Archive — User experience
Since September, my main focus at work has been to carry out a comprehensive programme of user research for a project aiming to improve services surrounding Blackboard Learn, the University of Edinburgh’s main virtual learning environment.
I wrote this blog post providing a high-level overview of all the work that’s taken place this academic year. More detailed blog posts about each of the strands of research will come in due course.
This is been a brilliant project to be involved in. We’ve been given a lot of time and freedom to do large amount of research in support of one of the university’s most important digital services, used daily by most of our students, and many staff members.
We have made some really important discoveries. This work is ensuring that improvements are based on a strong understanding of users’ behaviour and needs when working with course materials digitally.
Check out this video, where I describe the work and some of the findings in a bit more detail, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming blog posts.
Personas are one of the most popular techniques in the user experience toolkit, but they also remain among the most controversial. It is often still unclear to some what value personas can bring, and how to avoid the pitfalls of bad personas.
This article brings one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of how to make good personas. It is a lengthy but must-read article if you make personas and want to make them work.
This article is particularly useful at explaining why obsessing over demographics is bad, and why you should instead focus on “thinking styles”.
Statements-of-fact, preferences, and demographics frequently serve as distracting barriers. They kick off all kinds of subconscious reactions in team members minds.
My colleague Alex Burford from the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics has written this great blog post about some usability testing we have conducted in support of the Learn Foundations project.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with Duncan Stephen on this mini project. The feedback was informative, encouraging, and a call to action. I’m looking forward to embedding similar practice across the School for alternative platforms for content delivery.
Each month we are working with a different school to conduct usability testing in Learn, the virtual learning environment, to inform improvements to the Learn service.
This is just one strand of a huge amount of user research I’ve been carrying out for the Learn Foundations project. It’s been a fascinating and very enjoyable project to work on. I’ve been pretty lax at writing about it yet — but I’ll be posting much more about it soon.
A very useful contribution to the debate surrounding the usefulness/harmfulness of net promoter score. Jeff Sauro transcends the often polemical nature of the debate, by analysing actual research on the effectiveness of net promoter score.
The news still isn’t all that great for proponents of net promoter score. But at the same time, it’s not quite as bad as its detractors make out.
Kudos to Jeff Sauro for doing some actual research on this.
Dial in the feedback — Gregg Bernstein
UX your life: Applying the user-centered process to your life (and stuff) — JD Jordan, Smashing Magazine
I’m always in two minds about whether people should use work-based techniques on personal problems. I have heard of people using Trello boards at home to organise tasks, which sounds as nightmarish as it sounds sensible. I’ve even heard of people running scrum-style weekly planning meetings with their family, which definitely sounds overboard to me.
But I do like the look of some of the ideas here. For instance, I’m keen to map out out my life in weeks.
And I already know that affinity mapping can work great at home and for other stuff.
When we did the MoRun in November, Lauren and I made an affinity map to decide which of two runs to enter. My gut feeling told me another run would be better. But writing down all the pros and cons of each race, and grouping them, made it clear that my gut feeling was actually wide of the mark.
An enjoyable and informative history of user experience. Some familiar themes, but not entirely your standard take. A reminder that people have been doing something like user-centred design for longer than we sometimes think.
…UX is not really a new thing. It might seem new to your organisation and its design process, but in fact it’s been emerging since before the dawn of the internet, back in the 80s, and people have been looking to solve similar problems for almost 140 years.
Keeping it weird
Or, more accurately, stopping it being weird. This refers to the problem that most psychology research is conducted on people that are western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.
Tim Kadlec considers the implication this has on our understanding of how people use the web.
We’ve known for a while that the worldwide web was becoming increasingly that: worldwide. As we try to reach people in different parts of the globe with very different daily realities, we have to be willing to rethink our assumptions. We have to be willing to revisit our research and findings with fresh eyes so that we can see what holds true, what doesn’t, and where.
Making work meaningful: A leader’s guide
McKinsey report on how to engage employees.
People who find meaning at work are happier, more productive, and more engaged. Four practical interventions can help make the search more likely to succeed.
I am struck by how two of the four interventions listed are fundamentally about understanding your users better.
Talk with employees about who their customers are, and encourage each employee to connect with one.
Build regular, face-to-face interactions with customers into existing processes, stimulating employees to learn who is most affected by their work.
Help people grasp the impact of their work
Invite customers who have had the best—and worst—experiences with your products to talk with employees in person so your team can see how their work affects customers.
Another reason why user experience is worth it.
Distracted driving — UX’s responsibility to do no harm
More on the need for (UX) designers to consider ethics in everything they do.
I urge you to consider your own design priorities and choices in the same way that responsible physicians do when they take the Hippocratic Oath, saying “first, do no harm.” So, I ask the UX community at large: what is an equivalent code of ethics for our discipline?
Security design: Stop trying to fix the user
On the tendency of security approaches to rely on somehow educating users on this complex problem.
I’ve read dozens of studies about how to get people to pay attention to security warnings. We can tweak their wording, highlight them in red, and jiggle them on the screen, but nothing works because users know the warnings are invariably meaningless. They don’t see “the certificate has expired; are you sure you want to go to this webpage?” They see, “I’m an annoying message preventing you from reading a webpage. Click here to get rid of me.”…
We must stop trying to fix the user to achieve security. We’ll never get there, and research toward those goals just obscures the real problems. Usable security does not mean “getting people to do what we want.” It means creating security that works, given (or despite) what people do.
The same could be said for usability of any kind — but it seems especially vital in this case.
6 mistakes that prevent UX teams from having boardroom influence
A good list of don’ts when you’re trying to set up an effective user experience function.
In particular, the pitfalls of “cargo cult usability” could do with being more widely understood. But I also enjoyed this point about being too insular.
Newly formed UX teams have a tendency to quickly turn inwards and focus heavily on their own practices, tools and methods: heads down, working in a vacuum, doing great work that doesn’t actually influence anything. As a result, we hear frustrated stakeholders say things like: “I don’t involve the UX team because they always seem too busy”. We’ve even heard UX team members themselves complain that, “We’re so busy and so mired in the day-to-day that we don’t have time to work alongside the development team.”
This reminds me of the (hilarious but true) story of the Staffordshire UK bus company. In 1976 it was reported that the buses on the Hanley to Bagnall route were not stopping to pick up passengers. People complained that buses would drive right by long lines of waiting passengers. The complaints prompted Councillor Arthur Cholerton to make transport history by stating that if the buses stopped to pick up passengers it would disrupt the timetable!
The hunt for missing expectations
Jared Spool tells the story of a bookkeeper who became frustrated using Google Sheets because it didn’t have a double underline function.
To keep [usability] testing simple and under control, we often define the outcomes we want. For example, in testing Google Spreadsheet, we might have a profit and loss statement we’d want participants to make. To make it clear what we were expecting, we might show the final report we’d like them to make.
Since we never thought about the importance of double underlines, our sample final report wouldn’t have them. Our participant, wanting to do what we’ve asked of her, would unlikely add double underlines in. Our bias is reflected in the test results and we won’t uncover the missing expectation.
He suggests interview-based task design as a way of finding these missing expectations. Start a session with an interview to discover these expectations. Then construct a usability test task based on that.
I recently ran hybrid interviews and usability tests. That was for expediency. I didn’t base tasks on what I’d found in the interview. But it’s good to know I wasn’t completely barking up the wrong tree. I plan to use this approach in future.
Smart voice assistants and smart homes — from the past
A really enjoyable piece on the history of smart home devices, and how Google Home and Alexa aren’t such new ideas. The video is well worth a watch, particularly because it demonstrates 1970s technology from Pico Electronics in Glenrothes! It’s amazing to see it work so well.
The point of Thomas Baekdal’s piece here is to demonstrate how trends aren’t new, but they emerge over a long period of time. It reminds me a bit of Gartner’s hype cycle, and a recent Nile webinar about how to employ foresight to understand emerging trends. Not to forget the Nielsen Norman Group research demonstrating that intelligent assistants still have horrible usability problems.
Designers are defining usability too narrowly
Another call on designers to think more widely when they are working on digital products. Khoi Vinh saw a Nielsen Norman Group report on best practice on websites aimed at children — but he felt the report focused too narrowly on usability.
I don’t dispute the findings at all. But it’s disturbing that the report focuses exclusively on usability recommendations, on the executional aspect of creating digital products for kids. There’s not a single line, much less a section, that cares to examine how design impacts the well-being of children…
We’re moving past the stage in the evolution of our craft when we can safely consider its practice to be neutral, to be without inherent virtue or without inherent vice. At some point, making it easier and easier to pull the handle on a slot machine reflects on the intentions of the designer of that experience.
Thinking in triplicate
This is a very strong piece by Erika Hall, raising some seriously good points and questions about where user experience design is, and where it needs to go. It is well worth reading the full piece, and me pulling out a quote cannot do this justice. But here are some selections I particularly liked:
If good design entailed good business, women’s clothes would come in a wide range of sizes with usable pockets and our social media feeds would unfurl in reverse chronological order with an unremarkable absence of Nazis.
While most of the designers I know are far from objectivists, design as it is currently practiced is tantamount to Ayn Rand’s radical selfishness. We design for the experience of a single user at a time and expect that the collective experience, and the collective impact, will take care of itself.
It’s much more pleasant for designers to talk about empathy in one room and MBAs to talk about profits in the other and have marketers in the middle like an injectable filler.
This is exactly the sort of article we need to be seeing more of.
Keeping digital teams happy versus keeping customers happy
Gerry McGovern tells the story of trying to persuade a digital team of what they needed to fix.
“It would be nice to fix these problems,” one person said. “But the team needs also to be able to do exciting things. We need to be able to innovate.”
Unfortunately, people at work often place too much emphasis on their own enjoyment. But our work only has meaning if it is providing value to someone.
Work shouldn’t be exciting. There’s a job to do.
Proactive UX design: A big leap requiring baby steps
An excellent article from Jared Spool on the difference between proactive design and reactive design — and the importance of making your work more proactive.
Reactive UX design is just what it sounds like: reacting to a problem in the moment. “Oh, can you fix this?” “Help! Users are complaining this is too hard! What can we do?”
Without also having proactive UX design efforts, the design team is only fixing problems caused by decisions the product team has already made.
Interestingly, he also makes the point that it is easy for design teams to get sucked into doing reactive design, because it becomes comfortable for teams to do:
They like the wireframes and usability tests.
They believe this is what design work looks like. They believe design work always happens at the end of the process.
Keeping yourself out of the story: Controlling experimenter effects
How do you stop yourself, as a user researcher, biasing the results? An important topic for user researchers to consider. (It’s also an excellent excuse to re-tell the story about Clever Hans, the horse who everyone thought could count, until they realised he was simply reacting to subtle, unintentional cues from his trainer.)
I recently undertook some usability testing, where I was asking people to complete tasks that I didn’t know how to complete myself. This meant I was less likely to bias the participant. But it was a strange experience for me, and it made me less certain about how to conduct the test.
Why content should be published in HTML and not PDF
The crusade against PDFs has been one of my constant hobby-horses over the years. It has also led to some of my toughest battles in my work.
Users hate PDFs, because it makes it harder to use content. But content owners love PDFs, because it makes it easier for them to create content. It is the ultimate in user-hostility. “Who cares about the users? PDFs make my job easier for me.”
So it was great to see two trusted sources reiterate the importance of getting rid of PDFs, within days of each other.
This has also reminded me of a small project I promised I would do, but never got around to — to publish my dissertation as an HTML webpage. The idea was to demonstrate how versatile HTML is, even for things like technical or academic writing. Maybe I’ll return to that this autumn.
I really like this idea of crowdsourcing, and making available to the community, a set of readability guidelines based on evidence.
I see many content designers spending time talking – arguing – about points of style when often accessibility and usability show what we should do.
What if there was one place where we, as a community, shared knowledge and created a style guide that was accessible, usable and – if we wanted – evidenced?
We could then spend time on the things that matter more to our organisations.
The sound of silence: What we’re not saying about Siri and her AI gal pals
Why are digital assistants almost always given female-sounding voices?
While stakeholder preference might sound like a perfectly good reason at first, it hides an ugly reality. To make this clear, let me tell you a story about a talented young woman who I managed. She designed voice features for our clients’ prototypes. Although she created a voice that was meant to be genderless, the client kept referring to the voice in feminine terms. In other words, he heard what he expected to hear.
…BMW learned the hard way that female voices aren’t always the right route to take when German drivers of its 5 Series vehicles complained about “taking directions from a woman.” Yes, really.
Annoying online ads cost business
Results from a study of users of Pandora has quantified the effect of shoving adverts in users’ faces. As part of the experiment, a section of users were served fewer ads than normal, and another section were served more ads than normal.
…after 1.5 years of being exposed to the experimental conditions, people did use the service more, the fewer ads they were served. At the end of the experiment:
- The low-ad group listened for 1.7% more hours weekly than the control group.
- The high-ad group listened for 2.8% fewer hours weekly than the control group.
What is this thing called design?
I got out of bed and, in roughly an hour, hammered out a kind of primer on UX/UI design, which I’m publishing below. It’s a very unformed, rambly screed that I won’t pretend is at all definitive or even fully accurate. In fact it’s still basically a first draft; I literally typed it out in bullet point form, as shown below, a trick I used in order to absolve myself of the responsibility of writing a fully articulated essay.
Despite Khoi Vinh’s self-deprecation here, I think this is an excellent attempt at explaining what design is. For those who are frustrated about having to explain that design isn’t (just) about making things pretty, this blog post provides an excellent introduction to why — as well as helpfully explaining why this perception exists in the first place. Not bad for an hour’s work.
5 lessons from beyond the polar bear
Understanding user behaviour for online learning recruitment
The University of Edinburgh Website and Communications team has recently been heavily involved in a pilot project to improve the journey of prospective online learning students, from investigation to offer. Read about our user research approach and how we ensured project outputs met the needs of users.
How to get better answers from asking better questions
Chris How’s tips on doing better interviews. This is essentially a text version of his session at UX Scotland, which I wrote about on the University of Edinburgh Website Programme blog.
UX Scotland 2018 — my day-by-day notes
Some more follow-up to the UX Scotland conference, which I have published over on the University of Edinburgh Website Programme blog.
I set myself the challenge of writing a summary of each session I attended at UX Scotland, as a way of forming my own thoughts on each topic, and to make sure to follow up on everything I wanted to.
This resulting blog post is long. But I am sharing this on the basis that others might find it useful and seek to learn more about these topics, as I did.
UX Scotland 2018 write up
My colleagues and I have gathered together our thoughts on our highlights of the UX Scotland conference.
I am also in the process of writing up some further thoughts on most of the other sessions, which I will publish to the University Website Programme blog soon.
But in the meantime, find out about my top three sessions, and the things I intend to put into practice as a result of attending the conference.
How context is bridging the gap between UX and service design
Interesting on the similarities and differences between user experience and service design.
Service Designers generally approach digital as one of a number of interconnected touch points. They will usually figure out how all these touch-points work together as a cohesive ecosystem, before handing the design of the specific touch points over to experts.
UX Designers usually approach the problem from the other direction. They start with the core digital experience before exploring the connective tissue that joins their touch-points together. Service Designers tend to have a broader but shallower focus, while UX designers go narrower but deeper.
The problem of zero and one
Excellent piece by Wojtek Kutyla on why UX needs to get out of its comfort zone, and an excessive focus on technology — and the temptation to make binary declarations.
We are all reasonable creatures and we know how to seek rationale when we’re dealing with daily tasks. If we’re hungry, we’ll ask ourselves: “What do I want to eat? Eggs? Avocado? Or a burger?”. If we’re planning to buy a new car, we’ll consider it carefully, basing our ultimate choice on how functional the vehicle is and whether we can afford it.
Yet, when faced with a design problem in a professional setting we’d often go for a solution that does nothing else but fulfils a set of requirements based on assumed values communicated by stakeholders. All too seldom we’re doubting their choices and ask “what’s the rationale — where did this come from?”. Perhaps we should start doing that?
Note — 2018-06-13
After the hiccup
Most customer relationships don’t stumble because something went wrong. Your best customers know that mistakes happen.
It’s what happens next that can cripple the relationship.
I would be tempted to agree with Seth Godin here. But it actually reminded me of the recent incident with Ghostery.
Ghostery is a browser plugin that is supposed to protect your privacy online. But on Friday, when attempting to email its users about GDPR, they accidentally leaked the email addresses of hundreds of their users by CCing them into the email — the most basic and facepalm-worthy data breach of all.
I once briefly used Ghostery. But I uninstalled it after I found it kept on crashing my browser.
My response in this case was to find it deeply ironic that Ghostery should fail at the one thing they were meant to do. It’s true “you had one job” stuff, this. So I deleted my Ghostery account entirely.
Perhaps if my prior experience with Ghostery had been more positive, I would have been more lenient.
Your employees’ user experience should be a strategic priority
Enterprise software is notoriously bad — and that’s bad for business.
A poor user interface sends a message to employees that their time and commitment have little value, and that — just as my engineer colleague believed — the problem is their own fault. Then leaders wonder why their people don’t innovate or embrace change…
There’s a lot of good stuff here, so I had some trouble picking just one thing to highlight. Read on to see why actually watching people try to use your design is vital.
User research myth busting
Bringing focus to our findings: continued user research for the API Service
This is the final blog post in my short series about the user research I led on for the API Service at the University of Edinburgh.
This post covers the second half of the research, where we brought focus to the detailed picture developed in the first phase, and began to prioritise the issues to help the API Service team direct their ongoing work.
Design flaws in electronic health records can harm patients, study finds
We know that poor usability can lead to disastrous consequences. Think to the recent case of the accidental missile alert in Hawaii.
This is a more rigorous, academic investigation into the negative consequences of poor usability in electronic health records. The study even suggests that bad usability may have caused deaths.
Some 557 (0.03 percent) reports had “language explicitly suggesting EHR usability contributed to possible patient harm,” and among those, 80 caused temporary harm, seven may have caused permanent harm and two may have been fatal.
The information architecture of libraries part 1: Dewey Decimal Classification
This article is a bit of a sales pitch, but I enjoyed this research into how intuitive the Dewey Decimal Classification is.