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Avoiding Agile Disaster

Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of  product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed features—A blob of garbled parts.

A Blob of Garbled Parts

One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.

Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.

This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.

How to Spot the Blob

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.

  • Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
  • Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
  • Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
  • If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.

How to Fix Your Blob

This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:

  • Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
  • Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
  • Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
  • Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
  • Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
  • If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
  • Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.

How to Avoid the Blob

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.

  • State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
  • With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
  • Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
  • Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.

The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral

We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?

  • Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
  • Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
  • You are often undoing previous work.

If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.

The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?

A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.

How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot

As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.

  • Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
  • Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
  • If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.

Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.

Stay True to Your Product Vision

In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.

Content Strategy and UX Design

In “Fusing Content Strategy with Design”, David Gillis gives a very good summary of content strategy and its interplay with the overall user experience strategy and information architecture. The leading advocate for the field, Kristina Halvorson defines the field as such:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

Necessarily, the content strategist must work to define not only which content will be published, but why we’re publishing it in the first place.

I particularly like the way he discusses the importance of setting contexts, using context maps, to better integrate content with the overall experience (see example map below).

 

Such discussions all point to the importance of a fully integrated product experience process where content certainly plays a very big (and often overlooked) role.

Boom Factor Helps Design TiVo’s Revolutionary UI

To much fanfare and critical acclaim, TiVo announced last week its new Premiere DVR that features a ground-breaking user interface. I’m very happy to say that we had the privilege to work alongside TiVo’s talented design team to define and design the novel user experience that extends TiVo’s high interaction standards. TiVo, Inc. is featuring the new release on its home page and the device, with its complete redefined HD interface, has already received fantastic reviews from the likes of CNET, TechCrunch, and Gizmodo.

Gizmodo’s Mark Wilson highlights the user experience improvements as:

Despite the redesign, you’ll find the experience is remarkably familiar. The basic fonts and menus are unchanged, with a few key differences. Most importantly, instead of seeing one page at a time (like being in Now Playing, then clicking to a new screen with a particular show), you see two pages at a time—a logical design update to the widescreen format that speeds up navigation enormously.

Check out the screen shots below:

NBC Winter Olympics Information Displays

Watching the winter Olympics this year, I took note of the great use of information overlays by NBC. Overall I have been impressed with their sparing use of graphics to convey the critical information. I hope that this simple elegant design will be the standard rather than the exception in television and web videos that are pushing the limits on pop-ups and unnecessarily heavy overlays. Below is a great example of the biathlon’s simple hit/miss shot penalty information displays:

On the actual broadcast, these small information units of hit/miss were stacked up beside appropriate flags to show multiple competitors at once. Although hard to follow the progression, it was a great way to show a lot of information in very little space and in real-time.

Preview of Nokia’s New Symbian 4 OS

Nokia has started circulating specifications and previews of its new Symbian^4 OS interface and interaction design (via Symbian.org). Some notable improvements include:

  • New interface layout and interaction structure (see diagrams below)
  • Consistent look and feel across all applications
  • Contextual menus providing quicker access to common actions
  • Customizable home screen

New Interaction Models in Symbian^4

Below are some diagrams from the Symbian^4 User Interface Concept Proposal (PDF).

Symbian^4 UI Model Diagram

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BBC Online Shares Its Usability and Accessibility Methodologies

Jonathan Hassell of BBC online shared a presentation on the challenges and methodologies of the company’s Usability & Accessibility team. The short presentation describes the challenges, such as a wide range of platforms and audience types, as well as the wide-range of research tools that are used to understand and address them, from card sorting to ethnographic research.

Although, I would have liked more details as to the organizational interactions and long-term research approach, and don’t necessarily agree with the over-simplification that “TV is simple,” the slides do show the breadth of methods used to satisfy the BBC online audience and can be viewed below.

UPDATE: The video of the presentation is also available (requires registration, go to “Web 2.0, Social Networking, Usability, Design & Build Theatre,” then “Wednesday at 13:00”). See comment from Chris Rourke below.

A Walk Through of Lufthansa’s Touch Screen Entertainment Application

I flew on Lufthansa during a recent trip to Europe. Not only was it one of the nicest flying experiences that I have ever had, but it also turned out to be an opportunity to experience a very well-done interactive experience. Despite some shortcomings, Lufthansa’s touch screen entertainment application was a prime case study in good user experience design. I have seen and used other in-flight applications on other airlines, but they were always clunky, often confusing, and not very enjoyable to use. Lufthansa’s application (pictured below), on the other hand, was elegant, simple, intuitive, and did everything that a typical passenger would likely need without mucking up the experience with useless features.

 

Home (Welcome) Screen

Home (Welcome) Screen

I witnessed something that was a true testament to the entertainment application’s outstanding design. Even before I had a chance to play with it, I looked over across the aisle where an elderly woman in about her seventies ventured to use the touch screen application. She poked the touch screen with resolute force and very intently examined the screen. From having done a number of usability studies, I guessed that she was a rather novice computer user, and I got excited to witness her use the application. From past usability studies with inexperienced participants, I anticipated that she would quickly get lost, confused, frustrated, and would abandon her task. To my astonishment, she prodigiously navigated through the application, browsed TV programs and movies to watch and ultimately played a movie on the touch screen in front of her. Needless to say, I was completely astounded by how easy to use and intuitive the application was even to a computer novice.

After studying my unaware participant, I quickly took out my camera and examined Lufthansa’s in-flight touch screen entertainment program. Below are my observations. I draw on some particular screens to illustrate certain points, and all of the ones that I photographed can be seen in the gallery at the end of the post.

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Oops Award for Bad Product Design 2009

This year’s batch of nominees for the Oops Award for Bad Product Design are truly exemplary. I highly encourage the reader to feast your eyes on some of the world’s biggest product design disasters. While most of the nominees have earned their spot in these echelons for aesthetic reasons, there are also some that are clearly included for their utter lack of utility—see below.

And how is one to sit on this contraption?

And how is one to sit on this contraption?

 

Designing and Evaluating Gestural Interfaces

Touch continues to be a big topic in user experience and product development. I recently came across two articles that add great points to the continuing dialog:

Design Considerations for Touch UI

The article (no longer available) enumerates five major pointers for designing effective touch interfaces, namely:

  1. Design for immediate access
  2. Keep gestures smart and simple
  3. Leverage clear mental models
  4. Design for real hand sizes
  5. Touch feedback is key

Evaluating Gesture Usability

Kevin Arthur, whose site is dedicated to touch interface usability, shares a rough draft for evaluating gestures. He advocates for the need to have “reliable and repeatable evaluation techniques for gestures,” applicable to all forms of touch: touchpad, touchscreens, and free-form. The draft outlines some distinctions of gestures:

  • Gestures are inter-related.
  • Gesture interfaces typically don’t have affordances.
  • Gestures don’t just need to work — they need to not work when they’re not supposed to.
  • For touch gestures things like finger size and fingernails can make a very big difference so it’s important that the test participants are representative.

I agree that there are greater considerations in testing gestures, particularly around learnability, feedback, consistency, and accuracy.