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.

Silicon Valley pictures

Some photos from around the Silicon Valley area.  Apologies for the quality, but they’re all from the iPhone.

The Computer History Museum presents – the original Utah teapot:

Utah Teapot

The Crittendon end of the Google campus – you can see NASA Ames in the background (and Hangar One):

Crittendon Google and NASA Ames

Check out the numberplate:

Ethernt numberplate

This one is a little harder to see, but it was taken near Google:

Writely numberplate.

(it says “WRITELY”)