Are you Building the Right Thing?

It's Usable, but are we Building the Right Thing?I saw this paper from Dr. Eric Schaffer of Human Factors International entitled “UX Strategy: Let’s Stop Building Usable Wrong Things” and it got me thinking … so often we rush to start a new project and build something wonderful, but did we take a moment to stop and think before we rushed into development? Are we building the right thing? How will this new widget make the target users’ lives better? Will they even use it?

Usability is about more than just making sure that the buttons are in the right place and the language used is understandable to users. Making sure your product follows usability guidelines is good, yes, but it is even better if you take time to research and understand your target users. What are their lives like? What motivates them? Where are their pain points? What kind(s) of technology do they use, when do they use it, and why THAT technology for that thing? What’s really important to them? It’s not much use building a cooking app for smartphones, for example, if most of the people you are building it for don’t have smartphones. You have to address your target users’ deep needs, personally, professionally, emotionally.

All of this signals a need for a User Experience Strategy: not just a usability team or expert that knows which buttons to use and where to put them on the page that is thrown in to make the thing you have decided to build usable. User Experience Strategy is inherently difficult because companies are typically segmented into different functions: you might have a group that builds the web site and another that builds mobile apps and everyone is very protective of their own domain. It has to be driven from the very top level of the organization.

I found Eric’s paper very insightful and useful. I highly recommend it.

Download UX Strategy: Let’s Stop Building Usable Wrong Things from Human Factors International.

How a Web Glitch Screwed up Summer

The YMCA in our town does a really good summer camp. I mean really really good–so good, in fact, that my daughter talks about it all year long. Camp Teepeetonka is the highlight of summer and has been since we have lived in Sioux Falls. I highly recommend it to anyone who lives in Sioux Falls. It’s just two weeks, but it does fill up fast, so you need to register early to make sure you get in at the time your child wants to go.

My girl has a best friend we used to live near who is also really into Camp Teepeetonka. She doesn’t see her friend very often anymore. Last year they went to camp together and they thought they should go together every year. So we pre-coordinated with her to find out when she was going before we even thought about registering her for Camp.

We pretty much plan our summer around this camp. All of her other activities, trips, etc., get arranged around Camp. My mom and dad arranged their schedule around this camp because they always take her on a summer trip and this year they have a brand new camper they bought just for the occasion. (Ok, it’s for “trips with grandchildren”, but this was to be the inaugural trip!)

Today was the big day. Last night she didn’t fight at all when it was time to go to bed. She did her night-time routine lickety split and was in bed with the lights off before I even noticed. This is NOT normal behavior in the summer. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and find her wide awake reading in her bed.

But I was nervous. I’d just noticed I hadn’t received the pre-camp letter that you normally get in the mail a week or two before camp. I realized I had no idea what time to take her to meet the bus and started to wonder why? I tore through my e-mails–did they send it by e-mail this year? No sign of any notice from the YMCA, except for some e-mails announcing that Camp registration was open that came last February. (Yeah, I don’t clean out my inbox very often … thank goodness for gmail!) Then I logged into my credit card accounts to check whether there had been a charge from the Y for the deposit. Nothing. I began to panic. What if she wasn’t registered?

I dragged myself out of bed early this morning and called the Y right away. They took my name and number and promised to have Kathy call me as soon as she got in. I wondered whether to even bother waking my baby girl. I dragged my feet, but finally decided I’d better wake her up, just in case. Just a few minutes after she dragged herself out of bed, they called and confirmed my fears. She wasn’t registered. I saw all the hope and joy drain right out of her sweet little face.

I’d registered online on their web site. With our busy schedule, I had a hard time finding time to get these camp registrations done, but I finally found a few minutes to do it. I’d done it before several times. This year was the same–I plowed through their crazy system, carefully chose the correct camp dates for my daughter’s age, clicked the Register button, entered all my daughter’s information and my own billing information and my credit card number. I even included a note that she wanted to be in camp with her best friend. I got all the way through the process. I got the confirmation page that told me she was registered. I breathed a sigh of relief that it was done and my little girl was going to get to go to her favorite camp with her best friend. I returned to my busy life, never thinking to question the magic “You are registered” page. Ah how I wish I had.

We are in the process of rearranging our summer now. Kathy at the Y was very kind when I explained how important this camp is to her and she let me register for the next session (the LAST session of the summer) even though they are no longer accepting registrations. I am so grateful to her.

I just got done breaking the bad news to my dad. He and mom are now sitting down trying to figure out whether (and how) they can re-schedule their camping trip. There is no hope that Brynne’s friend can go along on the camping trip because she is in camp now and my girl will be in camp next session–and that is all the time we have. I need to call her friend’s mom and tell her why my baby wasn’t there today, and then I have to call her dance teacher about possibly missing one of her 4-hour dance camps they had scheduled for early August.

It’s not the end of the world, but it is a lot of trouble for a lot of people. A couple children are very sad.

All because of a little “glitch” in the web site. We will work it out, my daughter and her friend will get over it, my parents will probably figure out an alternate schedule and somehow she’ll learn her dance routine despite missing part of the dance camp.

I just wanted to share this story because I wanted to warn you, especially those of you with e-commerce web sites. It is important that you display a confirmation message ONLY after the transaction succeeds. A little bit of disinformation can cause a lot of trouble, heartache, and bad press.

I am so grateful to the people at the Y for putting on this amazing camp and wish them no harm. I wish they would fix their web site not because I’m worried that this situation may happen to us again–I will be more careful in the future and make sure I print out the confirmation and check whether I got that confirmation e-mail from them. I’m worried about other children’s hearts when this happens to other busy, well-meaning parents.

Can usability pay off your mortgage, part 3

house-smlMortgage-ometer report

Back in March I wrote about some usable software from United First Financial called the Money Merge Account that helps you pay off your mortgage faster. I started using this software in March and by the end of April, we’d made an extra payment of $13,994.08 on the mortgage. I’m amazed and excited. With a few tweaks in our monthly spend plan that haven’t really affected our cash flow or living style, the time to pay off the mortgage has gone from 14 years down to 3.17 years!

The software is overall very usable, as I thought it would be. The learning curve to use it is short, help is readily available and it’s straightforward to implement the action plan.

Ease of building your action plan

My one point of confusion was on the credit cards because I always pay my balance off each month. The system does not allow you an option to do that. If you put in a balance on your credit cards, it will include monthly credit card payments, even if the interest rate is high on your cards. If you want to pay off your credit cards, you have to enter in a balance of $0.00, then enter in a new action with the estimated monthly amount you normally spend. When you pay the bill, you simply replace your estimated amount with the real balance you’re paying.

It’s very easy to enter your budget items and action plan, but not so easy to know what changes would help you reach your goal faster. What I did was to play with different options to see how they affected the goal.

I tried adding a savings account with a higher interest rate, which I thought would make things go faster, but it actually lengthened the time to pay off the mortgage. It doesn’t make sense, so I’m not sure why that happened.

Implementing the action plan

Sometimes the action plan changes really fast and sometimes it retracts actions that it told you to do–the system can seem a little szichophrenic at times. After every action you take, the system recalculates the action plan. I wish it would be a little more stable–a couple times I was getting excited to make that big monthly payment and all of a sudden it had moved to two months out! Then when I came back later, that action had returned to the plan. It would be nice if the plan were a little more stable. 


Their support is awesome–they have an live chat button on the main page of the application labeled “Need help? Live chat” which I was reluctant to click on, but I did get stuck once and decided to give it a shot. They answered my question quickly and I was on my way again. They might want to change the wording on that button. Users are generally reluctant to admit they “need help”, and I was the same way. I had to really get stuck before I’d click. Once I’d tried it and found it a good experience, I was less reluctant to click on it again, but still hesitant.

All in all, though, I couldn’t be happier with my Money Merge Account from United First Financial. My hubby and I are dreaming about what we could do with our lives once our house is paid off.  

Previous articles on the Money Merge Account:

Measuring Readability of your Copy

One of the most important things in building web sites is content. How do you know how readable your content is? If you have Microsoft Word, you can measure it.

Active is better than passive

readingYour English teacher probably told you to avoid writing in the passive voice. Use the active voice–it’s more exciting to read. How well do you do at that? Use the  Passive Sentences Test to find out. For this test, the lower the score, the better.

Long sentences and words with lots of syllables are harder to read

To tell how easy your text is to read, you can use the Flesch Reading Ease score.  This test measures how long your sentences are and how many syllables are in the words you used. The higher the score, the better. Aim for something above 60.

Big words take more thought

Similar to the Flesch Reading Ease test, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test gives back something we can all relate to — a grade level, meaning the level of education needed to understand your text. Even if you’re writing for an educated audience, they appreciate having text that is easy to read. Face it; we’re all busy and swamped with so many things trying to grab our attention. We’re more likely to read things that we can easily read. Shoot for a grade level of 8 at the max.

So go find out how to measure your readability. If you’re writing for the web, just copy and paste your web copy into Word and check your readability scores.

Just for fun, here are the scores for this article:

  • Passive voice: 0%
  • F. Reading ease: 77.8
  • F.K. grade level: 5.3

Should We Trust Facebook Apps?

Last week facebook changed their terms of use and it caused a lot of stir on the Internet. Immediately there were blog posts criticizing facebook’s actions, and some (myself included) were thinking about giving up their facebook account, and disgusted that quitting facebook would not free them from the facebook terms and conditions. At the time I was wondering how much we should trust our personal information to services like facebook, but I had already done a lot of sharing of my inner self, including posting pictures of my family and writing the 25 random things about me (which took a little soul-searching). I gave these things freely to my friends, thinking my privacy settings would protect others from seeing them, but when the terms of facebook changed, it appeared my privacy settings were no protection. Fortunately, facebook changed their terms back to the previous version, but it still left me a little unsettled and got me wondering how trust issues like this affect users in general. 

facebook-trustThen one of my good friends commented on my post 11 things I learned from myFarm–she is reluctant to accept the gifts I’ve sent her on facebook because she doesn’t want to give the application permission to access all her information. That got me wondering:

  • How much access do those facebook applications really have?
  • What are they allowed to do with people’s information?
  • What restrictions are placed on applications to protect users’ privacy? Are there any? Should there be?
  • Why do they need access?
  • And the big question: should we facebook users put our trust in facebook apps?

If you just go from the message that is displayed, facebook apps have access to:

  1. Your facebook profile (gender, birthdate, relationship status, religious views, political views, activities, interests, favorite music/TV/movies, etc., contact information, e-mail address, phone number, IM name, address, web site, education, work)
  2. Your photos (all the photos you’ve posted on facebook)
  3. Your friends’ info (Does that mean my friend list? How much info about my friends do they have access to?)
  4. Other content that it requires to work (What does that include? Haven’t they already given the app every bit of personal information they have about me and all my friends?)

So basically, facebook apps have access to everything you’ve shared on facebook other than perhaps your Notes and Posted items, but it’s not clear that those are off limits either.

Now to give facebook a little credit, they have posted “Guiding Principles” for applications to follow; however, there is nothing that forces application builders to adhere to these principles. Guiding Principle #2 is:

Applications should be Trustworthy. …

  • Secure: Protects user data and honors privacy choices for everyone across the social graph …
  • Respectful: Values user attention and honors their intentions in communications and actions …
  • Transparent: Explains how features will work and how they won’t work, especially in triggering user-to-user communications …

Read the guiding principles here.

But we know not all facebook apps follow these principles. Some facebook apps apparently load adware to your computer.

Last November, facebook launched an application verification program, but when browsing facebook applications, I don’t see any verification information on any of them. Okay, I only spot-checked a few apps, but it makes me wonder: Is this really being implemented? I see no positive comments from the developers, who appear to be afraid of paying an exorbitant fee to get verified.

I was hoping some good news would come out of this investigation, but I really couldn’t find any good reasons for people to trust facebook apps–or to even know which ones to trust and which not to. If you are one of the people who was scared off by the warning message, perhaps you’re one of the smart ones!

The best advice is probably not to share anything on facebook that you don’t want to be shared publicly and to be careful about which applications you choose to trust. Read customer reviews and the application description, and take your best guess at how trustworthy they are.