Category Archives: user experience

Designing With People In Mind

It’s been said that great design is transparent. Dieter Rams’ enduring design ethos less and more (and also less, but better) immediately comes to mind.

A common thread shared among effective product experiences is that unnecessary complexity, sometimes called creeping featurism, is removed where ever possible.

Invariably this approach will a yield a superior user experience and lead us to an interface that: a) isn’t visually or functionally obtrusive, but rather gets out of the way and allows people to get things done; and b) is user-centered whereby human behaviours factor prominently into the underlying design rationale.

Noted Behavioral Scientist Susan Weinschenk provides us with a useful 10-point reference when embarking on a user-centered (that is, people first) design methodology:

1. People Don’t Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
  • It is better to show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure.
  • Instead of just describing things, show people an example.
  • Pay attention to the affordance of objects on the screen, page, or device you are designing. If something is clickable make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  • Only provide the features that people really need. Don’t rely on your opinion of what you think they need; do user research to actually find out. Giving people more than they need just clutters up the experience.
  • Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People Have Limitations

  • People can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest. Only provide the information that’s needed at the moment (see progressive disclosure above).
  • Make the information easy to scan.
  • Use headers and short blocks of info or text.
  • People can’t multi-task. The research is very clear on this, so don’t expect them to.
  • People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! It’s a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important in your case, but know that people are going to ask for things that actually aren’t best for them.

3. People Make Mistakes

  • Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them.
  • If the results of an error are severe then use a confirmation before acting on the user’s action.
  • Make it easy to “undo”.
  • Preventing errors from occurring is always better than helping people correct them once they occur. The best error message is no message at all.
  • If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.
  • If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did.
  • Whoever is designing the UX makes errors too, so make sure that there is time and energy for iteration, user feedback, and testing.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated

  • People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing. You can trust what users say as the truth only a little bit. It is better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.
  • Memory is fragile. It degrades quickly and is subject to lots of errors. Don’t make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another.
  • People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The “7 plus or minus 2” rule is an urban legend. Research shows the real number is 3-4.

5. People Are Social

  • People will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years.
  • People look to others for guidance on what they should do, especially if they are uncertain. This is called social validation. This is why, for example, ratings and reviews are so powerful on websites.
  • If people do something together at the same time (synchronous behavior) it bonds them together —there are actually chemical reactions in the brain. Laughter also bonds people.
  • If you do a favor for me then I will feel indebted to give you a favor back (reciprocity). Research shows that if you want people to fill out a form, give them something they want and then ask for them to fill out the form, not vice versa.
  • When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called mirror neurons). We are programmed with our biology to imitate. If you want people to do something then show someone else doing it.
  • You can only have strong ties to 150 people. Strong ties are defined as ties that with people you are in close physical proximity to. But weak ties can be in the thousands and are very influential (à la Facebook).

6. Attention

  • Attention is a key to designing an engaging UI. Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.
  • People are programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel. If you make something different it will stand out.
  • Having said that, people can actually miss changes in their visual field. This is called change blindness. There are some quite humorous videos of people who start talking to someone on the street (who has stopped them and asked for directions) and then don’t notice when the person actually changes!
  • You can use the senses to grab attention. Bright colors, large fonts, beeps, and tones will capture attention.
  • People are easily distracted. If you don’t want them to be distracted, don’t flash things on the page or start videos playing. If, however, you do want to grab their attention, do those things.

7. People Crave Information

  • Dopamine is a chemical that makes people seek… food, sex, information. Learning is dopaminergic —we can’t help but want more information.
  • People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.
  • People need feedback. The computer doesn’t need to tell the human that it is loading the file. The human needs to know what is going on.

8. Unconscious Processing

  • Most mental processing occurs unconsciously.
  • If you can get people to commit to a small action (sign up for a free membership), then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action (e.g., upgrade to a premium account).
  • The old brain makes or at least has input into most of our decisions. The old brain cares about survival and propagation: food, sex, and danger. That is why these three messages can grab our attention.
  • The emotional brain is affected by pictures, especially pictures of people, as well as by stories. The emotional brain has a huge impact on our decisions.
  • People’s behavior is greatly affected by factors that they aren’t even aware of. The words “retired”, “Florida,” and “tired” can make even young people walk down the hall slower (called framing).
  • Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. We will always ascribe a rational, conscious-brain reason to our decision, but it’s never the whole reason why we take an action, and often the rational reason isn’t even part of the reason.

9. People Create Mental Models

  • People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control).
  • The mental model that people have about a particular task may make it easy or hard to use an interface that you have designed.
  • In order to create a positive UX, you can either match the conceptual model of your product or website to the users’ mental model, or you can figure out how to “teach” the users to have a different mental model.
  • Metaphors help users “get” a conceptual model. For example, “This is just like reading a book.”
  • The most important reason to do user research is to get information about users’ mental models.

10. Visual System

  • If pages are cluttered people can’t find information. Use grouping to help focus where the eye should look.
  • Things that are close together are believed to “go” together.
  • Make fonts large enough. Use fonts that are not too decorative so they are easy to read.
  • Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the “gist” of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn’t mean they are paying attention to it.
  • The hardest colors to look at together are red and blue. Try to avoid red text on a blue background or vice versa.
  • People can recognize objects on a screen best when they are slightly angled and have the perspective of being slightly above (canonical perspective).
  • Color can be used to show whether things go together. Be sure to use another way to show the same info since some people are colorblind.

A Screenless Future?

Kyle VanHemert wrote a great piece a while back for Wired Magazine that considered the forward-thinking computer operating system portrayed in the film Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. VanHemert believes we’re heading towards a future in which technology will “dissolve” into everyday life. A future perhaps without screens (and clunky hardware), a concept I find intriguing considering our current obsession with digital gadgets is showing no signs of waning while systematically destroying traditional media consumption models.

No I’m not going to dwell on Siri’s shortcomings or gripe about the crude voice recognition apps available on most Android phones. Incidentally I couldn’t tell you the name of the crusty voice app I had on my Galaxy S3 because I uninstalled it after only a couple weeks of use, mainly because it just never seemed to work.
Voice apps, particularly on mobile devices, seem logical, in theory, but are really just a sort of tech novelty at present. Of course keyboards are just too darn cumbersome and impractical on smaller screens. And who really enjoys typing? Not me, I’m terrible. Whether it’s a full-sized desktop keyboard with chunky concave buttons or the ridiculously small tactile-deficient touch screen variety employed by most smartphones and tablets, typing is just tedious. Mouse pointers and trackballs too are arguably among the most archaic forms of input whether you’re writing a book or drawing a picture. But speaking to your computer, well now, how does that work out in a noisy public space or open concept office? Maybe the title of this post should be: A Keyboardless Future, certainly that’s the popular idea perpetuated in most science-fiction films. The notion we’ll be talking our way through the Web instead of typing and clicking things we see rendered on a screen.

In any case, designers of screen-based digital products will have to eventually rethink their role and what it means to craft a compelling user experience. I’m not even sure I know what that means anymore. What’s a compelling user experience? One that garners a person’s undivided attention for more than 30-seconds? Does good UX require beautiful typography, rich colourful graphics, and stunning photography? Is it even possible to elicit the same emotional connections with software that does not exploit these sensory visual titillations?
What are the desirable aesthetic attributes of an OS that does not employ a GUI? In the film Her clearly it’s Scarlett Johansson’s voice —and who would argue with that! Wouldn’t you rather interact with a Scarlett Johansson-esque sounding voice when sifting through your morning email rather than the mind numbing artificially generated types we hear in, say, car GPS nav systems. You know, that slightly creepy voice: monotone, completely devoid of any inflection; cold and unsympathetic when we deviate from the pre-programmed turn-by-turn directions. Recalibrating…recalibrating…

Visual and audible titillations aside, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a UI that gets out of your way and allows you to accomplish a specific task quickly (e.g. pay a credit card bill, reserve a table at your favorite restaurant, delete a file) is sometimes more effective with certain attributes subdued or completely removed from the equation —gradient colured buttons with giant 30-pixel drop shadow effects immediately come to mind.
But if my phone or car GPS is going to sound like Scarlett Johansson I might get distracted and go off on tangent conversations like Joaquin Phoenix did, which means I’d never get anything done or possibly rear-end the driver in front of me if I’m behind the wheel. But the OS in Her isn’t just a pretty voice, it’s inquisitive and seems to intelligently anticipate and prioritize Theodore’s needs (the character played by Joaquin). What current OS can make those claims? Not Windows 8.1, not OS X Mavericks, not Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, not Android 4.4 KitKat. Yes wearable voice-enabled devices are mildly interesting, but clumsy and rather primitive in capability at present (though well-intentioned). In fact, what we experience today could be viewed as the equivalent of horse and carriage technology when we think about the utopian concepts presented in the film Her.

. . .

I would say UXD in its current state as a core discipline of software design and modern Web application development seems to focus disproportionately on what people see rather than what people might need to do. While the old axiom attractive things work better is a design principle few would dismiss, what of design’s most endearing tenets: form follows function, when there is no form. What then?

image credit: Leo Roubos

Barriers To Audience Engagement

this application will be able to huh?It’s nothing really new. You visit a Web site, read an article or consume some bits of content and, depending how much coffee you’ve drank, feel compelled to leave a comment.

“Join the conversation”, “share this post with your friends and followers” are the mantra of those looking to build an audience in what’s become a fractured digital landscape saturated with countless options vying for our attention.

What follows next (still) baffles me. Please sign-in with Facebook, Twitter, or [insert prominent social network here] to leave a comment on our glorious Web site.

Ok, if you insist. Hmm… I’ll choose Twitter.

Web-site-you-want-to-leave-a-comment-on would like to access your Twitter account and “Update your profile“, “Post Tweets for you“.

Oh wait. Let me think about that one for a moment. Hmm… No.

Incredibly there are many sites still employing this rather severe mode of access and APIs that want untethered access to everything under the sun, including your firstborn child.
Content administrators who subscribe to the argument of forcing users to sign-in with their social media credentials would likely say it’s the most effective way to ensure everyone leaving a comment is a real person. Automated bots and trolls on the other hand conspire to pollute discussion threads with bogus or low quality content, so these protocols are necessary the moderators would argue.

Perhaps so, but sites imposing strict rules governing audience engagement, for example, requiring users to log-in with their Facebook credentials or only a few other cherry-picked social networks, is an unfortunate measure for dealing with the mountains of automated crap now circulating the Web. I’m afraid resorting to these tactics only discourages authentic audience participation.