Monthly Archives: April 2009

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One in a series of interviews with people who make a difference in the usability field

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the usability field is having a chance to speak with and learn from people. After all, our ultimate goal is to make things easier for people, right? But it seems that in this electronic age speaking with and learning from people happens sometimes a bit less than it should.

So, I’ve decided to interview people who I believe have made a difference for those of us in the usability field. Many are usability practitioners, some not. But in my opinion all have gone above and beyond and have helped advance the usability field.

Today’s interview is with Paul Sherman, a former Usability Professionals’ Association President and Founder and Principal Owner of ShermanUX, a user experience consultancy.

1. What is your background? Where did you go to school and what subjects interested you?

I was trained as a human factors psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, where I earned my PhD in 1997.

My dissertation research focused on how pilots’ use of computers and automated systems on the flight deck affects their individual and team performance. During this work, I logged about 145 legs on the flight decks of commercial transport aircraft, mostly large passenger jets.

2. How did you first get involved in usability?

I first got involved in the user experience field when I found during my doctoral program that commercial pilots often struggled to understand and learn how to use the “flight management computer” on the newest, most highly automated jets. It was my first experience actually seeing and recognizing a real-world mismatch between designers’ and end users’ mental models.

3. What is it about usability that you most like, or find rewarding?

I absolutely love the fact that as user experience practitioners we are able to tackle business problems and make a significant contribution to an organization’s success. And the fact that we’re reducing frustration and – if we’re very good at what we do – generating delight is a huge bonus.

I really can’t imagine enjoying another career as much as I enjoy this one. Except for maybe rock star. But since that’s stopped paying well and I’m married, I’m thinking that UX now ranks higher than rock star.

4. You have served in several major roles for the Usability Professional’s Association, including being a past president. What did you find so compelling about your service with the Association?

Having the chance to help guide one of the major professional associations in the UX world has been a real learning experience.

It’s compelling because it has allowed me to develop my abilities to think strategically and to work through others rather than doing all the work myself. And it’s given me perspective on just how hard it is to drive organizational change, even with a relatively small leadership team like UPA’s.

The final piece of the puzzle for me has been being able to interact with other practitioners and learn more about how others approach the tasks that comprise our work.

5. In a recentUXMatters article, you discussed the importance of including the user experience as part of the enterprise software selection process. Why do you believe it is important to get this message out?

I think it’s important because, well, the enterprise software user experience typically ranges from abysmal to barely tolerable. It just doesn’t have to be this way! We can do better! OK, stepping off the soapbox now…

6. What is the single most important thing about practicing usability in an enterprise?

I think there’s actually two important things, both are necessary for success but neither alone is sufficient:

1. Clearly define what you’re trying to accomplish, both for each product release and for the organization as a whole. Without long-term goals, you’re just a service organization-slash-cost center.

2. Get buy-in from highly placed allies who are “true believers” in the value of usability and user experience. You will need these people to stand up for your team during budgetary skirmishes.

7. What is the biggest “gotcha” or problem of enterprise software usability?

The biggest gotcha in my opinion is workflow. That is, it’s difficult to shoehorn every customers’ particular set of processes into the workflow determined by the software product, and it’s not always advisable to make the product’s workflow extremely configurable. Therein lies the rub.

8. What are your plans for the near future, what’s coming up next?

Over the past two years I have found myself doing more interaction design and contextual/field research to inform designs. I’m happy to have the opportunity to develop these skills and serve clients in this role. And it pays the bills quite well, which my gadget happy daughters are no doubt happy about.

Lately, I’ve been focused on developing a solid offering in the area of helping organizations plan, hire for, and execute on strategic user experience initiatives. Since I’ve built UX teams at several organizations, I feel it’s something I do well and can help others do.

The challenge is to define this offering in a way that makes it compelling to organizations. I think many organizations now “get” the value of tactical usability and interaction design, but are only now just starting to realize what it takes to maintain a long-term focus on their products’ and services’ user experiences. It takes commitment, focus, and regular measurement and assessment.

Thank you Paul!

I’d like to thank Paul Sherman for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions, and provide us with a bit more insight into the user experience.

I hope you find this interview helpful and interesting. If you would like me to interview others in the usability field that you believe have made a difference please do add a comment below.

When Institutionalizing usability, it’s critical that 5 user-centered design principles be developed and adhered to.

I was recently reading HFI’s white paper on Digital User Experience Strategies, and I came across an interesting sidebar that captured my attention. In this sidebar the Author, Jarome Nadel, discusses the 5 critical user-centered design principles an Enterprise must have in order to facilitate a digital user experience strategy.

I found the side note interesting, because I believe it accurately and simply explains what it takes to have an Enterprise-wide user-centered design methodology. Take away any of these 5 principles, and institutionalizing usability will not happen.

Here then are the 5 user-centered design principles mentioned in the sidebar, and my comments about each:

1. Executive Support for Usability:

Simply put, an executive champion is critical to institutionalizing user-centered design. Anyone who’s worked in a large company can tell you horror stories about “silos.” Each silo (aka business unit) owner must make decisions that either improves the unit’s revenue, or decreases expenses.

For example, many years ago (pre-Twitter or WordPress if you can believe that!) when I worked at a very large health care company here in the U.S., the Senior Vice President of Individual insurance had vastly different goals than the SVP of Large Group, or of Senior. Their ultimate goals were the same, 15% increase in profit, but their methods for achieving their goals were vastly different.

Because of this, institutionalizing a single overarching set of resources and standards, to promote a unified strategy for user-centered design, could not happen. A project that was mission-critical to Individual, say for example an easy to use online health insurance quote form, was not at all needed or necessary for Large Group, which for example might have needed an easy to use group administrator dashboard.

Without executive support to bring resources and standards to help each unit, based on a set of overarching user-centered design standards and a unified design strategy, the units were left to themselves and could make design decisions in a vacuum, sans Enterprise design strategy and standards.

For that company, this silo strategy was the preferred method of operation and worked well, as witnessed by years of steady business growth. However not all companies can use such a philosophy, and it should be noted that in this new Customer-empowered web 2.0 world chinks will show in the armor. Say for example customers transition from one supporting business unit to another, or wish to use the same applications no matter how they contact the company (phone, web, cell-phone, etc).

With more and more empowered digital customers connecting to an enterprise using multiple channels, and expecting a single and unified customer experience, the Enterprise strategy for user-centered design and standards becomes ever more important, as does the need for a executive champion.

2. User-Centered Design Process

The process the Enterprise sets in place to achieve a comprehensive user-centered design methodology is critical.

This user-centered process includes;

  • Creation and maintenance of all digital assets
  • Development and adjustment of an overall user-centered design strategy
  • Conducting on-going primary and secondary research into customer Personas and needs
  • Mandating usability testing throughout the development process, at key points along the way
  • Validating designs post launch, with a master set of customer experience and usability metrics that track performance over time.
  • Feedback loops to provide key learnings back into the business and technology units (I added this one. Remember that old feedback arrow from that ancient Dinosaur “Continuous Quality Improvement?” It still works!).

3. Standardization

As is so well put by the white paper:

“When business units run their digital operations in the same way, usability variances are essentially eliminated and efficiencies are optimized.”

I’m reminded of a funny story. Again, at that large health insurance company a long time ago, we invited Dr. Eric Schaffer (of Human Factors International, Inc. fame) to provide an executive consultation to senior executives regarding the best way to develop a corporate eCommerce design strategy. Eric was discussing standards, when one of the executives raised their hand and asked,

“So, how many standards should there be? Should we have one standard for internal-facing applications and a separate set of standards for external-facing applications?”

Eric stopped, gathered his thoughts for a few seconds and then said in a quiet voice,

“Well, if you have multiple standards, then you really don’t have a Standard, do you?”

The room was dead quiet for several heartbeats as the pure and simple logic of this statement drilled into everyone around the big table. The meeting continued, but the point was brilliantly driven home. A single set of design standards is one of the easiest ways for an enterprise to ensure a good and consistent user experience, while reducing the expense of design and development teams “re-creating the wheel.”

4. Usability Maturity

Usability can actually be a competitive advantage for a company. All else being equal, an enterprise that has a fully mature usability set of standards and design principles will be producing applications more efficiently, and more effectively.

The improved customer satisfaction received over time by these more usable applications will begin to help move that enterprise above competitors who approach design and development with ad-hoc, or worse, cross-purpose user-centered designs.

Usability becomes the lever that moves the usability-mature enterprise above all competition, and keeps it there. The rest have to play catch-up.

5. Usability Metrics and Modeling

One of the top 12 useful usability books I recommended was “Web Analytics: An Hour a Day.” Why? Because it’s the smart usability practitioner that constantly analyzes metrics coming from web sites or applications. This provides three benefits:

First – Analyzing metrics helps determine the usability “health” of the web site or application. Sudden changes in metrics will call out a potential problem that has occurred. Knowing the best and worst performing pages or tasks will also help prioritize where usability resources should be applied.

Second – The rest of the enterprise speaks metrics. By speaking the language of the rest of the enterprise, the smart usability practitioner is actively involved in business discussions, and can proactively contribute to discussions of how to improve results, by applying usability.

Third – The usability and related user experience metrics will over time provide enough data with which to conduct modeling. Keeping a storehouse of knowledge, learnings and best practices will also prove useful as potential new designs are applied in models. The point is to leverage the massive amounts of usability and related metrics to help build smarter design processes and create efficiencies over time.

The 5 enterprise user-centered design principles

I believe that there’s a lot of information in that one little side bar in the HFI white paper! I think the enterprise that incorporates all 5 user-centered design principles has much better chance of being the enterprise that rises above the competition.

As more and more people move into the web 2.0 world, and use their individual voices to communicate with an enterprise in multiple channels, it becomes more and more critical for an enterprise to offer a consistent and satisfying user experience across all touch-points.

You can download and read the free HFI white-paper: “Digital User Experience Strategy: A roadmap for the post-web 2.0 world

Dr. Eric Schaffer’s book about institutionalizing usability: “Institutionalization of Usability: A Step-by-Step Guide

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One in a series of interviews with people who make a difference in the usability field

One of the more enjoyable aspects of the usability field is having a chance to speak with and learn from people. After all, our ultimate goal is to make things easier for people, right? But it seems that in this electronic age speaking with and learning from people happens sometimes a bit less than it should.

So, I’ve decided to interview people who I believe have made a difference for those of us in the usability field. Many are usability practitioners, some not. But in my opinion all have gone above and beyond and have helped advance the usability field.

Today’s interview is with Caroline Jarrett, co-author of one of my top 12 really useful usability books:

Forms That Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability.”

I think you’ll find she has an interesting background and perspective on usability. Enjoy!

1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?

I went to Oxford to study Mathematics. At that time, Oxford didn’t do any computer science degrees. In my final year, they introduced a computer science masters and as a final year undergrad, we could elect to do some of their courses as part of our undergrad degree.

I remember going to lectures on Computational Complexity where we had a few undergrads like me, the Masters’ students, and also a whole lot of postgrad students and professors because that subject had never been taught before at Oxford. That was pretty exciting and unusual for a maths undergrad.

2. How did you get into the usability field?

I started my career as a software engineer but rapidly moved into project management as I seemed to have an aptitude for organisation (some might say, bossing people around). I was a project manager for about 13 years but gradually I realised that I wasn’t all that interested in computers as such, I was much more interested in what they were for.

Around that time I was delivering Optical Character Recognition systems to the Inland Revenue (our tax authority) for dealing with tax forms. Some of the systems didn’t work too well and it was all because of the way the forms were filled in. I got thinking about how to make systems easy to use, and how to make forms easy to use. Another consultant, Paul Wilson, who was also working with the Revenue introduced me to usability and I was hooked.

3. What is it about usability that you most enjoy?

Being with the people. I love being with the users in tests, as they always inspire me to want to improve whatever we’re testing. And I love being with usability colleagues, anyone from experienced practitioners through to complete newbies. We all seem to enjoy learning from each other and trying to improve what we do.

4. Why did you and Gerry Gaffney decide to write the book: “Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability?”

We were both members of a private online community for usability people. I used to post quite a lot about forms. Two things happened at the same time: Jakob Nielsen wrote to me and suggested that I might write a book about forms, and Gerry also wrote to me because he’d been looking for a book on forms.

I was inspired by Jakob’s email to write back to Gerry and say: “OK, and what should be in the book, and would you like to work with me on it?” The deal was that I’d be the forms expert and he’d keep reminding me that the book readers just wanted to know the useful stuff, not every arcane detail.

5. What is the single best practice a form builder should use each time they create a web form?

Usability testing, of course. There’s no guaranteed pattern or recipe for design that will solve all your problems. You have to put your form in front of real users and see what they do with it.

The chapter on testing in our book is the shortest, but it’s also the most important. We called it “Testing (the best bit).”

6. What is the single biggest “gotcha” or problem that form designers must be aware of?

Forgetting to think about the question-and-answer process. Designers often become fixated on visual problems like where to put the labels compared to the fields or what to do about required field indicators, but in fact users are much more concerned about questions that they can’t answer or which aren’t appropriate for that organisation to ask at that point in the process. Much, much, much more concerned.

I’ve never seen a user bail out of a form because they didn’t like the choice of required field indicator. Ever. Or even comment on it at all.

7. What are your plans for the future, what’s happening next in your career?

You want the fantasy, or the reality? My fantasy is that our forms book becomes as popular as Harry Potter and that Gerry and I can both retire on the proceeds.

The reality is that I really enjoy what I do, and I’d love it to carry on. About a third of my work is expert advice on web or paper forms projects, often just for a day or even half a day because I’m working with teams that are already into usability and want a bit of an extra outside eye on what they’re doing. That’s really interesting work for me – I’m a consultant, hire me!

The other two-thirds is projects with continuing clients who want me to take the lead, or to work with them for a while. That work is also fascinating but in a different way. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a couple of those long-term clients who keep me busy and I hope will continue to do so.

Thank you Caroline!

I’d like to thank Caroline Jarrett for taking the time to answer these questions and provide us with a bit more information about her thoughts and perspective.

As to web forms, considering the critical nature of online transactions, and the fact that you can’t have a transaction without a form, I would assume every web manager would be racing for the bookshelf to read this book now. Forms are tricky, just a seemingly minor change in questions or form architecture can have profound impact on completion rates.

I hope you find this interview helpful and interesting. If you would like me to interview others in the usability field that you believe have made a difference please do add a comment below, and I’ll be glad to reach out to them to conduct an interview.

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A list of 12 Really Useful Usability Books Worth Reading, and Re-Reading

Useful Usability UX BooksOn my bookshelf in my office (ok, it’s a cube, but it’s kind of a big cube) is a rather largish accumulation of usability books. There’s other books thrown in there too, such as Customer Experience, online marketing, and even “The Handbook of Employee Benefits” which is definitely NOT in my opinion a “handbook,” being upwards of 1,300 pages of really, really small font size text. Anyway, as I was saying, I have lots of usability books on my bookshelf.

In reality, most of the books on my bookshelf, although interesting, I’ve only read once. However, there is a small group of them that I consider to be really useful, and I’ve actually re-read them, and refer to them from time to time when going about my usability work. Not all of these really useful books could strictly be classified as “usability” books, but in one way or form they all have significance to usability principles. Therefore, I present them to you and hope you find them interesting or helpful too! And by the way, don’t be shy about adding your own favorite books to this list as well!

So, here with no further ado is Craig’s…

Top 12 list of really useful usability books

1. The Loyalty Effect: The Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value by Frederick F. Reichheld and Thomas Teal

Usability is all about making things easier and thus more satisfying for the people that have to use a web site or web application. But why should we care about satisfying people, what’s the business value for “satisfaction?” This book provides the arguments for why a satisfied and happy customer is a loyal customer, and why loyal customers are so amazingly valuable to a business. After executives read this book at one of my former companies, all of a sudden usability (and satisfaction) took on much more value, and projects to improve our web experience were initiated. This book still provides excellent arguments for why customer satisfaction and usability projects should be prioritized very high in an enterprise.

2. How to Create a Profitable Business Strategy for the Internet and Beyond by Patricia B. Seybold and Ronni T. Marshak

This book in my opinion was (and still is) brilliant, and way ahead of its time. Years before social media was born, and the voice of the consumer became omnipresent, this book explained the rationale for providing a good customer experience online. Patricia Seybold explained that customers more than ever before have the power to influence each other, and thus influence the profitability of a company like never before. Thus providing a good user / customer experience is critical to the health of an enterprise. She provides great examples of good vs bad experience that still apply today.

3. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

If you only read one usability book in your entire lifetime, read this one. I consider this the epitome of how an educational book should be written. It’s very easy to read, has lots of extremely useful information, uses visual examples to brilliantly explain good vs bad concepts, and is funny. It was written specifically to be read in one sitting, for example when flying from New York to Los Angeles, thus is an Executive’s best friend. Give this book to any executive at any firm and if they read it I guarantee they will seek to initiate usability improvement projects as soon as they can turn their cell phones on after landing.

4. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Rosenfeld & Morville

The second best book ever written about usability and web design. Who would have thought that librarians (librarians of all people!) would have the ultimate secret for how the web works, and how to design a perfect web site? Turns out the web and your web site is exactly like a library. Like a library, you have lots and lots of content. Your job is to make this content fit into categories that people expect it to be in. You have to use a labeling system that is simple, accurate and consistent to help people find those categories and content. That’s it! That’s the ultimate secret of a perfect web site. And the good news is if you read this book Rosenfeld and Morville will exactly explain how to go about creating those categories and that navigation.

5. The One to One Fieldbook by Peppers & Rogers

A prerequisite for this book is “Enterprise One to One” which defines how a company can and should be focused at the individual customer level, and why in this online age that is critical for success. Assuming you get the fact that your enterprise should be managing customer relationships at the individual level, how do you actually go about making it happen? This book explains how to make that vision happen. You can’t move a hill with a teaspoon yourself, but give every single person in your company a teaspoon and the will to dig, and all of you, working together, can. Companies that move to managing individual customer relationships (Apple and Zappos come to mind) seem to do quite well.

6. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Your single most important tool on the web is language. Without using thought-out, clear and easy to understand language, nothing else matters. I use this guide to remind myself of the dos and don’ts of proper writing style. Writing for the web is different to writing for print or other media, that’s true, but the basics of writing style and the core rules of well constructed language apply to the web just the same. Perhaps even more so! This is your guide (at least for the English language anyway) for the rules of the road of well-written content. PS – If your content writer has no clue what this book is – fire them and find someone who does!

7. Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design by Jenifer Tidwell

I originally was influenced to buy this book because I liked the picture of the duck on the cover, true story! I had no idea that this would be such a useful and usable book! Ever wonder why some web sites, even though they have complex subject matter, are so easy to use? This book explains the details of why, using best practices and patterns of design to help reinforce concepts. I think your book, like mine, will become very dog-eared over time! And that duck is just so darn cute!

8. Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability (Interactive Technologies) by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney

I’m kind of surprised that this book didn’t sell out shortly after printing. By reading and using this book, any web site manager that has forms on his or her web site could probably double conversion rate! It’s a well-known fact that the vast majority of your form visitors will at some point abandon your form. Why? This book will help you easily answer that question. By applying the knowledge you gain from the best practices and principles in this book, you’ll decrease the number of abandonments, and increase the number of conversions. You’ll probably get a raise, or at least a bonus, and can finally take that trip you’ve always wanted to go on to Paris, the South of France and Italy (unless of course you happen to live in Paris, the South of France or Italy in which case you’re probably going to Walt Disney World).

9. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Why is it so darn hard to change the time on a digital watch? Because the digital watch designers did not read this book! I consider this the grand-daddy of usability books. If every developer of a new device or software application was required to read and comprehend this book prior to development, our world would instantly become a much happier place to be. Read and refer to this book when you begin a design project and you will absolutely create a better design.

10. Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (Interactive Technologies) (Interactive Technologies) by Janice (Ginny) Redish

Are you looking for a way to double your online sales or transactions? Usability of content is critical to web site success, because content and language are your primary tools and thus critical for success (hmmm, I think I heard that someplace before)! Simply read this book, apply the concepts to your content, and viola! Your web site sales or transactions will increase right away! This is another one of those books that I refer to again and again, because the writing tips and guidance Ginny Redish provides are universal, meaningful and impactful. I can’t find the words to describe how helpful this book is for designing content that sells (reaching for the book), but I know where to go to get some advice!

11. Web Analytics: An Hour a Day by Avinash Kaushik

Usability is not just about Persona’s and usability testing, it’s about metrics and numbers and analysis of the those numbers as well. A smart usability practitioner is always watching the numbers. What are the trends? Where are the good numbers, where is the web site working well? Where are the bad numbers, what’s not working well? By understanding and analyzing web metrics, a good usability practitioner will know where the problem areas are, or if a new problem area pops-up. In addition, because metrics are the lifeblood of most of the rest of the company, you’ll be speaking the same language and thus able to communicate with your co-workers much more effectively. This book provides excellent guidance and advice into what metrics to analyze, how to analyze them and what to do with that analysis.

12. Landing Page Optimization: The Definitive Guide to Testing and Tuning for Conversions by Tim Ash

If your company uses landing pages for online lead generation activity, and you conduct usability testing for a company, you may not have focused heavily on landing pages. That’s not a good thing. As with online forms, landing pages can have very high abandonment rates, which means lost revenue for a company. Stated in a more positive way, any usability improvements made to landing pages will almost certainly mean improvements in conversion, which means improvements in revenue. However, landing pages are tricky, they do not have the same purpose or function as a content-laden marketing page, and must be designed and tested differently. I like this book because in it Tim Ash provides clear and easy to understand guidance on how landing pages work. He provides design best practices and defines what analytics to measure and how to analyze them. This is another dog-eared book I refer to from time to time.

So that’s it! That’s my list of 12 really useful usability books. I hope you find it helpful from time to time.

If you have your own useful books please do share that by posting it in a Comment. That way, we can all have more helpful and useful usability information at our fingertips!