Why I’m passionate about usability

There was a great Schneier post about why he is so ‘into’ security, and how his mindset differs from so many other people.  I was thinking tonight about why I’m so passionate about user experience and how to improve its general approach.  I think what drives me boils down to the following:

  • Constantly imagining how other people might interpret something

Obviously it’s impossible to know exactly what other people think, so usually I ask them.  What did you think about that?  Why did you think that?  Internally I create a mental model on how people with different views might interpret things.  When I use something I can’t but help imagine how my grandmother might use it.  Would my Dad know what to do next?  How about my best mates?  Not only with design, but this extends to even just being in a group conversation.  As people are relating stories I’m wondering “how will other people here interpret that?”.  I find I can’t but help notice when there’s a gap there, and I often find myself interrupting two people who obviously don’t share the same understanding, “oh by the way John, I think what Fred really meant is this…”.

  • Personal frustration with the design of products

My wife hates this.  She noticed this started just after I began my PhD.  I’ve always been critical of my personal devices and sites I use, but after starting a PhD in human computer interaction I became hypercritical.  Used to be if I got stuck, I’d blame myself and look up the manual.  I’d like to think that I’m fairly savvy, and most times I find myself stuck, it’s usually a usability problem.  On a daily basis, my wife deals with a lot of my frustration.  The worst two designs for me at the moment for this are the Playstation 3 system UI (what were they thinking? The company that brought the simplicity and joy of the PSP interface took it and just broke it) and the new Google search interface (they crowding my results with multiple suggestions that I search for what now? And what are all these new buttons everywhere?  Way too much clutter).

  • A belief that delighting users is the best thing a company can do

As a product manager I understand that it is necessary to balance business requirements with usability.  However it is not good enough to say “well, this gives us x revenue, so even though it upsets the users, let’s keep it in there”.  What about the lost y revenue from the people who stop coming to your site?  By focussing on user experience above all else you give people a product that they keep coming back to.  Lost revenue streams can usually be replaced.  Obnoxious ads aren’t the be all and end all of making money on the internet.  Creating something that makes people tell their friends about how great it is (so long as you have a business plan on how to monetize the traffic) is the best possible thing you can do.  Companies such as Apple and Google show this again and again.  I still believe user experience (in balance) with business requirements is key.

  • Wondering “why is it done this way?” and “how can it be done better?”

Every time I use a new product I always like contemplating why is its design the way it is.  Why did the Peek email device forgo all other online activity?  Could its interface be better?  Why does the iPhone not support MMS and video?  Could their touch interface be done better?  I can never be satisfied when using a product, as I’m always asking why.

  • Embracing change

Getting used to a particular way of doing things is great, as it reduces cognitive load.  However it’s often not the best way of doing it, nor the most intuitive.  If you can find a balance of both, everyone wins.  New paradigms for interaction should be supported, although I’m always happy to let someone else push them on their own designs first, and make them a success first so that when I employ them people are used to them.

  • Respecting users

Above everything else, assuming your users are “dumb”, and that you should cater for the “lowest common denominator” is a bad idea.  Why?  Because they’re not dumb.  They’re not the lowest common denominator.  Different people have different needs, different mental models, and different approaches to completing a task.  Simplifying your design approach to thinking “our users are dumb, let’s make it easy for them” is not usability, and a trap for unwary players.  People are smarter than you think, and designers that find the best ways to make use of tacit skills in their users are those that succeed.

Overall I think usability is more a state of mind than a set of skills.  But it’s a hard state ofmind to become accustomed to.  I wrote my PhD about how to better integrate engineers to the design process and make them aware of usability concerns, and my answer was it’s hard (and “it depends”).  But being cognizant of the difficulties users face, and respecting them and trying to anticipate these difficulties (feel free to just talk to them!) will make your design not just better but more successful.

iRobot and lessons for design

It’s funny how something can be a great design, and yet with a few tweaks, it becomes completely awful.

Witness the Roomba.  I love my Roomba – I bought it in October 2006 when I moved in to my cottage and realised I needed a vacuum cleaner.  I bought the bottom of the line model, no accessories, and as of August 2008, with some minor maintenance it still runs great.  Even its battery, while definitely not as great as it once was, still has enough charge to clean the whole room.  It’s easy to use, cleaning it is very simple, and maintenance is also very user friendly.  And of course, it does a great job of cleaning the whole cottage (although I am lucky to have Roomba friendly floors and furniture).

With so much love for the Roomba, it was a natural choice to buy a Scooba as well.  I don’t mop and I could see grime building up.  Scooba was only $99 on Woot, so I bought one straight away.  I noticed immediately that it’s a lot bigger and heavier than Roomba, making it more difficult to move around and to manipulate while cleaning.  It doesn’t fit as nicely in our cupboard, and its increased height means the light sensor keeps getting caught under cupboard doors.  It leaks water when being moved from room to room, and will often insist to check the tank for no discernable reason.  There are a lot more parts to clean, and maintenance is a lot more complex.  Emptying it becomes a gross chore (instead of tapping a box into the bin, I usually manage to cop a bit of spray back when pouring out the dirty water).  When I lift it up, the tank often separates from the body.  I am struggling to get it to clean a single room at the moment with its myriad of problems, and it’s only 6 months old.  iRobot won’t support it because it’s refurbished.

Long story short, I’d never recommend the Scooba to anyone.  But I’d recommend Roomba in a heartbeat.

So how did they go so wrong?  There were several key areas:

  1. They identified an alternative niche and went for it at all costs.  I suspect their other products like the Looj will do better.  It seems like at no point someone wondered “will having <problem x> in addition to all the other problems mean people will just give up?”
  2. It’s overcomplicated to the point it can no longer complete its original purpose.  Mopping by definition is more complex than vacuuming because it is a 2 phase process.  However I can’t help but wonder if it would be more successful if they sacrificed some of the cleaning capabilities for simplicity.
  3. Too many choke points in the design.  The beauty of Roomba is it keeps working if some parts of it aren’t.  Scooba will fail if the tank connection gets clogged, if the hand-mixed formula is not done right, or if it detects a problem with its pipes.  One of these three things happens to me every time I try to deploy it.
  4. They forgot the Roomba design ideals.  It’s clunky, hard to use, makes a mess and has inherent design faults (such as a battery that fails after just a few months).  It was like they started from scratch without taking on-board any of the Roomba lessons.

I love domestic robots, but unless you’re really desperate, do not buy a Scooba.

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.


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.

37Signals disagrees with usability guru Norman, or, what is usability?

There was a thought-provoking rebuttal from 37Signals to criticisms levelled by Don Norman regarding their product.

(side note: did anyone else think 37Signals was using svn to version control their blog postings based on the URL?)

Don’s original post is titled “Why is 37Signals so arrogant?“. In it he says that he found “the developers [at 37Signals] are arrogant and completely unsympathetic to the people who use their products.” He goes on to say that this attitude “will not only lead to failure, it is one that deserves to fail”. Ouch.

While the developers at 37Signals may be “arrogant” in that they aren’t interested in listening to other views on their design, this does not mean that they aren’t creating usable or useful products. No matter what requested features or changes you add to a design, it will never truly satisfy everyone. Trying to do so can eat up precious resources, and may have unintended consequences. While Google might have the bulk to carefully consider everything a user may want and try to accommodate that (and the consequences), startups don’t always have that luxury. User-centered design isn’t putting the user on a pedestal (a flippant comment – will discuss in another blog post!).  The designer is a designer for a reason, and with scarce resources (and a good track record) it is sometimes not just easier, but more efficient to follow your gut.

Besides, no matter how you design something, people will always use it differently to how you expect. Articulation work (the process of adapting a tool to a new use) is a fascinating process and one that should be fully supported by allowing the user as much simplicity and flexibility as possible. By doing so, you provide a low barrier to entry and for people to find innovative new ways of doing things.

I think the problem here is Don Norman is reacting at a principled level, rather than considering it from a “real world” perspective. Sure, I’d love to give users everything they ever wanted, and do it in the slickest, easiest to use package ever. But it’s just not always possible. Look at something very usable and naturalistic, such as the iPhone, and you’ll find missing features. Look at something feature-rich like Photoshop, and you find a high barrier to entry. It’s all about tradeoffs.

Ultimately 37Signals clarified they *do* listen to their customers, but by stating they design for themselves and not their customers, what they really mean is they are ignoring traditional usability approaches, and designing for themselves. While this can have shortcomings, there were plenty of great designs before the invention of the usability lab…