Monthly Archives: November 2008

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User Centered Design Has Been Around Longer Than You May Think! Case in Point; Irving Thalberg and Previewing the Movies of the 1920s and 30s.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that user centered design is not just a recent practice associated with building web sites or designing mobile devices such as cell phones or iPods. In fact, user centered design has been around for a long time, in many industries, although it may not have always had the title we give it today.

Irving Thalberg and User Centered Design

One example of user centered design is Irving Thalberg and the popular and successful movies he produced and previewed with target audiences in the 1920s and 1930s.

Irving Thalberg was referred to as the “boy wonder” of Hollywood, and his story is the stuff movies are made about.

Thalberg was born on 30th of May, 1899 in New York City and had health issues all his life, especially a bad heart due to a bout with rheumatic fever he contracted during his teen years. His bad heart and poor health due to overworking would eventually lead to his death at the early age of only 37.

Thalberg was especially intelligent and drove himself hard, skipping going to University after graduating from High School and instead going to work for the largest movie production company of that time, Universal. Thalberg quickly established himself in the upper echelon of Universal, but after a short stint there left to go to a smaller upstart company, Louis B Mayer Productions, partly because of a failed romance with the daughter of Universal’s head, Carl Laemmle.

Thalberg began producing successful movies for Louis B Mayer and soon benefited from the acquisition of Louis B. Mayer Productions by the highly successful theater owner, Marcus Loew. Loew had recently merged Metro Productions with Goldwyn Pictures and needed expert producers to help bring in out-of-control and poorly run movie productions. Thalberg and Mayer would quickly take the new MGM to the pinnacle of Hollywood studios, and make MGM the largest and most successful studio for decades.

User Centered Design: Movie Previews

In many ways Thalberg can be credited for creating the modern movie studio system and many successful production practices still used today. Included in this was Thalberg’s commitment to previewing movies with real audiences prior to releasing the movie to the general public. Previewing a movie with a target audience is an example of user centered design, a practice by the way which is still used today for movies and TV shows.

Thalberg’s use of user centered design worked well, most of his movies were popular with audiences, and the vast majority brought in bountiful profits for MGM. Thalberg used these previews to determine if additional editing or changes were necessary to improve the movie, prior to it’s final release. Thalberg’ genius can even be said to have extended beyond the obvious audience experience, he was apparently able to read the audience’s non-verbal reactions to scenes of a film and instinctively knew what to add or change to make the audience’s reaction for those scenes even better.

One example of Thalberg using this non-verbal user feedback to improve the experience was the changes he made after previewing the movie “The Big Parade” as mentioned at the Internet Movie Database:

Thalberg took the rough cut and previewed it before live audiences in Colorado. Although the audiences responded favorably, Thalberg decided to expand the scope of the picture as Vidor had created a war picture without many scenes of war. He had Vidor restage the famous marching Army column sequence with 3,000 extras, 200 trucks and 100 airplanes, adding about $45,000 to the negative cost of the film. After Vidor moved on to another project, Thalberg had other battle scenes shot by director George Hill. The result was a classic, a major hit that proved to be M.G.M.’s most profitable silent picture. “The Big Parade” was an example of Thalberg’s perfectionism as a managing producer.

Sadly, with Thalberg’s success came jealousy and greed. Louis B Mayer became unhappy with the Boy Wonder, especially after Thalberg received a bigger stock compensation reward than Mayer did. With failing health, Thalberg took time off from work and went to Europe with his wife. Mayer used Thalberg’s absence as an opportunity to bring in other Producers, and eliminated Thalberg’s role as the sole Producer of MGM. Thalberg continued producing movies in his more diminished role at MGM, but eventually overworked himself again and caught pneumonia, which resulted in his untimely death.

User Centered Design in Movie Production Today

Thalberg’s legacy lives on today, including the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award given to a distinguished Producer at the Academy Awards every year, and of course the continuing practice of user centered design with previews of new movies. I actually attended several movie and TV show previews, the one that most readily comes to mind being a preview for the movie The Abyss. I distinctly recall the fairly lengthy multi-page survey each audience member had to complete after viewing the movie, including questions about how much I liked or disliked each of the major characters, scenes I like best, or worst, and overall satisfaction with the movie, along with many others. It’s interesting to think that a user centered design practice established during the beginning of the golden age of the Studio system is alive and well and still being used today.

For more about Irving Thalberg:

WikiPedia Irving Thalberg article

The Mediadrome Thalberg Biography

The Internet Movie Database Irving Thalberg Biography

Fortune names BJ Fogg one of the next generation of management gurus.

In what should be considered earth-shaking news for usability practitioners everywhere, one of the most remarkable researchers of human computer interaction has been labeled a “next generation management guru” by Fortune magazine.

Why is this big news? Because BJ Fogg’s research has been required reading for any serious usability practitioner for years, and his research into the use of persuasive technologies directly impacts usability and how best practices are applied on web sites, and now on mobile devices such as cell phones. I can’t help but feel that if the Fortune magazine readers, business kings and queens of industry and part of the establishment, are now paying attention to someone we usability practitioners pay attention to, then that’s a clear indication that usability and the art of persuasion using technology will get even more serious attention from businesses in the near future.

But, I hear you thinking, “Well, that’s all fine for BJ Fogg, but what does that have to do with me? I’m just a regular usability practitioner, ya’ know?”

Ahhh, but it DOES have to do with you!

First, it can’t hurt to refresh your memory on some of the more critical findings Fogg and team have identified from a usability best-practices perspective. I’ve listed a few of my favorite studies below, please feel free to add yours if they’re not there.

Second, by taking this information and using it to persuade your business leaders or clients that Fortune is really on to something here, you can maybe, just maybe, get more attention on your usability projects than you used to, and might, just might, find yourself with a host of new usability projects!

So, here’s a few suggestions just off the top of my mind for how to make this news help you promote usability in your organization. Collect them, trade them or even better, add your own ideas or suggestions!

1. Be sure to forward the Fortune article to your boss or clients, and any marketing folks you may know. Nothing gets attention from business leaders faster than a mention in a well respected publication such as Fortune, or Business Week, or the NY Times, etc.

2. Brush up on BJ Fogg and the research his lab is working on. Do visit the Stanford Persuasive Technology lab website and read every page carefully, perhaps twice. There’s plenty of information there and it can’t hurt to brush up on not only the past research, but the latest Facebook and cell phone research they’ve been working on too.

3. It couldn’t hurt to spend time reading BJ Fogg’s book, “Persuasive Technology, Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do” if you’ve got some down time.

4. It also wouldn’t hurt to read his latest book, for which he was editor and co-author by the way on “Mobile Persuasion, 20 Perspectives on the Future of Behavior Change.” And in my opinion this is mandatory reading if you work in the Telecom industry by the way.

5. Wanna really impress your boss and/or co-workers? Give one of the above books to them as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift. Well, ok, maybe not. But it couldn’t hurt if they express some interest in the subject I guess! While you’re figuring out what to get your boss or co-workers for a gift, you might as well drop by BJ Fogg’s personal website and see what’s up with the latest Management Guru.

Smart companies have already figured out that humans use computers and websites to buy their products. Really smart companies have figured out that they a vested interest in making sure they do the best job they possibly can to provide a user-friendly experience for users who are using the company’s website to shop for products. With the advent of eCommerce on cell phones (did you know, by the way, that you can check in for your flight on American Airlines using nothing but your cell phone – no boarding pass print-out required?) it’s earth-shaking for us usability practitioners.

Here’s a few of my favorite BJ Fogg and team websites and studies. Please feel free to add yours if you don’t see it listed here:

Mobile Persuasion – Changing people’s beliefs and behaviors with mobile technology.

Stanford Facebook Class – Understanding the psychology of Facebook, and how applications and developers morph and in turn are morphed by users.

BJ Fogg’s Website – Just in case you missed the link above. Find out what BJ Fogg is up to, see his email and phone number, feel free to call him, but don’t expect him to answer your call, at least not right away.

BJ Fogg & Team Blog – Captology Notebook blog.

Stanford Web Creditibility Project Publications – Your one-stop shop for a listing of Stanford creditibility papers.

Prominence-interpretation theory: Explaining how people assess credibility online. Proceedings of CHI’03, Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 722-723. (2003)
Abstract – Four years of research has led to a theory that describes how people assess the credibility of Web sites. This theory proposes that users notice and interpret various Web site elements to arrive at an overall credibility assessment. Although preliminary, this theory explains previous research results and suggests directions for future studies.
ACM Digital Library or the Persuasive Technology Lab Report

How do users evaluate the credibility of Web sites? A study with over 2,500 participants. Proceedings of DUX2003, Designing for User Experiences Conference. (2003)
Abstract – In this study 2,684 people evaluated the credibility of two live Web sites on a similar topic (such as health sites). We gathered the comments people wrote about each site’s credibility and analyzed the comments to find out what features of a web site get noticed when people evaluate credibility. We found that the design look of the site was mentioned most frequently, being present in 46.1% of the comments. Next most common were comments about information structure and information focus. In this paper we share sample participant comments in the top 18 areas that people noticed when evaluating Web site credibility. We discuss reasons for the prominence of design look, point out how future studies can build on what we have learned in this new line of research, and outline six design implications for human-computer interaction professionals.
ACM Digital Library or the Expanded Consumer WebWatch Report

Experts vs. online consumers: A comparative credibility study of health and finance Web sites. Consumer WebWatch Research Report. (2002)
Abstract – Consumers are faced with important decisions about the information sources that they choose to believe for making important health or financial decisions. Do these everyday people know which Web sites are really credible, especially in vital areas such as finance and health? What do industry experts say about the credibility of sites in their fields? And, finally, how do the experts’ assessments compare to how the average person decides which sites to trust? To answer these credibility-related questions, Sliced Bread Design and Consumer Reports WebWatch produced this expert study, titled Experts vs. Online Consumers: A Comparative Credibility Study of Health and Finance Web Sites, in collaboration with Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab (Stanford PTL).
Consumer Reports WebWatch Report

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Useful Usability article on Contextual InquirySo what the heck is Contextual Inquiry and why should I care?

Dan Russel, Uber Tech Lead at Google Search Quality (and what a cool title that is!) recently published a post providing a rare glimpse into how Google captures and uses behavioral research to gather usability insights. According to Dan, two important areas of user behavior research are field research (aka contextual inquiry) and eye tracking studies. Here’s Dan’s take on contextual inquiry:

“To understand the full richness and variety of what people do when they are using Google, we spend many hours in the field, watching people search and listening to what they say as they do this. We hear it when they’re happy, and when they’re terribly frustrated. And perhaps most importantly, we also pay attention to the things they don’t say — the inexpressible “gotchas” that slow users down or get in the way of their search.”

So that got me thinking about contextual inquiry. And so I decided to look up contextual inquiry on Wikipedia. According to WikiPedia, the definition of contextual inquiry is:

“Contextual inquiry involves collecting detailed information about customer work practice by observing and interviewing the user while they actually work. The researcher should stay in the background and let the user lead the situation as much as possible. This means that researcher tries to form a partnership with customer, i.e., learning (but not doing) as an apprentice while the customer is the master of the work. This helps the researcher understand the customer’s work. The goal is to understand how and why something is done or why something is not done.”

Eh. I’m not feeling completely warm and fuzzy with Wikipedia’s description of contextual inquiry, as in my opinion it focuses more on the learning of tasks and well, darn it, just seems a tad bit wordy, vs the type of description that enters my imagination after reading Dan Russell’s working description of how Google uses contextual inquiry.

I’m thinking a more useful definition might be:

Craig’s useful usability definition of contextual inquiry (drum roll)…

“Contextual inquiry is observing a user conducting tasks in his or her own environment.”

I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to improve on, or completely throw-out, my description.

As to the logistics of actually using contextual inquiry, there are pros and cons to consider:

Contextual Inquiry Pros:
  • A chance to see what really happens in context
  • Provides data about environmental factors
  • Critical source of information for Persona and scenario development
Contextual Inquiry Cons:
  • Analysis relies on the capabilities of the observer
  • Possibility of no follow-up or probing means it’s possible to make wrong inferences
  • Only provides data on the observed work tasks and environment
  • The biggie: you’re there! (thus you’ve changed their environment)

More than any other research method, contextual inquiry lives (or dies) based on the capabilities of the observer. That’s because the problem is there’s usually only 1 observer per user. There’s no script, and there’s usually little or no ability to repeat tasks to make sure they were documented properly. With a single observer, it’s sometimes easy to miss something critical, for example if the observer is taking notes and looking down while the user continues with his or her task.

A good observer in a contextual inquiry situation will conduct “active listening,” meaning feeding back and clarifying what the user is showing or telling him or her, to make sure the observer got it right. With many video cameras being quite small, it’s not such a big deal to tape a session, unless of course the user is not comfortable with being videotaped, or the user is in a mobile setting where using a camera is impractical.

Now that’s not to say you couldn’t have more than one observer conducting a single contextual inquiry to help make sure nothing is lost. But let’s face it, a room full of 2 or more strangers keenly observing and documenting your every move can be rather difficult to ignore, and might put the most die-hard user off a bit!

Contextual Inquiry is Not 100% Reality

By the way, don’t fool yourself into believing that contextual inquiry is providing you with a 100% realistic view of what the user does all the time, and completely reflects the user’s reality. Why? Because YOU’RE THERE, and your user knows it! There’s always the possibility that your presence might impact the events you are observing.

Having someone staring over your shoulder as you try to conduct tasks could put anyone off, and will most definitely be an influencer in the user’s environment that they usually don’t have.

As long as you understand this, and can follow-up your observations and conclusions carefully and with additional behavioral research then that’s fine. Just remember that contextual observation is not a controlled one-on-one performance test and what you observe may, or may not, reflect the user’s absolute reality. Remember, what you see ain’t always what they get.

All that said, contextual inquiry is the cornerstone of Persona development and behavioral research. Contextual inquiry can and should be used to understand how the user goes about accomplishing their tasks in their environment, and how their environment impacts their ability to conduct those tasks.

It’s the wise usability practitioner who conducts contextual inquiry, and then follows-up with additional observation and usability testing to further explore contextual inquiry data. What you observe in the field is a key piece of behavioral research and although not always easy to do, is well worth the time and energy put into it.

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If you’re not busy conducting usability projects during a recession, then maybe you’re not selling usability the right way

During a recession, or a decline in the economy, most companies look for ways to decrease spending. However, here’s a secret; at the same time, many companies look for ways to increase their online sales. Why? Because often a web site is a company’s lowest cost acquisition channel, compared to higher-cost acquisition channels such as brick-and-mortar stores or TV spots or direct mail campaigns. So in a recession, smart companies look to generate additional low-cost sales to make up for the decrease in other, potentially higher-cost acquisitions, and are often very keen to optimize their online channel.

Usability for eCommerce web sites

It’s during a recession that you can most easily make the argument to a company to conduct usability testing. You should be saying; “Hey, we should be doing everything we can to make sure our website is working as well as possible, to optimize conversion and capture every sale possible!” What Senior Vice President of Marketing or Advertising wouldn’t respond positively to that message, and want to know more about how usability can increase online sales?

Usability for Customer Service Applications

The same is true for customer service web sites. Making improvements in customer service web sites can help increase the number of “saves,” meaning the number of existing customers who were considering dropping the company or it’s products, but instead, because it’s now easier to deal with the company through online self service, stay on. This loss of existing customers is also called an attrition rate. Why should you care about customer attrition and attrition rates? Because it’s a well-known fact that keeping customers costs much less than trying to acquire new customers, and usability can help decrease (improve) that attrition rate!

Usability Fixes the Leaky Bucket

This optimization of customer service web sites follows the same general principle of “fixing the leaky bucket.” Not heard of that? Think of the water pouring into the bucket as new customers. Think of the water in the bucket as your existing customers, and think of the water leaking out of the hole in the bottom of the bucket as the customers who leave your company. Companies must have an equal or greater amount of water (customers) entering the bucket than leaving the bucket, otherwise the company runs out of water (customers) eventually, and goes out of business.

In general, it’s cheaper for a company to retain customers by fixing problems that cause customers to leave (fix the leak) than it is for companies to spend money to acquire new customers (pour water in) to replace the customers that left. So what does all this mean? It means, usability can be used to improve your customer service web site, to help hold onto more existing customers by fixing problems in your customer service applications that might be the tipping-point that causes your customers to decide to leave. Spending money on advertising to acquire customers is much more expensive than using usability to provide a better customer experience, “saving” customers who might have left your company through unnecessary attrition.

Craig says: “Usability is the wood and nails that will help fix your leaky bucket.”

Quick Inexpensive Usability Testing

So when it comes to your eCommerce web site (or web customer service applications), how do you optimize the experience to make sure it’s working as well as possible, so that your conversion is as high as possible (or attrition as low as possible)? Well, it’s by conducting quick, cheap, usability projects that identify loss-points, and provide recommendations for improvements that will optimize those loss-points, and thus optimize the user experience and add (or save) customers cheaply. That’s how!

3 Tips for Selling Usability Projects

This means selling and conducting low-cost usability testing and usability improvements for your web site. Your usability improvements will help maximize sales or existing customer saves.

Now, remember my 3 little tips for selling usability during a recession, and you should find yourself very busy indeed with more usability projects than you can shake a stick at (or a leaky bucket!).

Usability Sales Tip #1 – Use the words “low cost” often when describing usability

Make sure you use the words “low-cost” (or “cheap” or “inexpensive”) often when describing your potential usability projects. Why? Because “low cost” (or “cheap” or “inexpensive”) is a golden word during a recession. And you can safely use the term “low cost” with your usability project because compared to other acquisition methods, like direct mail or TV spots, or even web-based advertising, usability testing IS the lowest cost, AND has the biggest bang for the buck. Need convincing? Here’s how you can “prove” this to the company…

Usability Sales Tip #2 – Usability is Amortized, Advertising Isn’t

Let’s assume your SVP of Marketing wants to increase web site sales by 10%. A reasonable request considering in a recession the Execs are looking to increase low-cost channel sales. Assuming the SVP of Marketing increases spending on advertising to generate the additional web site sales, the additional spending may indeed increase sales, but as soon as that additional spending is cut off, those additional sales will begin to fall off as well. Advertising money is not amortized over the lifetime of a web site, because advertising-generated sales decrease when advertising is cut-off.

With usability however, the temporary increase in spending for the usability project has long-lasting results that impact the web site long after the additional usability spending has ceased. That’s because the usability improvements in the eCommerce channel are permanent and will continue adding additional sales for as long as that web site lives. Spend low-cost money on usability now, and you reap the benefits of additional sales months and years later. And because you can amortize the one-time cost of your usability project by all the incremental sales generated over the remainder of the life of the web site, usability’s cost-per-sale will easily be the cheapest, even compared to online advertising. Advertising simply cannot say this.

Usability Sales Tip #3 – Usability Decreases Customer Attrition

If your company is not interested in improving the eCommerce web site with usability (those crazy fools!), don’t forget that there’s still plenty of opportunity to sell usability to your customer service channel owner. In a recession, there’s increased pressure to hold onto every customer. Conducting low-cost usability testing and improvements that make it easier to do business with your company will help hold onto more customers, helping to decrease the attrition rate. This will make your customer service owner a hero, or may at least potentially save his or her job. And remember, as with the eCommerce website, the customer service application can spend money on usability once, and reap the benefits for months and years to come. The “cost per save” in this case is amortized over the lifetime of the customer service application, meaning it’s a fraction of the original usability cost. Bring this fact up to your customer service channel owner and you’ll be in a good position to have plenty of usability projects to conduct.

Recession Equals Usability Projects Galore!

So now you’ve had a chance to understand why I believe usability can help a company during a recession. I hope you’ll agree that rather than being a doom-and-gloom period for usability, a recession actually offers a plethora of opportunity for you to sell low-cost, quick usability projects to a firm. Now more than ever, usability can rise to the occasion and help make a difference for an eCommerce or customer service web site. If you’re not busy doing usability projects now, it may be because you’re not selling usability the right way. So now that you’ve got a few of my tips get out there and sell that usability, you’ll have usability projects galore!

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