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Is software eating the world? Or, is it really customers?

Part 1 of 2 

Software eating our world

Are software companies poised to “take over large swathes of the economy?” Apparently Marc Andreessen thought so in an article from 2011. I think he is right. Let’s take a quick mental inventory of a few of the major firms running on software and delivered as online services – eBay, Amazon, Pandora, Shutterfly, LinkedIn and Netflix. Each one of these organizations, within their respective industries, has used software (digital services) to gain control over, or seize, sizable market share; and in some cases they’ve pushed top competing firms out of business. Anyone remember Borders or Kodak? Personally, there was a time I thought Monster would always be the juggernaut of recruiting and placing job seekers. Well, I had to smile when recently in an article in Forbes the writer compared Monster to “a 2001 Dodge Neon – a resume repository.” And how is LinkedIn doing? The firm just got an upgrade from Barclays so things seem to be going well for them. I think some of its success stems from robust features for sharing, joining groups, and as a research tool. It’s attracting the best candidates and in turn attracting the best recruiters.

It’s clear that the things we want to do are, more and more, being serviced and provided through software. We have become dependent on software to connect us with our friends and family, to educate us, and for games and shopping. So more companies are focusing on software to deliver customer value through the customer experience. Now this gets interesting. Software is spawning an emerging tension between CIOs and CMOs to tango over spending to reach customers. A prediction from one Gartner analyst (Laura McLellan) is that by 2017 chief marketing officers (CMOs) will out spend CIOs on IT. This spending is on digital marketing along with software. That is the great news. On the flip side – “ehm” – do we (meaning those of us in software) have a solid idea of how this disruption is affecting our customers in the markets we serve? Jeffrey Bussgang of the Harvard Business School says, “…Marketing leaders and agencies now carry the burden of understanding technology’s impact on their business, the entire customer experience…to win market share.”  Read the rest of this post »

Top 3 Reasons Your User Research is Boring

shutterstock_226425211_350Kara Swisher of Re/code gave a keynote address for Interaction 15 in which she described trends in content. One thing she talked about was the way Buzzfeed rapidly generates listicles and memes from shared media experiences. She joked about trying to apply this lighthearted approach to subjects she has covered–“15 Things Bill Gates was thinking while I was interviewing him.”

Well, I’m a user researcher, so Swisher’s talk made me think of user research. If you’ve ever wavered over whether to take a survey in exchange for being entered in a drawing, you won’t be surprised to learn it takes skill to design a study people will actually want to participate in. And if you’ve ever pondered the hit to your budget for recruiting participants from a highly-specialized user group, you might be interested in this study suggesting that playful surveys can intrinsically motivate people to participate (meaning, it’s not payment that’s motivating them, and they are better focused on the task).

Why does so much user research require extrinsic motivation? Because the studies are boring, generic, and the users don’t understand what’s in it for them. Well, how the heck does that happen?

Reason #1: You don’t want to offend anyone.

Right now, I’m working on an application for customer service representatives who take calls from health insurance subscribers and health care providers. We’ve done several rounds of usability testing and interviews, but now I think we may have missed an opportunity to play a design game: “Make Your Own David Letterman Top 10 List.”

  • Top 10 ways you know you’re going to have to escalate this call
  • Top 10 ways you know someone has worked here more than 10 years
  • Top 10 things every new rep should know
  • Top 10 people most likely to eat your lunch out of the break room refrigerator

Humor is tricky, and we don’t want to put people in the position to say something they’ll regret when we are recording them on the job. Nor do we want to subject them to someone’s disrespectful take on their work. I’d have to keep playing with “the Buzzfeed effect” to find an appropriate way to employ it with enterprise users.

Design games are not new, though. Playing a game makes space for participants to reflect, compare options, and imagine what could be. Even busy executives can find value in seeing their Very Serious Project from a playful perspective.

Reason #2: You don’t know what motivates your users.

Another place I could see a Buzzfeed-style approach is with a website survey, à la Woot.com’s community polls or Anne Friedman’s GIF-laden survey of her newsletter subscribers (You’ll want to click that second one–monetization is rarely so delightful.).

Here’s an idea for a potential unmoderated usability survey:

  1. How many times did you curse while using this site?
  2. How many times would your dad have to call you if he used this site?
  3. How close is your face to the screen right now?
  4. How much do you like baby sloths, on a scale of 10-28?

OK, so that’s also a little tricky. We don’t want to use a voice that isn’t consistent with the company’s brand. But even if the brand is conservative, some legwork and creativity can find a way to connect with participants beyond a paid incentive. Whether that’s through humor, or through doing an effective job of communicating the value of the study, it doesn’t happen without some effort and skill. And that can’t be replaced by an Amazon gift card.

Besides, when I see the same few survey pop-ups on every site, I have to think a more customized, engaging approach would have a better chance of being on-brand.

Reason #3: You don’t have the right people.

So, if I told you that our Experience Design group is packed with researchers, designers, and content strategists who regularly knock each other off our custom ergonomic office chairs with memes and one-liners, how likely would you be to have us talk with your customers?

  1. I already hired you, and I’m so glad.
  2. Call me.
  3. I’d better forward this to my manager.
  4. Wait, what’s a GIF?
  5. Lolol

Leo Laporte Falls Off His Exercise Ball (with Audio)

make animated gifs like this at MakeaGif

My Thoughts on the First Enterprise UX Conference

I recently attended the first annual Enterprise UX conference. UX professionals of varied backgrounds and areas of specialization, developers, designers, business analysts, content managers, project managers, IT and marketing managers, program managers and more, all gathered to learn how to plan and manage large application development projects. I enjoyed two days of speakers, a full day interactive workshop and a great time of discussion and sharing with colleagues in the enterprise UX space.

The conference presentations were good, especially Kelly Goto’s “Emotion Economy: Ethnography as Corporate Strategy.” She talked about “humanizing technology”, and the importance of balancing data and emotion to inform strategy and design, encouraging us as practitioners to embrace the move from “I think” to “I know”.

Because the area of enterprise UX is relatively new, and this was the first year of the conference, there weren’t we didn’t have many examples shared of successful enterprise projects. Most of the examples shared were consumer projects and only a few case studies were presented that involved enterprise UX. The rest were consumer examples that we were encouraged to consider and adapt to our environments. That was a slight disappointment, because in talking to other attendees, we were really eager to learn vetted methods and processes.

For the first conference though, we got good insights. Most we knew and understood, but it was good to hear others share their experiences, from the smooth to the painful, both successes and failures. Here are my key takeaways:

1. We’re all learning. Many of us left very excited to try new methods as well as perfect the processes we have been working on to find an effective way to manage the UX side our enterprise projects.
2. Creating a shared understanding is key. Enterprise projects can be executed more smoothly when the entire team, from stakeholders to developers, are meaningfully engaged and consistently informed, providing input and insight or clarifying goals and needs at each stage of the project from discovery to development.
3. Design and development team collaboration during a project can save time and build confidence. Waiting to engage key players can minimize a project’s success. Once the work starts, researchers, designers and developers should work together when/if possible. When a designer receives a report from a researcher or a developer receives a “blind” handoff from a designer and they haven’t been involved in the project prior, it takes time to ramp them up and context may be lost, results or designs may be misinterpreted or reworked because of lack of understanding.
4. Failure is expected but keep trying. Presenters and attendees shared stories of failed projects and the not-so-great moments of their enterprise projects. It was helpful to have presenters analyze failures and show how they could have adjusted and improved for a more favorable outcome.

Enterprise UX is emerging. No one has mastered the process. But with conferences like Enterprise UX 2015, we can come together, share information and learn and grow together. That’s exciting.

Posted in Design, Musings, UX

What Does This Icon Mean? The Answer

On Monday I showed you an single icon from NPR One’s website, and I asked you ponder what you might expect to happen if you clicked on that icon, then to post the name you would give the icon in the comments.

It’s friday. So, I’ll make good on my promise to reveal the true meaning of the icon in question.

Read the rest of this post »

What Does This Icon Mean?

In his blog What Happens When You Push the Broccoli Button? Brian Flanagan brought up a great point about iconography.  A few hours later after reading it, I misinterpreted the meaning of an icon on a website. I showed the icon to Claire, a co-worker, who guessed something completely different would happen upon clicking the icon than I did, yet we were both wrong. Inspired by this coincidence, I’d like to know what you think the icon means.

Read the rest of this post »

Design for Users with Limited Literacy Skills (UXPA 2015)

mobileI was surprised to know that designing for people with various forms of literacy issues would benefit literate users. In one study presented in a session I am now attending, I learned it does! Another surprise, about 50% of U.S. citizens report some type of literacy problem. As a result, when we think about digital transformation and designing for multi-channel usage (especially mobile), there are some things we need to know to help our clients understand the wide range of users who are using their digital products, for example…

– Literacy issues are often merely a result of “situational literacy.” For example, health data is very domain specific and people are often more overwhelmed trying to understand a diagnosis, to sort through health plan coverage or to follow directions for how to take and submit a lab sample. Read the rest of this post »

The UX of Enterprise Applications – What’s So Different?

shutterstock_268845611 (1)The UX of enterprise applications has typically lagged behind consumer applications. Look at the way you order a product from Lowe’s or Amazon, and it’s click, click, click, done! That’s what consumers are used to, and it’s reasonable to expect that every digital experience will be simple.

Enterprise applications have significant differences that challenge design simplicity – a challenge that UX practitioners have been working to meet. Enterprise application development can be a paradox. Good design often emphasizes simplicity and ease of use. But how do we achieve simplicity with all the security and technical concerns, business processes, and compromises across business units to consider? These add to the complexity of the design and development process.

Below are some characteristics that differentiate enterprise UX from its consumer counterpart:

Context of use is different. Business, not pleasure. People use enterprise tools because they have to. Intranets, portals, CRM applications, order entry systems and the like are used by employees and are the only option for completing necessary tasks. Often, these tasks are complicated by required business rules and processes that don’t exist with consumer applications.

Enterprise applications aren’t “sexy.” Always consider context. Saying that a CRM application needs to be “sexy” is like saying a 90 year-old grandma’s going to the nursing home but needs to shop for a bikini first. Purposeful, efficient design trumps “sexy” every time.

Stakeholder vision doesn’t always align with user needs. A shared understanding among the UX team and stakeholders about user needs is critical. The need to gather knowledge of user tasks and processes – gathered from actual users, not user proxies or alternates – should not be overlooked. Very often stakeholders will provide input and have never or will never actually use the application. Real user feedback will provide insight so the team can have the same vision.

Enterprise applications are complex, task-based systems. For enterprise applications are largely task-driven. Tasks are often complex, involving multiple steps with multiple security checks. Multiple departments/divisions have to weigh in. Tasks are seldom isolated, so a holistic understanding of the process and environment is required.

Personas often include Super Users and Casual Users. Desired functionality and features can differ for each group. For example, with a CRM application, a sales manager might use a sales tool a few times per week, maybe once a day. A sales rep might use the system every day, 4 hours per day. And both likely use the system differently for very different tasks. Even in the same role, there are differences. Some sales reps with more accounts may use the system more, for examples.

Mobile isn’t always a given. Some tasks are so complex and involve so may steps and checks that completing them on a mobile device would be too cumbersome and time-consuming. In a recent research study I conducted for a manufacturing client, a user said “If I had to enter all of this information on my phone or tablet, I’d shoot myself. I’d never use this tool on mobile.”

Because they are task-based, it makes sense to think in terms of their simplest, most direct execution. However, context of use is key. For example, if an application is only installed and used on desktops in-house and there are no plans to migrate to mobile, there is no need to spend time and resources on a separate mobile experience.

This is not to be confused with the wider value of responsive design where mobile principles are inherent. It’s still smarter to design keeping mobile in mind, even if it is five years down the road.

Enterprise apps have to balance user needs, system capabilities, business rules and stakeholder goals. The discovery phase is key to determine use cases and common scenarios. Talking to users, analyzing tasks, understanding processes all help to set priorities for project work. What other distinctions can you share? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Decoding the UI Architecture

With the increasing advent in SOA and RESTful based applications, all the business logic today is being pushed to the client. With numerable paradigms being present for the UI to consumes these services and create dynamic content, there becomes a need to define the presentation, structure and behavior of the User Interface.

While working with Brian Flanagan on a recent project, we came up with an architecture presentation to address this need, with an intent to help the business, customer, stakeholders and development team understand the architecture of UI/Front end development. 

UI Architecture

Presentation Layer

The Presentation Layer is mainly composed of CSS components, based out of an atomic design or BEM methodology. The CSS is typically written in either SASS or LESS (today’s most popular CSS pre-processors) and compiled to provide modular, scalable components, which is used to create the structural layer.

Structural Layer

Here, we create the html components/pages for the application, by making use of the structure today’s most popular frameworks provide – bootstrap, foundation and others, depending on the organization needs. The required user interactions are enhanced by making use of a JavaScript library, typically, jQuery. These HTML pages are then thoroughly tested for responsiveness, browser compatibility and accessibility. 

Behavioral Layer

The behavioral layer introduces the business logic for our UI by consuming the RESTful services and creating dynamic content. This could typically include two-way data binding, ajax, MVC and Single Page Applications, all rendered on the client.  There is an increasing number of frameworks to help us work with the business logic and the most popular one’s are Angular, Ember, Backbone, ReactJS among others. Note that selecting an appropriate framework is a very important task as each framework has its own pros and cons catering to different needs. 

Production Layer

Finally, we have a bunch of fantastic build tools that takes care of all the routine tasks involved in development such as compiling, minifying, compressing, package management, among others. The build tools keep a track of changes in all of the above 3 layers and eventually provides us production ready HTML, CSS and JavaScript assets which can now be integrated with any backend application.

I hope this article explains the UI architecture and the underlying processes. Is this something similar you have seen implemented in your project/organization ? Are things being done differently or do you have another perspective on this ? Do let us know below.

What happens when you push the broccoli button?

As I was getting ready for work the other day, my 3-year-old son decided he wanted to help me iron my shirt. First he wanted to touch the iron, but clearly that was not an option, so instead he settled on pushing the spray button and soaking my entire shirt in the process. Well that was exciting enough for him, until he noticed another big button on the iron. That’s when he asked, “What happens when you push the broccoli button?”

IMG_4891

No, I do not have a Veg-O-Matic 2000 that shoots out fresh steamed broccoli with the push of a button. It’s simply that from my son’s perspective, the symbol for steam looks a lot like broccoli. Now don’t be fooled, the kid never actually eats broccoli. Actually I’m surprised that he didn’t think it was cotton candy. But regardless, it demonstrates that iconography really is up to the interpretation of the user.

So how do you ensure that the icons you create will be clearly understood by your intended audience? It’s not always an easy process, especially when you’re dealing with abstract concepts, but the key is to closely define the relationship between the signifiers and the concepts they represent. There are two primary types of signifiers, iconic and symbolic. Iconic signifiers are visually representative of an object or a function. For example, a clock represents time or a calculator represents a mathematical function. Symbolic signifiers on the other hand, represent a concept in a more abstract way, such as downward arrow representing a download function.

Typically iconic signifiers perform better on speed of recognition and overall comprehension as users tend to interpret an unknown icon as having the functionality they think it resembles. However for that to be successful, the visual identifiers must be strong enough that the icon is not confused with another object, such as broccoli. In order to design effective iconography, you must understand your audience. Age, gender, culture and language are all key factors that influence comprehension.

For some concepts you may need to utilize a combination of iconic and symbolic signifiers. A good example of this is the “revisions” Revisions icon in WordPress. It consists of a clock, an iconic signifier which represents time and a backwards arrow, a symbolic signifier which represents stepping back in a process. This combination does a good job of communicating an abstract concept and providing clues about the underlying function of the icon.

When creating icons, it’s also important to think about the overall design system. Each icon should be clearly distinguishable from the others, while still working together as a whole. Keep in mind simplicity and recognition and always make sure you validate the concepts with your target audience. They are the ones that will tell you if the icon is successful or not.

Designing for accessibility does no one any favors

Book

For some time now I have contemplated, as a design practitioner, is my perception of design for users inclusive, empathic and universal? This has been nagging at me for some time. Actually it’s been calling my name, Psst. Lisa, you’re behind the curve in your understanding of designing the user experience for people that are, well, disabled.” Let me be more candid; my own perception of disabled people hasn’t been accurate, empathic or inclusive of the various impaired users attempting to access and benefit from the online world. My thinking on this topic needed a significant update, a DIY project in the making.

To start, I didn’t have an accurate definition of disabled people, nor of impairment. To my credit I had read the important book Design meets disability about two years ago. The author, Graham Pullin, raised my awareness of several issues and possibilities when designing for disabled people. For one, he helped me understand that disabled people is an appropriate expression “in the context of an environment or society that takes little or no account of impairment.” This is a troubling thought – “people disabled by the society they live in” due to the “designed” barriers and restrictions that limit participation in hmmm…life.  Read the rest of this post »