Archive for May, 2008

Using Google Analytics Smarter

I have been reading a lot about e-commerce analytics and conversion rates today–and I stumbled across this article written by Linda Bustos entitled 8 Stupid Things Webmasters Do To Mess Up Their Analytics. It’s a good read, with good advice.


Greendex: A usable, “green”-ness map of the world

On Treehugger this morning, I saw a blog entry about National Geographic’s recently published Greendex, an international study measuring how “green” people in each of seven different countries live.

The Greendex uses a simple rollover map with different shades of green to clearly illustrate differences in  consumer behavior. While the mouseover behavior can be a little tricky at times, the simplicity of the map format is ingenious.


No surprise, the US is at the bottom of the green scale, while Brazil and India are doing the best. The map points out that consumer-istic, wasteful behavior has got to go.

The really fun part of it is that you can take a quiz to see what your own “Greendex” is, so you can compare how well you stack up against the masses. They also have a guide on how to improve your Greendex.  It’s a very well-done site.

Well done, National Geographic!

Users Don’t Read

I almost forgot how much I love to read stuff by Joel Spolsky. Since I’m one of the few Users who Read, I ran across one of his diatribes on how users don’t read today, so I had to read it.

You should too. Be a User Who Reads so you understand why Users Don’t Read.

The Evolution of Amazon and the Tabbed Interface has long been hailed by usability professionals as the premiere example of usable e-commerce. I was doing a search for information on usable tabbed interfaces this morning, and ran across this interesting historical perspective on how Amazon has changed over the years. (How could you not run across something about Amazon?)

Amazon, who popularized the tabbed interface, has now abandoned it completely–so will tabs live on? Probably. They’re still used on many big sites. Like these, for example:

The advantages of tabs is that people intuitively understand them. I remember when they first came out, I hated them. Now I use them quite often in my designs and find myself flustered trying to explain to our engineers how they should work. The engineers are reluctant to change the content of the page when the user clicks on the tab–they want to simply show the sub-menu related to that tab and wait until the user clicks before the change the page. The problem is the user is still staring at the content from the previous page, wondering why nothing happened when they clicked on the tab.

The engineers, of course, have a valid point–they don’t want to overload the servers to serve content that the user may not want. I contend that when a user opens a tab, they want to see something in the tab! So we have an ongoing argument on the interface. Or perhaps it’s just me that has the argument and the engineers are just ignoring me (which is why I have to rant here!)

Okay, I digress. The Amazon article doesn’t go into any of that, but it is quite interesting to anyone who studies user experience.

Beeps, Dings, and Usability

We just moved into a new home, and were so pleasantly surprised to find our microwave made a pleasant, musical “ding” sound instead of an annoying, tinny “beep”. Everyone who came into the house remarked on the pleasant sound the microwave made and how lovely it was. Until last Saturday morning, when I woke up to discover that the lovely-sounding microwave no longer heated the food. Sigh. Time for a new microwave.

The sweet-sounding microwave has been replaced with a very nice-looking silvery GE model with 6 one-touch buttons and a popcorn button. I chose one with fewer buttons for the usability and I really like that part of it. What really bothered me, though, is they didn’t have any of the models at the store plugged in, so you could look at them, but you couldn’t HEAR them. So now we’re stuck once more with a microwave that dings. It’s not the most annoying sound in the world, but it is annoying.

My point is this: every aspect of your product affects the user experience. The sound your microwave makes could be just as important as the design of the buttons. Why would users want an annoying BEEP sound to notify them when their food is done? Why not a pleasant, sing-songy ding?

One person: usable design?

So my boss asks me to take a look at the incomplete beginnings of a product and improve the user experience, and I’ve been struggling with it for a few days now. “What do you think of it?” I asked him. Then I asked myself “What does the competitive landscape look like?” so I went out and looked at our competitors to see what they’re doing. Now back to us. What do we want to be? What should the user experience be? I start reading industry blogs, looking for others who also struggle with usability in this arena.

I’ve got visions for this thing, but how do I tranform it into something really meaningful, innovative, and industry-compelling? Something people will see and want and have to have. Hmmmmm.

And then I ran across this blog entry on User Pathways: James Kelway summarized Leah Buley’s presentation from the IA Summit 2008: How to be a UX team of One. The title called out to me because since I began the usability path, I’ve found myself being the User Experience team of One more often than not–the one person who everyone comes to for usability advice, the only one doing usability testing, the one designing the user experience.
Now that I’m working from home it’s become harder. I used to call out to the people around me, who were not user experience professionals, and my good friend Sue, who was very usability oriented, to bounce my ideas off of. Now it’s just me and the cats most of the day–and my husband who’s way downstairs in his corner office (we both work from home, for the same company), seemingly ages away. I’m too lazy to walk the stairs down into the cold basement to pull him from his work and help me think.

But this presentation helped remind me that I need to do that more. I need to get more people involved in the design. I don’t have to sit in my ivory tower and come out with the best design all by myself. What a refreshing thought. Thank you, Leah and James, for reminding me of that!

(Not to mention, the hand-drawn graphics are awesome and remind me of a couple of my favorite things: the Moosewood cookbook and the Story of Stuff).

Watch the presentation. If you’re a user experience professional, I’m sure you’ve found yourself in this boat. It’s well worth the time invested! 

Should you skip usability in a time crunch?

Imagine you’re working on a web project that has high visibility. Lots of stakeholders at high levels are involved, and they’re getting impatient. They want to see results, and they want it now. You’ve thrown together a quick design, but you haven’t started coding yet and time is getting tight.

Now might be the time when you want to throw in the towel and scrap your planned usability efforts. The design is good, in your eyes, and the customer likes it. But is it a good idea to skip the usability?

Even if you’re fairly sure you’ve got a good design, if you’ve not had a real user try to use it, how can you be sure? The best designers in the world can’t pre-guess what a user will do–there are always gotchas that are obvious after the fact, when it’s incredibly expensive to fix. It’s better to be safe and get that user feedback BEFORE you’ve set it in stone. Would a scientist who’s in a hurry skip the data collection and start writing the paper? A little data collection here could go a long way towards improving the user experience.

But when you’re in a time crunch, how do you fit it in?

image of hand-drawn prototypeThere is a technique called paper prototyping that’s incredibly valuable, especially if applied before you start coding. Why not take a few days (or weeks, if you have it) and discover what those gotchas are before you start coding? The test doesn’t have to be big and complicated, with a formal test plan. You will gain incredibly valuable input just by showing your design to a few users, asking them a few questions, and having them pretend it’s a real screen and try to do a few tasks (“clicking” or “typing” on the paper)–while you pretend you’re a computer and feed them the next screen design. (Paper prototyping is even more valuable at the wireframing stage, before you have a design, but the same concept works after you’ve sketched out something in Photoshop.)

Jakob Nielsen, usability guru, says “the biggest improvements in user experience come from gathering usability data as early as possible in a design project. Measured usability can increase by an order of magnitude when you can change the project’s basic approach to the problem, change the feature set, and change the user interface architecture.”


Recommendations for success:

  1. If you need to skip something, skip the formality and the committee, not the test. Usability testing designed by committee takes a long time–and all the formal plans and reports are time consuming. When you’re in a hurry, be open to a more informal approach–and explain to your leadership why it’s necessary (to meet the timelines they want).
  2. Remember your goals for the project. Let those goals guide the tasks for the test. Select just a few key tasks (based on the goals) and use the same tasks for all the users.
  3. Don’t let naysayers get in the way. Whatever you do almost anywhere, there will be a few people who will question what you did or how you did it. Yes, you should listen to what they say because some of their feedback may be relevant and useful, but it shouldn’t keep you from getting real user feedback.
  4. Don’t set the design in stone too soon. Remember to be open to feedback and don’t get too attached to that design–and make sure the customer knows you may have to change it, but if you do, you’ll have real evidence to back it up.
  5. Remain flexible and be open to new ideas. If the user has issues with the design somewhere, open your mind and think of a new, better way to make things work. Good design is hard because sometimes you have to break your own misconceptions and habits. Don’t be afraid to step outside the box.

 I encourage paper prototyping in every environment–no matter what the political or time constraints. As Walt Disney says,

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”