TechCrunch has posted a brief look inside Google’s Gmail usability lab along with some interesting pictures of the testing and observation rooms. One thing that I found interesting is the large monitor in the testing room–not a typical features in most testing set-ups. Other than that, it’s a pretty standard usability lab. Another thing worth noting is that the usability folks at Gmail rely on Google employees as well as outsiders to test their products. This is an often overlooked testing practice. Even though internal folk can identify major interaction issues at the beginning states of product design, they are often not included in testing. Why not use those easily accessible, free resources?
- Easy pagination
- Fast delivery of books
Cons mentioned include:
- Sub-par search capabilities
- Unclear upload tool
- Awkward button design (beyond “NEXT PAGE” and “PREV PAGE”)
- Illogical pricing models, particularly for internet content
- Disappointing out-of-the-box experience (no content pre-loaded after spending $300)
Despite the length of the con list, Hurst does support the potential of the product, saying “the Kindle is fairly good, and it’s bound to improve. With several fixes to its customer experience, this little device could become (or remain) the leading platform for reading ebooks for many years to come.” I hope that this product lives up to its potential, and builds upon its great start.
MySpace finally cleaned up its act by launching a new, more elegant interface design. Mashable broke the story about a possible MySpace redesign on June 13 after images of the new interface design were leaked to Mark Hopkins.
In the user experience sphere MySpace has often been cited as a paragon of bad design, and many users share this sentiment. It’s a shame that it took them so long to address glaring user experience problems, but as the saying goes, “better late than never.” Below is the newly designed MySpace homepage.
The new homepage employs proven interaction paradigms like tabbed modules to provide a deeper content structure and thus expose more content to users on its main page. To my chagrin they have kept the annoying flash advertisement on top of the page, but they are a for-profit business, so I can understand why it needs to be there.
The new design also features a redesigned header and navigation that seek to bring to the fore access to things users need like their mail, profile, and friends. They also simplified the number of navigation choices, in both the logged-in and logged-out versions, by grouping like items into logical main and sub-navigation schema. One touch that especially appealed to me was addressing new users in a prominent area right next to the branding. Below are the old and new headers and navigation for the logged-out state:
The previous MySpace Header
The redesigned MySpace Header
The logged-in versions of the header and navigation also saw a vast improvement:
From a cursory exploration of the new MySpace design it seems that the new homepage and header were primarily the items that were redesigned. The vast majority of the rest of the site, like the user’s homepage and public profile, seem to have been left untouched.
Although there are still a lot of issues with the site’s user experience, this is a good start, and hopefully they will keep going with it. My main qualm with MySpace? It’s so darn slow!
Input Structures for International Addresses
Yesterday, Luke Wroblewski covered the intricacies of international address input structures for forms. After covering common layouts for American addresses and generic international formats, the article goes on to describe the variations within these constructs. One of the great points made by the article include the observation:
Through years of experience with mailing and postal systems, people have a pretty concrete idea of what constitutes an address block. This common understanding is so definitive that eyetracking data suggests, once people begin filling in a set of input fields that make up an address, they often cease looking at their labels.
Additionally, Wroblewski points out:
Luckily there is a fair amount of commonality between the elements that make up an address across the world. In most countries, the destination, or recipient, in an address structure progresses from most to least specific - Russia and Iran are notable exceptions.
The article provides a very good overview on the variations and how to manage them; certainly worth a read.
User Expectations Impact on Design
Last week, Jared Spool wrote about various user expectations for web experiences, particularly in reference to login and search modules on web pages. In their research on travel sites a key finding was that location had a relatively negligible impact as opposed to presentation. The central purpose of the article was to evaluate the reliance that designers should place on these expectations, challenging “not every de facto standard is the optimal way to design something.” Nonetheless, it is important to be aware of these expectations and to be able to design for learnability in the new design.
Microsoft toots a vastly improved user experience as the cornerstone of Windows Vista. One look at the software maker’s marketing or Vista packaging reveals this constant, droning message; it almost seems that Microsoft tried to stuff all marketing collateral with the maximum number of various ways to say ‘easy’. Indeed, even the packaging was designed to be user-friendly according to Nick White, a Product Manager on the Windows Vista team.
Despite Microsoft’s best efforts to make Vista a paragon of good user experience, they seem to have failed in the eyes of many customers. Users complain about innumerable issues from bad design, to bugs, to incompatibilities. Well, one young college student from Australia has set out to do something about this. He has created a forum for Vista users to submit and vote up user experience issues with the software. The site is called the Windows UX Taskforce, shown below.
Users can submit issues with the Vista user experience along with screen shots. The community votes on which issues are most pressing, comments on them, and so forth. Like most great ideas, Long Zheng’s Windows UX Taskforce website is so obvious it makes one smack one’s forehead and exclaim, “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?!” Every software maker should have a forum like this to gather feedback from their customers.
According to the Business Week, Americans don’t visit the same web sites on their mobile devices as they do on their PC’s. Websites such as craigslist and eBay, ranked at number 1 and number 2 respectively, gain six or more spots in the mobile realm than on traditional devices. The article goes on to explain the browsing habits for weekends versus weekdays, stating “On Saturday, Classifieds Rule.”
See also the accompanying slideshow: Where People Go on the Mobile Web.
In this past week’s issue of The Economist (May 17-23), the newspaper brilliantly provides an explanation of its homepage redesign. Not only is it fascinating to read the rationalizations behind the changes, but communication is a critical step often missed in major redesigns, and this also serves as a great example of how to effectively communicate with the users.
They simply and clearly state their goals for the redesign:
We wanted to do three main things: make the page simpler, deeper and more enjoyable for the reader.
Having a high-level strategy such as this allows the organization to stay on course and not get caught up in minutia. In fact, this can and should serve as a litmus test for the smaller details. At each turn, this allows the user experience designers to ask: “Does this make our homepage simpler, deeper, and more enjoyable for the reader?”
They go on to explain in greater detail how they accomplished these three broad user experience goals:
First, simplicity: ‘We have cut clutter (always something The Economist likes to do). There are fewer advertisements. The page is cleaner, with images that stand out more clearly to flag featured content.’
The navigation that runs down the left-hand side of the page, and throughout the site, is now completely visible right away, with no need to scroll ‘below the fold.’
A second aim was to make more content readily accessible-strange as it may sound, to combine greater simplicity with greater depth.
A new feature brings to the fore the articles that have proved most popular with readers. You can choose between three different measures of this: the articles that have attracted the most comments, the ones that readers have recommended the most (by clicking on the ‘recommend’ button next to the text) and those that have been most read. So you get to influence what appears on the home-page.
That is part of our third aim: to make the page a more enjoyable experience. It shows not just what we select, but what readers are finding most interesting. The page will be ‘alive’ in other ways, too, changing throughout the day, so it will be worth returning to more often.
Though all of the above insight is interesting, two things in particular jump out at me. The first thing is how they set out to accomplish a seemingly paradoxical goal of combining “greater simplicity with greater depth.” They do this by employing interactive elements such as a rotating feature and a ‘hottest’ module to “Bring to the fore the articles that have proved most popular with readers.”
In addition, to make the homepage more enjoyable for users while compelling them to visit regularly, The Economist constantly features new content, mostly through reader participation.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of the article was The Economist’s humility. It is very clear that the web team at The Economist spent a great amount of time and energy to get the redesign right, but despite this they realize that no design is perfect, and they welcome ideas to make it better.
Indeed, we hope you find the new home-page as a whole a big improvement. But change is not always welcome-as some of the comments made on our site have already made clear-and we won’t have got everything right in one go. So we’d welcome your views, negative as well as positive.
Kudos to The Economist for a great redesign and for sharing with its readers and everyone else their goals and how they got there, as well as for inviting us to help make the user experience even better.
Interview with UX Book Publisher Rosenfeld Media
Last week, UX Matters interviewed Lou Rosenfeld, founder, and Liz Danico, Sr. Development Editor of Rosenfeld Media. The interview covers how the small publishing house hopes to confront the publishing industry, and reflects on the experience of bringing user experience design to publishing books–including show-and-tell sessions, testing readers with print “prototypes” of books, and optimizing digital versions.
Sharing MySpace Content across the Web
MySpace announced that it will begin allowing users to share content from their profiles across Yahoo, Twitter, eBay and Photobucket. An article from the BBC quotes MySpace COO saying, “This is an unprecedented move to further socialize the web and empower users to control their online content and data.” This “data availability” project encourages users to host their content on MySpace by giving them the ability to update information across multiple sites at one time, making the information they post to the web ever more dynamic. Or, as CEO Chris DeWolfe puts it, in grand perspective, “This is a pioneering new way for the global online community to integrate their social experiences web-wide.”
Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday.
“Simplicity isn’t a bad design goal; complexity isn’t a good one”
Joshua Porter from UIE responds to Don Norman’s article, “Simplicity is Overrated.” Citing the work of Barry Schwartz, who writes on consumer behavior and trade-offs in “The Paradox of Choice,” Porter observes that users tend to choose more complex products not because they prefer complexity, but because “they can’t predict what functionality they will need in the future.”
Though Norman’s article suggests that “simplicity does not sell,” and that design teams should strive for complex, feature-laden interfaces, Porter suggests that design teams look instead towards helping users understand or discover what they need before making a purchase. In doing so, designers leverage the insight that users want “simple decisions as much as simple products,” helping users avoid “the trap of assuming that complexity equals capability.”
Luke Wroblewski on Web Forms
Rosenfeld Media’s anticipated second offering is now available. “Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks,” by Luke Wroblewski, provides actionable insight and information to “designing effective and engaging web forms.” All 218 images from the book have been made available on Flickr. Wroblewski is Senior Principle of Product Ideation and Design at Yahoo! Inc. and has also held positions at eBay and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “Web Form Design” follows up “Mental Models,” by Indi Young, in Rosenfeld Media’s line-up of books on information and its use, management and design.
Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday.
We all know the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth,” yet it is common during the design process for too many stakeholders to become design decision-makers. When reviews go beyond discussing issues in the user experience and gathering new information and ideas, stakeholders with varying points can sometimes begin to dictate the direction of the design. This leads to a once cohesive set of interactions diverging on many different paths. Slowly, the experience that was begins to slip away, and the product definition dilapidates. So, what can be done to avoid this situation?
1. Define the Problem and Articulate the Goals
Before one can tackle any redesign, whether feature enhancement or new development, it is critical to know ‘what issues need to be solved?’ Oftentimes assumptions are made without proper investigation, and wrong solutions are derived.
For instance, one may note that there is a high customer attrition for one’s product while the competition increases its market share. Without analysis, one could assume that this problem is due to a feature of the competition’s product. However, it could be that the issue really stems from a less apparent problem such as misinformation during the customer engagement process. By narrowing the problem down to its source(s), one can define a specific and appropriate strategy. By speaking in broad terms and ultimate goals (such as ‘out-do the competition’), teams can become divided in ways to tackle the issues.
From the outset, you should deconstruct the problem and state the ultimate and intermediary success criteria for the undertaking. This provides a solid foundation to guide the design phase and keep focus throughout the entire process.
2. Identify Stakeholders and Roles
In keeping with the mission to maintain focus, it is crucial to also synthesize the voices for design conception and refinement. This is one of the more delicate balancing acts one has to perform. As a designer, you want to be sure that you have enough feedback at each step so there isn’t a surprise overhaul at the end, but you also need to preserve productivity toward a unified goal.
The user experience design should be a collaborative effort, and to be successful it should include input from representatives from various touch points in the company. These representatives should not only provide input from their own perspectives, but also bring vetted feedback from members in the company with whom they interact. This allows for more voices to be heard in a more unified way. Once these stakeholders have been identified, it is important to communicate their roles as a liaison and representative. It is also important to set expectations for collaboration and to highlight the importance of putting the user first in each decision. Furthermore, each stakeholder should be familiar with (and played a part in defining) the goals which were set forth at the beginning.
Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path talks about this complex issue of breaking through the organizational barriers to produce a successful user experience. An important thing to not forget in discussions is that everyone should feel that their ideas are being heard. You must bring closure at each step by explaining how concerns have either been addressed or sidelined for the benefit of the experience.
Beyond the voices within the company, another voice that cannot be ignored is that of the user.
3. Test Early and Test Often
Iterative testing is a great principle to follow, particularly in groups where a central authority makes hasty decisions. It is also essential for contentious groups that tend to incorporate everything into the design without discrimination because they are unable to reach a general consensus. User testing at crucial junctures can often bring harmony to a group by validating certain design choices and reminding everyone of the user’s perspective. Remember, that testing does not necessarily mean having expensive usability testing sessions, particularly at this level. Informal testing and sanity checks are more important to ensure that the business goals and conflicting internal interests are not overshadowing the needs of the users.
This iterative approach allows the design team to have the freedom to try many different approaches, particularly in the beginning, and in so doing, ensure that the various concerns and ideas are not being lost. Frequently, it becomes important to try even the “crazy ideas” to bring the team together and provide something which helps visualize ideas and facilitate conversation.
Escaping Design by Committee
These three components can be very effective in keeping the design focused while addressing the concerns and needs of the various stakeholders. Despite this, there is clearly no error-proof approach, so in case you do find yourself caught in the mire of design by committee you should rely on reason. The business, and indeed your team, will want to have a rewarding experience and fully developed product in a timely manner. By explaining that the constant redirections and lack of focus are deteriorating the experience and hurting the schedule, one can reintroduce both urgency and rationale. Taking a step back to revisit the original goals and testing against them can help to restore purpose. It may also be that the original goals are no longer applicable and should be updated to unify the team once more.
At these time, the iterative testing will come in handy as it will be easier to identify where you had digressed and what you may leverage in the re-focusing effort.
In conclusion, avoiding unfocused design is a core element of preventing design by committee. In order to keep focus, you must identify roles explicitly, facilitate open and effective discussion, test frequently, and maintain clear goals.
Note: There will be no UX News Round-Up today. Check back next week when this weekly series will resume.