December 10, 2004

Don't do as I say...

SAP Design Guild -- Golden Rules for Bad User Interfaces

"As people like to do just the opposite of what one is proposing, we thought that it might be a good idea to promote bad user interface design."

December 09, 2004

Airhead design of the day

Thanks to Form Function Emotion for this goodie (with photos):

"This machine is high tech. It has buttons so you can set the correct pressure for your tyre, and then all you have to do is press another button, and the machine will automatically pump the type up to the right presure. And it is in this cleverness that causes problems..."

Form Function Emotion: Coming up for Air

December 08, 2004

Simply calling something "Research" isn't good enough

An article in Wired News - Florida E-Vote Study Debunked - points out that serious research must be done in a responsible fashion.

"A study by Berkeley grad students and a professor showing anomalies with electronic-voting machines in Florida has been debunked by numerous academics who say the students used a faulty equation to reach their results and should never have released the study before getting it peer-reviewed."

"If I were to get this article as (an academic) reviewer, I would turn it around and say they were fishing to find a result," Stewart said. "I know of no theory or no prior set of intuitions that would have led me to run the analysis they ran."

November 29, 2004

The Usable Consultant

An article by Dave Rogers in the Gotomedia newsletter contains
a definition of "consultant usability":

"The extent to which a consultant helps people to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction within the realities of their organization."

He makes some great points:

- Usable consultants listen obsessively
- Usable consultants generously share knowledge and information
- Usable consultants don't boilerplate
- Usable consultants join the team
- Usable consultants help you achieve goals

November 18, 2004

Gates Is World's Most 'Spammed' Person

"Gates, Microsoft's chairman, gets 4 million e-mails a day and is probably the most 'spammed' person in the world, his Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer said Thursday."

At the height of my personal battle with spam, I received as many as 282 spam per day, and the average was about 200 per day. I estimated that it took at least 20 minutes per day to deal with these spam. That doesn't include time setting up rules and exceptions list in my email client and tracking my spam problem (in the interest of getting someone to address it.) Due to new anti-spam tools, the number is now much more manageable.

What kind of impact has spam had on you? Leave a comment.

November 15, 2004

Stoplight Design

Why are stoplights Red, Yellow and Green?

"Stoplights are red, yellow, and green, because traffic officials, early on copied the code system railroad engineers devised for track systems controlling the trains."

And something interesting I learned from reading "From cells to bells, 10 things the Chinese do far better than we do"

"In Tianjin, a city of 13 million people, traffic lights display red or green signals in a rectangle that rhythmically shrinks down as the time remaining evaporates. In Beijing, some traffic lights offer a countdown clock for both green and red signals. ... During a red light, you know whether you have time to check that map; on a green light, you know whether to start braking a block away -- or to stomp on the accelerator, as though you were a Toronto or Montreal driver. (That's probably why Montreal has a few lights with countdown seconds for pedestrians.)"

At what point is it worthwhile to change your standards if a better design is evident? I can't imagine the cost of rolling out new stoplight designs across the US. The cost for education and awareness alone would be huge. Yet, if it would prevent accidents and driver frustration, maybe it'd be worth it. Just thinking about the "business case" for analyzing the cost/benefit makes my head hurt, not to mention the political battles that would have to be won...

What do you think? Leave a comment...

November 03, 2004

AMR Research Says "The New Game is Ease of Use and Accessibility"

Here's a must read: AMR Research: Functionality Is Dead, and some excerpts from it:

"But rather than be a sporadic phenomenon, ease of use and accessibility are about to enter a time in which they will become a selection metric on par with technology and functionality. AMR Research has been spotting this trend for the last year or so." ...

"If no one uses it, it doesn't matter
These examples and others serve as a reminder to IT and business managers that while technological and functional requirements are important, so too are applications that will be embraced by real people. One of the largest problems that enterprise applications have is that they are too hard to use. For such applications, if users can avoid them to get their job done, history has shown that they will. This truth has manifested itself in countless enterprise applications being used the bare minimum, which has made it harder for IT organizations to show a positive return on their investment."

A more to-the-point way of stating the last sentence is "Lack of attention to usability has made it harder for IT organizations to show business value." AMR hit the nail on the head with this one. Technology pushers need to wake up.

October 10, 2004

CRM Daily: The New Look of E-Commerce: The Customer Experience:

(Note: I've added links where I thought they added good WEB authors should.)

"Usability testing is now a regular part of e-commerce development in retail, banking and financial services and is gaining ground in other sectors. Still, some industry verticals are slow to get the message.

'The auto makers tend to be slaves to their offline ad campaigns,' says Manning. 'They'll do things like design beautiful sites that don't help customers make a buying decision, then pat themselves on the backs when the latest J.D. Power survey confirms that customers do indeed think they have beautiful sites. But who cares? Do they want to win art contests or generate leads for dealers?'

Forrester and other analyst firms are promoting customer experience as a bottom-line issue, which is driving a universal acceptance of usability as a legitimate business metric from the CFO downward. Web managers who underestimate the importance of good Web usability will suffer the consequences -- competitor sites are within easy reach of today's Web surfer.

Competitive Pressure
Many firms are demanding that their ad agencies or Web boutiques, which typically lack in-house usability experts, conduct usability studies on their site development projects. These traditional print and Web-marketing consultancies are looking outside to meet their client's needs for including usability as part of Web-development offerings.

Increased Revenue
Studies have shown that adherence to usability standards and guidelines can drastically improve the revenue potential of a Web site. Customer conversion rates can increase between 30 and 50 percent following a usability intervention. Revenue can increase 50 to 100 percent or more on retail e-commerce Web sites.

For example,, a retail vehicle-listing Web site, saw an 83 percent increase in consumer-listing conversion rates after usability research was used to re-design the site.

"In the first month, we saw revenue double -- a 100 percent increase in sales. Renewals were up 13 percent in the post-site-deployment period," said David Scifres, vice president of e-commerce for the Affinity Group, the parent company of the site.

"After six months, consumer-listing sales increased by 200 percent, which we attribute to the usability driven re-design. This translates into a four times increase in consumer revenue," he told NewsFactor.

Independent research also is showing more compelling reasons to make calculated and precise shifts in site enhancement or re-design. Stanford Research'songoing large-scale study regarding perception of credibility on the Web shows that ease of use is the top contributing factor to perceived credibility of Web sites.

October 05, 2004

Whither the newspaper?

An article in Editor & Publisher yesterday makes me wonder if in 20 years, the average web site will be more intuitive and comfortable to most people than a newspaper. I can see it now: a high school kid (from the class of 2028) looking at an old, yellowed newspaper from September 11, 2001 and asking Grandma to explain the news format. 'So you're telling me Grandma that this pile of inky paper was called a newspaper? And there's no navigation or search? You had to skip past all this other junk just to get to the comics section? And the articles were already almost a day old by the time you bought it? Geesh, did they have electricity then, or did you have to read it by candlelight too?'

Here are a few excerpts from Washington Post Focus Group Reveals a Shocker: Young People Prefer Newspapers Online:

"Editor Erik Wemple recounted what happened at some focus-group sessions The Washington Post recently conducted with young prospective subscribers in the area, and he speculated that Post news execs are 'haunted' by one particular man.

"'He's a youngish man, a recent law school graduate,' Wemple wrote. 'When presented with a copy of the Post, this fellow fumbled with it, according to sources. He professed he didn't know how it was organized. And the kicker: He expressed wonderment at the spread known as the editorial/op-ed pages.'

"Was this man simply a head-in-the-sand young professional, concerned only with career and social life? Not at all. 'He reads the Post constantly on its Web site,' Wemple reported, ''sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few hours,' according to a source.' And therein lies the problem -- for all newspapers, not just the Post. ...

"Wemple reported that Posties learned the paper's non-subscribers were baffled at why they might want so much newspaper. They were concerned for environmental reasons -- all those trees! -- and they were concerned for practical ones, too: The focus groupers said they didn't want a bunch of newspapers "piling up" around the house. And they also liked the convenience. For younger readers, online is the natural, convenient, and efficient way to get news."

Will biometrics help us get rid of passwords?

After reading this reviiew of a biometric IBM ThinkPad T42, I'm looking forward to the time when biometrics are a standard way of logging into a computer. Swiping a finger across a scanner is so much easier than remembering a bunch of passwords.

What do you think? Will biometrics make systems more usable or is it all a bunch of hype?

September 16, 2004

Bad Statistics Give Me Chest Pains

On the radio last week I heard a local news reporter say of Bill Clinton that "90% of some of his arteries were blocked" (prior to his quadruple bypass). I grimaced and groaned and I think I might have made some derogatory remark about the reporter's intelligence. Ninety percent of *some*???!!! Nothing like being exactly vague with your statistics. Note also that the reporter wasn't specific about which we're talking about coronary arteries...not just any old arteries pushing blood around the body.

The facts:
Most reports I heard were more accurate and more successful at communicating a technical statistic to the average "Joe" on the street. For example, this AP photo has a good caption that more accurately states the stat:
"Clinton was at high risk of a heart attack before his quadruple bypass surgery Monday, with several arteries well over 90 percent blocked"

Doing a bit of Googling turns up more inaccuracies in reports of the same story:

"His arteries were 90 percent blocked."
from KABC-TV Los Angeles: Doctors: Clinton Dodged a Major Bullet
...all of his arteries?

"Monday's surgery revealed that his arteries were 90 percent blocked."
from WCVB-TV Boston: After Clinton Scare, Docs Urge Heart Vigilance
...exactly 90%? And again, all of his arteries?

"Clinton remained in intensive care after cardiologists performed a four-hour operation Monday to bypass four clogged arteries. They were so severely blocked that less than 10 percent of the normal blood flow was getting to his heart..."
...Wow! We're not talking about a few arteries that are mostly blocked, we're talking about 90% less blood flow in total to the heart!!!???

When dealing with statistics, whether related to the health of a past President or a recent usability test, it's important to maintain accuracy. Don't try to quote an exact stat unless A) you can get the stat correct, and B) the audience will be able to follow and understand the stat's context and content.

It's one thing to say "in testing we found that most people didn't use the site map" and a totally different thing to say "our tests and third party research show that 73% of users will not find a site map or site index useful in locating detailed product information on consumer web sites." Stats can be difficult to understand, so sometimes having them in print or on a slide can help people understand the stats. (Note, that stat example is entirely made up...)

Finally, if you find yourself trying to summarize a stat, be careful that you're not changing the meaning (as many of the news reporters on the Clinton story did).

September 15, 2004

UCD in Plain Language

An oddly titled article in Technology Marketing magazine - "Headline" - does a good job of describing key tenets of User Centered Design for web sites without getting into a bunch of usability lingo.

"Most sites are built backwards. They start with content. They organize the content. Then they publish the content and tell the audience it's there. This approach could be summarized in this way: 'Content, architecture, audience.' This is the most common process, and it results in sites that are impossible for you to manage and for your customers to navigate.

"Instead, try to start by defining the audiences for your content, then list the actions they want to take, and then you should develop the content that supports those actions. In summary: 'Audience, actions, content.' The audience and their actions determine the content. ...

"You already know whom you're trying to reach. Interview them to find out what actions they want to take and the content that will support those actions. What you learn will result in sites that are refreshingly intuitive for your audiences.

"The bad news? If you design your sites around the audience and their actions, the resulting content set will not include some of your favorite Content Babies. We all have them: that white paper we wrote until the wee hours of the morning, the brochure that took us a year to get approved, etc. We can't stand the thought of leaving our Content Babies out of our content set. But if they don't fit into the "Audience, actions, content model," you'll have to let them go, and replace them with the content that your audience actually wants."

September 08, 2004

I Track, You Track, We All Track for Eyetracking

A new study from the Poynter Institute is out, and this article provides some reviews and critiques of the findings. Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool are among the "home page umpires." The interactive 'heatmaps' are pretty neat if you've never seen eyetracking data.

Poynter Online - When It Comes to Homepages, It is Polite to Stare

"Eyetrack researchers showed 46 people a variety of mock news websites and followed their eyes as they moved along the pages. Here's what the research found."

See Also:
- Findings of Eyetrack III research from The Poynter Institute

September 07, 2004

New Use of Purple is Critical

After reading this story I'm considering printing all reports from usability test findings or expert reviews in purple. Of course now I just have to figure out which exact shade of violet conveys the most friendly, non-critical tone. If only I'd learned earlier that it's how you color your words rather than how you phrase them that really matters...I could have saved so much time.

I'm sure if Jakob Nielsen had simply said Flash sucks 99% of the time (in purple), his words would have been better received. Just think of all the frustration that could have been avoided.

September 01, 2004

Melts in your mouth, and on the web...

Something I blogged about being broken almost three years ago is still broken today:

You can't buy M&M's where I live

Update: Now I can buy M&M's in one Target store within 15 miles of my zip code (according to the app)...

This example points out something Jakob Nielsen overlooked in his Alertbox article Helping Users Find Physical Locations. Teams designing locators, whether product locators, dealer locators, store locators or whatever, need to make sure that the application has complete and accurate data. While a common usage scenario is that a user is looking for a nearby location, often users are also aware of a nearby location and want to find an address, map or phone number for that location. If the location they are looking for isn't there, they will quickly lose trust in the locator application's ability to provide good information.

I'm not sure if the Nielsen Norman Group's guidelines report talks about the need for good data either. Often, I think usability folks focus on the user interface, and shy away from pointing out issues with content (data) or business strategy. While the M&M locator has content problems, the biggest issue I see is that no one in America needs a product locator for M&M's - the product is a ubiquitous offering at just about any grocery store, gas station or anywhere else that sells candy.

August 30, 2004

Usability Quote of the Day

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding."
- Kahlil Gibran

This quote reminds me of facilitating usability tests. Often, the frustration and struggle that users go through is very evident, but that "pain" often is a powerful catalyst for opening up the understanding of the design team, business, or organization conducting the tests. I often have to remind myself that in a usability test, the few suffer to prevent the suffering of the many.

Of course, watching your "baby" you designed fail and frustrate users is painful for the design team...but those teams that subject themselves to that pain suddenly find they have new, tremendous understanding and empathy which refuels their desire to create something compelling and satisfying. The shared "pain" of observing usability tests can help a team gel and focus around critical design issues.

August 26, 2004

Design Quote of the Day

"One who walks in another's tracks leaves no footprints."
- Proverb

Innovation creates "footprints" and is good.

Standards and conventions are necessary, because not all footprints are innovative, valuable, or pretty to look at.

August 24, 2004

Design Quote of the Day

"We are half ruined by conformity, but we should be wholly ruined without it."
- Charles Dudley Warner

Laws and rules stink...but without them we'd have anarchy.

A recent example of where lack of standards created a crisis was the now infamous butterfly ballot in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Usability professionals are working to establish standards and recommendations to avoid similar confusion in the future.
Around the World in 80 Clicks

An article by Lisa Battle and Duane Degler written in 2001 has some nice discussion about considerations when designing for international user groups.

Some of the considerations discussed include:
- Language
- Time
- Cultural expectations
- Metaphor and representation
- The user's locale

If you're thinking about internationalization (I18N), globalization, or translation, you should read this over.

The article was originally published in Performance Improvement (EPSS Special Edition), a Journal published by the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI)

August 23, 2004

How much does language affect how you think?

A fascinating story called Life without numbers in a unique Amazon tribe on the Globe and Mail site boggles the mind. It talks about an Amazon tribe that has no concept of numbers, no words for colors, and many other cultural characteristics that most civilized people would plainly call "strange."

"Adult Piraha apparently can't learn to count or understand the concept of numbers or numerals, even when they asked anthropologists to teach them and have been given basic math lessons for months at a time.

...the Piraha are the only people known to have no distinct words for colours.

...They have no written language, and no collective memory going back more than two generations.

...They have no creation myths, tell no fictional stories and have no art. All of their pronouns appear to be borrowed from a neighbouring language.

...Linguists and anthropologists who have seen both the Everett and Gordon studies are flabbergasted by the tribe's strangeness, particularly since the Piraha have not lived in total isolation.

The tribe, which lives on a tributary river to the Amazon, has been in contact with other Brazilians for 200 years and regularly sells nuts to, and shares their women with, Brazilian traders who stop by."

The story raises the question of whether or not the inability to describe something prevents you from thinking about it. I think that's a very plausible theory.

August 20, 2004

Moving Forms to the Web

I just found this real gem about forms usability: a PDF handout from Ginny Redish's talk entitled "Moving Forms to the Web" that she gave at Usability University (a US Government training program) in June 2004.

Ginny offers a lot in this little PDF:
- The section called "planning to move forms online" offers a great approach on how to go about researching user and business needs prior to designing an online form. The approach is comprehensive yet pragmatic - something I really appreciate as a practitioner.
- She outlines 17 guidelines for consideration when designing web forms.

Download the PDF Handout from Ginny's site.

I got to know Ginny a bit better at UPA 2004, where she gave a great keynote address on communities. (You can find those slides online too, but one of the reasons her talk was great because it was interactive and engaging with PowerPoint playing a minimal role in the overall mix. Therefore, the slides don't really stand alone.)
Don't Read This Article

Please don't read this trash masquerading as usability advice.

Here are a few tips for the author:
1) Actually know something about the topic you're writing about.
2) Follow your own advice: "If your site [or article] has too much content ensure readability" ... and accuracy, and validity, and clarity, etc., etc., etc. Oh, and if you have to much content...maybe you have too much content.
3) Follow your own advice: "Test for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors." Try using a proofreader.
4) Follow your own advice: Add a sitemap, strategic links, and some XP style icons - I'm sure that will make your article much better.
5) Learn what usability is - if you don't recognize that different sites have different users with different needs, then you'll continue to speak about usability incorrectly and offer ineffective platitudes and generalities that perpetuate unusable web sites. What you're advocating is that people waste a lot of time and money on activities that do little or nothing to make their web site more effective.

People have much better alternatives if they want truly effective tips for designing usable web sites.

August 17, 2004

SEO Without Usability -- An Exercise In Futility

From a WebProNews article by Scottie Claiborne we get a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) article that talks about why site owners shouldn't simply worry about search engine marketing tactics like Google Pagerank optimization, higher rankings, and reciprocal links. If you do somehow manage to drive a lot of traffic to your site, it then needs to be usable or those visitors will quickly go away and you'll lose the sale (or other business opportunity) you seek.

Here are a few excerpts (emphasis is mine):

"[I]n the same way that the average SEO can spot design or technical issues and recommend or work with a specialist, they should also be able to spot major usability issues and recommend or work with a usability analyst. "

"A usability analyst can walk through the site and spot obstacles that may prevent users from completing their goal. They typically address marketing, layout, technical, and design issues that can frustrate users or even drive them away. When site owners are presented with a usability study in addition to an SEO analysis, they have a better picture of overall "health" of the site and a blueprint for greater profitability, not just more traffic.

"Usability reports are a relatively inexpensive investment that return far more than their cost in increased sales, subscriptions, leads, etc. SEO and usability improvements implemented together can result in dramatic changes in traffic and conversions.

"Search engine optimization is still in its infancy, and is a constantly changing discipline. As the search engines get better and better at rewarding the best/most complete sites, usability will become even more important.

"Many long-time SEOs are now looking at the big picture and working with usability analysts. This ensures that their sites are crawler- and user-friendly along with being ready for sales conversions. Sites that can be found and that are usable as well will also attract links. It just makes sense. The double impact of more traffic and higher conversions makes for happy clients and powerful testimonials, as well as satisfied searchers."

You can find a qualified usability consultant on the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) web site. The UPA maintains a list of usability consultants who are members.

August 16, 2004

User Friendly Gestures
User interfaces: The next generation - Computerworld: "One example is a gesture recognition system developed for the U.S. Department of Defense by Cybernet Systems Corp. in Ann Arbor, Mich. The technology was developed to facilitate silent troop communication during combat. It allows users to stand in front of a camera-mounted monitor and manipulate images, data and application windows by using specific hand movements from a lexicon of roughly 80 gestures recognized by the system. A San Antonio-based TV station is using a commercial version of the product, called GestureStorm, to control computerized visual effects in its weather reports."

Gesture input has received a lot of press lately. You occasionally hear about a specific use of the technology (like in this Dept. of Defense system), with claims of broad future use of gesture input. I think there's still a lot of hype about gesture input, and I think broad usage is unlikely, or at least a long way off - for a couple of simple reasons:

1) Affordances

2) Lack of Standards

Affordance: Affordance is the perceived properties of a thing that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. Gesture input is usually done by moving the hand in a certain way or by moving a mouse in a certain pattern (usually after or while a button is depressed). The problem with gestures is that they aren't obvious. A keyboard or onscreen menu have clear labels - gestures usually don't, and so they place a larger burden on the user to learn, remember and accurately recall the correct gesture for what they want to do. Then they have to perform some small gymnastics - executing the gesture properly so the system can recognize their command. Basically gestures seem to have a lot of the same issues as command line interface input with the added fun of hand gymnastics.

Standards: Who wants to learn different sets of gestures for each application or each platform (PC, cell phone, PDA, etc.)? It probably doesn't make sense to create gestures for low-level functions like copy and paste. After all, how would a gesture be better than a CTRL-C keyboard shortcut? If gestures are used for more complex, higher level functions, then they are likely to be industry, context, user or at least application specific (e.g. "Open a list of all bugs assigned to me" or "Close this order and generate an invoice")

It's possible that standards for gestures at the platform level might be established in the short term (e.g. "Email this file"), but how would they be any better than what we have today?

My prediction is that voice recognition will slowly, but eventually take off in mobile applications. We'll get voice recognition software for composing text messages - only requiring the user to edit the message with a keyboard. Voice menus might also eliminate the need for gesture input in some cases.

Gestures effectively flatten the menu structure - making many or all functions available at once - much like keyboard shortcuts do today. In a similar way (to shortcuts), I think they will mainly be suited for power users - primarily in specialized applications.

The Thumb Generation
The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > All Thumbs, Without the Stigma: "So important has the thumb become on gadgets in Japan, where text messaging caught on earlier, that a certain demographic group is referred to as oyayubi sedai, 'the thumb generation.' Dr. Tenner pointed to findings that young Japanese, accustomed to using their thumbs to send messages, are now using them to do other tasks - like pointing and ringing door bells - traditionally the realm of the index finger."

"Of course, there is some worry, even among users, that speed typing with one thumb could create repetitive strain injuries, like joystick wrist. But the early evidence is inconclusive, according to people who follow the field. ... Professor Katz said the thumb was unlikely to face as many problems as, for instance, the wrist. The reason, he said, is that the wrists have lots of tendons and have not adapted well to the unexpected use of the forearm for typing."

July 16, 2004

Usability is NOT a technical problem

Designing usable applications is a multi-disciplinary problem, the heart of which is a people problem. Designers and developers need to understand their users, and customers.

Frans Englich wrote an article for Newsforge called Open source usability is a technical problem we can solve on our own -- and it's an amazing read. It's amazing to me how horribly misunderstood the basic premise of usability is in some areas of the Linux community. I have noticed the folks working on the usability teams seem to be headed in the right direction, although I haven't look at it in depth.

Linux and Open Source have a huge constraint that make usability a difficult to acheive goal: lack of leadership. Let me add: lack of strategy, lack of measurement, lack of clarity -- too many voices are considered at all times, and solid decisions are never really made...not for long.

Here are some horribly wrong statements from Frans' article (and my comments in bold):

1) "For some reason, we treat it [usability] as a mystery instead of looking at it as a problem we can solve the same way we solve all other technical problems."

Sure, the way to solve your problems is to use the same flawed process you used to get into them.

2) "Even if we decide to rely on outside experts to solve our usability problems, they are going to find it impossible to keep up with us. The KDE project alone has an average of 200 checkins to its code repository each day. There aren't enough outside usability specialists available to correct all the errors that are inevitable with this level of productivity."

So he's saying 'We're making too much "progress" to worry about fixing all the errors we're making at this level of "productivity"! Let's be honest here, he's really saying "We don't want to slow down, get organized and do it better the first time...after all, the proper measure of productivity is of course the number of code changes checked in every day."

3) "One of the advantages of open source is its ability to put the consumer ahead of profit. Our goal is to produce great software while honoring the user's privacy, rights, and freedom. When usability, central to everything in today's software, is outsourced to companies, the open source community's independence and opportunity to achieve its noble goal is compromised. The open source community must be able to handle all its issues -- including usability -- by itself in order for our development approach to give maximum benefit to society and the user by constantly advancing our level of technical excellence." .... "We don't need usability reports. We need each developer to devote as little as one single thought to usability."

Okay, now the evidence of heavy Kool-Aid drinking is pretty obvious. This one's so convoluted it's amazing. So the "noble goal" of "putting the consumer ahead of profit" is better served by not paying evil "companies" (god forbid) to identify the consumer, understand their needs and deliver them a better product. Right... The consumer is *definitely* put "ahead" when you rationalize your decision to not practice user-centered design... This is like a non-profit organization deciding that tax and finance consultants are evil because they bill for their time - and then calling for their volunteers to just "think about taxes for one minute."

Design is a skill, an area of knowledge, a craft, a realm where experience matters. Design is also fun, and designers have power -- often people just don't want to share the reins with anyone else, even if those other folks are better suited to that role on the team. And to reiterate: designer is just a role on a much larger team.

May 26, 2004

How do companies running Linux request new features?

An article in LinuxWorld asks a great question: What About the Linux End Users?

"If Linux were a proprietary operating system, then companies such as Gillette and Staples who might want to use Linux to run mission-critical applications would make any queries or requests to the vendor. But who looks after them in the Linux world, asks Dr. Bill Claybrook - how do such companies get the features that they want included in Linux?"

Side note: The design of the "regular" version of this article on the LinuxWorld site is horrible. I clicked to this story from Google News and had a hard time finding the actual story content. Yuck! There's so much other stuff at the top of the page that the content I came for is far below "the fold." They also have an iconic toolbar below the story's title that has a "Read Story" link. Clicking on that actually takes you AWAY from the story you just fought so hard to find. How exactly does that help you read the story?

Related posts:
- Misuse of (Linux) usability report findings continues
- Linux needs focus not whiners
- Open Letter to a Power User / Developer (Linux related)
- Usability and Open Source Software
- Confessions of a Mozillian

May 11, 2004

Fudgability is next to Usability

A good post from the blog Kasei tells the story of a system so over-engineered that users couldn't use it. It's a good lesson in the KISS principle.

The Importance of Fudgability

"In any human process there's always a degree to which the outcome can be fudged by the person performing the task. Even when the rules are simple or well-understood, there are always cases when someone will have a compelling reason to do things differently. In this case we didn't even know all the rules, and discovered to our horror that there were many more edge-cases than we'd imagined."

April 22, 2004

Good Food, Good Life, Bad Site

The Nestle corporate web site gets my vote for bad site of the day...maybe the week. I haven't seen a site quite this bad for some time. Where do you start? I could spend hours critiquing all the basic flaws (i.e. breaking widely known web usability and design standards) in this site.

Check out these pages (and issues):
- Media Centre (frames, hidden-in-plain-sight Search box placement, link colors, headquarters map)

- Home Page (what's clickable?)

- Download Kiosk (can you say "Fitt's"?)

- Internet Directory (can't see the forest for the trees and the flash)

- Country Access (nice icons by the phone #'s!)

- Careers Site Site Map (it's spelled C.O.N.T.R.A.S.T)

- Investor Relations - The designers and authors of the site show nothing but contempt for their content, not to mention their investors and other audiences by shoehorning content into little porthole-like frames and pop-up windows with ghastly PowerPoint slides shrunk down to thumbnail size. Someone there needs to read a bit of Tufte for enlightenment!

Okay, I've got to quit now...but someone at Nestle should give Rolf Molich or another decent usability consultant a call -- right after they fire their horrible design firm.

April 21, 2004

Defibrillator Maker claims FDA warnings about quality don't relate to usability, safety or efficacy

A statement in a short Reuters article (Cardiac Science Gets FDA Warning on Quality) struck me as a good example of a corporate PR group trying to spin bad press. Here's an excerpt (emphasis is mine):

"Cardiac Science Inc., a defibrillator maker, said on Wednesday that it received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration following an inspection of its manufacturing facility in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The FDA letter ... said certain procedural and documentation items in the company's quality system were not in compliance, the company said in a statement. The letter did not relate to the usability, safety or efficacy of the company's defibrillators, the firm said."

So what they are REALLY saying is the FDA warned them about problems with their quality process. The FDA didn't point out any exact issues with their products. Of course, the process is what leads to (i.e., designs, tests, and approves) the products, but that's just a minor point, right?

April 20, 2004

Search Best Bets & Reporting on Search Log Data

Looking for a way to process your search logs (data files that keep a record of each search query performed on a web site)? Check out this helpful article from Jean Ferguson, a Masters student at UNC: Counting frequency in a list of search terms. It does a nice job of explaining how to get Excel to show you your most popular search terms.

If you're managing your search engine, you should keep track of the most popular terms and make sure that people will find relevant results when searching for those terms. Search term popularity follows a "zipf distribution" (think 80/20 or pareto principle), so you get the most bang for your buck by focusing on the most popular search queries. Some search tools allow you to manually point users to "best bets" for a given search term. Here's an example for a search for "support" on the Novell site. Here's another example from the BBCi site - a search for "politics."

See also:
- Lou Rosenfeld, Bloug: 80/20 Again—Critical Architectural Junctures
- Lou Rosenfeld, Presentation called Search Log Analysis for User Research (.5 MB PowerPoint file) given to a local UPA chapter.
- Tanya Rabourn, Pixelcharmer: Best Bets. (Great example of real data from a real site.)
- James Robertson, Column Two: Search tools articles
- Richard Wiggins, Searcher Magazine: Beyond the Spider: The Accidental Thesaurus
- Avi Rappoport, Recommending Pages for Special Searches (Covers best bets pretty well with tool suggestions.)
How many navigation bars can you fit on a screen?

Check out this page on the Dell Support site:

Dell Support: Reference Info: User Guides: Dell Printers: Workgroup Laser Printers

I count well over a dozen distinct navigation bars or levels of navigation...

Now click on "Enterprise Support" at the top right (which is not a distinct label from "Support Home") get a dialog box saying "Your current 'Manage My Systems List' will remain on this support site while you visit the Enterprise Support site." It tells me nothing worthwhile - I didn't know I had such a 'list,' and now I'm confused. I also noted that while the message seems to indicate I won't lose the place I'm leaving, the Back button doesn't function properly once I get to Enterprise Support.

...I smell a few silos somewhere...

Got any more examples of nav bar overload? Send them to me at Lyle_Kantrovich at Bigfoot dot com (replace the words with the usual punctuation).

Related Posts:
- Segmenting Users with Navigation Games
- design case study

March 21, 2004

NASA Researching new input technology that may improve accessibility

"NASA has developed a computer program that comes close to reading thoughts not yet spoken, by analyzing nerve commands to the throat. It says the breakthrough holds promise for astronauts and the handicapped.

"A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly it cannot be heard, but the tongue and vocal cords do receive speech signals from the brain," said developer Chuck Jorgensen, of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Jorgensen's team found that sensors under the chin and one each side of the Adam's apple pick up the brain's commands to the speech organs, allowing the subauditory, or "silent speech" to be captured.

'A logical spin-off would be that handicapped persons could use this system for a lot of things,' he said, as well as persons wanting to speak by telephone without being overheard."

[Via Yahoo! News]: Yahoo! News - NASA hears words not yet spoken

JetBlue founder & CEO takes time to serve customers - in flight

Inc magazine has a nice story of how a company's CEO takes time each month to serve customer and motivate his team.

Full Story: | Street Smarts: Learning From JetBlue:

"by keeping in touch, he gets a real-time sense of the market. He knows first hand what's going on out there, and he'll see trends before his competitors. That's one of the biggest advantages of having direct contact with customers. Markets change. Technologies change. Customer wants and needs change. If you have your finger on the pulse of the market, you're a step ahead of the competition. If you don't, you run the risk of getting blind-sided.
In addition, he's shaping the company culture. Employees see him working the crowd, going out of his way to help a customer, and they do the same. They hear him talking about the plans to introduce new services, and they spread the word. Above all, they know that Neeleman isn't sitting behind a desk somewhere counting his stock options. He's putting in overtime, and he's doing it with them. They can rest assured that he understands what's happening on the frontlines because he's been there. He's on their team."

January 26, 2004

Beyond Bookmarks & Powermarks

A New York Times article called Now Where Was I? New Ways to Revisit Web Sites talks about new research being done to help users find useful web pages after some time has elapsed.

"Software being tested at Microsoft Research takes a stab at solving that problem. Susan Dumais, a senior researcher with Microsoft who is also part of the University of Washington team, has helped develop a program called Stuff I've Seen. The software is designed to help people recall documents like e-mail messages and Web sites through a unified search interface. Keyword search results include related Web sites already visited, regardless of whether they have been bookmarked."

Frequent COL readers might recall I have an affinity for Powermarks. So far, it's still the best I've found for this sort of recall task.

- Stuff I've Seen - A System for Personal Information Retrieval and Re-Use (SIGIR Paper in PDF format)
- COL: Who needs bookmarks?