Archive for August, 2008

What is Usability?

It’s a question I get all the time (especially when people ask me what I do for a living). I created a presentation a while back to help explain what usability is, why it’s important, how much it costs, and how to learn more about it. I’ve revised it for public view, and put it up on slideshare. Enjoy!

Note: “Satisfice” is a term invented by Steve Krug (in his book Don’t Make Me Think) to describe the behavior of users when searching for something on the web–users choose the first solution that looks satisfactory. They don’t seek the optimal solution–they look for the first thing that will work.

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own.

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Win Full Conference Passes to E-commerce Conferences

I’ve got a problem: I want to go to some of the big e-commerce conferences. The problem is that there’s no budget for it in our new, small, just-getting-started company. I think it would really benefit me AND my company, but I rarely have time to talk to my boss about work stuff (he’s super-busy and just doesn’t have time for all of us), and when I do get time to talk to him, I don’t really want to spend it asking him to send me to a conference. But if I won a FREE full conference pass, I probably could ask him for some travel money … especially if I could work in a meeting on the trip too, right?

Are you in the same boat?

Get Elastic, one of my favorite blogs, is giving away free conference passes to three big events (Shop.org Annual Summit 2008 in Las Vegas, Online Market World in San Francisco, and Search Marketing Expo (SMX East) in New York) — oh, and signed copies of Avinash Kaushik’s book “Web Analytics: An Hour a Day”–and all you have to do is one of three things:

  1. Subscribe to the Get Elastic e-commerce blog via RSS or subscribe by email and leave a comment on their blog that you just subscribed.
  2. If you are already subscribed, get a friend to subscribe and leave a comment
  3. If you are a blogger, blog about the contest and help spread the word!

When you leave your comment, don’t forget to tell them which prizes you want.

If you do anything worthwhile with e-commerce or the web, you should subscribe to Get Elastic anyway. I’ve found many a useful insight on their blog. And their webinars are excellent!

Even if you don’t win a conference pass, you’ll learn a lot by subscribing to Get Elastic, so there’s no way to lose! 🙂

Putting the Requirements Doc in its Place

I sat in on a webinar today entitled “A Roadmap for Building the Right Solution” (Slides are now posted.) It was sponsored by iRise, a company that I greatly admire (even though I didn’t choose their prototyping tool). At iRise, as at Axure (the tool I DO use–almost every day), they have some great thinkers who know that people are visual in nature, and, as Kurt Bittner, the speaker in the webinar said today, requirements documents are rarely read. It was a refreshing reiteration of the value of visualizations in software development. In order to build a software solution that truly satisfies the business need, you need to use a communication vehicle that’s visual–and a requirements document just isn’t visual enough to show people what you mean. That’s where rapid prototyping using a tool like Axure or iRise comes in. 

Requirements documents serve an important purpose, but it’s not the way they’re usually employed. Typically, businesses write up requirements documents and hand them over for someone else to “review and comment” on. Now, for someone to really review and comment on a requirements document, they have to not only read it, but also form a mental picture in their minds of what the writer had in mind when they wrote it, and then structure some sort of response to that. All of this takes a lot of time. And time is money. If you write up your requirements and then spend a lot of time (a.k.a., money) reviewing them, you may still be no closer to solving the business problem than you were when you started. You may know how fast it has to go and how reliable it has to be, but does it really answer the right questions? Do the right things? Is it usable? You can’t really answer that until you have something visual in front of you.

We should use requirements documents–absolutely we should! But they should be the formalized notes stating the decisions resulting from our discussions. Use other methods (with a visual, interactive prototype early in the process) to get to the decisions. If we do it this way, we get a lot closer to delivering what the client really wants/needs, rather than what the client SAID they wanted.

I am involved in quite a few projects, all with the same client company, and it’s amazing how different the requirements process was for each one. There was always a requirements document, but we always introduced a visualization early in the process. We took what our clients asked us for, interpreted it by creating a visualization of the solution using Axure, then used that as a focus for our discussions. Usually that resulted in some changes to the requirements document, and we moved on from there. Once we’ve agreed that it’s what we want, the engineers then go and build to the prototype, with modifications as noted in the requirements document. The most successful (and enjoyable) project we’ve had involved a very short description of requirements, which we took and then built a visual prototype which showed the solution in action. This prototype was the center of our discussions as we molded this solution to become a viable result, simplifying even further as we began to more fully understand the problem and cut out all unnecessary elements to make the interface even easier.

They have posted the presentation from the webinar at irise.com. This is a drastic change from waterfall software development where the requirements are defined in great detail before anything is ever prototyped and some people might find it a dramatic shift in thinking. But it’s much more successful. Because of our visual nature, humans need a visual communications medium to SHOW us the idea, not just tell us. Words are great, but pictures, especially interactive pictures that show us the behavior of the solution, go a lot further towards getting to an effective response to the business need.

Alan Cooper’s talk on how User Experience Design fits in Agile Development

Agile programming is big now, and I know several programmers who subscribe to it. But how does usability and user experience design fit in an agile world? Many usability experts couldn’t tell you because they’re still trying to figure it out themselves. I’ve long been arguing that we need to stop and figure out what the user really wants and design the user experience first–then hand it over to the programmers to build. Does that work with Agile programming? Why wouldn’t it? I’ve won part of that argument in our company. They let me design the user experience, but there’s no time for user research, user personas, or usability testing of the interface before I have to hand it over. They’re in such a rush to meet the deadlines set by the “board”.

But, thanks to a thread I was following on CUACentral (a social networking site hosted by Human Factors International for their Certified Usability Analysts), I ran across this gem from Alan Cooper, one of the leaders in Interaction Design and the author of The Inmates are Running the Asylum. It’s his keynote speech, complete with all his notes, that he gave at Agile 2008.

Enjoy!

Business Reporting Tools, Capabilities, and Pricing

Last week I was on a quest for “data visualization” tools, and I found quite a few reporting software solutions that might work for reporting our operations metrics. We’re looking for a solution that will enable us to pull data from various data sources and report sales metrics, support metrics, and production metrics in a web-based portal with user access controls.

We were thinking of trying out LogiXML’s free reporting tool, until we found that it required Microsoft IIS, and our server farm is all Linux boxes, so I had to go back to the drawing board. Tableau (at $15,000 + per-user fees of $150/user or $500/user, depending on how much interactivity you want that user to have) and Visual I|O ($50,000 – 100,000 — yikes!) were out of range, price-wise, and Logi Info (if we were to upgrade from Logi Report) can get pretty spendy too, if you need more than one of their products ($75,000 for the bundled set of products, not including the cost of the developers to build the solution once we had the tool). 

This week I’m trying out some new buzzwords to search on: “business intelligence” and “reporting software” which has found me a few more solutions and alternatives.

CrystalReports

I looked at CrystalReports.com, where you can create reports using CrystalReports on your desktop, then upload them to CrystalReports.com, eliminating the need for your IT department to host and maintain a reports server. Up to three users are free, but once you get beyond that, they charge $29.95 per user, with a minimum of 10 users. It links to your data sources and integrates with Salesforce.com (except we’re not using Salesforce.com …). Now maybe we could get by with three users, but it’s pretty unlikely, and do we really want to pay $300/month? Perhaps it’s worth it not to have the overhead and headache of hosting it ourselves, and it appears to be a solution that wouldn’t require any development resources at all, but I decided to continue my search and see what else is out there.

Intellicus

Intellicus pricing runs from a “couple hundred dollars to a few thousand” (is that a one-time fee? yearly? monthly? I don’t know …) and includes ad-hoc and standard reporting interfaces, dashboards, e-mail or text message alerts sent if one of your specified parameter crosses a threshold (defined by you), and report scheduling. It looks pretty comprehensive and it’s a java-based solution, so it will run on our Linux boxes. Another thing I thought was interesting was that they have a collaboration tool that allows users to comment on reports. They have a model that allows non-developers (report designers) to design reports and publish them. I also like that they don’t have a suite of products that I have to choose from. (Suites like what LogiXML offers confuse the issue and make it difficult to determine the true cost of the solution. What if, for example, we thought we needed Logi Info, but we really need the whole suite?)

Intelliview

Intelliview has a product suite, but it’s pretty easy to understand what each of them does. They have a report designer (about $600/each), an SDK, IntelliView Reporter (a portal that displays reports designed by the designer) and a report analyzer (as I understand it, this is software that report analysts install on their computer in order to analyze the reports). I’m not entirely sure what the cost is for all of this, but it sounds like it’s $849 per concurrent user for the SDK. I’ll have more details on that next week.

What I don’t like about these software vendor web sites

  • Some of these vendors have so much jargon and so many different software products, without clear explanation of what each product does. Perhaps they make sense on some level to them, but to an analyst who’s trying to decipher the differences between all these reporting software tools, it’s difficult sometimes to cut through the crap and determine what each of them is offering and how they compare. One vendor (i-strudel) I gave up on immediately after reading the first sentence: “With the entropy of information on rise, the fulcrum of decision making has shifted to one scenario amongst many.” Waaaaay too much thinking involved just to decipher what they’re trying to say! 
  • I don’t like that many of these reporting software vendors don’t openly disclose their pricing. It makes it very hard to do a comparison if I can’t tell what a solution costs. LogiXML and Crystalreports.com get points for that: they have pricing clearly displayed on their web sites. Tableau, Intellicus, IntelliView, and Visual I|O: they all made me provide quite a lot of personal information before they’d tell me anything about pricing, and even sometimes after I asked, they want to give me a demo before they’ll talk about pricing. That’s discouraging and can be a waste of time for both of us. If they put pricing on their web site, I could determine right away if they’re in our ballpark or off in left field somewhere. It blows me away how disparate the pricing is. What is it that makes a reporting solution worth $50,000 to $100,000 vs. $1,000? I’m really not sure yet, but that’s why I am asking the pricing question up front.

When is free shipping really important?

amazon-shipping-robot.jpgI was reading Get Elastic’s posts on How to Plug Free Shipping and Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus and He Searches for Free Shipping where they’re discussing search engine strategies for free shipping offers. Linda points out:

“Free shipping offers consistently top surveys of what customers want from online stores. And people do search for “free shipping,” and most often in November / December – as you would expect.”

The question came up in my mind: are all these people who want free shipping just cheap, or is there another concern lurking in the back of their mind? Are there specific products that free shipping is really important for, and others when it doesn’t matter so much?

In some cases (with certain products), there are concerns that free shipping quells immediately (if you make sure the user KNOWS you offer free shipping on that item). If you offer products like clothing or shoes or furniture, items that may cause your customers to wonder:

  • Will it fit?
  • Will it look good on me?
  • Will it be comfortable?
  • How will it look in that room?

These kinds of issues aren’t as big an issue when the customer is in a retail store and they can try it on, sit on it or measure it, but when you’re buying it online, it’s a bigger concern because you don’t get that hands-on experience.

That’s why Zappos’ policy of free shipping both ways works so well. Shoes are one of those things that most of us have GOT to try on before you know whether you really want them. And Zappos makes it very clear in both their site design and the copy on their site that you don’t have to worry about that when you shop at Zappos. 

There’s another type of concern with shipping: if an item is really big or heavy, the perception is that it’s going to cost more than it’s worth to have it shipped vs. buying it in a local store. So for furniture or heavy equipment, offering free shipping is a big boon to online conversion.

Free shipping is not as big a deal with seeds or flower bulbs, for example, because it’s not something you expect you might have to send back. You are going to plant it in the ground, so you clearly won’t be sending it back. You might be asking for a refund if it doesn’t grow, but there’s nothing to send back. It might be okay to pay a little for shipping, then, especially if it’s something special I can’t get at my local hardware store.

Some products I think would be important to offer free shipping on are:

  • Shoes, of course
  • Clothing, especially fitted clothing (not so much with items like t-shirts)

Free or low-cost shipping is also good for:

  • Furniture
  • Heavy equipment like lawnmowers, snowblowers, etc.

Free shipping is not as big of a deal with edible items, personal care products like lotions, perfumes, and soaps, office supplies, DVDs, CDs, etc. These things are the types of things where you know pretty much what you’re going to get and you expect to use it regardless. If it doesn’t taste as fantastic as they thought it would, well, they just won’t order it again.

Do watch what you’re charging for shipping, though, if you decide you’re going to charge for shipping, and make it clear up front what the shipping charges will be. If the user thinks they’ll be paying more for shipping than they’re paying for the item, or if the cost of shipping makes the item overpriced, in their mind, you’ll lose them. To get conversions, you’ve got to quell their fears, and too many of us have been tricked into buying an item that looked like a good deal, but with overpriced shipping on eBay (for example), it becomes not a good deal at all. People are suspicious of shipping charges, and rightly so.

I would just caution online retailers to put themselves in their customer’s shoes and consider the concerns and worries that are running through their minds as they shop. Then set your shipping prices at a fair price to help quell some of those fears.

Some online retailers like Zappos and Overstock.com have figured all this out, and are reaping the benefits.

Bloggers helping bloggers: Blogday 2008

Blog Day 2008Did you know there’s a Blogday? I didn’t. But Glenn on AnyGeo blogged about it, so of course I have to follow suit! So all you bloggers take note: Blogday is August 31. Here’s your assignment:

  • Find 5 interesting new blogs, preferably different from your own culture, point of view and attitude.
  • Notify the bloggers that you are recommending them as part of Blogday.
  • Write a blog entry with a short description of each of your chosen 5 blogs, with links to the blogs, of course!
  • Post your Blogday entry on Blogday (AUGUST 31)
  • Add the BlogDay tag using this link: http://technorati.com/tag/BlogDay2008 and a link to the BlogDay web site at http://www.blogday.org

So if a bunch of bloggers do this, we’ll be leaping all over the web, discovering interesting new blogs on August 31. Sounds like fun to me!

Need more info? visit Blogday.org.