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.

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).

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…