Friday, November 4, 2022

Love means never having to say you’re sorry. (Love Story)

Whuh? Huh? What the heck does that have to do with usability?

Oh, also, it’s a terrible quote. My wife and I have been married for almost  30 years. We say “sorry” quite a bit (and “thank you” as well).

Now, if this means you’re automatically forgiven, I guess that’s okay. They could have been a little more explicit though. Can you tell I'm an engineer?

I digress … How exactly does this apply to user research? For me, it kind of reminds me of my users. I’m sure we’ve all experienced – and probably been frustrated by – test participants who say things like, “I’m not good at computers” or “I shoulda got that” or “Oh, that’s my fault.”

Heck, the type even made it onto my typology of users. They’re called the “Charlie Brown” type. Note to millennials … Charlie Brown was the main character in the Peanuts cartoon. He was a sad sack character famous for his bad luck, morose disposition & for blaming himself when things go wrong.

I approach this user in several, graduated ways. If it’s just once or twice, I just let it go. If it comes up again, I usually give them a little encouragement – you know, “You’re doing just fine,” “This is good feedback,” “This is a test of the system, not of you” … 

If it’s still persistent (and these users can be persistent) and really starting to get in the way, I usually go into full pep talk mode. And that’s something along the lines of, “You can do no wrong here today. If there’s an issue, it’s an issue with the [site / app / software]. And I want to know about it.” I might also mention that they are the perfect user for this system, and if they can’t use it, other people won’t be able to either.

When it comes down to it, I really do love my users. All I want to do is make them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts – and never having to say they’re sorry for anything.



Tuesday, October 11, 2022

There is a big difference between what people think they want to know, what they say they want to know, and what they really want to know. (Carl Zetie)

When I used to work on-site, a familiar hallway or elevator greeting for me was often, “How’s the test going?”  How I answered could take many forms, depending upon who asked. The business usually simply wanted to know about test logistics (“Yup, halfway through”), the design team typically wanted to hear how cute their “baby” was (“very cute” was the proper response), and fellow UEs wanted to hear the horror stories (the worse, the better).

Report-outs are very similar. In this case, though, everyone usually wants to hear just the good stuff. Oh yeah, there are always hard-nosed business types or super-experienced designers who really do want to know what needs to be fixed. In general, however, most people really want to sit back, rub their hands together & “call it a wrap.”

It’s in test plan meetings, though, where you get the really interesting responses. Often, I get a lot of crickets, or blank faces. In that situation, I go straight into interview mode. Some of the things I ask involve: questions they want to get answers to, anything that seemed particularly problematic during design, anything that they argued over or are split on, anything that is crucial to the success of the product, their expected outcomes, what would constitute success to them …

Alternatively, I might get some super hair-splitting detail that often seems to come from someone’s particular bugaboo. In this case, I typically have to explain how 1) that might be rather hard to get feedback on, and 2) that’s really not what this test is for. (As for that last point, it’s not too surprising to find newbies who aren’t totally sure what a usability test is. A little education – especially that a usability test is not QA, a focus group, a survey, or an interview – is in order.)

I also have several generic topics that I can throw out anytime. These include things like navigation, content, look and feel, flow, graphics …

Finally, I also try to do my own quick review of the digital property in question beforehand and see what strikes me. Sharing my own thoughts and queries – “Do you think x, y and z are terms that this audience will know?” “Will the user know what to do on this page?” “Isn’t that link a little buried over there?” – often gets the ball rolling for the team as well.

Interestingly, I’ve even found that a test plan meeting where topics like these are addressed can sometime help down the road as well. If the team knows upfront there might be some possible issues with a particular page or flow or bit of wording or what have you, they’re more likely to remember that point throughout testing and in reporting out the results. 

I also find an added benefit is that you’re often able to share some good news as well. Remember that modal we were worried about? Absolutely no issues. That content that legal and compliance insisted on throwing in there? Nobody batted an eye. That graphic you all were arguing over? The users loved it!


Carl has been doing this stuff for quite awhile; has worked for IBM, Accenture, HP & Oracle; and is the author of Practical User Interface Design.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. (Henry Ford)

 Ah, yes, innovation. Where does it come from? It never seems to result when you simply ask users what they want. They simply don’t know, or would never be able to articulate it if they did. 

Steve Jobs said something very similar: “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” I’ve already covered this elsewhere, so I’d like to try and put this idea in a little different context this time, a context a little closer to a user researcher’s heart.

I often get clients coming to me asking for faster horses. And by that, I simply mean that they ask me for what they already know. Usually, this means a survey, an interview, or a focus group. Everybody’s heard of those, right? 

In this situation, it’s my job to ask questions, to get at what they’re really after, to ignore the how and focus on the what and why. As a result, I will typically be giving them something new and innovative, something that they may never have heard of before. And what I’ll be suggesting to them is a usability test. 

Now, a usability test may not be all that new and innovative – if you’re a user researcher, that is.  For them, though, it definitely can be.

And that brings another thought to mind. We already have so many tools in the toolbox. Why is it so important for researchers to be always coming up with some new method?

Yes, new tools do definitely come along. And it’s super-important to be aware of them, add them to your arsenal, and be able to apply and use them in the right context.

I really do think, though, that innovation in research tools is overemphasized. Why might that be? I guess it’s a combination of not-invented-here-syndrome, looking good at your performance appraisal, impressing the higher-ups, giving your small consultancy a differentiator, wanting to get a publishing credit, etc.

The toolbox, though, is pretty well jam-packed with a number of tried-and-true, absolutely brilliant methods that have already passed the test of time and usefulness across the industry – usability testing itself, remote testing, unmoderated testing, ethnography, card sorts … I think the real skill is in understanding all the available tools, educating your clients on those, picking the right one & doing a bang-up job applying it.

BTW, I find this quote particularly rich coming from Henry Ford. I mean, wasn’t he the same guy who said, “You can have them in any color you want, boys, as long as they're black”?

His real innovations came in the factory


Friday, September 2, 2022

Stop trying to help. You’re making it worse. (Jenny Lawson)

Remember pop ups? Remember the bad old time before pop-up blockers? Man, talk about something that totally shot the user experience.

Well, believe it or not, they’re still around. This time, though, they’re for the site you’re already on. Sign up for our email (which you already get)! Watch this dumb video (about the article you’re already halfway through)! Don’t leave us (though you already know I’ll be back tomorrow)!

They remind me of commercials for the TV channel you’re already watching. What’s the matter – couldn’t you sell any advertising time? Is the content so weak that you think I’ll never be back? Don’t I already watch this channel all the time anyway?

I mean, this sort of thing could be helpful for the user/viewer. Maybe I’m new, and need to know all that you have to offer. Maybe I do want to follow you on social media. Maybe there is related content that I might be interested in.

And, then again, maybe not. My guess is that all these distractions are more helpful for the business than the user. Indeed, it’s a fine line between helping the business and annoying the user.

Unfortunately, it seems this particular issue has also bled from simple marketing into actual functionality. There certainly are a lot of things popping up within software these days that would fit the bill. It seems I can't move my cursor around without a million little things invading my screen – coachmarks, tool tips, little messages, menus …

Take, for example, the MS task bar. If I move my cursor down that way, little pics shows me what’s currently in that particular application. Unfortunately, they stay on the screen until I click elsewhere. (And, whatever you do, don’t click the x in the corner of the pic – it’ll shut that app down.)

While bashing MS, let me also include the Design Ideas that pop up every time I start a PowerPoint presentation. I’ve never used these and doubt I ever will. Could they just not show them? At least let me say “don’t show it to me again” on the first time I see it, and not force me to do so on the second. But, then again, what do you expect from the folks who brought you Clippy?

Now, let’s take a look at some folks I really respect, and whose stuff I use all the time – UserTesting. Par exemple, when I go to the timeline at the bottom of a tape (to go to a certain spot, to make a clip, etc.), I have to move my cursor through something I think they call the “sentiment bar.” It includes what they think are positive or negative comments, shown by little green and red markers. Clever idea, but I don’t really use it, and every time I go down to the timeline, the actual good or bad comments pop up and get it in my way.

Now, this all might seem a little niggly, but for me at least, it’s typically death by a thousand cuts, if not the ol’ Chinese water torture. 

Once again, it seems we’ve got something that’s possibly useful, but really probably just distracting. In a way, it’s really just marketing for the software. I’m marketed to enough already. Please limit your invasions to a minimum in what I once thought was a safe space – the software I use to do my job.

Jenny Lawson turned mom blogging into a career as an author


Friday, August 26, 2022

It’s a poor carpenter who blames his tools. (anonymous)

Once again, I beg to differ. 

Internal tools, for example, are notoriously hard to use. These are typically sold on feature sets and price, with the poor employee who has to use the thing typically having no input whatsoever. In addition, that unfortunate person simply can’t just walk away from their tool, like they can if they were a consumer on a bad website or looking to upgrade some personal software and shopping around. Internal tools can have a surprisingly long shelf life. 

Now, all that is pretty much a given. Everyone knows that even the best companies are not going to give the same effort and attention to internal tools that they will to customer-facing ones. It’s just a fact of life.

What I really don’t like, though, is the rather blase, blame-it-on-the-user attitude that this quote implies. If it’s not something that we would ever do with customers, why is it so okay with internal users? 

As an anonymous programmer said on a discussion group I found:

“Da Vinci with a mop and a bucket of mud may be a better painter than you, but he would never beat Da Vinci with quality tools.”

And how many Da Vincis are you surrounded by at work? Also, isn’t ease of use part of “quality” anyway? 

I guess I’m commenting on this now because I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately in the newer tools that come out. Every tool out there seems to have so many implicit functions, so many cryptic icons, and so little text explaining of anything. And they all seem to assume we are all expert users who use their platform all the time (and likely no others). 

Building on top of that is the number of tools the average employee is expected to master. For me, it’s the Microsoft Office suite, plus a dozen usability and market research tools, some designer tools (Invision, Sketch, Axure …) plus “productivity” tools (Jira, Confluence, Trello …), just as many “communication” tools (Slack, Teams, email …), and dozens of internal nightmares (i.e., different vendors for travel, expenses, training, benefits, insurance …).

Maybe the issue is really just TMT – too many tools!  So, take 100 different tools (all with competing UIs – and most of very questionable quality), mix together, shake vigorously, and watch the chaos ensue!  



Thursday, July 21, 2022

Usability is not everything. If usability engineers designed a nightclub, it would be clean, quiet, brightly lit ... But nobody would be there. They would all be down the street at Coyote Ugly pouring beer on each other. (Joel Spolsky)

I beg to differ.  ;^)

Now, I do like to share quotes here that might be a little critical. I also, though, like to answer these, to give my own take on them, to maybe raise some counterclaims – especially if they’re pretty popular, like this one here.

I also like being an engineer. Yup, I’m a little old-fashioned that way. Sure, I usually normally call myself a “user researcher,” but something really needs to be said for being an engineer. For one, it’s important to know that what I’m telling you is really not just my opinion. There’s something behind all this. (Heck, my results might even be replicable!)

At the same time, I’m not a pure, academic researcher. My focus is on the practical. I’m also involved quite closely in design. “Engineer” perfectly describes this role for me.

I’m also pretty good about staying in my lane. I let designers and writers get as clever and innovative and “kewl” as they like – as long it doesn’t interfere with usability. 

There’s something more important here, though, that really gets under my skin. And that’s context. There are many sites and apps and software applications, with many different users and many different purposes. 

Most of the time, however, users want to do something very practical – find info, buy tickets, transfer money, get directions to somewhere … I’m not sure any of these folks want beer poured on them.

Now, that said, there is certainly room for some fun. Once again, though, it all depends on the context. A medical system that’s used in the ER? Probably not. Another dating app? Sure, why not.

Actually, my guess here is Spolsky was probably having a little fun with this quote. I’m sure he fully understands the value – and limitations – of usability engineers. There sure aren’t any usability engineers (or interaction designers) I know that are designing nightclubs that I know of.

Joel’s a software engineer – he should know all about this stuff!


Monday, June 27, 2022

If you define yourself by your opinions, questioning them is a threat to your integrity. (Adam Grant)

Boy, do I run into a lot of defensiveness. Usability feedback almost always seem to generate some personal sensitivity. Heck, if this was my quote, I'd probably substitute "self" for "integrity."

But that’s understood. The design I might have been testing is usually at least somebody’s baby. And nobody likes it when their baby gets called ugly.

Now, I do try to mitigate that by including positive results as well; by being diplomatic with feedback overall; and by making sure that any feedback is backed up by numbers, quotes, and clips (and triangulation with other findings, and 3rd party research, and whatever else I can muster …).

There are some team members, though, who seem to always take user feedback as a personal affront. Over the years, though, I have sensed an inverse correlation between a designer or content person’s skill/experience/maturity and their likelihood of being offended. In fact, I’ve often joked that the best of these folks can’t wait to get something in front of users, while the worst will do everything in their power to make sure testing doesn’t happen (or that the results get ignored).

I guess my advice for the latter would be two-fold. First, have some basis for your design or content. Don’t just dash off and come up with something “kewl.” Have some reason why you’re using a new layout, or why you’re fore-fronting that particular bit of content or, really, any decision that you’ve had to make. Show that you’ve actually thought about this, that you’ve considered things from multiple sides, that you’ve done your homework. 

And as Grant points out, one of the best things you can do in this regard is to question your own opinions yourself. Don’t just wait for others to weigh in. 

Now, be sure to be open to others’ feedback as well. But, if you’ve already anticipated some of that, you’ll probably find yourself a lot less defensive, as well as a lot more confident in your opinions (and with good reason, this time!). And remember, it’s not about justification! It’s about being well-informed, and being able to engage in a good give-and-take.

Second, nothing is set in stone. Sure, you’ve probably come up with something pretty decent. Others, though, might be able to catch something you overlooked. And though peers, management, clients, and SMEs are important here (crits can be great), definitely don’t ignore the user.  

In fact, try to simply start thinking of them first. I’ve found that if you get that part right, it’s a lot easier to convince the other stakeholders as well. In general, all the other pieces just seem to fall into place.

Finally, just remember that your opinion is not you. Actually, another way to think about that is a little counter-intuitive … Your opinion should be a lot like you, an ideal you – open-minded, dynamic, open to change, ever evolving.

Adam is a prof at Wharton Biz School, where he specializes in organizational psychology