December 10, 2002

The Smart Money Behind Computer Aesthetics

A NewFactor Special Report talks about aesthetics and design -- I half expected Don Norman to be quoted in the article. Even though they didn't talk to Don, they did an excellent job of covering the topic. Don's trying to raise awareness of this fact within the HCI community with his upcoming book and recent talks.

Repeat after me, non-believing usability gurus, "beauty and style do matter to consumers and users." Can you say it? I knew you could.

"Dennis Boyle, a studio leader and principal of the IDEO industrial design firm, told NewsFactor that aesthetics becomes more important for many products as they mature. The first computers, like the first cars and airplanes, were functional and plain. "They start out with people just trying to make them work," said Boyle, who recently designed the Handspring Treo PDA and has worked on Palm, Apple, Dell, HP and other computers. "But eventually people don't care what's inside. They just want it to work well."

"Industrial designers are walking a fine line. As Boyle pointed out, "Aesthetics is just one of the plates spinning on the stick." Too little attention to aesthetics will alienate buyers. Too much attention can slow down the product cycle, delay introduction of performance improvements and add to products' cost."

Usability engineers are walking a parallel fine line. Yes, usability is just another spinning plate -- and yes, you can have 'too much usability.' As the saying goes, 'all things in moderation.'
Design blooper: Car park barrier

David Travis from System Concepts nicely illustrates a parking garage barrier design that gets "iterated" a number of times. He then aptly asks "how many participants would have been needed in a usability test to spot this blooper?" It's a great illustration of where usability testing would have been FAR cheaper than the resulting hacks to fix a bad design. In this example, the company who created the design is probably not the same company who bought it and was trying to fix it. Travis has also authored a new book called E-commerce Usability. Some sample chapters are available online.

December 07, 2002

since1968: Interview with Steve Krug

Marc Garrett has posted a nice, fresh interview with Steve Krug, author of Don't Make Me Think. Marc avoids the boring, trite questions and asks some that I find more interesting like "Are you aware of any other Web books that have "Hatch, Sen. Orrin" as an index entry?" and "Are you a farmer or a cowman?" Reading this interview, I also learned that Croc O' Lyle is one of Steve's favorite sites. Needless to say, I'm flattered. Thanks Steve, you're too kind.

Here's my favorite quote:
" reminds me of a line from an underground comic called The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers from back in the 1970's: "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope." Having a small budget and someone on the project with clout who really cares about whether users have a good experience--which is often the case with an amateur site--will often get you much farther than a big budget and no one guiding the whole thing."

December 06, 2002

Usability and Open Source Software

A paper from the University of Waikato, New Zealand does a great job of discussing at length some of the causes of poor usability of Open Source Software (OSS). I got this link from a developer-type cohort. He keeps trying to convince me to help bring usability to the OSS community. The paper does a good job of explaining why that just doesn't sound like fun to me.

One of the core problems:
"The OSS approach fails for end user usability because there are 'the wrong kind of eyeballs' looking at, but failing to see, usability issues. In some ways the relatively new problem with OSS usability reflects the earlier problem with commercial systems development: initially the bulk of applications were designed by computing experts for other computing experts, but over time an increasing proportion of systems development was aimed at non-experts and usability problems became more prominent. The transition to non-expert applications in OSS products is following a similar trajectory, just a few years later."

I question whether OSS will eventually follow the same trajectory - after all, the market drove commercial software to take that trajectory. The "market" for OSS is rather different. The author talks about OSS developers being incented to "scratch a personal itch" -- that and recognition are how they get "paid" to a large extent.

"The 'personal itch' motivation creates a significant difference between open source and commercial software development. Commercial systems development is usually about solving the needs of another group of users. The incentive is to make money by selling software to customers, often customers who are prepared to pay precisely because they do not have the development skills themselves."

Finally, how many usability folks would want to dive into this for the "public good"?
"Open source draws its origins and strength from a hacker culture (O'Reilly, 1999). This culture can be extremely welcoming to other hackers, comfortably spanning nations, organisations and time zones via the Internet. However it may be less welcoming to non-hackers. Good usability design draws from a variety of different intellectual cultures including but not limited to psychology, sociology, graphic design and even theatre studies. Multidisciplinary design teams can be very effective, but require particular skills to initiate and sustain. As a result, existing OSS teams may just lack the skills to solve usability problems and even the skills to bring in 'outsiders' to help. The stereotypes of low hacker social skills are not to be taken as gospel, but the sustaining of distributed multidisciplinary design teams is not trivial."

Working on a project with no clear leadership, ill-defined roles, consensus-based decision making, and a bunch of developers who have no desire to listen to a "usability expert" -- yikes, I'd rather swim with a bunch of I mean sharks...Okay, same thing.

Related posts:
- Confessions of a Mozillian
- Linux needs focus not whiners
- Open Letter to a Power User / Developer

New Data Leaves No Doubt about Why CRM Results Disappoint

A good article on CRM Guru talks about customer-centricity and how it's key to success in the marketplace. The author's "curmudgeon" tone also makes for a good read. Note too the case study at the end of the article.

"But the excruciating pain, the generator of post-traumatic planning disorder, is that developing customer-centric strategies requires us to trade in our "inspirational" and "creative" planning methods (read "short, sweet and dry") for time-consuming, boring, sweaty, stinky trudging through data looking for win-win opportunities with customers. Opportunities that don't sit up on the surface waiting to be seen but only appear to those willing to muck around in customer input and information long enough to find what competitors have not found—profitable strategies hidden beyond the reach of inspiration and strategic "brainstorms" and first obvious conclusions. Hell, just take me behind the barn and shoot me."

November 26, 2002

Users Begin to Demand Software Usability Tests
Computerworld talks about the Common Industry Format for Usability Test Reports as well as a how some customers are viewing usability as a requirement when purchasing products.

"Boeing played a lead role in the development of CIF after its experience and internal studies showed that usability played a significant role in total cost of ownership. In one pilot of the CIF standard on a widely deployed productivity application, the Chicago-based company said improved product usability had a cost benefit of about $45 million."

October 31, 2002

Sorry for the lack of posting this month - lots going on...

October 01, 2002

Personal Writing Goal for the Day

Avoid TextSmell. Methinks this sometimes is a smelly blog. I promise I'll work on changing that. Thoughts?

September 27, 2002

JavaScript Misunderstood?
After reading Why Is JavaScript So Misunderstood?, all I can say is "big deal."

JavaScript (aka ECMAscript, JScript, etc.) is a cool 'programming language' for sure. The author leaves out a few key limitations of JavaScript like:

1. JavaScript is only really supported in browsers. Not all browsers (and versions) support JavaScrpt well or to the same extent. Many implementations are quite buggy.
2. This means you can't just simply 'run' your 'programs' easily, reliably or in stand-alone mode.
3. It also means that your user interfaces must be created with the limited UI capabilities available to web browsers and HTML.
4. Your 'programs' are restricted by the browser's Document Object Model (DOM). This greatly limits what you can use and access for input and output.
5. JavaScript development tools are very immature compared to other 'languages' like Java or Visual Basic.
6. You can't 'install' JavaScript 'applications' on a user's desktop. You typically access JS apps via a web page - this makes it more difficult for users to access and run. For example, you can't just click an icon on the desktop or Start menu (on Windows) -- you have to locate a URL or bookmark first.
7. JavaScript is really just client side. Sure, I know Netscape had some scheme for running JavaScript on a server, but no one in their right mind ever really used it. PERL, Java, and Microsoft technologies are much more respectable on the server side.
8. Need to read or write to an external database or file? How about create or delete files? From the client side you can't.
9. You can't manipulate or access other programs.
10. You can't modify a web page. Sure you can update values in form fields, but you can't change links, text or anything else that the DOM says is off limits.

So, while JavaScript is a great 'programming language', it really only fits a small niche of applications - those web sites and apps that need a lightweight scripting language.

Apologies to regularly 'usability topic' readers - we will now resume our irregular programming (or lack thereof).

September 19, 2002

37signals should know better

37signals generally does awesome stuff, but I just noticed that their home page has a nasty little behavior: if you click anywhere inside one of the three columns on their home page, it is a link to another page. What's bad is there's nothing to indicate the body text is clickable, and my mouse cursor doesn't indicate it's a link. Anyone clicking from one browser window to another might click on that text, only to be suprised that it's a link. That's how I happened to notice it in the first place. Come on, guys. Links should be obviously different from body text -- I have to believe anyone that creates something as good as Design Not Found knows why the goof?

Just realized this is my second critique of the 37signals home page...
Wireless as marketing gimmick

[W]e built a WAP add-on for our MLS product to allow Realtors to search for properties over their phone. Not one of our customers ever bought the WAP module, but it was still something we needed to have available. Most RFPs we would get from potential clients requested that wireless access be available. So we built the module, not because we thought that anyone would ever buy it, but because it helped us win sales. Why wouldn’t people buy it? WAP sounds cool when you describe it, but in practice, it’s more difficult to use than it’s worth.
Giving the Human Touch to Software

Making too many assumptions about users’ expectations and levels of competence can get software developers into a lot of trouble. Yogita Sahoo tells her own story about designing an application for an industry she was deeply familiar with—but that industry knowledge didn’t keep her from making some big usability blunders.

All the terms used in the above message looked very obvious and simple to my team and me. We took for granted that the rest of the world also knows what a file menu is and that clicking on the top “X” button will close a dialog box. But unfortunately, the hotel employees didn’t know about these conventions. Had we understood that a steward would not be familiar with computer terminology, the product could have been designed to suit a layman’s needs.

You should never try to design for a wholly indeterminate set of users. Your marketing team may add some insight, and a human-factors specialist will also help. You should work with a representative user group that varies in terms of profession, age, and qualifications.

September 18, 2002

Site Refactoring

Kalsey Consulting tells us how they implemented the concept of refactoring to improve their site. They cover card sorting as a way to recategorize and restructure, how to move files without breaking things for users, and generally making improvements in an evolutionary manner.

Refactoring is the process of making small changes to a program that improve the overall execution without introducing new features (and hopefully no new bugs). The basic idea is to leave things better than you found them.

[N]ow I had a solid reason for moving my files around. Placing everything into the new structure would make it easier to manage in the future. I made the decision to move everything into the new structure, but also decided to minimize the problems created by doing so.
Book Excerpt - eSupport
E-Support : How Cisco Systems' Saves Millions While Improving Customer Support

The most important finding was that we were letting "feature-creep" get in the way of usability. We added in lots of bells and whistles, like sorting and document rating, but these were either not noticed or criticized for getting in the way of the task at hand. Our next iteration will have a simpler interface. Because we had not invested any time developing the systems to support these bells and whistles, we could easily discard those ideas without wasting precious development time. (from page 2)

More posts related to features and usability tradeoffs
- User centered design sells products
- Bloatware: Good or Evil?
- The Pursuit of Simplicity
Open Letter to a Power User / Developer

I just read this Letter to a Non-believer, and have to respond. As I see it:

1) Someone commented in a mailing list that Linux has "poor usability."
2) You point out that *you* can successfully use Linux to read email, write professionally (about Linux and technology it appears), compose music, watch movies, plan Linux events, create your own Linux distribution, publish Linux CDs, and browse the web, etc.
3) You claim that "millions" of other people who "work like you do - productively and happily" also use Linux.
4) Since you can do all these things, you then assert that Linux *must* be usable. You say "you have the gall to tell me and millions of others that it can't be done"?

Well, I DO have the gall to tell you your logic is horribly flawed.
1) Usability is relative - something that is usable for one type of user doing one type of task is very often not be usable for all user doing any kind of task. Linux is obviously at least somewhat usable for some folks, but that doesn't meant that it's usable for most people.
2) Usability is not black and white - it's not "usable and unusable" it's shades of gray. At some point individuals determine that things aren't "usable" enough for them - this is the point where people either buy into or pass on something.
3) Usability is only one small factor in the adoption of products.
4) You are obviously a power user of technology and Linux. When you say you maintain your own distribution you reveal that you are a power user among power users. Few "average Joes" use Linux for average tasks, and my guess is that few actually could. (Notice I said few, not none.) I know many Linux users, but noone that maintains their own distro.
5) Let's talk realistic stats - where are the millions of folks in regular offices or homes doing average mundane things on Linux? How many non-programmers run Linux? Sure, millions of servers run Linux, but that's not what we're talking about. I'm sure there are millions of Linux distributions sold every year - that doesn't mean millions are actively running or anywhere within reach of a "typical" consumer.
6) Okay, even if Linux with KDE or whatever were super easy to learn and use. Where would a soccer mom buy a preschooler edutainment for Linux? Could she install it and read the docs (don't get me started on man pages)? How about a tax package for my small business? Can I get it at Best Buy? Power users have different needs and understand how to locate Open Source needles in the haystack of the Internet - average folks want quick, easy and mainstream. It's not just the OS that has to be usable and suitable- OS's are just the start. It's the whole offering from the platform and all the related software vendors. Why do you think Apple still has any market share? It's because they have enough of the right stuff (usability, software, marketing, documentation, service, etc.) that people want when making a decision on what to adopt.

Just because YOU use it, doesn't mean it's USABLE for many people. Show me research - maybe an independent usability test. Lots of universities use Linux -- ask them to research Linux's usability. As far as adoption statistics are concerned, back up your cited numbers, show me real numbers from reputable analysts, All I could find are gross estimates from biased partisans.

Linux rocks as a server platform, and it's a great development platform for many developers (depending on what they develop in and for). Linux on the average consumer's desktop? Not in the foreseeable future - it's built by geeks for geeks. And geeks love it, so it's successful in its own way.

September 16, 2002

Shopping carts aren't just for purchasing

Shopping Cart Abandonment: Why You Need More of It points out that online cart abandonment rates will always be higher than the 2-3% in physical retail stores.

According to a white paper by Fry Multimedia, "Most (online shoppers) appear to use the cart to mark products of interest, like turning down or marking a page in a catalog. Items in shopping carts on Web sites represent shoppers' desire to purchase, not necessarily their intent."

Because of this, it's unlikely that online abandonment rates will ever be comparable to traditional ones. Users have a hard time finding what they want on the Internet; shopping carts provide an easy way to bookmark things that they are interested in.

Abandoned shopping carts aren't just shopping carts. They also are important sources of customer information. How important? Imagine what it would cost to put together a list of what each of your online customers was interested in buying!

September 13, 2002

You did what you could
Rebecca Blood's story about a card her niece made for firefighters after September 11 is very touching. She should be proud of her niece.

"I watched as she drew it. First to go up were the buildings, then the airplane, then the two people jumping, holding hands. It is an overwhelming image, so I am not surprised that it is a fundamental part of all of this for her, but it is disturbing to see it reflected in an 8-year old's art."

September 11, 2002

Unfinished Work - Freedom Itself is Under Attack

The Gettysburg Address
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
- Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

How will you help fight terrorism and defend freedom?

"On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars -- but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war -- but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks -- but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day -- and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack. ...

"After all that has just passed -- all the lives taken, and all the possibilities and hopes that died with them -- it is natural to wonder if America's future is one of fear. Some speak of an age of terror. I know there are struggles ahead, and dangers to face. But this country will define our times, not be defined by them. As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world."
- George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, September 20, 2001

God Bless America

September 10, 2002

Should corporate logos be home links?
Recently on the SIGIA-L list, a discussion broke out on whether or not logos on web sites should be linked to the site's home page. Here's my analysis:

There are a few underlying questions:
  1. Do users expect logos to be linked to the home page rather than just being a graphical logo?
  2. Can a linked logo replace another link labeled "home"?
  3. Does placement of the logo matter (e.g. is top-left better)?
  4. If a logo is a link, where would users expect it to go?
Here are my assumptions when designing or reviewing sites:
  • A purely graphical logo is great, but a linked logo provides some additional functionality at little cost.
  • *I think* most users, *when seeing that a logo is a link*, will expect it to go to the site's home page - there are few other logical places for it to go. (related to question 4)
  • I've seen some users click on logos, but most will choose a "home" link first when looking to go "home." (related to questions 1 & 2) Therefore...
  • You need to have an explicit "home" link - a logo isn't explicit enough. (related to question 2)
  • Placement always matters - but if you think of the logo-link as a supplementary link to the "home" link, then it's not that critical from a navigation point of view - it's likely more important from a branding and context point of view. (related to question 3)
Research into this would be great, but frankly I don't *need* research on this issue. In my opinion, there's almost no risk in making a logo a link - risk enters the equation when people try to eliminate a "home" link (in main navigation) which I think is patently a Bad Idea. Logos don't look like main/global navigation -- they look like branding. Use them for navigation too as a "bonus" -- Good Idea. It was also mentioned that logos are generally nice, large targets to click on -- Fitt's Law tells us this is a Good Thing.

Some related research:
Examining User Expectations for the Location of Common E-Commerce Web Objects
(If you agree that most site's put their logo top-left, then you can draw the conclusion that most users expect logos to be links home.)

September 09, 2002

The trouble with usability guidelines
Jared Spool has a new article that questions the value of guidelines called "Evolution Trumps Usability Guidelines."

Jared is controversial (as ever), but as usual there is some truth to what he's saying. I'm not willing to chuck all guidelines out the window, but I'll add my opinions to what Jared has already stated. Let me state up front that I maintain and promote use of a set of guidelines in my day to day work, so I have some experience with guidelines. I've also used guidelines and "style guides" as coaches at times when looking for advice on how to tackle certain design issues.

Problems with guidelines:

  1. Many guidelines aren't based on research. The National Cancer Institute's Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines are an attempt to bring more credibility to guidelines.
  2. Compliance with guidelines can be hard to measure if they are vague or poorly written
    E.g., "Ensure descriptive terms or pictures are used: Use clear and informative labels to describe products on-line" (from Serco's Ecommerce Guidelines)
  3. Many guidelines don't really provide much value
    E.g., "Every Web page should contain at least one link." (from the Yale Web Style Guide) How many people read this guideline and said "Duh!"? Do you think it matters what that one link is?
  4. Guidelines can get outdated.
    E.g., Sun's Writing for the Web Style Guide was authored by Jakob Nielsen who hasn't been at Sun for a number of years. The style guide doesn't look like it's been updated since at least 1998.
  5. Guidelines by definition generalize about design - without regard to differences in audiences, tasks, work environments or other specifics that should play a major factor in designing usable applications. Guidelines make lots of assumptions and don't necessarily tell you what assumptions were made.
    E.g., "International users: Remember that you are designing for the World Wide Web. Your readers could be the people down the street, or people in Australia or Poland." (from the Yale Web Style Guide) clearly not considering intranets, extranets, or other web applications where you may really know the limits of your audience's reach.
  6. Guidelines aren't a recipe for success -- even if you can comply with every guideline, your application might not be very usable. They aren't a replacement for a good User-Centered Design (UCD) process.
  7. Guidelines are not comprehensive -- they don't cover all or even most design scenarios.
  8. Different sets of guidelines may contradict each other.
    E.g., Spool and Nielsen regulary go toe-to-toe on the topic of web search.
  9. Guidelines can be hard to use. A good set of web guidelines generally is pretty large and can't be easily absorbed by designers -- especially novice designers.
    E.g. Nielsen Norman Group has published 592 different web usability guidelines in five separate reports.
  10. It seems some people think guidelines are a replacement for the methods in UCD and try to short-cut the design process by using them instead of usability testing, prototyping, etc. This makes guidelines dangerous -- people who don't know how or when to use them will mis-use them. By following guidelines blindly, you can shoot your design in the foot. (Yes, of course designs have feet - how else do you explain "walk-throughs?")

There are also some things that are good about guidelines -- but I'll cover that topic in another post.

Let me know what you think -- email: Lyle_Kantrovich at Bigfoot dot com

September 08, 2002

The Pursuit of Simplicity
Luke Wroblewski of NCSA has some good insights on what makes designing for simplicity difficult.

"Ultimately it’s the pursuit of simplicity that’s your best teacher. When you consistently work toward a simpler solution, you pick up a lot of valuable lessons along the way: what works and what doesn’t, what is necessary and what is interference."

Related posts:
- Bloatware: Good or Evil?
- User centered design sells products

Note: article linked fixed April, 2008

August 27, 2002

See back side of this web page for more info...
Just ran across a site that is blatantly using the same text on their web site that they use on their product packaging or "tear sheets" (those pads of product info pages you might see in a retail store). Symbol is a company that makes handheld devices based on Palm and Pocket PC platforms -- the product page for their 2800 Series device tells the user:

"To find out how your business can benefit from Symbol's innovative products, contact any of the convenient locations listed on the back panel or visit us at"

Note that the user is already on the web site listed, but a few pages further into the site. Unless they want the user to look at the back of their monitor, I have no idea where the "back panel" of a web page is. Of course the "convenient locations" aren't provided on the web page either -- and the mobile products page that is linked shows nothing about "business benefits." Maybe they should think about how to change their web site into a truly "convenient location" -- then maybe potential customers will know why Symbol devices are worth the much higher price tag when compared to standard Palm or Compaq devices.
The Age of Information Architecture
Jeff Lash starts a new regular column on IA at Digital Web called IAnything Goes with a retrospective on how many Information Architects got their start.

"Information architecture helps make sure that business needs and user needs are met, leaving everyone happy, and isn't that really what it's all about? ... It's no wonder, then, that there is increased interest in information architecture. Individuals who can supplement their technical skills with solid understanding of business strategy, information organization experience, user-centric techniques and critical thinking make much better candidates for prospective employers, and much more effective employees. Businesses who realize the importance of information architecture can realize cost savings, improved organizational efficiency, improved communication, and increases in revenue."

August 26, 2002

Builder goes beyond barrier-free to create accessible homes
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a nice article about a builder who builds accessible houses for people. His attention to detail is pretty obvious from reading the article. Check it out.

"It took a lot of looking to find some of these things," Regel said. Finding a side-open oven supplier took seven months, and it took years to find a window that can be opened with one lever. One research method was basic: "I rolled around in a wheelchair to get an idea of what's needed," Regel said. ... Some of these efforts might become commonplace as more builders follow a movement called universal design, "which is concerned with making many areas of life . . . better fit the needs of a wider range of the population," Sprague said. Three main features of universal design are stepless entries, wide doorways and open floor plans, with "all important living features on the main level." Sprague said the additional cost for such features is small.

[thanks Caryn!]

August 22, 2002

The Wireless Lexicon
The Wireless Lexicon (PDF) is an attempt to codify the terms involved in the wireless user experience. It contains 228 terms. If you're not sure what some of these terms mean, you might want to check it out.

- Soft key
- 3G
- 2.5G
- baseband
- express key
- multi-tap
- T9

The document is intended for use by people working with the wireless platform, including: application designers, engineers, technical writers, and journalists. It is assumed that the reader has some familiarity with cellular phones and a basic understanding of web technology.

August 21, 2002

Why XP and UX have Something in Common
George Olsen shares his experience and opinions on how to get Extreme Programming (XP) and user experience design (UX) to play well together. As usual, George's thoughts are great -- I can see this being useful to anyone trying to instill UCD practices in an XP or Rational development shop.

"Refactoring - a key principle of XP - may work behind-the-scenes, but it doesn't work for what's visible. In fact a key tenet of refactoring is that doesn't change the observable behaviour of the software, it improves its internal structure. Which needless to say requires that the programming object be well-designed, even if it's first implementations are kludgy."..."While XP programmers understand this in terms of programming objects, we need to get them to understand this is true of the user interface. In essence the entire user interface is just a big collections of "objects" (screens), each with required inputs and outputs. These need to be well-designed before you start coding."

I got a chance to meet George briefly at CHI 2002, and had the pleasure of working with him (as editor) on a Boxes and Arrows article i wrote about that conference. You may also have seen some of George's other work previously:
- Interaction by Design - George's company
- UX Thoughts - George's articles and blog called Thumbnails
- Web Standards Project - George co-founded the WaSP in 1998
- An un-dated interview with George about the WaSP
- He's editor for Boxes and Arrows

As you can see, George needs to get out of the house more. :-)
Why are usability and interaction designers difficult to work with?
Someone in the Joel on Software discussion area asked about the value of working with usability or 'interaction design' professionals and wondered about difficulties of working with us.

Looks like so far I'm the only HCI person who is willing to respond in the JOS Discussion Forum. I didn't really think the questions were fair, as you'll see in my response. (Scroll down a ways or do a "Find" for 'Lyle'. there's no way to link directly to my comments.)

Joel on Software rocks.
I particularly liked a post he wrote on bloatware and usability.

[link via John at Webword]

August 15, 2002

Pop-Up Warfare: Is Peace Possible?
Clickz is a great site, and two recent articles on popup ads show why:

In Ad Policies or Ad Hoc?, Rebecca Lieb asks what standards publishers have for popups and what guidelines do they have in regards to user experience and interaction:

"An iVillage survey found 92.5 percent of its users thought pop-ups were the most irritating thing about the Web and the ads damaged advertisers' brands. Similarly, an AOL study recently found user satisfaction increased in inverse proportion to the number of pop-ups visitors saw. This prompted the company to cut back on the format."..."iVillage and AOL's decisions to nix (or reduce) usage of an ad format calls a larger issue into question: Have online publishers drafted formal policies or guidelines related to user experience?"..."an industrywide lack of policies and guidelines indicates publishers' approach to advertisers and users is ad hoc and reactive."

In Pop-Up Warfare: Is Peace Possible?, Tessa Wegert seeks some middle ground:
"Publishers share liability for letting the situation get this far by not insisting on better targeting and demanding frequency caps. As one of ClickZ's coeditors pointed out recently, it's about giving more thought to the user experience. The solution isn't to eschew ad formats users might find frustrating. Rather, it's to standardize the use of advertising in a way users will approve of. What better way to mollify visitors and still bring in the revenues pop-ups provide?"

Targeted ads are less intrusive - Google has proven this well. Popups and popunders generally suck, but if they were targeted more and didn't assault you from every page on a site, and if they would let you leave a site without one last parting plug, then they'd be much more tolerable.

Related posts:
- Pop-up ads are viruses
- Why I love pop-up ads
- Don't let your web site fall out of the window

Related elsewhere:
- Top five frustrations experienced by Web shoppers - by Luc Carton of LucDesk fame
- Net Mechanic - Pop-Up Windows And Accessibility
- UI Access - On Spawned Windows (accessibility considerations)

August 13, 2002

Our search is broken and we're broke
Sounds like the name of a blues song written by a geek band, but it's just the title of this post...don't dwell on it too much. The Intranet Journal has a couple of good articles on search. They cover problems with poor quality search, metadata, taxonomies, and meta-taggin' tools:

The Search isn't Broken - We're Broken
The Search isn't Broken - Part II

Note: the Grown Men site's great illustrations (like the Jimi-esque one on the home page ) are done by none other than Berkeley Breathed - the demented creator of Bloom County and other comic strips. The guy wrawks...much like heavy-metal rockin' DeathTongue would.

Blues Lyric of the Day:
"I'm so broke I can't even spend the night."
- Buddy Guy
That's what the web is for

The children's version of David Weinberger's book Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web is incredible - great text and (crayon) illustrations. Works well as a summary of the book (far as I can tell). Made me want to go buy the "adult" version (sounds a bit dirty, eh?)...

Here's an excerpt that struck me as simple yet profound:

"This is a most peculiar thing. The Web is a web because of hyperlinks that connect the pages. But every hyperlink expresses someone's interests and recommendations. If you were to make a map of the Web, showing all the sites and all the links, you would be making a map of things the 500 million people on the Web find interesting.

"That's a lot different than a map of the real world that shows where the mountains are and where the oceans end and land begins. The real world map shows what we humans have been given to work with. The Web shows what we have chosen to care about.

"And that's exactly what's so special about the Web place. It is made not out of mountains, oceans, deserts and forests. It is made out of humans caring about things together."
A report on the UPA 2002 Conference
Just out: a new article I co-authored for Boxes and Arrows: UPA 2002 - Humanizing Design

"Three attendees from the UPA-MN chapter in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area, Katie Ware, Lyle Kantrovich and Debbie McConnell, cover some of the sessions they found most notable during the 5-day conference."

Note: I love the part of Debbie's bio that reads: "Debbie specializes in working with clients on the brink of committing to usable products."
The 101 Dumbest Moments in Business2.0
From Business 2.0

"In a perfect world, a list like this would not exist. In a perfect world, businesses would be run with the utmost integrity and competence. But ours is, alas, an imperfect world, and if we must live in one where Enron, Geraldo Rivera, and Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes exist, the least we can do is catalog the absurdities."

They left out the 102nd Dumbest Moment: putting 101 dumb things online in 10-thing bites. Here's the "printable" version - which most sites should just call "the version without all the extra crap you usually don't want anyway, the version that you can print or read waaaaay easier than the other marketing-centric version -- a.k.a. the more usable version."

My favorites:
16. "No one will deny that Sony is a world-class hardware company, and no one would deny that Microsoft is a world-class software company. Nintendo aspires to be neither one of those things." -- Peter Main, a Nintendo marketing executive, to the San Francisco Chronicle

20. The Gartner Group issues trading cards featuring its analysts.

33. "We've been doubling sales every 18 months. However, when you start from zero, it takes a long while." -- Stephen Yeo, a marketing director at Windows-terminal manufacturer Wyse, explaining his company's less-than-meteoric rise, to ZDNet UK

40. The Newspaper Association of America names Kmart its "Retailer of the Year" on Jan. 21, 2002, one day before the company files for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.

71. Why You Still Don't Have Broadband, Part 3: "There will always be crybaby boobies who are unhappy with any company." -- Martha Sessums, spokeswoman for DSL provider Covad, illustrating in an interview with the customer-service strategy that helped her company plummet into bankruptcy
AOL Uses Netscape for Mac OS X
Looks like AOL is trying to use some usability improvements to get a leg up on Microsoft. While the "browser war" might be as interesting as a fight between a rottweiler and a rawhide bone, personally I think the way AOL is pitching the new version is of more interest -- they are pointing to usability improvements as reasons to switch:

- AOL for Mac OS X uses the Apple operating system's Aqua interface -- Calling the new offering a response to "what our members who use Macs want," David Gang, executive vice president of AOL's product marketing group, hailed the new service as easy to use and "more fully integrated into the Mac environment." (consistency, integration with OS)
- Users can see at a glance (at the OS X dock) how many new e-mail messages and instant messages they have and a single click from the service's new welcome screen will take them directly to their e-mail accounts (accelerators)
- A new AOL Search service uses Google technology to help users conduct searches (integration with web and user's favorite search - Google provides better search usability)

Will these enhancements be enough to make OS X users switch to Netscape? Time will tell. Point here is this: usability improvements can be used to create competitive advantage and to distinguish a product in marketing. Second point: competition breeds innovation.

August 07, 2002

New web form control combination
Design Not Found points out a Sprint PCS form that works a little code magic to tell the user how many additional characters they can type into a textarea box. Kind of an interesting use of controls, but the idea that comment or message boxes should have character limits is a bad one. It's usually a sign of lazy programming and/or database design. Of course you usually have to some kind of logical limit, but it should be rather large (e.g. 10K) so that most users will never hit it. Most good databases won't allocate that much empty space in each record - they just store what's entered. Anyway, as DNF points out, the Sprint solution is better than an error message that tells you that you typed too much. Here's some code to steal if you want to make your users nervous about how much they're typing.

Tell me what you think of this blog in 160 characters or less. :-)
Hey scarecrow, use your brain
Erin Malone reminds us that tools are just tools, what's important is designing & building the right product/solution.

"Solving the problem will come from a deep understanding of the issues, of the users’ needs, of the task—from research, from analytical thinking and then sketching out solutions. Sketching these solutions can be done in any way—on a whiteboard, on paper with (gasp) a pen or pencil, or on the computer with the tool of choice.

"My concern and angst over these types of discussions, as well as the kind of proclamations that Nielsen and other gurus make, is that focusing on the tool—either finding the right tool or badmouthing the perceived “wrong” tool—moves our energies away from the real problem at hand: design solutions that are inappropriately or poorly executed."

You can extend Erin's argument to usability methods and research as well -- in effect, they are tools and only have value in what we can apply them to -- what they help us build -- whether it's a web site or knowledge.
UPA Web Site Redesign Project
The Usability Professionals Association site is being redesigned. The project team has documented much of the process used in creating the new design. Here are some of the deliverables:

- Site wireframes
- An early design mockup of one concept
- A later refined and more detailed mockup of a sub-page

The site sounded fairly close to launch according to folks I talked to at the national conference.

[link via Jess on IA/]

August 06, 2002

How's your Information Architecture's health? Open up and say aah!
An article in Searcher magazine called Beyond the Information Audit: Checking the Health of an Organization's Information System discusses an approach needs assessment or "current state" research. The examples are from the perspective of a librarian, but the concepts are pretty universal. This is not the same as a content audit/inventory.

"Information audit, needs assessment, knowledge inventory — all are names for a process that examines the secret life of information within an organization...The problem with all the names for the process is that they're too narrow. Audit implies an analysis of what's been reported; a needs assessment looks at only the first half of information's organizational life; and inventory assumes all needs are met. What we'll talk about here is an information checkup. Compare it to an annual physical...Getting the results of an information checkup is a lot like that part of the physical where you get your clothes back on and go sit in the doctor's office."

More resources:
The Information Audit as a First Step Towards Effective Knowledge Management (PDF)"For many years the information audit process has been promoted by information
professionals as a means of identifying the information needs of an organisation
and matching them against existing services and resources. In more recent years it
has been used extensively, mainly by consultants, as the first step in the
development of a knowledge management strategy."

Boxes and Arrows: Defining Information Architecture Deliverables
Pre - Boxes & Arrows...
"[A content inventory] is exactly what you might guess: a complete list of all the content that the site holds and will hold. For sites particularly rich in content, it may be a list of types of content."

August 02, 2002

Penguin Code
Considering using ISO standards in your forms for country names? Might want to think again after reading Web Forms and ISO 3166 country codes Conquering "Penguin Code". The page covers a lot of areas and how geographic location isn't as cut-and-dried as you might think. It talks about cultural perceptions and how users may feel that their county name is important when from a shipping perspective it isn't. Also covers some obvious blunders committed by us Americans frequently when requesting user location information on web forms.

"I am not certain why uninhabited islands made it into the ISO 3166-1, while the following geographic areas did not; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. People have been living in these areas for hundreds of years, and there is a strong cultural identity involved. The ISO 3166-2 country subdivision codes overlooked these same areas again. Guess, the penguins won out, because they have an automated weather station on their island. Uninhabited islands and several other entries should have never been included in the IS0 3166-1 Country Codes. Why? Because they are not really countries at all."

What state was that?
The ISO site has forms with required state/region fields. They use a drop-down with only one value: N/A -- N/A must be that 51st state otherwise known as "Area 51" -- of course the US government has conspired to hide that state from us. Looks like the ISO requires all of us to move there. Cool. I always wanted to get in on an alien autopsy...

Tick me off...
Here's a humorous check box label from the same page: "The data provided via this form will be used by the ISO Central Secretariat and by the ISO members (national standards institutes). If you wish to restrict the use of these data to the administrative tasks related to the sales transactions and for statistical purposes, please tick the checkbox"
...ISO Central Secretariat...didn't that horse win a few races in Kentucky? Maybe only horses are allowed to live in Kentucky?

August 01, 2002

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd Edition
Sneak preview (beta) chapters from the next Polar Bear book by Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. Just digging in now -- gotta be good!
Interface Invaders
The latest from the "Cranky User": Everything I need to know about usability, I learned at the arcade makes some excellent points.

"Many video games are designed so that the user doesn't need to be taught how to play; the designers assume that the user will never read the manual. Modern games often feature some kind of tutorial before the game really starts, to expose you to the concepts you need to be familiar with in order to play the game well. To be frank, productivity software is often hostile to new users. Help systems are either absent, poorly designed, or just plain wrong. Even companies like Apple, who have built a reputation for usability, can get this wrong; Apple's AppleGuide help system, for instance, won't let you read the instructions for performing a task unless you perform them as you read through them. Its mantra of "do this, then click 'continue'" is a distressing one."

Classic video arcade games I remember playing a lot (dating myself): Dig Dug, Defender, Spy Hunter, Galaga, and Tron

Classic PC software you might have missed: Oregon Trailer Trash, Mavis Beacon Teaches Quilting, and Microsoft Bob

July 30, 2002

Usability Must Die
No matter how cynical you think you are, keep in mind there's always someone more cynical. Of course regular readers know I'm a sucker for sarcasm and cynicism -- so these made me chuckle:

Free Discount Usability Advice from Jakob Nielsen - you can also ask Jakob's advice on fashion or hair styles. :)

Illustration of the process for a usability review of a VCR - If the review in the example would've been conducted by UIE the final product would include a Mickey Mouse wrist watch and be located in the cheapest hotel on the monorail at Disneyworld. The product also wouldn't have any FF or REW options -- after all, they're too similar to search and movies have no "uniquely identified content" within them (at least no movies starring Keanu Reeves). Another issue obviously overlooked in the review is that most videotapes don't provide enough "scent" -- yet more proof that we need Smell-o-Vision(TM). (Apologies in advance to Jared.)
The painful details of a content inventory
Donna Maurer has created a new blog on IA, UCD and usability. She has a nice writing style and has shared her recent experiences doing a content audit on a pretty good sized site "down under" in Aussie-land. Check it out.

July 29, 2002

Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility
10 guidelines for building the credibility of a web site that are based on three years of research that included over 4,500 people.

Like most guidelines, when you see them they seem like common sense. That being said, I think these are excellent guidelines -- truly a new milestone in the area of online trust.

- ecommerce Trust & Trustworthiness -
- Affective Design of E-Commerce User Interfaces:How to Maximise Perceived Trustworthiness - Florian N. Egger
- A matter of trust - InfoWorld
Seven plus or minus two reasons you should forget the magical number seven plus or minus two
Ron's Ramblings (cool new blog found via Webword) has a list of articles that explain how most people misuse George Miller's 40-year old research on short-term memory limitations.

Some excerpts:

How to improve design decisions by reducing reliance on superstition by Dr. Robert Bailey of Human Factors International (HFI)
"At least partially because of the success of Miller’s paper, the number “seven” is now almost universally and erroneously accepted as the human capacity limit for a wide range of issues."

The Myth of "Seven, Plus or Minus 2" by James Kalbach in WebReview
"While Miller's "Magic (7±2)" principle reminds us of moderation, it is not appropriate for fundamental navigation decisions and leads to an arbitrary "one-size-fits-all" solution. In no event should it be taken as an absolute law. On the other hand, spamming site visitors with hundreds of navigation links is also irresponsible. Feelings of confusion and information overload are problematic. There probably are limits to the number of menu items a web page can display without overwhelming the user, but these do not come from Miller.
Clearly, the optimal number of menu items cannot be reduced to one generalized rule applicable in all situations. Instead, when planning the information architecture of a site, the two most important considerations are breadth versus depth and the display of information."

More in-depth info on the same topic:
3.14159, 42, and 7±2: Three Numbers That (Should) Have Nothing To Do With User Interface Design by Denny C. LeCompte
"The fame of Miller's number would be a wonderful thing if not for a couple of problems. First, at least in private settings, the magical number is often invoked inappropriately. For example, an individual may claim that a web page should have no more than 7±2 links on it. As will be discussed in more detail, nothing Miller said lends support to such a statement. Second, even when it is cited correctly, Miller's work is discussed as if the scientific understanding of short-term memory had not advanced at all in the last half century. In fact, an analysis of Miller's original paper and of subsequent scientific research suggests that 7±2 is no more relevant to user interface design than is Douglas Adams' facetious 42." ... "At best, Miller's 7 ± 2 figure applies to immediate serial recall for a sequence of familiar, easy-to-pronounce, unrelated, verbal stimuli presented auditorily with no distracting sounds within earshot. Thus, the narrow range of generality implied by the research findings cannot support the wide variety of situations to which people try to apply this heuristic. Based on the relevant data, user interface designers should probably forego application of the 7 ± 2 heuristic altogether."

Fighting (with) Hierarchies - Part I: Basics - SAP Design Guild
"Why is breadth harmless and why are the people who cite Miller wrong? Because the user doesn't have to memorize the menu - that is to say, the link list. It's on the screen and available to the user. The memory problem is posed by the levels or steps to be remembered; that is why a route in a maze is so hard to remember."

Of course, as the SAP article points out, good UI's rely on recognition rather than recall, so the idea that users have to depend soley on short-term recall memory is flawed from the start.

July 17, 2002

Debunking the three-click "rule"
A good layman's explanation of why designers should igore the "3-click rule". In reality some sites may be able to get users to the necessary content in fewer cases, in others, a better design may take more clicks in order to provide a clear interface that provides good "scent of information".

"for companies with many different types of products — or products with multiple options, modules or related products — the three-click rule can quickly become a very uncomfortable noose."
News Flash!: different operating systems use different platform UI standards!
In The GUI Gold Standard, Newsfactor asserts that "the GUI of certain operating systems seems to be determined not so much by general usability standards but by understanding the quirks and desires of its users."

I might point out that User-Centered Design says the "quirks and desires of users" matter. Although I seriously doubt that the reason Macintosh pull-down menus and the Windows taskbar are designed differently is due to some great variability in their user groups. The desire for innovation, lawsuits (fear of copying a good design exactly) and other factors are more likely reasons why there are few "gold standards."

"When Microsoft released Windows 2000, they were trying to achieve simplicity but they destroyed consistency," he said. "They've ensured that, from minute to minute, controls will disappear, and there will be a battle to learn where things are. They've asked users to spend a lot of time learning all over again."

Similarly, when Apple's GUI first came out, its range of icons made a great deal of sense, according to Benatan. But with many applications and a smaller range of icons, it becomes confusing.

Said Benatan, "The primary goal of a good GUI is: Don't make me feel stupid."
Pop-up ads come to TV
That compelling viewing experience you get from watching TV -- you know, the one that compels you to never put down the remote control -- that wonderful experience is about to be visited by the dregs of online advertising models: pop-up ads.

July 15, 2002

Tog's back
After roaming the earth for months in a motorhome, Tog's posted a new article on his site -- the first since last November.
Call Center: Profit or Loss? -- How Call Centers can Make or Break Companies

Your call center is vital to you company's continued success. Your people should be charged with several jobs:
1. Answer questions.
2. Pass people on to a higher level if you are not able to help them, either within the call center structure or, upon occasion, to others within the company.
3. Build FAQ's and other website self-help information sources based on frequency and seriousness of calls, thereby constantly reducing the total call volume.
4. Collect bug reports.
5. Assign priorities to bugs based on frequency.
6. Identify those bugs/problems costing the call center the most money and quantify how much money that is.
7. Pass along potential solutions to known, baffling problems.

July 14, 2002

July 09, 2002

Text Readability Research
A survey of user preferences on foreground and background colors and some additional work on text readability has confirmed some fairly well established conventions (e.g. black text on white background is preferred). Still worth a look.
A Heuristic Review Tool
Surfmind gives us a very brief look at a utility for conducting heuristic evaluations...interesting.
The WASP is creating a Buzz
The WASP (Web Standards Project) clears up some recent misinformation about how developers code. The explain that developers don't develop web pages for IE -- they only just TEST with IE -- big difference.

"Many books on web development still teach outdated methods, and many practitioners take pride in delivering sites that look and work exactly the same in compliant and non–compliant browsers alike, at the cost of accessibility, long–term viability, or forward compatibility. Others develop proprietary code that works only in a handful of popular browsers."
- from The Web Standards Project's New Mission Statement

It's good to have the WASP back.

Previous posts:- The Web Standards Project: Phase II Coming
- Whither (or wither) the WaSP?

July 08, 2002

Back and down to UPA

After a long absence from blogging, I'm back in the saddle. The absence was due to moving into a new home -- all that packing, moving and getting settled takes a lot of time. The new house is great, although my current connectivity is horrible. Hope to get that remedied soon.

I'm heading to the UPA conference this week, and hope to meet lots of neat folks there and learn a few things.
Most People Never Question Statistics

Shirky has a great article outlining why the "Digital Divide" may not be as bad as some think. Trying to prove or disprove the phrase "half the people on the planet have never made a phone call", he uses telecom market penetration to outline some factors impacting the digital divide. His conclusions are very interesting - pointing out that government can be a huge barrier to closing the "divide."

May 24, 2002

Sticky fingers & hierarchical menus
Christina Wodtke is writing a book and has quietly released a short excerpt on her site Excellent, I mean Elegant Hack. There's a bit of discussion related to drop-down / pull-down / fly-over / rollover / dhtml hiermenus and navigation. It also touches on right-hand versus left-hand navigation.

May 22, 2002

More blows to online trust
And we thought online trust was bad before...things will never be the same after this.
Cool color tools: Palette Master & Visibone's Web Color KiloChart
Palette Master by Nebulus Designs lets you select a base color and instantly generate a 42 color palette that is complimentary to your base color. Could be a useful tool when picking colors for a design -- especially if you hit a creativity roadblock.

Visibone's Web Color KiloChart offers "Hundreds of the girly pastels and manly earth tones that are so scarce in the web-safe color palette" as well as "protective coating". Go'n git ya some o' dat protective coating!

[Via Brainstorms & Raves]
Google labs demos
Google now has a site that shows off some of the new ideas they are working on. They currently have four projects you can test drive: Google Glossary, Google Sets, Voice Search, and Keyboard Shortcuts. I think the Glossary and Keyboard Shortcuts look like they could be ready for prime time pretty quickly. Here are the glossary entries for usability and information architecture.

The Google Sets project is interesting, but not something that I could see being used soon. For instance, a Set search for "radio button, button, textarea, listbox and label", all UI controls or widgets yields a nice list of related search terms like "window, frame, canvas, and menubar". The problem is that if you then select one of the terms, like "canvas" or "window" the new search results have no relationship to the set of terms you provided -- you get plain old results based on a single generic term like "window". The idea looks promising, but they clearly have a ways to go yet.

Update: John Dowdell of Macromedia provides a scenario where he used Google Sets to help him in a web search. He also provides some suggestions for improvements. (Added May 22)
Why I love pop-up ads
Madhu "madman" Menon has written a parody of an article called "Why I love spam" from CNET. You might want to read the "Why I love spam" article first to get Madhu's humor. Here's an excerpt:

"Now, in addition to the products being sold by real salesmen, I get pop-up ads on Web sites. Lots of pop-up ads. And for the most part, I love them. They tell me about things I'm interested in, such as services and products that might satisfy some of my needs. Since I have a voyeuristic streak in me, I enjoy seeing the X10 camera ads that I'm constantly bombarded with. I plan to buy several of them and plant them in women's toilets. I also love seeing the Internet casino ads. I haven't been very successful gambling in Vegas; maybe doing it online from some foreign country's servers will improve my chances. Hey, you gotta believe in blind luck, my friend. And that's as blind as it gets - after all, I have no idea what the odds are, whether the software is rigged to make me win, whether the business taking my money is legal, and all those mundane things I have to worry about in real life."

More good articles from Madhu:
- Why Big Freaking Flash ads won't work
- Useful "Page not found" (404) error pages

- Pop-up ads are viruses

May 21, 2002

The Best Influences on Software Engineering
An IEEE Software magazine article from 2000 lists the top 11 influences the editors thought made the biggest impact on Software Engineering in the last 50 years (PDF). Here's their list:

- Reviews and Inspections
- Information Hiding
- Incremental Development
- User Involvement
- Automated Revision Control
- Development Using the Internet
- Programming Languages Hall of Fame: Fortran, Cobol, Turbo Pascal, Visual Basic
- Capability Maturity Model for Software
- Object-Oriented Programming
- Component-Based Development
- Metrics and Measurement

The field of "usability engineering" has activites related to many of these influences:
- Heuristic inspection and expert reviews
- Information Hiding is much like the concept of progressive disclosure in user interface design
- Incremental design involves prototyping
- User involvement -- that's what UE is all about
- Usability testing and other types of evaluations are ways to gather metrics

Previous article: Web projects don't iterate, they use the waterfall method

May 20, 2002

Bogroll my butt
Malevole -- the site that brought us lap dancers a few weeks ago -- has taken the traditional blogrolling concept and twisted it into something suitable for flushing down the toilet: a "bogroll". Here's the rationale.

- Better Living Through Software discusses blogrolling and linking, making a few good points:

"So the law of "link reciprocity" is based on the idea that flow is something that should be returned, if you can. And since there is no "law of conservation of flow", then flow that someone directs at you isn't necessarily diminshed by you directing flow back at them later."

"Blogrolling is sort of like making introductions between friends. There is no easy way to measure how "appropriate" readers find a particular blogroll. Probably blogrolls that have a low clickthrough ratio are less appropriate than blogrolls that have high clickthroughs (if only 5% of the readers click on a link, it was obviously not very interesting to the audience)."

- In Big media beats the blog drum -- Seven blogger traits threaten media incumbents, Pressflex says this about blogrolling:
"By regularly commending and linking to other blogger's posts, bloggers weave new broadcast networks. (If you don't own a network, invent your own!)

May 17, 2002

Pop-up ads are viruses
Pop-up ads are the scourge of the web -- they waste users' time and effort and erode their patience and trust of the Internet. Now Salon reports that one unethical company has taken it to an extreme by using pop-up ads and malicious coding to effectively deliver "malware" -- basically a virus.

"Thousands of unsuspecting visitors to a family entertainment site are discovering a cornucopia of unwanted, potentially malicious software on their computers -- the result of a pop-up ad campaign, a booby-trapped Web site, a compromised Web browser, and strange doings at a shadowy Los Angeles company.

[The ad] was designed to automatically redirect visitors away from Flowgo (no mouse click required) and to dump them at a booby-trapped site called KoolKatalog." "[A]ccording to virus experts, tens of thousands of Internet users have been back-doored by the KoolKatalog-distributed "malware," which they have added to their lists of malicious code for scanning. While researchers have not yet completely decoded all functions of the programs, they say two of the files" "attach themselves to victims' browsers and covertly monitor which sites they visit. Other components" "appear to enable the program's authors to secretly send updates or other files to the infected computer."
This really takes the "viral" in "viral marketing" to an extreme.

Although most pop-up ads aren't intentionally malicious like in the KoolKatalog case, most are harmful in less obvious ways:

Computer viruses and pop-up (or pop-under) ads have a lot in common:
- They victimize unsuspecting, uninformed and unprotected users
- We've had to create specific utilities and software to protect users from them
- They interrupt users intended workflow
- They provide no value
- Users don't want to see either of them
- They are created by selfish, unethical people who have no regard for others
- When they "attack", they make users feel violated
Backlinking and Xanadu
In Ghosts of Xanadu, we discover yet another innovative idea from the past -- a way to "move forward through the rear view mirror" as stated recently by someone on the SIGIA Information Architecture list.

"Backlinking crudely approximates the two-way linking feature of an early hypertext system invented by Ted Nelson called Xanadu. Nelson coined the term Hypertext—the linking of information and a system for viewing it—in 1963"

I think backlinking is a very powerful concept from an Information Architecure (IA) standpoint. It provides rich links back to sites that link to the current page. These often would be pages highly related to the current page in some way. It's kind of like the Google "related pages" concept, but more timely as it would constantly age off old referrers and add new ones as they appear. It also would appear as part of the current page as auxilliary navigation.

- Wired magazine archives of articles on Ted Nelson and Xanadu -- Nelson is a strange character.

- The Xanadu Project home page
Since 1960, we have fought for a world of deep electronic documents-- with side-by-side intercomparison and frictionless re-use of copyrighted material. We have an exact and simple structure. The Xanadu model handles automatic version management and rights management through deep connection. Today's popular software simulates paper. The World Wide Web (another imitation of paper) trivializes our original hypertext model with one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents. WE FIGHT ON."

- "One profound insight can be extracted from the long and sometimes painful Xanadu story: the most powerful results often come from constraining ambition and designing only microstandards on top of which a rich exploration of applications and concepts can be supported. That's what has driven the Web and its underlying infrastructure, the Internet." -- Vincent Cerf comments on The Curse of Xanadu (September 1995)

May 16, 2002

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile
A lot of people inadvertently come here looking for information on "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" -- a great children's book by Bernard Waber. There's actually a whole series of Lyle books. I've compiled a complete list of "all things Lyle" on If you have children ages 3-8, these books are highly recommended. (Currently everything on the list with a rating is rated at least 4.5 out of 5 stars.) These books are fun for adults to read to kids or for kids to read on their own. They provide fabulous stories and illustrations. Books are cheap and make great gifts!

The list also has another kids' "Lyle" title: VeggieTales -- Lyle the Kindly Viking. VeggieTales are funny videos that have valuable lessons for kids.

For the record, I grew up being called "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" and "Lyle the crocodile" in grade school. Somehow I never read the books until I had kids of my own, and they are some of their favorite books. Currently this site comes up second on Google when people search for "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" due to my explanation of the site's name:

"The name Croc O' Lyle comes from people at work calling me "crocodile", as in the famous childrens' book "Lyle, Lyle Crocodile". The nickname went from "crocodile" to "croc" and then someone morphed it into Crocolyle. It's also a play on the phrase "Crock O' Gold" -- showing the Irish in my Heinz 57 hybrid genetics. ...and some people will probably say this whole thing is simply a crock."

This is simply an attempt to redirect people to something more suited to their interests.

May 15, 2002

Tacit knowledge and software usability
Jon Udell talks about how technologists are a breed apart.

"For years people have argued that software must relentlessly improve its score on the "mom test" and that is certainly true. But there's another angle here comes back to the KM aspects of blogging. When we narrate, we externalize what we know. We convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge. This can help software become more usable for two reasons. First, when technologists narrate what they know, they're more likely to realize how much tacit knowledge they have and expect in others. Second, when non-technologists narrate what they know, technologists can see more clearly that the expected tacit knowledge is missing."

[via David Watson]

May 14, 2002

Web projects don't iterate, they use the waterfall method
In The Bottom-line of Prototyping and Usability Testing, How user-centred design techniques can make a cost effective workflow, Henrik Olsen commits blasphemy. He says that most web projects don't follow an iterative development process. Everyone talks about iterative development these days. How could Olsen say such things?! Yet Henrik's points ring true for me. I've talked to many web development professionals, and rarely do I hear stories about projects involving refinement and iteration of a product. Usually, projects are "greenfields", creating something new, or they involve a wholesale redesign, completely re-doing the application or site.

My own experience is that larger initiatives like ecommerce sites, extranets, and portals tend to follow a more iterative development cycle, but the more common basic web sites and smaller applications tend to follow a waterfall or mud-throwing type of process.

Olsen summed it up best when he said
"The majority of Web projects employ what we could call a no-nonsense approach to product development, where none but the most obvious steps from idea to the finished product are taken."
Many business people would say this "no-nonsense approach" makes perfect sense. Who needs extra steps anyway? The problem is that, generally, projects blow their whole budget and timeline in release one. They don't budget time or money for iterations (e.g. multiple prototypes) within release one. They don't have plans or budget for a release two.

In one of my presentations for development teams I advise them to listen for a warning sign related to project iteration that might indicate a product or project is ill-fated:

If the client says: “We’re going to put something out there and then get feedback.” you should ask the following questions to help assess project risk:

Q: How and when will they gather feedback?
If they're not sure or if they're just going to monitor complaints, then you're in trouble. Have they budgeted and planned for appropriate "feedback gathering" activities?

Q: Is there budget for the next iteration? Two iterations? Three iterations?
No budget often means no next iteration. So even if you get user feedback, you might not be able to do anything about it.

Q: When will the next iteration or phase start?
No timeline equals no real plans to fix anything. Clients rarely expect to find problems, so they don't plan on fixing anything. They see fixes as exceptions to handle if necessary.

Q: How long can users suffer if good usability isn’t there? What if it's really bad? What if the help desk gets a lot of calls?
If you can't move to the next iteration quickly, you could end up creating a lot of headaches for yourself -- not to mention negative brand impact, extra support costs and resistance to use the product in the future.

Q: How about just developing a paper prototype and getting feedback on it?
Rather than iterate product releases, which is costly, why not iterate within your release? Get user feedback on prototypes to accelerate your overall process and deliver a better product right from the start.

"Getting something out there and getting feedback" is often just an excuse for cutting corners on the User-Centered Design (UCD) process. Don't let your clients fool themselves into thinking they're being "iterative" when they're really heading for a waterfall.

- Joel on Software: Picking a Ship Date -- an excellent, realistic approach to managing software releases. If you're faced with "timeboxing" a project, you might want to consider Joel's thoughts on release schedules. It also applies if you're really and truly following an iterative lifecycle.

- BusinessWeek: Looks for Big Improvements from Some Subtle Design Tweaks -- Quotes: "As we built a user experience map we decided we needed to focus on top to bottom information architecture," and "You can run into the trap of subjectively tweaking versus objectively tweaking,"

- Why Good Design Comes from Bad Design

[via Elegant Hack]

May 11, 2002 design case study
Frog design has a nice case study of their work with Dell (albeit in a badly framed page). It covers some of the design rationale used to make specific design decisions like use of color to highlight main path navigation:

"We established a primary purchase path defined by bright, bold colorful buttons which lead the user down the path. To address other types of shoppers, less prominent monotone image links are used. To lead users through shopping paths, we established a system of way-finding link icons with primary ones leading to the next step in the path and secondary icons leading to tangent content."
Bring a product vision to your project: Design the Box
"One practice that I've found effective in getting teams to think about a product vision is the Design-the-Box exercise ... The team makes the assumption that the product will be sold in a shrink-wrapped box, and their task is to design the product box front and back. This involves coming up with a product name, a graphic, three to four key bullet points on the front to "sell" the product, a detailed feature description on the back, and operating requirements."
The World Is Complicated. Get Used To It.
Joel provides an excellent example of real world design trade-offs in a recent post.

"Design is all about making hard choices and, hopefully, sometimes, hitting upon elegant solutions that solve conflicting goals. But when you can't solve conflicting goals, you have to be smart enough to decide which goal to solve, and not just be a lazy punter and pretend that adding a checkbox to the options dialog will solve it."
In Defense of Cheating
Don Norman points out why GPAs aren't always everything they're cracked up to be. I can say that my GPA was always pretty good, but I've also found that often the best employees are well-rounded individuals who don't have perfect grades. I've seen many 4.0 students (a perfect grade-point-average) who can't figure out how to deal with real business situations where the path to success isn't clear. The whole grading system is messed up and doesn't reward the behaviors we need in business.

As Don says in his essay:
"Consider this: in many ways, the behavior we call cheating in schools is exactly the behavior we desire in the real world. Think about it. What behavior do we call cheating in the school system? Asking others for help, copying answers, copying papers. Most of these activities are better called "networking" or "cooperative work." In the workplace these behaviors are encouraged and rewarded. Thus, many experts will tell you that their real expertise lies not in what they know but rather in who they know: that is, expertise is often knowing whom to ask and where to look. When we have problems in the real world, we want answers, no matter the source, which means searching to find someone else who has experienced the same problem, asking others for help, and cooperating."

I can't say I agree with all of Don's ideas on "fixing" the system, but recognizing the flaws is a first step.