Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Do the right thing. (Digital Equipment Corporation)

My first job out of grad school was at Digital Equipment Corp., or DEC. For those of you who haven’t been around as long as I have, I like to tell people that it was the number two computer manufacturer in the world at that time, and was something of the Google of its day.

Google, in fact, has a similar motto, “Don’t be evil.” Well, DEC’s is a little more positive, of course. But it's still the same general idea.

Now, we might contrast those two that with the motto of Facebook. Their motto was originally “Move fast and break things” (they’ve since come up with some bland official pablum). 

Well, I guess they've managed to do both, haven't they? They moved very fast, and they seem to have broken many things – the ability to go more than a few minutes without looking at your phone, any sense of personal privacy on the Internet, journalistic objectivity, the democratic process, civil discourse …

I think this is particularly ironic as Facebook is a social media company – a company who’s purported purpose is to bring people together. Of course, there is also their business model. And that revolves around targeted marketing – basically delivering people to large corporations so they can extract your hard-earned dollars (and yen, and euros, and yuan) from you in the most efficient manner possible. You know, maybe their motto ought to be, “Profits before people.”

So, what does all this mean for the average usability engineer out there? Well, there was a time when our main job was to make things easier to use, for users. In essence, we made the world a friendlier, nicer place. These days, though, it seems mostly to be to sell, sell, sell. That moral high ground we used to occupy is steadily eroding. 

So, what can we do about it? Well, when your company, or project team, or colleagues, appear to be blindly headed down that path of moving fast and breaking things, perhaps you can be the still, small voice of conscience. In other words, don’t be afraid to raise your hand. Ask them about the implications of what they’re proposing. Remind them that there is more to the world than profits, that a handsome paycheck does not absolve you of all moral obligations, that there is still a possibility for UX to make the world a better place.

The only wrong thing former DEC CEO Ken Olson did was to bet against the PC  :^(

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Agile is twenty cement mixers pouring feverishly while somebody looks in the Yellow Pages under architect. (Roger Belveal)

I have incredibly mixed feelings about Agile

On the one hand, I know people are making it work with usability. I have even done something like that myself.

On the other hand, though, I know it was developed without usability in mind. Now, you can make it work with usability, but you really do have to make a separate, concerted effort.  It is not baked in.

Out-of-the-box Agile does not guarantee usability. This worries me, as I am often struck by the zealotry of a lot of Agile advocates.  In fact, there seems to be a certain fundamentalism within Agile that implies that you have to do Agile only in its purest form.

So, what does Agile have instead? Well, there are the user stories. And they are a great way to turn requirements into something that ties in real users trying to do real tasks with real goals in mind. So, that does loop the user in when it comes to creation and design at least.

But how about the evaluation part? Yes, Agile does a great job making a tweak here, a tweak there, then rushing it out to market to see if it “moves the needle” with actual users. A/B testing is an even more sophisticated version of that.

Note, though, that this is totally correlational. You know that something worked better, but you have no idea why. Design, then, becomes a simple shot in the dark. Throw it on the wall and see if it sticks. Run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. I was hoping we had come a little further than that in all these years. Sigh …

Now, there’s plenty out there about how to make usability work within Agile, and it does make a lot of sense (and, like I said before, I’ve done it myself). I do really worry, though, about the people who aren’t super-sophisticated about UX who hear about Agile, can’t wait to jump on the bandwagon, and want to “do it right.” Unfortunately, that last bit often means not even thinking about something that took years to finally become adopted in IT and which has proven its value many times over. For me, it almost feels like starting from scratch in a way. Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I honestly thought I’d never have to make those arguments again.

In addition to being a kick-ass UX professional,
Roger Belveal is also a pretty talented artist
(these are his iPhones made out of concrete and steel)

Friday, February 16, 2018

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. (Winston Churchill)

And isn’t that what usability testing is all about? 

Of course, there are other ways to get that information as well, especially these days. For one thing, you can simply put it out there and monitor the heck out of it. 

A kind of old-fashioned way to do that is Voice of the Customer – popping up surveys, including “give feedback” links, and so on. These days, you can even monitor social media. It’s all good stuff, but there’s also no shortage of possible drawbacks. I already wrote a post going over those in great detail, so I won’t repeat all that here.

You could also take a look at web analytics. I wrote about that, to some degree, in another post. The main thing with analytics, though, is that, though you might have tons of data showing exactly where users went and what they did as they actually used your system, you totally lack why they did so. And that can be pretty darn important.

It’s the same problem with A/B testing. Once again, you get reams of real data, all tied directly to the bottom line, and in this case, totally actionable. You are, however, relying totally on correlation – which, in my opinion, means relying totally on conjecture. We know that A performed better, but why? How can we tell with just the numbers? What were users thinking when they went with A?

And then there’s usability testing. It’s the prime way to get feedback before release, but it also provides super-rich data that can be used to completely understand your users, identify and understand their issues, and then come up with legitimate solutions to address those issues. 

That said, if you are getting some kind of feedback, you are way ahead in the game. What really worries me are those companies out there who basically don’t do any of this.

By the way, when Churchill was talking about strategy and results he was actually not talking about usability testing (I know, hard to believe). I would imagine he was talking about something like war plans, or economic strategy, or political campaigns. Unfortunately, we may never know. There is actually no evidence that Churchill ever said that (and I’m not sure who did). But it certainly does sound like something he would have said.

Bet you had no idea that the Daleks were a secret weapon during WWII
(or that Churchill looked anything like that)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Mobile is a magnifying glass for your usability problems. (Josh Brewer)

There are designers and developers and UX researchers out there whose whole world seems to be totally encompassed within the mobile space. Now, that is definitely a fact of life these days. At the same time, though, that’s also a tad unfortunate as well.

For some of these folks, mobile is a brave new world, where they are intrepid explorers creating their own rules. Now, mobile definitely is terra nova. It is not, however, terra incognita.

For someone who’s been doing this as long as I have, mobile is really just the latest whatever. All the things that we learned about green screens, CLIs, GUIs, the Internet … they pretty much all still apply. Yes, there are new things like gestures, but affordances, mental models, proximity, hierarchy, information density, legibility … all that great stuff has not somehow magically disappeared overnight.

Reinventing the wheel is not the point with mobile. In fact, designers need to think, not about being innovative so much, but more about handling the old principles within the additional constraints that mobile involves. 

And what are those? Well, the main one by far is simply the huge difference in screen size. And what does that mean relative to UX? More than anything, I think it takes the old KISS formula and makes it absolutely paramount. Complexity that you might have been able to get away with on a nice big screen is simply going to blow up in your face on mobile.

Less central – but certainly not unimportant – issues include awkward input, new environmental contexts, and several others. There’s also one thing I’ve noticed which probably doesn’t need to be an issue at all. For some reason, some designers took the new context of mobile and decided to just ditch the idea of affordances altogether. 

What do I mean by that? I just seem to see missing pieces on every mobile test I run – or as simply a user myself. In fact, just this morning, I was testing out a prototype for a test I’m running next week on an iPhone …

First, though, I had to clean the screen up a bit, and get rid of some old icons on the home screen. Now, how to do that? Why press and hold those icons, of course (I somehow remembered that from the last time I had to test an iPhone). That puts you into delete mode, where the icons wiggle and have litte x’s in their top-left corners. Okay, this I can figure out – an x is a pretty darn clear affordance. But what do I do to return to normal mode? I would imagine I would press a wiggly icon again. Nope, you press the Home button (had to really think about that one).

Now I can type in the URL of my new prototype. I do that, bring it up, then wonder how I can put an icon for it on my home screen. Oh, it’s the little box icon with an arrow in it (had to ask an iPhone user for that). What do I click now (interestingly, the iPhone user couldn’t help me there). Oh, that little bar of icons on the bottom – looks like I can slide it over (had to ask an iPhone expert for that one). Now, why didn’t they signal that somehow? You know, like with a >, or a little bit of the next icon, or practically anything? 

And all this is before I even get to start in on that prototype. And after that, I then get to try it all over again on an Android, which I least am familiar with, but which also has its own way of doing things, and its own set of affordances to ignore as well. Ugh, it’s gonna be a long day …

Josh was once the principle designer at Twitter

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. (Henry David Thoreau)

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed something rather disturbing.  I noticed it with my 20-something sons, my wife, and even at times myself. 

People seem to be addicted to their phones and computers. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical way, but very literally.

I actually followed up these observations with my own, very informal field research. Out to get a bite to eat for lunch on the streets of my mid-size metropolis, I counted the number of single pedestrians (people tend not to do this in crowds) who were busy staring at their phones. I did this several times, and don’t recall ever getting a number under 50%. And this is people walking, on crowded city streets – and generally fairly oblivious to other walkers, cars, signals, or anything other than their phones. 

With the exception of a few (mostly older) friends, however, I’ve mostly kept these thoughts to myself . I mean, I’m in high tech. I work for an online-only bank. I do usability tests all the time on mobile phones. The people I work with are all just a little older than my kids (and are really into their mobile devices). Ergo, the last thing I’d like to be known as is a Luddite.

Recently, though, I see the tide turning, just a little. This morning, I read an article about two investors threatening to sue Apple because they made “addictive devices.”. And, just a few weeks before, former Apple exec Tony Faddell got in the news bemoaning his role in making what is basically a tech version of casinos or cigarettes or opioids.

There’s also no shortage of books out there on the subject as well. You remember those things, don’t you? It used to be that these were few and far between. Lately, though, it seems like that’s all I’ve been reading. Just looking at my reading list, I’ve got Think Before You Like, The Know-It-Alls, The Hacking of the American Mind, iDisorder, iGen, Technically Wrong … So, at least I feel like I’m not alone anymore. 

But if you think about it, this is probably a necessary, and overdue, correction. There’s really nothing surprising here. Basically, there is no shortage of examples of society rushing to adopt technical wonders – especially those that might be highly financially remunerative – focusing solely on the positives, and without really thinking about any other possible implications. 

So, what I’m saying is not that smartphones are bad necessarily, but that we really do need to realize that they might come with some costs, and that we need to be super thoughtful about how we use them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

If you have no critics, you’ll likely have no success. (Malcolm X)

I never thought I’d be quoting Malcolm X in a blog about usability. In fact, I originally had no idea I was quoting him. I had found this quote in a fortune cookie, of all places. It was only when I Googled the quote that I found that it was from the father of Black radicalism.

It is, however, a quote that can be applied to many different fields. Within usability, I see it applying in a number of situations.

Most obviously, this sounds like something I’d share with my project teams. I’ve found, over the years, that good designers can’t wait to get real user feedback. They tend to have thicker skins, and can roll with the punches. And I like to point out, and congratulate them, on their ability to do so. 

Needless to say, we can also turn the tables on ourselves. Once again, I’ve found that the better usability engineers are the ones who are always learning things and looking for a better way to do their jobs. They tend to practice what they preach, and let humility be their guiding principle. But this probably just comes from being a social scientist. I’ve found that, in every test I run, I learn something new – whether that’s about computers, people, or myself.

Finally, I think this maxim applies to acceptance of usability in general. Having been in this profession for 30 years allows me to take the long, historical view. In particular, I remember way back when the resistance came from the techies (a time which Alan Cooper so brilliantly captured in the title of his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum). 

Next, it seemed to come from graphic designers. Though they did us a service by adding more pleasure and delight to the user experience, they tended to divorce those considerations from more practical considerations like usability and company profit. Jakob Nielsen, for some reason, seemed to be the brunt of a lot of their disapproval.

Lately, it seems resistance is coming from the business side. In particular, I worry that all a site is these days is a sales or purchase funnel, where users are hustled along without any time to explore or ask questions – to me, at least, the online equivalent of a used car lot. Business does have the numbers on their side – with analytics, big data, and A/B testing – but do I worry that they sometimes may be missing the forest for the trees.

And then there's Agile ... Not only does this seem like the return of the techies, but it seems like, this time, they've teamed up with the business side against us.

Ah well, it’s always something, or somebody, isn't it? I actually think the dialectical nature of all this is good for usability. It shows that we can adapt, incorporate other viewpoints, and even act as a mediator sometimes.


And you thought I was making that up

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Web users ultimately want to get at data quickly and easily. They don’t care as much about attractive sites and pretty design. (Tim Berners-Lee)

Wow! I never thought I’d be disagreeing with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But there you go …

Now, there was a time when I would have heartily agreed with him. And my guess is that this quote is probably from a long time ago as well.

Yup, it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when information was paramount. The Internet was simply a place where you went for data, plain and simple. I think the idea was that having all the information in the world at your fingertips was enough. Anything that could possibly get in the way – and that included design and aesthetics – did indeed get in the way, and really shouldn’t be there.

(You can still see that approach in sites like Craig’s List, the Drudge Report, and even Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. In fact, Jakob just put out an article on what he calls “brutalist” web design – borrowing the term from architecture – discussing this very style.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, something called eCommerce then occurred. Yup, companies started using the Internet to sell things. (It wasn’t just random people and organizations dumping data there anymore.) Further, those companies wanted to use all the methods at their disposal to convince you to buy their stuff. 

At the same time, web coders started introducing all sort of techniques that could make websites less just pure HTML and more along the lines of print or TV or whatever the client desired. Finally, there were also studies done that showed that users preferred more aesthetically pleasing designs. In fact, comparative testing of the same site in a “brutalist” style and a more aesthetically pleasing one actually made users think that the more aesthetically pleasing ones were more usable as well.

The age of the graphic designer was at hand (and, honestly, we’ve never really looked back). Unfortunately, some of those graphic designers got a little carried away. In fact, given free rein, these folks went a little over board, and started making sites that were, not only attractive, but “different,” “fresh,” and even “challenging” as well. In other words, the design had ceased to help the user and business achieve their goals, but interfered with those, becoming something of an end in itself.

Now, here’s the thing …Usability and aesthetics need not be in conflict. In fact, a really great design will have them working hand in hand, seamlessly, to help the user and the business (if not necessarily the graphic designer) meet their respective goals as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Hard to believe, but I think that screen was Photoshopped!