Web Usability panel

I just got home from a presentation organised by WebGuild which was a panel discussion on web usability.  Met lots of interesting people of course, but the highlight for me was of course hearing Tom Chi, Jeremy Ashley, and David Nelson talk about their experiences with Yahoo, Oracle and Adobe respectively.

First of all, it didn’t click with me that it was the Tom Chi, from Ok/Cancel, until he let loose his very dry sense of humour (I still enjoy sending my favourite comic to my engineering buddies).  He had some succinct and to-the-point answers to some of the questions for the panel which gave some great insight into his experiences, particularly with Yahoo and Microsoft.

I found it very interesting that when asked to define ‘ideal’ usability (in a round-about way), all three mentioned the ideals of ubiquitous computing – invisible, ubiquitous, effortless.  “You don’t even think about doing it.”

Another thing I agreed with was the changing face of traffic sources.  SEO and SEM is now king, while link sharing and ‘homepages’ are falling by the wayside.  I notice that in my own site traffic.  I have one site in particular I started in 2002, and until 2005 90% of the traffic was from link-sharing.  now 90% is from search engines.

I was happiest though, in answer to my own question, to hear the depth of ethnographic study at Oracle, which as a technical/engineering company I honestly did not expect.  Jeremy talked about the use of studies to gauge the integration of enterprise software in the grand scheme of things – such a holistic view of the user’s work practice was really refreshing.  Go Oracle!

Finally, I was intrigued that Yahoo! also makes use of ethnography (I didn’t expect it given the difficulty of observing casual users), specifically to build a connection between the design team and the users.  Tom discussed bringing a multi-disciplinary team so that different stakeholders could see the user as a tangible reality, not an abstracted target.  Creating a multidisciplinary team of which all members are involved in user studies is something I wrote about in my thesis as the benefits are it “destroys assumptions” (as seen with Tom, Jeremy and David), but for smaller projects also provides an opportunity to educate the user in turn.

All panel members agreed that ethnographic studies provided constant surprise.  I couldn’t agree more, which is why such close observation it is one of my favourite methods.

One thing this reminded me is that I have been somewhat lax in is getting the engineers further involved in the usability tests that I conduct.  While I make a live feed available, and encourage them to watch, next time I will have the key engineers come sit in for at least part of the session.  It really is quite eye-opening to see what the user really thinks of what you created.

“Social layer” vs “Social network”

This afternoon we (Trovix) released Trovix Connect, the new version of our Trovix job portal. (incidentally, we’ve been using that as internal name well before Google Friend Connect and Facebook Connect!)

I feel like we’ve kind of jumped on the bandwagon of social sites.  However, I think this is more an example of responding to what people find useful rather than “everyone else is doing this and succeeding and so we’ll do the same”.

During user studies that I run periodically, one question asked is “how did you get your current job?”, followed by “what is your general strategy for finding a new job?”  While I don’t expect to get strictly accurate answers (an ethnographic study is much better for exploring true user activity), it is a nice broad question that reveals a significant amount of information so long as you frame and interpret it appropriately.

What was found is that most people use job boards as a supplemental source of information for finding jobs.  The majority of people (in the demographics we targeted) did not apply directly through advertised positions (such as on Trovix or CareerBuilder), but instead looked on the company’s site afterwards — or tried to find which of their friends had connections with the company and could help out.  I guess this makes sense as to why so many job boards rely on advertising revenue rather than taking a cut from direct applications.

With Trovix Connect, we tried to support this approach to job-seeking.  However, while creating a social network of friends and colleagues works for an ambiguous site like LinkedIn (where it is general career networking), Trovix is primarily a job matching service.  Job-hunting is obviously a fairly private activity, and a lot of the time you don’t want people to even know you have an account on a job site, let alone set up a connection with them.

Therefore we took a slightly different tack, and instead applied a social layer to the site. What this means is you can’t use your contacts in the normal social networking ways (what are my friends up to, what are all their details, how can I interact with them), but instead we track the network and use the information about it to support job seeking.  For example, if you were searching for a “Software Engineer” position in 94043, and you had me in your network, when the “Software Engineer – Trovix” position shows up, Trovix Connect highlights that you know me at Trovix and allows you to contact me about the position.  (Our resume parsing software automatically distills all your previous work experience automatically.)  We give the user an example email to send to their contact working at the company (or if they recently worked there) asking for their help.  In this way, people can use the same strategy for finding jobs as in “the real world”, but with connections they never knew they had.

Of course, privacy is a big deal to us, and you can opt out from appearing in search results.  You can also make your account invisible (in fact, that’s the default option!).  We have several spam-reducing features in place as well.

We really hope this will be a useful new layer to job-searching without being obtrusive or spammy.  If you end up trying it, please let me know what you think – I love to get feedback!

Spamming users

One of the great things about Australia is we have a very strong department in the government called the ACCC.  The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission does a great job of keeping things fair in Australia between businesses and consumers.  While this can be seen as hampering free trade and an open market, they actually do a great job of keeping a “treat people fairly” mentality prevalent, and in practice there is great competition in Australia.

The ACCC help support other branches of government such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority with things like the 2003 Spam Act.  As per the ACCC, “Under the Spam Act it is illegal to send, or cause to be sent, ‘unsolicited commercial electronic messages’ that have an Australian link.”

What this means is even if you have a prior business relationship, if you haven’t explicitly stated “send me emails about stuff”, businesses are in breach of the act if they send you anything to do with a commercial site at all.

Since moving to the US I’ve noticed that on almost every site I use, if I give my email address I can expect to start receiving a decent amount of crap from that company.  For a lot of businesses it ends up losing them income in the long run by alienating power users who would otherwise use word-of-mouth to promote that business.

Lately I’ve noticed something somewhat sinister.  I’ve been trying to unsubscribe from websites and regardless of what I do, I remain on the lists.  Sometimes it’s because the company obfuscates the removal process (hi Mint – by the way, thanks for sending super-confidential details via email without asking me first!  Shame your site is so pretty, so I forgive you), but I’ve seen several examples of late where the unsubscribe is just plain broken.

So let me name and shame some people.

The worst two:

Lee Jeans is a shocker.  Unsubscribe link that does nothing at all.  I had to add them to a deletion filter, as numerous emails to members of staff did nothing to resolve this.  Even mention of the Spam Act did nothing to help.

JobFox.  Ahh, JobFox.  I tried everything I could to unsubscribe from JobFox.  I edited all my preferences, I clicked on links, I emailed the helpdesk, and then I even emailed individual members of their team.  Nothing.  Also added to the deletion queue.

Then there are a whole bunch of smaller sites (Hi DavinciTeam).  Thankfully some startups at least listen when you write to them.  I got a very impressive response from Mixx via the Director of Product Management, Will Kern:

I wanted to let you know that this has been taken care of.  You will no longer receive marketing e-mails from Mixx.  Let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.

Me: Thanks very much – and thanks for letting me know too (and on a Saturday no less!).

Will: You are most welcome!  Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, who keeps track ;-)

Very pleasant and prompt.  You guys are definitely back in my good books!

Workology also had a similar bug, but again, I got a prompt, helpful response which was great.

Finally, I wish I could remember the name of the site who had an unsubscribe link to nowhere.  Checking back a couple of weeks later and there was a page but with no options on it.

Update: Just remembered.  Stumbleupon.  I never did get a reply from your customer service team either, although thankfully the emails stopped.

All of this begs the question, why do so many companies have broken systems?  Is it a deliberate thing?  Is QA behind the ball?  Am I just unlucky?  Inquiring minds wish to know.

All I do know is it really hammers home just how underappreciated the asynchronous user experience is.  Incorrect or poorly timed emails, slow-to-arrive confirmations, sensitive information, spam, and poor control of all of this can have a huge effect on the user experience of the site.  While this part of design for a new application usually comes late in the process, it doesn’t mean it should be treated as an afterthought or not part of the user experience.

The best feature of Firefox

I may be a little late to the party, but in the last 3 months I’ve begun using this feature more and more:

Typing something in the address bar does an I’m Feeling Lucky search on Google.

Sounds simple, and perhaps not that useful all the time.  I was worried I’d get taken to wildly inaccurate sites.  Happily if the top match isn’t as close as you’d like (as defined by some secret sauce which does a great job I must say), you get taken to the Google search results instead.

I started using this feature more when I switched to Firefox 3 (thanks pesky 100% CPU and memory leaks!) and the Google Toolbar broke.  By default I map my search bar to Wikipedia given how often I use it.  Now I find it completely indispensable, and I’m at a loss when using other browsers…

The main benefit is I don’t use bookmarks at all anymore.  For example, I can just type “hacker news” and get taken to http://news.ycombinator.com/.  I can type in “download firefox 3” and I get taken to the download page for Firefox 3.  I can only imagine this is a huge boon for those using voice recognition.  There are some other nice side effects.  Try typing a site name and a concept on that site, eg “wikipedia triops” and you don’t need to set up smart bookmarks either.  Although it’s rare for people to use the Google toolbar and a different search, it is handy now having a shortcut key to search (ctrl-L).

Picasa photo tuning

This is a continuation of Part 1 of my Picasa discussion.

I am continually surprised by how powerful the relatively simple photo tuning tools of Picasa are. Take for example this photo my wife snapped while flying from Seattle to San Francisco, and how easily Picasa turns it into a great picture.

beforeafter.jpg

Here is the original photo:

original.jpg

First all I do is apply an “I’m Feeling Lucky” pass:

step1.jpg

Next I straighten the shot:

step2.jpg

Then I crop the photo:

step3.jpg

Finally I do another “I’m Feeling Lucky” pass:

final.jpg

And there we have it. Quite an amazing difference compared to the first photo. Here is another example before and after thanks to the I’m feeling lucky button (easily my favourite feature in Picasa):

beforeafter2.jpg

Some more information is available from the Picasa Team about tuning photos.

Picasa as an example of great design

I’ve been a long-time fan of Picasa, and it ultimately comes down to several reasons:

  1. It’s fast. Very fast.
  2. It has a great UI.
  3. Functionality.
  4. Integration.

Fast

Picasa has been optimized to very quickly load, to handle large libraries of photos, and to allow very quick scanning of said large libraries. I have seen some great research into better ways to quickly display large libraries of photos, but nothing has been released in a usable product yet. Nothing comes close in terms of immediately loading the main app, and then allowing quick manipulation of tens of thousands of photos.

User Interface

I’m not sure how much of this is Google and how much is thanks to the original IdeaLab team, but kudos to Google for not breaking what works. The keyboard shortcuts for advanced users are there, and yet the interface is inviting enough for the novice user to jump right in. All my non-computer-savvy family members now use it and love it. It is not only simple to use, but very pretty with its transitions and OS X-esque touches to its interface.

Function

The functionality of Picasa is excellent. It allows you to share photos, manipulate them, organise them and present them. Importantly, it doesn’t try to do too much. The Picasa team seem to have found just the right balance of features to satisfy easily 95% of the users out there without overloading it to the point of bloatware. Happily, they also included some features which I didn’t consider “must have”, yet make the experience all the sweeter. This includes things like creating a Gift CD, comprehensive backups, picture collages and a screensaver. It makes using your photos very easy.

The best functionality I have found though is the photo tuning. See my other article here to see why that is. Aside from the power of the tuning though, the thing I also love is that it leaves your originals untouched. Even once you commit changes, it backs up the original, which for people like me who can’t stand to lose data of any kind, is a godsend.

Integration

This is what really sold me on Picasa. Doing so much research into ubiquitous computing and the adaption of systems, I’ve come to realise this is what makes and breaks software. Picasa does several things right in this area:

  • Preserving the file system. I want file portability, and this was a dealbreaker for me with many other products.
  • Email. I mainly disseminate my pictures via email, and the integration here is top-notch.
  • Photo printing is integrated in. Not something I use, but a nice to have.
  • Other services. Picasa supports Picasa Web Albums (of course), FTP, Google Video, and Blogger. My main problem is that it doesn’t support Flickr (for obvious reasons, but this is kind of sad given how many Googlers use Flickr!)

The other nice thing is that the Picasa team seem intent on acting on user feedback. However the real killer part of Picasa is the tuning, which is discussed in part 2.

Turn your iPhone into a wifi Skype phone

There has been a lot of buzz on the intertubes today about Fring.  They’re an Israeli startup who released a fairly popular mobile chat client.  That’s simplifying things – in addition to supporting every major IM client, Fring automatically logs you into wireless hotspots, does VOIP and allows file transfers.  It’s like a mobile version of Trillian on steroids.

I’d heard bits and pieces about it, but hadn’t really been that interested.  That changed when I was browsing The Unofficial Apple Weblog and read their post about trying out the new beta of Fring on the iPhone.  If you have a jailbroken iPhone then this is easily the best application you can get for it.  Certainly a lot of other bloggers seem to agree.

A bit of backstory as to why I am so excited about this.  When I first moved to the US in July of 2006, I was staying with friends for a while and moving around a lot.  I purchased a SkypeIn number.  Two in fact – one for the US and one for Australia.  This meant people back home could call me for the cost of a local call, and I could also have a local number here that wasn’t a cell phone (I’m not a fan of the paying to receive calls model prevalent here).  Making US based calls was free until the start of 2007, and after that I purchased unlimited calling.  Now I’m on Skype Pro, and for $3 a month I get unlimited US calls and a whole slew of other benefits and discounts.

When I started renting my own place, rather than reconnect the phone line, I bought a Skype phone.  I just plug a network cable into the back of my Netgear SPH200D, give my account details and it just works.  I don’t even feel like I’m making Internet calls – it’s just a home phone to me, and to anyone who’s calling me, thanks to SkypeIn.

I had trialled the Belkin Wifi Skype phone for a couple of months.  This was easily the worst product I can think of using in the last 10 years.  I cannot even begin to explain just how bad this product was.  Slow, unresponsive, ugly, cheaply made and unreliable to start with.  Poor battery life, terrible call quality and broken functionality topped it off.  Wow, the designer in me shudders just thinking about how awful that phone was.

Since the iPhone came out I’d idly wondered if a Skype client would ever be released.  I figured if it did, it was a long-time coming.  Then along came Fring.

While it was somewhat fiddly to install (adding a new source in the Installer application), setting it up was a breeze.  Within just a few minutes I was making my first test call.  And it worked.  Amazingly so.

Fring

The best bit though is that while I can make calls on my home Skype phone, it is useless for sending and receiving messages.  Fring’s IM feature is very slick, and I love that I now have dedicated Google Talk and Skype on my iPhone.  Previously I had to use Meebo for Google Talk.  I notice they also appear to have gotten around the “one app at a time” limitation of the iPhone.  Pressing home just minimises the app, and I am able to receive calls and IMs with it in the home screen or even if it is locked which is great.

So basically I now have one phone for everything (except for one thing, which I’ll get to in a minute).  I can now make my cheap international calls at home from my mobile rather than switching to the Netgear phone (I wonder how worried they are about this development?).  I’m a big fan of minimalist setups, and so this pleases me no end.

Some notes on using it so far.  Calling my iPhone number from Fring makes it do odd things.  The “incoming call” dialogue pops up, but then it tries to switch back to Fring and just hangs.  Some outgoing calls seem to fail.  There are some definite UI issues (particularly with number dialling – requiring a “+” for outgoing numbers).   I also couldn’t accept add requests.  But the main problem seems to be no SkypeIn!  I’m not sure what the limitation here is, but calling my SkypeIn number doesn’t result in a call appearing which is kind of a bummer.  It’s also weird, because I can receive calls from Skype contacts just fine.

I have a few questions though, particularly given how slick and just plain good this product is.  Firstly, how did they get Skype access?  I could probably Google an answer, but I’m just surprised that there is Skype access on a free product, given it is a proprietary setup and they would have had to license some libraries.  Ok, I actually bothered doing a search and they are using the Skype API.  More importantly though is how on Earth do they plan to make money?  There are no ads, and while the server load isn’t high, there’s obviously been a lot of development (several years worth based on what I found about the company).  I tried checking to see if they had any plans or if anyone had even any speculation and all I found were a few articles:

From 2006:

An Israeli company has just rolled out a service (beta) that might cut into the Skype subscriber base by allowing users to make free VoIP calls using any 3G handset. Fring is the word and the service is free now until the commercial offering appears around the end of this year. What the innovative service lets subscribers do is call any other fring subscriber for free anywhere in the world. Fring members can also call Skype and other VoIP service subscribers using any 3G-enabled handset. Fring uses your existing data plan to make calls over the network thus saving the caller from using any phone minutes. It’s not clear what fring’s business model will be but for the time being it’s free so what are you waiting for?

From 2007:

Shechter said fring is committed to improving the quality of its product and will be adding innovative new features to it over time.

As per the press release, fring is “100 percent free with no subscription costs; consumers simply pay for the data they use under their existing line rental agreement.” (Therefore, the plan under which a customer pays for data transactions, including any limits therein, comes into play.)

It looks like they recently got 12 million in second round funding.  Whatever their plans, I’m enjoying it for now despite its limitations.  If you have an iPhone, what are you waiting for?  Jailbreak that guy and install Fring.

Apple’s take on brainstorming

One thing I found quite difficult when transitioning from an engineer to a designer was the idea that blue-sky brainstorming was okay.  I remember during one of my first brainstorming sessions, we were trying to come up with a novel interface for dentists to interact with computers while respecting infection control.  I kept shouting down each new idea as completely infeasible, until one of the interaction designers gently took me to one side and reminded me what the purpose of brainstorming is.

With that in mind, I found the following article (via The Unofficial Apple Weblog) to be quite an interesting exposure of Apple’s design process.

Every week, the teams have two meetings. One in which to brainstorm, to forget about constraints and think freely. As Lopp put it: to “go crazy”. Then they also hold a production meeting, an entirely separate but equally regular meeting which is the other’s antithesis. Here, the designers and engineers are required to nail everything down, to work out how this crazy idea might actually work. This process and organization continues throughout the development of any app, though of course the balance shifts as the app progresses. But keeping an option for creative thought even at a late stage is really smart.

This to me sounds like a fantastic approach to design.  I think too often one is favoured over the other, when really, both are required for innovative yet achievable design.  There were some other interesting nuggets in there too.  Pixel perfect mockups is something I’ve considered using myself, except within a startup there really isn’t enough time to get this just right.  With a large engineering team and plenty of dedicated graphic designers, I’m sure this is a fantastic way to get the product just right before going out.

This, Lopp admitted, causes a huge amount of work and takes an enormous amount of time. But, he added, “it removes all ambiguity.” That might add time up front, but it removes the need to correct mistakes later on.

I couldn’t help but notice there is not much mention of user experience or usability testing.  It’s something I’ve always found difficult to balance myself.  How much do you want to balance user experience compared to innovation?  If you have really great designers working for you, usability and user perception are things they account for unconsciously and it’s virtually unnecessary to closely tie design to user testing.  However not everyone is capable of (or does a good job of) cognitive walkthroughs as they design.