Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The only truly intuitive interface is the nipple. (Jay Vollmer)

You know, I think he’s right. What other device could you put in front of a day-old infant and have a 100% task completion rate? An iPhone? I don’t think so.  

Heck, we were born that way, weren’t we? If you think about it, pretty much everything else has to be learned. And I’m not talking about iPads and Photoshop here. What I’m talking about are spoons, and crayons, and stairs, and shoe laces.

One thing that can help learning is simplicity. One of my favorite slides in any presentation I do on usability basics is a comparison of the Google homepage with the train wreck that the Yahoo homepage eventually became. Searching the Web should not be rocket science.  Rocket science should be rocket science. Everything else needs to be a heck of a lot simpler.

Another crucial factor is consistency. Know why? Inconsistency basically just makes things more complex. Say you’re designing an ecommerce checkout process. Why would you change where the next button appears from one page to another? Why would you say “next” on one page and “continue” on another? All of these things make users stop and think about what’s different, why it’s different, and why exactly you’re making them waste time figuring those things out.

A final thing to consider is modeling your new interface or interaction on something the user already knows and is familiar with. In the early days, this meant using something from the real, physical world. Designing an email system? Just use the fields from a typical, real-world memo – from, to, subject, cc. (Anyone know what “cc” stands for?  Answer below.) Heck, just looking at the tool bar on the software I’m using to write this, I find folders, floppy disks, a paintbrush, and scissors (for cut and paste). These kinds of models were a big part of Don Norman’s early and ground-breaking book The Psychology of Everyday Things.  

These days though, with more people familiar with the virtual world than the real one, modeling your system on such quaint things as desks, offices, book stores, and newspaper classifieds might not always work.  And that’s where standards come in.  

In the early days of the Web, there actually weren’t a lot of standards. Now, however, you break standards at your own risk. The user has already learned how to do certain basic things on plenty of other sites. Doing things differently on your site simply makes your UI inconsistent, which makes it more complex, which makes it less usable. (Yes, that does make you stand out, Mr. Art Director … but not really in a good way.) And, yes, the same thing is taking place for mobile as well.

No, none of us are designing the next nipple (though I have to admit, Google has come close). But there are some things we can do to make our systems and websites approach that simple ideal.

Don Norman (you weren’t expecting a nipple, were you?)




“cc” stands for “carbon copy.”  Before photocopy machines, people made multiple copies of documents by using “carbon paper.”  According to Wikipedia:

“A sheet of carbon paper is placed between two sheets of paper and the pressure applied by the writing implement (pen, pencil, typewriter or impact printer) to the top sheet causes pigment from the carbon paper to make a similar mark on the copy. More than one copy can be made by stacking several sheets with carbon paper between each pair. Four or five copies is a practical limit. The top sheet is the original and each of the additional sheets is called a carbon copy, from the use of the carbon paper.”

Scary stuff, huh?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. (Albert Einstein)

I once put this quote on a report I put together for a client who was really into counting.  It may not have been the best idea, but it did get their attention.  And several years later, it looks like they may actually have found a place at their table for qualitative research.

I use a couple of arguments when I have to stand up for the legitimacy of qualitative research with more numeric types (those who are really into surveys or analytics, for example). First, I simply point out that we’re both simply creating some sort of feedback loop. The one real advantage of usability testing is that we can get that feedback before something launches.

At this point, I often have to make a distinction between usability testing and QA. What I typically stress here is that usability testing can happen at any point in the cycle (from pieces of paper to production systems) and that it has a much broader focus (not just, “is it broken?”).

Next, I usually point to qualitative work that they may be familiar with. If they’re marketing types, that usually means focus groups. (Though usability engineers may have trouble with these, marketeers typically do appreciate this method.)

I then make the point that there is often a real trade-off between numbers and richness of data. Methods that emphasize the former (web analytics, say) tend to give you a real good feel for what’s happening, but often don’t tell you why it’s happening.

Finally, I like to point to the famous graph that Jakob Nielsen (with help from Bob Virzi) came up with:


I also typically mention – in an offhand way – that this is a perfect example of an asymptotic curve (and ask them where they think the asymptote would be). It’s usually at this point, when they’re so bowled over with my brilliance, that I can get them to agree to anything. (That’s a joke, by the way.)