Thursday, September 30, 2010

User Research Tips

After my talk at Web 2.0 Expo on combining qualitative research, quantitative metrics, and design vision for better products, there were some questions from the audience. Interestingly, the large majority of questions were about the qualitative research part of the talk.

And that makes sense. Qualitative research can be tough to incorporate into your development process. Until fairly recently, it's been a big, expensive, time-consuming endeavor. Often it required having outside consultants come in to run tests in a rented lab behind a one way mirror. Additionally, a lot of product folks assumed that it would slow down the development process, since it would often add a step between design and engineering.

Now, if you read my blog or listen to me speak, you know that I advocate quick and cheap testing over large, formal studies, and I like taking advantage of tools that let me run remote usability studies. I also feel that testing and research speeds up your development process, since it tends to catch problems early, when they're easier to fix.

That said, user research is easy to get wrong. It takes some practice to be good at things like moderating sessions and analyzing data. For those of you who are interested in learning more about these things, I've compiled a list of resources to get you started.

My Blog Posts

These older posts should help you fix some of the common problems people have with user research:


There are a million books about user research. These are two very good ones. Let me know in the comments if you've read any other particularly helpful ones. 

Online Tools

These tools do NOT eliminate the need to actually interact with your users in person, but they can be extremely valuable additions to your user research process. 
  • Skype, GoToMeeting, WebEx, etc. - Allow you to screen share so that you can observe how your users are interacting with your product. 
  • - Very fast & cheap way to test your new user experience. 
  • NavFlow - Lets you test your site navigation using mockups, which allows you to get feedback before you build the product. 
  • Five Second Test - Great for testing things like landing pages or whether your calls to action are obvious enough. 
  • Ethnio - Helps recruit session participants who are currently using your product. 
  • Revelation - Helps you run longer term studies with current users.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Please Stop Annoying Your Users

Once upon a time, I worked with a company that was addicted to interstitials. Interstitials, for those of you who don’t know the term, are web pages or advertisements that show up before an expected  content page. For example, the user clicks a link or button and expects to be taken to a news article or to take some action, and instead she is shown a web page selling her something.

Like many damaging addictions, this one started out innocently enough. You see, the company had a freemium product, so they were constantly looking for ways to share the benefits of upgrading to the premium version in a way that flowed naturally within the product.

They had good luck with one interstitial that informed users of a useful new feature that required the user to upgrade. They had more good luck with another that asked the user to consider inviting some friends before continuing on with the product.

Then things got ugly.

Customers could no longer use the product for more than a few minutes without getting asked for money or to invite a friend or to view a video to earn points. Brand new users who didn’t even understand the value proposition of the free version were getting hassled to sign up for a monthly subscription.
Every time I tried to explain that this was driving users away, management explained, “But people buy things from these interstitials! They make us money! Besides, if people don’t want to see them, they can dismiss them.”

How This Affects Metrics

Of course, you know how this goes. Just looking at the metrics from each individual interstitial, it was pretty clear that people did buy things or invite friends or watch videos. Each interstitial did, in fact, make us some money. The problem was that overall the interstitials lost us customers and potential customers by driving away people who became annoyed.

The fact that the users could simply skip the interstitials didn’t seem to matter much. Sure people could click the cleverly hidden “skip” button – provided they could find it – but they had already been annoyed. Maybe just a little. Maybe only momentarily. But it was there. The product had annoyed them, and now they had a slightly more negative view of the company.

Here’s the important thing that the company had to learn: a mildly annoyed user does not necessarily leave immediately. She doesn’t typically call customer service to complain. She doesn’t write a nasty email. She just gets a little bit unhappy with the service. And the next time you do something to annoy her, she gets a little more unhappy with the service. And if you annoy her enough, THEN she leaves.

The real problem is that this problem is often tricky to identify with metrics. It’s a combination of a lot of little things, not one big thing, that makes the user move on, so it doesn’t show up as a giant drop off in a particular place. It’s just a slow, gradual attrition of formerly happy customers as they get more and more pissed off and decide to go elsewhere.

If you fix each annoyance and A/B test it individually, you might not see a very impressive lift, because, of course, you still have dozens of other things that are annoying the user. But over time, when you’ve identified and fixed most of the annoyances, what you will see is higher retention and better word of mouth as your product stops vaguely irritating your users.

Some Key Offenders

I can’t tell you exactly what you’re doing that is slightly annoying your customers, but here are a few things that I’ve seen irritate people pretty consistently over the years:
  • Slowness
  • Too many interstitials
  • Not remembering information - for example, not maintaining items in a shopping cart or deleting the information that a user typed into a form if there is an error
  • Confusing or constantly changing navigation
  • Inconsistent look and feel, which can make it harder for users to quickly identify similar items on different screens
  • Hard to find or inappropriately placed call to action buttons
  • Bad or unresponsive customer service

It’s frankly not easy to fix all of these things, and it can be a leap of faith for companies who want every single change to show a measurable improvement in key metrics. But by making your product less annoying overall, you will end up with happier customers who stick around.

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Also, come hear me speak on Wednesday, Sept. 29th, at Web 2.0 Expo New York. I’ll be talking about how to effectively combine qualitative research, quantitative analytics, and design vision in order to improve your products

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Everything In Its Place

I talk to a lot of designers. We’re all different kinds of designers: visual, interaction, user experience, information, blah blah blah, but many of us take the same things for granted. Because of this, designers will probably be bored to tears by this post, while non-designers may learn something that can make it much easier to build products that people can use.

But first, a story. A designer friend of mine had a baby. She asked her husband to put up a note asking people to please not ring the doorbell, since the baby was sleeping. Later, after somebody rang the doorbell and the baby woke up and she was contemplating divorce, she wondered why her husband hadn’t put up the damn note like she had asked.

The thing is, he HAD put up the note. He had put it right on the door at eye level so anybody could see it. What he hadn’t done was associated the call to action with the actual action.

What the hell does that mean? 

A big part of any user experience design is figuring out where to put stuff. This may sound obvious, but it’s best to put stuff where people are most likely to use it. That means associating calls to action with the thing that is being acted upon.

Here’s an example you may have considered. Where do you put a buy button on a page? Well, when a user is trying to decide whether or not to buy something, which pieces of information is the user most likely to need? He definitely needs to know how much he’s paying for the item. He might need pictures of the item. He almost certainly needs to know the name of the item and perhaps a short description.

Considering those needs, the Buy button should probably go near those things on the page. It should even go in a defined visual area with just those things. Here’s the hard part: it needs to go near those things EVEN IF IT LOOKS BETTER SOMEPLACE ELSE.

What's with all the screaming?

I’m all for having a nice visual design. I believe that a page should be balanced and pretty and have a reasonable amount of white space and all that. But if one element of your gorgeous visual design has separated your Buy button from the information that your user needs in order to decide to buy, then your gorgeous visual design is costing you more money than you think.

This isn’t just true for Buy buttons; it’s true any time the user has to make a decision. The call to action to make the decision must be visually associated with any information that the user needs to make that decision. Additionally, any information that is NOT related to the decision should be visually separate.

This also applies to things that aren't calls to action, of course. Related information should all be grouped together while unrelated information should be somewhere else. It's just that simple. Oh, and bonus points if you keep all similar items in the same place on every screen of your product so people always know where to look.

So, where should my friend’s husband have put the note? He should have put it within inches of the doorbell itself. Why? Because the decision the user was making was whether or not to ring the doorbell. The husband needed to put the information about the sleeping baby right at the point where the user was making the decision, not in a completely different part of the interface (the door) where the user might or might not even notice it.

The next time you're deciding where something goes, remember, this strategy is not only important for creating a usable product, it just might save your marriage!

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Your User's Computer Sucks

I often tell people that “you are not your user.” I’m an interaction designer. It’s part of my job description. What I should probably also be reminding people is that your computer is not your user’s computer. Nor is your internet connection, monitor, environment, or a lot of other things.

Why is this important? These things mean that, aside from making your product usable in a lab setting or in your office, it’s also got to work well in the standard environment of your user.

So, ok, if you build tools for lean startups, you can probably ignore most of this post. Your users all have dual core machines (probably more than one), fiber internet connections, 24 inch flat screen monitors, and a cubicle or office in which to use those things. They probably also have a smart phone that never leaves their hand and a comparable set up at home so that they are never more than a few inches from enough computer power to get them burned as witches in some parts of the world.

But the rest of you probably build products for teens or busy families or doctors or construction workers or business travelers or, you know, the vast majority of humanity that doesn’t use a computer for a living. And you need to not only understand your users; you need to understand your user’s computing environment.

I do a lot of in-home/office studies as well as remote usability testing. This means that, not only do I get to see real users with my products, I get to see them use them on their computers, and I’ve seen this over and over.

Here are a few examples of how your user’s environment really matters:

Your Computer is Faster than Your User’s

Interactions that take a split second on my machine sitting right next to the server may take two or three seconds on an old computer half way around the world. This doesn’t seem like much, but it has a pretty big impact.

When an interaction takes a split second, I don’t need to plan for any intermediate feedback (a spinner, a progress bar, a disabled button, etc.). When an interaction takes three seconds, I really, really do need one of those things, or else I’m going to get repeated button presses and confused users who don’t know whether anything is happening. Of course, interactions that are annoyingly slow on my computer are going to be completely intolerable to a lot of my users.

You Have More Computers than Your User Does

I have a laptop and a smartphone at home that are all my own, and I use them constantly.  The other day, I asked a user why she chose to use a product late at night. She explained that she had school aged kids who needed the computer in the afternoons, and during the day she was typically out of the house. Her only computer time was a few minutes after the family was all in bed.

Many products are used by multiple people during the day on the same computer, sometimes at the same time. Having limited time on a shared computer creates all sorts of design implications for things like privacy and the need to be able to interrupt and resume tasks.

Your Monitor is Bigger than Your User’s Monitor

Of course, then there’s monitor size. Many people have declared the death of “the fold” because people don’t mind scrolling a bit for interesting information, but I still see products with really important calls to action that don’t show up on screens smaller than a bay window.

Guess what? I’ll scroll to read the second half of a blog post, but I’m not going on a damn treasure hunt for your Buy button. If I don’t find it quickly, there are a whole lot of other sites that will sell me what I want. If your target audience accesses your site on laptops or smartphones or Etch A Sketches, figure it out and design accordingly.

Look, “getting out of the building” isn’t just another way of saying “chatting with customers.” It means understanding customers and how they use your product. A big part of how people use your product is dictated by the environment in which they use it. So make sure that you don’t only understand who is using your product and how they are using it. Learn WHERE they’re using it and on what sort of equipment. It can make a huge difference.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Best Visual Design in the World

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I don’t do visual design. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. I’m just not very good at it.

Even though I can’t produce gorgeous visual designs, like every other person on the planet, I know what sorts of visual design I prefer. I don’t have one particular style that I’m in love with, but I have pretty strong reactions, both positive and negative, to different “looks.”

Recently, I worked with a company that had a visual design I didn’t like. Now, since I’m not a visual designer, I’m not going to speculate on whether it was badly designed or just not to my taste, but I will tell you that when I showed it to many people in Silicon Valley, they didn’t like it either.  

In fact, enough people reacted negatively that I stopped showing it to people in the Valley. I even found myself apologizing for it, despite the fact that I didn’t design it, and I don’t love it.

And then I did some user testing on the site. And do you know what? The users love it. They LOVE it. It is absolutely fantastic for this particular demographic, which, by the way, has nothing to do with the Silicon Valley CEOs and designers who were horrified by it.

I was showing some wireframes, with the usual disclaimers of “this isn’t how it will look; these are just black and white mockups of the final site; we’re not losing the other color scheme; blah blah blah.” Despite repeated statements to this effect, users would periodically interrupt the test to volunteer how much they love the visual design of the current site and how they really don’t want it to change.  

Why is this important? It’s a great example of the fact that your visual design should reflect the aesthetic of your target market and not necessarily you. Say it with me, “You are not your user.”

Designing a beautiful, elegant, slick site that will appeal to designers, Silicon Valley executives, and Apple users is fantastic…if you’re selling to people like designers, Silicon Valley executives, or Apple users. That’s not the market for this company, so they’re smart not to build a product that appeals aesthetically to that market.

Is there such a thing as bad visual design? Sure. I’ve certainly seen visual designs that interfered with usability. Buttons can be too small; calls to action can be de-emphasized; screens can be too cluttered; navigation can be hard to find. But just because something isn’t visually appealing to you, doesn’t make it a bad visual design. The only people who have to like it are your users.

In your next design meeting, remember this: the best visual design in the world is the one your users love.