The Anti-Hobgoblin: Delivering a Dependable User Experience

Many set out to design a kick ass user experience that will transport their users to new digital heights and alter them forever. To deliver on this ambitious promise,  companies (start-ups in particular) comb the globe seeking developers and designers who fit their “ninja” job descriptions. In reality, simply meeting the expectations of your users (while boring and admittedly square) builds trust and delivers the greatest user experience.

David Linden, Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins recently explained how our brains are wired to reward expectations in a recent NPR story about the 2012 campaign season and how people feel pleasure when their expectations are met.

“We are intrinsically wired to take pleasure from our predictions that come true,” Linden said. The article goes on to describe it in more detail:

It helps to consider how the brain looks for consistency and predictability in even a mundane event like reaching for a cup of coffee.

Long before your hand reaches the cup, your brain starts making predictions about everything from how much force will be required to lift the cup to how the coffee will taste.

Once the brain makes its predictions, it starts to “use sensory information as it comes in to compare the prediction with what actually took place,” Linden says.

You grasp. You smell. You taste.

If the cup’s weight and the coffee’s flavor match the predictions, your brain declares victory. If not, it tries to figure out what went wrong.

Basically, meet your users’ expectations and you will give them the dopamine surge they’ve come to expect from the best digital experiences.

Usability Tip: Get Your Observers on the Grid

PROBLEM: The things people remember after watching usability sessions is often different from what actually went down.

HUMAN FACTOR: To forget the fine details of our experiences is human. In fact, some believe that even the details we remember go through a process of reconstruction. For some time, cognitive psychologists, like Roger Schank and researchers have suggested that our memories adjust based on our experiences and are therefore altered over time.

Other researchers have proven that our memories are also self-serving. Often what we remember seeing and hearing moves closer to what we wish happened.

USABILITY TOOL: Ask your observers to compile their observations in a grid format against your tasks, research questions, goals or UI components. Make sure they focus on what the participant does and not on articulating a solution or conclusion. Here’s an example format from a recent study I ran:

Task Findings by Participant

The darker shaded area highlights what each participant said and what they did during one task. This helps generate findings and recommendations more efficiently and keeps the various potential bias’ in check. If you use a grid let me know how it works for you.

M.I.T. re-writes an old fable: The Emperor’s New [Empathy] Clothes

C.J. Gunther for The New York Times

This just in: M.I.T. researchers at AgeLab have developed a suit that allows for people who are NOT old, to feel old. There is no question that the aging baby boomer population will present product designers, developers and their technology companies with a myriad of age related requirements. Additionally, there is no doubt that user research is necessary to fully understand the utility and usability of products targeted to the 75 and older crowd.

However, getting people centered on the needs of their users by wearing an empathy suit seems like a step in the wrong direction. Unlike the fabled Emperor’s New Clothes, M.I.T.’s  Age Gain Now Empathy System, aka AGNES, is real and used to simulate limited ranges of motion, instability, and other assumed ailments of a septuagenarian. Similar to the Emperor’s New Clothes, the suit seems like a ruse and a somewhat insulting joke on the folks who buy into it.

There’s no need to literally walk in your users shoes. I believe you can gain as much (if not more) insight by simply listening to them as they use your products. Usability studies are a simple and inexpensive way to infuse empathy into your project team and development cycle.

Instead of trying to become your end-user by donning a suit like Agnes, get your product in front of real users (maybe even named Agnes) and listen to them as they attempt to make use of it. In my opinion, that’s the secret to ensuring that your product will satisfy and delight people for years to come.

Tip: Write User Stories

A few months ago I attended a wonderful presentation by Alla Zollers at a Boston UPA event about integrating Agile principles and practices into User Experience activities and outputs.

The best tip by far (to me) were the development artifacts known as User Stories.  These are pretty much requirements, but are as relevant to UX as they are to dev.

Here’s how you structure them:

As a (role) I want (something) so that (benefit).

For instance for electronic health record software:

As a physician, I want to order a throat culture so that I can verify my diagnosis.

Far too often the tendency to use fringe cases and very rare but complex examples to establish requirements mucks up the interaction design waters.   Instead of tailoring the design to optimize the most common cases while addressing the fringe we are left with the visual equivalent of the one-size-fits-all leisure suit.

Since Alla’s presentation a few months ago I have been using stories to remain focused on the UX goals for each of my assigned projects.   I can’t even imagine what I did without them.

Awesome Wireframe Stencils for OmniGraffle

Omnigraffle is the perfect low-cost diagramming tool for Mac OS.  I was so pleased to find Jesse James Garret’s information architecture stencil included in the Standard version 5.2.1.

Then, I came across some incredible wireframe stencils by KONIGI.  Totally. Incredible.  Download and donate to them today.

Here’s why wireframes work for me:

  • wireframes are low fidelity versions of my ideas and garner better and more productive feedback from stakeholders
  • then, they are easy to change which saves time and money
  • they can be used as paper prototypes for mini-usability labs

Here’s an example wireframe I did for a recent form design project:

Now, get yourself OmniGraffle and start putting your ideas into action.

Design Principle: Readability

While working on content rich websites I’ve spent plenty of time thinking and talking about legibility.    Results from typography focused A/B testing for different content elements such as headlines, body text and lead-ins can increase the potential for interaction, but having visible content is just the beginning.   Even if content passes the legibility test, it could still fall far short of the end goal; to communicate a message quickly and easily to the majority of users.  Enter today’s design principle of choice, READABILITY.

What elements contribute to readability?

  • Word Length
  • Word Commonality
  • Sentence Length
  • Number of Clauses per Sentence
  • Number of Syllables in a Sentence

Improve your content readability:

  • Stay Focused on Meaning and Clarity
  • Avoid Non Essential Words and Punctuation
  • Consider Your Audience and Use the Appropriate Reading Level

Twitter’s Readability

Crowds (especially when limited to 140 characters) adhere to the best practice of readability.  On twitter, I’m often left with a sour taste in my mouth after I click on any of the daily #trendingtopics.  However, whether or not I have an appetite for #whatwereyouthinking tweets, and whether or not those tweets have any use to me, I cannot dispute the fact that it is highly readable content.  Of course there are always the exceptions (e.g. tweets written in complete tween shortcuts) that may not be readable for the twitterverse, but work for a specific for a targeted audience segment.

Calculate the Readability of Your Site Content

Using Edward Fry’s Readability Graph you can get an approximate reading level for your content.

  • Determine the appropriate reading level for your audience
  • Choose three or more sample passages and include the first 100 words of those samples
  • Count the number of sentences (estimate the final one if it is truncated)
  • Count the number of syllables in each sample
  • Calculate the average number of sentences and average number of syllables
  • Plot your results on Edward Fry’s Readability Graph

Edward Fry's Readability Graph

Inamo’s Interactive Taste Test is a Mixed Bag

The other night, while visiting my brother in London we snagged reservations at Inamo in Soho.  This small restaurant (with a bar downstairs) is famous for providing a unique computerized ordering experience.  White tabletops display projections of menu items that diners control with their fingertips on a small touch pad.   I really enjoyed click-exploring the different menu items as they were projected onto the table top, while Monika enjoyed personalizing our ambiance by selecting different wallpapers/backgrounds.  Oh, and she beat me at battleship while we waited for the food.  I’d go back again, but not everyone at our table loved the virtual waiter experience.  Top complaints included:

1. Thumbnail images represented menu items instead of text.  Can you pick out spinach and mushroom packets from a 1-inch picture? What about that spicy tuna roll?

2. It was expensive. The food was very good, though.

3. Drinks could not be easily customized.  My brother had to order a coke AND a whisky to get his desired cocktail.

Here’s the best collection of pictures and write up I found online for Inamo: