

So, say the completion rate on your account opening process is below 10%. That’s good to know. Doesn’t sound too good either, does it? So, what would actually be your next step here?

Well, one thing would be to dig even further into the data. You might, for example, find out that certain users have less trouble than others. You might also find out that most people drop out on step x. Who knows, there might be even certain times of day when people are more or less successful. Honestly, though, your options will be limited. Web analytics are great for straight-up, high-level numbers. What those actually mean when you get down to it, however, can be another thing altogether.

Another possibility – and a very popular one I might be add – would be conjecture. Heck, that’s all A/B testing is when you really get down it.

A third idea, though, would be to get better data. And that’s why I’m always pressing for qualitative research. Usability tests, ethnography, in-depth interviews, even focus groups can get at some of those thorny why questions. 

In fact, good qualitative data, along with some serious analysis, will start to get at why’s that don’t apply just to the particular project you’re working on, but to multiple projects over time, and in multiple different situations. Throw in a little more explication, maybe a metaphor, and – and hey presto – you’ve got yourself a theory! 


Dang! – my kind of management consultant

Friday, June 5, 2020

“Data” is not the plural of “anecdote.” (Brian Clegg)

As a qualitative researcher, I have to be really careful here. On the one hand, I do not have the data that the web analytics folks and the A/B testing guys and the data scientists have. At the same time, though, I’ve got a lot more than just anecdotes.

First, I do have some numbers. No, they’re not thousands and thousands, or even hundreds and hundreds, but they are more than your own personal data point, or what you heard from a friend or family member or your hair stylist. 

Second, what I have is indeed data. In particular, it is not just opinion. Now, that’s not to say I don’t have respect for your opinion. It might, indeed, be a very well-informed opinion. But it’s still an opinion.

What I can bring to the table is actual behavior, as well as verbalizations of thought processes. And with these coming from real, live users, trying to complete genuine, honest-to-goodness tasks. So, very different from some management types taking a gander at a screen in a conference room and wondering if the “green pops enough” or thinking that “the content doesn’t really speak to me.”

Third, the data that I have tends to be very rich. And that is, indeed, why I feel I don’t necessarily need hundreds and hundreds of data points. 

Now, if what I was trying to get at was more marketing related (How many people would be interested in this product? How much are they willing to pay? Which of these ads are people more likely to click on?), I’d be all about the numbers. What I’m dealing with, though, is whether something’s going to fly or not. 

And you don’t need a lot of numbers for that. You simply don’t need a ton of people to tell you that they have no clue what to put in field X, or that that description makes no sense, or that the CTA is impossible to find – when they actually show and tell you that themselves. If you didn’t have those rich verbalizations though, you might never figure out why you’re getting such poor data, or why no seems to get beyond screen X, or why people seem to be signing up for the wrong product.

Sure, you can speculate on why these things are happening and what the numbers might actually mean. Usability testing, though, will get you the real answers, giving you that very important why along with the how much.


Brian Clegg is an English writer specializing in explaining abstruse science to lay folks

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Design Thinking is the designer's version of Agile. It’s becoming cult like. (Bill Killam)

Robert Jay Lifton is a psychologist famous for his seminal work on brainwashing and cults. He’s known, in particular, for an eight-point definition of what actually constitutes a cult. One of those points relates to language:

Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.

When I was initially exposed to Agile, this was one of the first things that struck me. Why call a meeting a “meeting,” when you can call it a “ceremony”? Why call a schedule a “schedule,” when you can call it a “timebox”? What call a chart a “chart,” when you can call it an “information radiator”?

I noticed something similar with Design Thinking – “ideation,” “MVP,” “bodystorming,” “divergence/convergence,” “culture probes,” “How might we?” … 

Now, every new way of thinking really does need some new terms. Sometimes, though, these terms serve other purposes entirely. They can, for example, separate an in-crowd from everyone else. They might also be used to enforce a certain way of thinking (words can and do shape thoughts) or even stop thinking entirely.

Finally, they can also take existing ideas and make them sound fresh. You know, old wine in new bottles.

And Design Thinking is a little different from Agile in that last regard. Agile really does involve some new ideas and thinking – especially when contrasted with waterfall. Design Thinking, on the other hand, sounds a lot like good, old-fashioned user-centered design, at least to me. Yeah, there are a few different emphases – getting the whole team involved, that divergence/convergence thing – but really it should sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s been in the biz more than just overnight.

It’s actually a fairly common practice in business – take somebody else’s ideas, rebrand it, own it, market it, and cash in. If you get people to get so excited about it that it approaches cult status, well, even better!


Bill is president of User-Centered Design, an adjunct professor at George Mason, and has been in the biz for 30+ years