Thursday, March 7, 2019

It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so. (Will Rogers)

Sometimes I prefer my clients to be ignorant. In my experience as usability engineer, user researcher, and even instructional designer and tech writer, I’ve just found it so much easier when my clients are blank slates.

Of course, clients who really know what they’re doing are the best of all. Those, however, are pretty few and far between. It’s much more common to get somebody in the middle. And, to throw in another quote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing” can definitely apply to that middle zone.

I’m always amazed at how many things people “in the middle” just don’t get, or don’t get right. There’s probably a number of reasons why however.

The first may simply have to do with exposure. Clients may have simply heard of an idea only in passing – a mention at a conference from last year, an article they once read, a conversation in the hallway. In those situations, subtleties and true understanding are really hard. Overly broad strokes and misconceptions, on the other hand, are really easy.

Usability engineers always know, though, that “it depends,” and things are never as simple as they appear. A good example here might be the number of clicks rule. A couple of years back, marketeers fell in love with the idea that everything should be a couple of clicks away from the homepage. On the surface of it, this actually made some sense.

Some unintended consequences of that, however, included some particularly dense homepages and menus. Further, results from testing showed that users didn’t really resent (or were even aware of) the number of clicks, and were happy to go their merry way as long as they felt confident where they were going. Ironically, this idea of “information scent” could be stronger with a deeper IA than with a shallower one. 

It may also have a lot to do with where you got started. A perfect example here is personas. If you have some background in marketing, when you here the word “persona,” you automatically translate that into “segments.” It’s not the same! And it can be really hard to adjust gears and understand the difference. 

That actually reminds me a lot of the linguistic concept of false friends. Not to go too far off topic, but that’s when a word you know in English, say, doesn’t mean the same as a word in another language that sounds just like it. For example, don’t say you’re embarazada the next time you slip up with something with your Spanish-speaking friends. It means “pregnant”! 


Will Rogers doing a little man-machine research 
on some early radio communications hardware

Thursday, February 28, 2019

It is not how much information there is, but rather how effectively it is arranged. (Edward Tufte)

I agree with this statement up to a certain point. Of course, in a typical situation this is spot on. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve flagged “grey blocks of text,” I’d be retired now. Honestly, it’s funny how frequently and consistently that comes up.

I never really tried to analyze why, but off the top of my head, I would guess it’s how all writers are trained. And that goes all the way back to grade school. Think about it. What did Miss Thistlebottom at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School want? Big grey blocks of text – each preferably with topic and summary sentences (and none of those beginning with a conjunction or ending in a preposition)!  And something similar continued through middle school, and high school, and college. The whole point was to show that you had understood a particular topic by writing about it at length. You were also trying to impress teacher with just how darn smart you were. Wordiness was something to be encouraged. Long paragraphs and sentences were a good thing.

I’ve actually seen something even for college-level students who were in writing programs. And, here, I don’t mean creative writing, but journalism, and marcomm, and even professional writing. A newspaper article, a marketing brochure, a press release are not, however, all that different from what they were writing back in 6th grade – at least in terms of structure and look, if not in quality.

I sometimes joke with my content strategists (don’t dare call them writers!) that they must be getting paid by the word. For the average online reader, though, the less the better. And for someone who’s been rewarded for their writing since grade school (and is probably working on a novel at home), the idea that the reader doesn’t cherish your deathless prose can be a little hard to take.

Everything, though, changes when you go online. We all know that people don’t want to be made to think (thanks, Steve Krug), but it just so happens that they also don’t want to be made to read. Instead, they are much more likely to want to scan and skim

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about an online article here (in those situations, readers are apt to “scan and swoop”). What I’m talking about is someone trying to complete a task – sign up for something, shop for something, pay for something, find some bit of information, make a decision, do something other than just read for pleasure.

In those cases, readers will scan and skim. And the smart writer will be sure to support that strategy. And that includes using lots of chunking, plenty of lists, more titles than seem necessary, and some way to emphasize keywords. There’s no better description of that strategy (and why it’s so necessary) than some research that Nielsen Norman started doing way back in 1997.

Returning to Tufte’s maxim … 99% of the time, he’s got it nailed. In some cases, though, there really is just too much stuff. I know. I’ve seen that too.


I’ll bet Tufte never thought in a million years that 
he would be roped into a discussion about writing

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A wonderful interface solving the wrong problem will fail. (Jakob Nielsen)

In other words, there is a big difference between usability and utility. 

Say you test a new system, and it performs well. It’s then released … and sinks like a stone. What just happened?

Sounds like something that worked just fine, but didn’t actually solve any user needs. In other words, it’s usable, but useless at the same time.

So, should usability engineers be testing for both conditions? Isn’t our job merely a matter of the former, and not the latter?

Well, if you really want to add some value to what you do, though you can concentrate on usability, you need to keep your antennae out for utility as well. An obvious way to go about that is to ask upfront. 

The SUS questionnaire, with its first statement being “I think that I would like to use this system frequently,” is perfect for that. Just be sure to follow up. Another thing you can do is to just ask straight out in the debrief. A question like, “Is this something you would use?” should work just fine. 

One more thing to consider is to include self-directed tasks. In other words, instead of a super-specific task that asks the user to, say, find what date check 1338 cleared, you could start out by asking them if they use checks. If they say no, you now have some information about the utility of that particular feature. You can also, of course, still ask them to complete the task (“for the sake of this exercise,” I usually say). An additional benefit of this approach is that it keeps users task-oriented, but also gets them to start thinking about the value of what you’re asking them to do. 

Now, is there a way can you stop such problems from happening in the first place? Well, it’s really not part of a usability test, but if you can get involved upfront – doing ethnography, in-depth interviews, focus groups – these are obvious places to address the utility question and to get at users’ true unmet needs.

Heck, why go to all the time, expense, and trouble of solving a problem that doesn’t even exist? Surely, there are more than enough problems out there that do,



Friday, January 11, 2019

There is no such thing as a “user error.” (Anonymous)

Boy, do some users love to blame themselves. You know the type … “Oh, I’m not very good with computers.” “You know, my husband would be a lot better at this.” “Man, that was dumb of me.” In my informal taxonomy of user types, I call this type the “Charlie Brown.” 

I usually just tell them something along the lines of, “Oh, no, not at all.” If they persist, or if it really seems to be an issue, I do the traditional spiel about “this is not a test of you.”

If that doesn’t seem to be getting through, though, I usually follow that up with:

“This is a test of the system. You can do no wrong here today. If there’s a problem, it’s a problem with the website [or app or whatever], and I want to hear about it.  That way, we can fix it up, and it won’t be a problem for others.”

I might also talk about how they were recruited just for this test and are the perfect person for it, that the system was designed for someone just like them, and that I’ve got 10 other people coming in that week who are exactly like them. I don’t like to do it, but if the user is really struggling with this issue, I might even go so far as to mention that other users had exactly the same problem.

Now, on the other hand, there are also some team members who love to blame the users as well. With them, my approach is a little bit different. ;^)  I might start out by cocking my head, frowning, and giving them the eye. If that doesn’t work, I usually point out that this person is a customer. Now, I might also sympathize a little with them by confessing that the user was difficult for me as a facilitator and that they were definitely on one side of the sophistication scale. That said, I also try to firmly get across the fact that this is a real user and needs to be addressed somehow in the design.

And if that doesn’t work, I have no hesitation about reading that observer the riot act. That usually involves reiterating that the “user is not you,” there are many different user types, empathy is a sure sign of a good designer, and – finally – these “idiots” also just so happen to be paying your salary.


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Design is the art of gradually applying constraints until only one solution remains. (Anonymous)

And that, basically, is the difference between art & graphic design. That said, I do, however, meet a lot of graphic designers who wish they were – or were trained to be – the former rather than the latter. Now, this may be no more harmful than the copywriter who’s working on that novel at home, but it really does seem to be something to watch out for. 

When you’re doing art, there are no constraints. You can put a crucifix in a jar of your own urine, make a Madonna out of elephant dung, or cover a skull in diamonds and post it for a cool £50 million. It’s totally up to you.

That said, your first constraint may be whether you want to eat or not. So, unless you are Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili, or Damien Hirst, you may want to try something a little more salable – something you could hang on a wall, say, or place on a nice pedestal. 

And if you’d like to eat something nice, well, you might go so far as to get a real job, like being a graphic designer for a large corporation, where they may very well ask you to work on their website. Of course, that’s likely going to be a little bit of a comedown from the woodcuts you made back in school.

But don’t give up on it just yet. It can actually be pretty interesting stuff. And, you know, when you were doing woodcuts, you definitely were working with some constraints too – primarily for the medium involved.

In a commercial space, you will have even more constraints. You will need to think about the limitations of the web and of Photoshop, but you’ll also need to think about your audience, and their goals, and your company’s goals, and your team … and all sorts of things. 

Now, you may feel have no free expression left. But here’s another way to think about it … What you’ve got instead is a chance to solve some problems. Yup, all those additional things you have to think about add interesting little wrinkles to your process and what you deliver. In fact, it can be quite a task to juggle all those things at once. But once you’re done and you’re delivered something successful, it can be very gratifying.

One thing you’ll need to look out for, though, is opting for the “elegant,” or “creative,” or “cool” solution. If it genuinely solves the problem and doesn’t get in the user’s way, great! Sometimes, though, what can seem elegant or creative or cool to you can be less than clear to your user. Just make sure you’re actually solving problems, and not inadvertently creating them.


Damien actually got $100 million for it

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. (Abraham Maslow)

Abraham Maslow? You mean the hierarchy-of-needs guy? He came up with this quote?

Indeed he did. In particular, it was in his book The Psychology of Science, which came out in 1966.

Needless to say, it’s quite an old idea. But Maslow surely made it his own. His quote is a great example of, as Alexander Pope put it,  “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” 

Indeed, the sentiment is so basic and well-accepted in psychology that it has its own law – The Law of the Instrument. 

And how, pray, does that fit in with usability? Well, I don’t believe it’s something that usability engineers and user researchers are guilty of.

Instead, it seems to be quite a common behavior from clients. In the old days, for example, they were often much more familiar with focus groups than with usability tests. So, they would ask for a focus group when they wanted feedback on a new system ... and then keep calling it that up to the test, during it, and often after!  Steve Krug’s got a hilarious video on that right here.  

These days, it’s more likely that they’ll want a usability test – even when a card sort, or some ethnography, or whatever is more appropriate. And something I’ve seen a lot recently is that they’ll take some particular form of testing – remote unmoderated, 5-second, one-click, etc. – and ask for that instead. Hey, those are typically cheap and quick, right?

So, the approach I usually use here is to first ask them what problem they’re trying to solve. I then try to help them realize that I’ve got a huge toolbox – with screwdrivers, and hammers, and wrenches, and even the occasional shingle froe. And that if we talk about it a little, I’ll make sure they get the right tool for the job.

In other words, what I try to get across is that I’m a consultant, and not just an order taker. You know, kind of like with your plumber, or electrician, or lawyer, or doctor. In other words … Please Mr. or Ms. Client: bring me a problem, not a tool. 


I always thought he must have been a great guy to have a beer with

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The purpose of life is not in making it go faster. (Gandhi)

There’s something that bothers me about technology these days. And I’m hoping that that’s more than just a reflection of my age.

I think Gandhi’s on to something here. Have humans ever been so busy as they are right now? 

Does that describe you? Are you always in front of a screen – desktop, laptop, or mobile? Do you use multiple screens at the same time? Are you triple-booked for everything? Do you constantly multi-task?

Did you know that you also might not be doing your best work? There is a ton of research out there that says that humans really can’t multi-task. Note that that means not that we’re not good at it. We simply are incapable of it – and we fool ourselves whenever we think we are. 

There is also plenty of research that says that reflection is on the wane, but also that time for reflection makes for better decisions. And also for more creative decisions – the kind that might lead to out-of-the-box solutions and real innovation. 

Making life go faster is certainly all the rage these days – what with Agile, and fail fast, and lean UX, and “move fast and break things” … Now, that might all be good for startups.  But is it good for larger companies, like an Apple?  I actually understand that Apple does not use Agile.  Hmm …

Now, more importantly, do you contribute to all this with your work? Is your company’s goal to make addictive UX? Are you in the business of short-circuiting users’ thought processes and just getting them to click on the call to action? Is that badge really necessary or is it just a shameless ploy to get the user to open up your app? Is your work distracting? Need it be? Why?

Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?  


Gandhi’s idea of technology

Let me end with this quote of his:

I hate not the machines, but this growing passion for machines. I hate the passion for the machines which work upon diminishing manpower. Some talk about machines which could spare manpower when thousands of people are thrown jobless on the streets. Yes, I want the human toil and time to be spared not just for a sect of people but for humanity. I want the wealth to be accumulated not just in few hands, but for all the people in the world. Today machines favor putting a handful of people on top of thousands.