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More Evidence that Speed Is Key to User Experience

A while back, Marissa Mayer of Google shared some very compelling research results at a Web 2.0 conference. In essence, she stated that an additional delay of 0.5 seconds to page-load time caused a 20% drop in traffic. Naturally, the first question that came to mind is whether this was an isolated case, or if others were finding such large repercussions for similarly small interaction delays. Greg Linden, writes a very compelling account, on his blog Geeking with Greg, where he remarks that the findings that Marissa shared mirror his own research experience at Amazon:

[We] had a similar experience at Amazon.com. In A/B tests, we tried delaying the page in increments of 100 milliseconds and found that even very small delays would result in substantial and costly drops in revenue.

Reading that two mammoth websites like Google and Amazon experienced very large drops in traffic and revenue due to fraction-of-a-second load delays underscores the importance of promptness in the user experience. It is a facet that is very often overlooked and eclipsed by sexier interaction paradigms. However, cool and flashy interactions are often load-intensive and can really slow down functionality and interactivity. Even with internet connectivity becoming faster by the day, much attention should be paid to the effect of user experience designs on load speeds.

User Experience Design: An Executive Summary

This article strives to explain, in non-technical terms, what is user experience design, why it is critical in the modern business landscape, and how businesses can take advantage of what the field has to offer.

What Is User Experience Design?

User experience design is a specialized field that combines product strategy and usability engineering. It aims to make products and services useful, enjoyable and easy to use, which drive competitive advantage and profitability.

Making Products Useful

Customers use and buy products because they are useful, enjoyable, or both. User experience designers use their expertise and methodologies to establish what specific features and traits can render a given product useful and enjoyable to the target customer.

Making Products Profitable

User experience designers constantly strive to improve products, and they have the expertise to evaluate the most promising product features as well as to analyze the competition to discern how to gain advantage over them with new features or by improving existing ones as well as ease-of-use. Not only that, but for certain products and services like web sites, they can formulate a strategy that will increase target user actions such as online purchases and page views.

Making Products Easy to Use and Enjoyable

In today’s business landscape, ease-of-use is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage and customers are demanding and expecting products to be intuitive and easy to use. User experience designers are trained to systematically improve the organization of information and the intuitiveness of interactions of products and services.

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Comparing Google Android Phone to the iPhone

Mark Chu-Carroll, an engineer at Google who’s been beta testing the Google Android Phone for six weeks before it officially launched, wrote an excellent review of it on his blog, Good Math, Bad Math. He drew many comparisons and contrast to Apple’s iPhone, which serves as his primary mobile device.

In a nutshell, he concluded that “the software is excellent, the hardware less so,” but he was also quick to note that “the software is really late-beta quality. It’s lacking polish, and there are a few awkward points.” Mark went on to comment on the Android’s web browser, as he believes browsing capability to be a distinguishing factor for phones such as the iPhone and Google’s Android phone. He wrote:

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On Usability Problems with Voting Machines

Today is the big day, and no matter for whom or what you are voting on November 4th, you not only want your vote counted, but you also want it counted correctly. In the spirit of fair elections with a twist of usability geekiness, we at Montparnas compiled a few resources where you can learn more about usability of voting machines.

Usability in Civic Life: Voting and Usability Project

The Usability¬† Professionals’ Association (UPA) has been running a great project that seeks to evangelize good usability in voting machines. It’s one thing when it’s difficult for a user to add an item to a shopping cart, but it’s a whole different ballgame when votes that determine a presidential election are miscounted or not counted at all. Usability in voting machines is perhaps the most important application of the usability engineering field. The UPA writes on their site

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Should Facebook Fully Launch Its New User Experience Design?

It is a good thing that Facebook is slowly rolling out their new design; they might have had another huge revolt on their hands if they just threw it on their users. However, despite easing users into the new version, there is still a significant number of users that dislike the new experience and refuse to accept it. At latest count, almost 40% were still using the old version and many of them are adamant about keeping it that way. There are numerous groups on Facebook whose members are voicing their displeasure with the new design.

The big question remains: should Facebook fully launch the new design given that a large portion of their users refuse to adopt it? It is certainly a tough decision to throw away a major redesign after so much time, effort, and money has gone into it, but it might be worth it to start from scratch.

Doubtless, Facebook will lose some users in the transition, but it is also a matter of how many and how the new user experience design will affect remaining users. For example, even if they lose one out of ten users but increase the interaction level (time on site, clicks, etc.) of the remaining nine by 20%, that is still a huge gain.

It is impossible to please everyone, but is pleasing 60% of users enough to get the green light? What do you think, should Facebook try again or proceed with the new user experience design?

Facebook Effectively Rolls out Experience Redesign

A while ago, I wrote about the dangers of radical experience redesigns and how to implement them so the fewest number of users will abandon the product during the transition from old to new. The main points articulated in the article were:

  • Make only changes that really will benefit users
  • Let users know what improvements will be made and why
  • Give users a preview of the new design
  • Make sure that users will perceive the changes as beneficial in the short-term as well as long-term
  • Give users aids such as tool tips, tutorials or an overview of changes
  • Give users the option to continue using the old version

Facebook’s limited launch of its new design serves as a great case study of putting these points into practice, and it also serves to extend them.

In the past, Facebook has  launched a number of radical changes to its product with little forewarning or transition strategy, which resulted in great unrest and even upheaval among its users. They have finally learned that just thrusting large changes into the experience upon its users can be dangerous to their business. Facebook chose a more sensible approach this time to ensure that they avoid user discontent and facilitate adoption of the new design. They employed many of the recommendations mentioned above. Specifically, they

  • Gave users a preview of the new design
  • Gave users the option to continue using the old version
  • Gave users aids such to help them learn the new experience

Easing Users in

It is almost a given that all major changes to a product’s user experience will displease some set of users. By giving users a preview of the new experience along with giving them the option to continue using the old version, Facebook effectively eased users into the new site. This ensures that users give the new version a chance rather than dismissing it outright, and this also attenuates negative opinion. There are many anecdotal stories of users vehemently opposing changes to products to later adopt them to the point of not being able to live without them. And if the new version is thrust upon them, users feel like they are backed into a corner and are likely to have a stronger reaction to change and less likely to give it a chance.

Compete.com, an online web analytics company, recently released some compelling analysis of users slowly adopting Facebook’s new design (new.facebook.com).

People Using New Facebook Design

While the above graph shows the number of users trying the new design increasing rapidly, another graph (below) showing the proportion of those users trying the new site and going back to the old site projects a slightly different picture; many users are resistant to Facebook’s new design.

People Using New Facebook Design and then Going Back to Old Facebook

The percentage of users reverting to the old site has dropped from about 55% to about 40%, but that is still a large chunk of its user base. I guess the larger question that arises from this is: What proportion of users must adopt the new design to roll it out fully?

Help Users Learn and Adopt the New User Experience

One thing that Facebook did with the redesign that I found very helpful as a user was providing visual aids that identified major changes and explained how to user them.
Examples of Tool Tips and Aids on Redesigned Facebook site

The above screen shot shows how visual aids (cues) help users learn the new experience on the redesigned Facebook.

Giving Users a Voice

One point that I missed in my previous article is giving users a voice. Giving users an opportunity to provide feedback and vent empowers them and reduces their anxiety, and thus frees them to explore the new design. Facebook allows users to provide feedback by clicking a link in the upper right of the page and also created a discussion forum where users can also voice their concerns and ideas.

Going the Extra Mile

The jury is still out about whether the changes to the user experience on the new Facebook site are truly beneficial for users in the long term, but it is certain that they made design choices aimed at improving the user’s experience on the site. However, beyond posting a press release about the redesign, Facebook did not greatly reach out to its users to explain the redesign. Effectively communicating to users changes to the product, explaining their underpinnings, and assuring users that the redesign is aimed at improving their experience is key in reducing anxiety and encouraging adoption.

All in all, Facebook has been doing a great job in rolling out its new design in a way that minimizes negative impacts and improves adoption of the new site.

The Kiosk Experience

As a designer and consumer advocate, I often judge the experiences that I have with various products and services. So I was keen to read David Pogue’s recent article with his own experience observations, aptly titled It’s the Software, Not You.

Of the Delta Airlines touchscreen kiosks, Pogue writes:

“Whenever I encounter badly designed software like this, I stand there, slack-jawed, mind boggling, and wonder what on earth the designers were *thinking.* Not, obviously, about elegance, intelligence and simplicity”

Beyond kiosks, Pogue also mentions the PalmPilot (as a good example) and touchscreen payment systems in taxis. The article got me thinking about the various examples of kiosks, good and bad. I recall going to the movie theaters about two years ago and being pleasantly surprised that all I had to do was insert my credit card, and there my tickets were… tadah! That simple.

It’s always great to be pleasantly surprised by the devices you interact with, but it’s not a simple thing to design them. It takes a lot of thought and research to minimize the steps and customize to the user’s needs. Most importantly, knowing what the most common tasks are can be invaluable, particularly for kiosks which are meant to speedily get people through common tasks. Holger Struppek of Hot Studio writes in-depth about one such design exercise for Wells Fargo’s ATM’s.

I also recommend reading the research reports on kiosks from Witchita State’s SURL (Software Usability Research Laboratory): Designing a Touch Screen Kiosk for Older Adults: A Case Study and How Important is Visual Feedback When Using a Touch Screen?

The Power of Iterative Design and Testing

Jakob Nielson’s article, Weekly User Testing: TiVo Did It, You Can Too provides a great case study supporting testing early and frequently in the design process to produce exceptional design. Having worked with TiVo, I can say that their approach to usability and research is stellar, and their user experience team is very talented, so it is great to see this recognition.

The specific web redesign project mentioned in the article enforced TiVo’s user-focused culture, and finally brought user-friendliness to its website. As Nielson quotes:

“I’m selling you a product where the key differentiator is ease of use,” says Margret Schmidt, the company’s vice president of user experience and design, “but if the website isn’t easy to use, how will you believe that the product is? We tried to bring that to the site.”

The outcome: TiVo’s new website is simple and clear while still being media-rich, and scored in the top 20% of Nielson’s study on web usability.

TiVo.com

Nielson summarizes the benefits of this approach well with the following main points:

  1. Costs the company less.
  2. Offers motivation.
  3. Helps drive business decisions.
  4. Creates a testing culture.
  5. Builds internal knowledge.

I wholly advocate for this approach as it improves design. Period. No matter how good a graphic designer, interaction designer, content writer or product manager you are; there are invaluable insights you will get from testing frequently that will improve your final product.

Testing at this level not only reduces costs, but also facilitates inter-departmental collaboration (see our previous article: Avoiding the Problems of Design by Committee). Just think, TiVo conducted only 12 tests in 12 weeks. How many projects do you know of that have accomplished that much in 12 weeks with such a usable and appealing outcome?

Touch and Usability

Based on this week’s talk of the rising importance of universal design, one may ponder whether this trend is actually real and to what extent it has manifested itself in daily life. Are products really easier and more accessible for everyone?

Although I think the global trend is moving in the right direction for the most part, there are areas of concern. Awareness of accessibility is up, and design processes are being adjusted to accommodate ease of use, but are our products universally usable? David N Wallace, an IT coordinator who has first-hand experience with living with a disability, writes about the concerning trend around touch technologies in physical devices.

Wallace writes:

Boiled down to its most base level it’s about access and in this instance the barrier to access that the proliferation of skin-based touch devices brings with it. I’m specifically talking about touch devices that require skin to work.

[…] Barriers aren’t new to me and neither is finding ways around, over or through them. But what’s different is the pervasive nature of “touch” technology of today. Here’ an exercise, try and find a laptop that doesn’t use a touch pad or that has an alternate input method.

He goes on to write about possible solutions and existing experiments. More than anything he encourages us all to think about accessibility even further at the design phase from both the hardware and software front. This is not to say that touch technology is ineffectual or does not have its place, but we need to recognize that it remains an open challenge at being truly accessible.

Pay Attention to Universal Design

Beth Tauke of uiGarden.net recently posted a pretty complete article on universal design’s rising momentum in the global marketplace. Admittedly, universal design has been around for over twenty years, but as the writer points out:

“Recently, universal design has been cropping up in places in which it would have been unwelcome twenty years ago. The term is now peppered throughout design firm websites, product websites, and design magazines….”

The article cites various reasons for this shift, including:

  1. World demographics are changing
  2. World economics are changing
  3. More societies throughout the world are valuing human diversity
  4. Major corporations are developing ad campaigns that foster ease of use and inclusion
  5. Mass customization is making it easier to develop universally designed solutions

It’s great to see that universal design is gathering more traction, but surprising to me that it took so long. This is often the perspective taken with many advancing social changes which this is for many. As more and more agencies and governments push accessibility as the law and companies recognize the advantages of designing for all, among the other factors mentioned in the article, universal design may finally become a fixed standard that everyone needs to fulfill.