21 posts categorized "design"

April 28, 2017

A dose of compassion

“You may have no outward cause whatever for sorrow, and yet if the mind be dejected, the brightest sunshine will not relieve your gloom.” – C. Spurgeon

People need hope for a variety of reasons. They could be suffering from some kind of illness, disease, abuse or injury that affects their physical being—even their life. They could be suffering from more internal factors such as depression, addiction, fear, or other assorted trouble.

These forms of harm can be physical, psychological, or spiritual, but they are often found in multiples. Harm is dynamic, and people are not always aware of all of the ways that they are suffering, beyond the most obvious. It is not always clear when someone—even someone close—might be lacking hope, as outward symptoms aren’t the only indicators of a hope deficiency.

In addition to those who are suffering, there are also those who are walking beside them. They want to help them in all the ways that they need help—through psychological, spiritual, or material support.

Hope is the belief that things will improve from their current state. It is "the door out of the blackness of depression and despair." - Richard Winter

Seeing this video today reminded me of how difficult life is for people going through all manner of trials, and it made me want to weep for them.

In our various efforts to reach people, we do humanity a great disservice if we are looking only to what we get out of it. We ought to desire putting ourselves in the shoes of those around us, understanding their points of view and the various baggage they bring to the experience we are designing.

How can we foster hope?

“Desponding people can find reason for fear where no fear is.” They “convert [their] suspicions into realities and torture.” - Spurgeon

“Like other issues of mental health, we don’t talk about depression. If we do, we either whisper as if the subject is scandalous or rebuke it as if it’s a sin. No wonder many of us don’t seek help; for when we do, those who try to help only add to the shame of it all.” - Zack Eswine

Compassion is a key component of design. It's best if we remember it is not all about us.

- Cam Beck


January 02, 2014

Getting Them to Click: Information Foraging in the Wild

In spite of traditional marketers’ best efforts over the years to influence human behavior, mind control is still thankfully beyond our reach. But getting people to do what they ought to do in the wild doesn’t require mind control any more than getting a lion to chase a gazelle does. All you need to know is what they’re looking for and provide a clear trail to their prey. The lion provides the appetite.

That’s the basis of a theory developed by a couple of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center in the early 90s. They postulated that people’s information-seeking behaviors are analogous to the food-seeking behaviors of animals. Put simply, we subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis when we are seeking information with the goal of expending as little energy as necessary to get it.

People are ruthless when they’re on the hunt for information. Depending on the goodwill they have stored up with you, they might not stick around long to find out whether they can find it with you.

This demonstrated lack of patience forces us to look at visits from a different perspective. An undisciplined obsession with clickstream analytics has given many companies the wrong idea. More pageviews and time on site are good things, right? Well, maybe, maybe not, and there lies the rub. We don’t know. If your visiting informavores are jumping from page to page because they lost the scent of their prey, then more time on site or more pageviews are undesirable. However, if they are confidently creeping closer and closer to their hunt, then a higher pageview count may be, in fact, desirable.

In reality, the real brand goal—for any brand—is not typically to keep visitors on your site longer, it’s to increase the audience’s storage of goodwill, which will give them the sort of confidence that you want them to have in your brand: that you can provide them what they’re looking for, even if their immediate experience tells them otherwise. 

So how do you make your website appealing to these starving information hunters? The core principles are pretty simple:

  1. Make something they want to consume.
  2. Make sure it is easy to catch.

This brings us to two key aspects to finding information, which are information scent and mental models.

Information Scent

Information scent in user experience design is the extent to which a given thing accurately communicates its function and the information the author intended to communicate. That sounds pretty academic, but think of your web visitor as a predator who is sniffing for clues that might lead it to its desired target. If the scent gets stronger, they will keep pursuing. If it gets weaker, they either change course or abandon the pursuit altogether.

Information scent has applications beyond the digital realm. Think of the last time you were at a door and you pulled when it was push only. The “Push” sign was right in front of you, yet you still pulled. Why? The door’s interface (handles) communicated “pull” more strongly than the word communicated “push.” Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, put it this way: 

“When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even an one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed.”

The same is true of digital interfaces. Your average visitor in a mass-consumer market won’t stick around long enough to learn a simple interface, much less a complicated one. Your audience shouldn’t have to learn it at all. It should just work the way they expect it to work. A strong information scent will help your visitors get from Point A to Point B with little effort.

Mental Models

Where do people get their expectations about how something should work? It’s a complicated question, especially when we’re discussing complicated tasks and human needs.  For now let’s focus on the micro-interactions that help users complete complex tasks. People come to your website with all sorts of baggage that they’ve accumulated through years of activities in their analog and digital universes. Much of that baggage, as it turns out, is sensory, or more specifically, visual.

“The visual part of the brain takes up half of the brain processing power.”
 – Susan M Weinschenk, Ph.D., Neuro Web Design 

In human factors design, we call this baggage “mental models.” The informavore’s sense of smell depends on their mental models, which is why our design decisions must take account of them. 

ButtonWhen designing things that should be clicked, think about what people perceive to be clickable. The button metaphor has worked so well for so long because the mimicked three-dimensional button icon invites users to press on it. This is called a “skeuomorph,” which has been falling out of favor with designers in recent years, most notably with the Windows 8 redesign, and culminating in the iOS 7 launch, which eschewed the traditional skeuomorph with what has been called “flat design.”

Windows 8The early results from usability tests on interfaces with flat design have been mixed. One of the most prominent usability experts, Jakob Nielsen, has called for some sort of “golden middle ground between skeuomorphism and a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.”  In an early review of Windows 8, Nielsen stated, “The Windows 8 UI is completely flat… There’s no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what’s clickable… Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons.”

Skeuomorphs are not the only way to tap into the mental models of a digital audience, but it is certainly worthwhile to consider why they are helpful and what purpose they serve before abandoning them altogether simply to chase after something because it seems more modern.

KindleAnother example where the digital realm borrows from the real-world models is the popular eBook reader. Whether the manufacturer of this reader is Amazon, Sony, or Apple, they wisely continued the page-turn metaphor for advancing to the next page that people have nearly a thousand years experience using.

Mental models evolve over time just as real-world experiences evolve. Children growing up in an automated, digital, touch-screen world will have different mental models than their parents. Children can be seen waving their hands in front of a lever-operated towel dispenser waiting for a towel to come out. Their mental model is shaped by automation, not simple machines.

The Google Imperative

The dominance and sophistication of search have made the situation more severe than ever. As people become more confident in the search engines than they are in any given landing page, rather than spend time trying to figure out the interface, they’ll go back to search and pick a different result. This learned behavior occurs more frequently as search engines improve their algorithms.

What’s more, the search engines are always adjusting their algorithms to make sure the most relevant results bubble to the top. Their brand depends on it. So if an interface itself doesn’t help solve the problem, chances are that the page will be so obsolete that it will rarely be seen by people searching for whatever the page was supposed to provide. The best strategy to get good search engine optimization from Google is to align your ideals with theirs: 

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
—from the Google Company Philosophy

Tapping into the Mainframe

The brain is a complex labyrinth of memories and relationships. Designing an interface to get and keep its attention amidst that complexity means simplifying the experiences that people have by borrowing from the real world and providing obvious cues to aid people in the discovery of how the interface works. Tapping into the existing, relevant mental models of the target audience creates the information scent that will lead informavores to their prey.   - Cam Beck

Helpful Links

The Usable Planet” 

Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users

Google Company Philosophy 

October 13, 2011

Has the Age of Mobile Finally Arrived?

According to Nielsen, 40% of all mobile phones in the U.S. are smartphones, which are poised to overtake feature phones later this year, and although tablets are showing only a 5% penetration, as the cost of entry falls and Amazon throws its hat into the tablet ring, smart money is on a boom in the next few years. If you've been holding out on designing for mobile over the last few years, your time is up.

The good news is that your mobile site doesn't necessarily have to do the same things your website does. The bad news is that it could take some serious sleuthing to figure out what it does need to do.

The challenge for designers is that this is all very time consuming. Each platform is inherently different and has its own strengths and weaknesses. You can do some things better on a PC because of the additional space. You can do some things better on a smartphone because it's with you and connected when you need it. 

The market for personal computers is still growing in a down economy -- partly because it's still highly relevant for enterprise use, and partly because the market maturity leads to lower costs of entry than newer technologies. Along with the fact that it is a known quantity with established home and business uses, its low cost of entry makes it a safe bet people in the market for a new device. In short, the PC will evolve, but it is not going away anytime soon.

However, as more people adopt these mobile technologies, their expectations for a good experience will not deminish. If anything, they will demand better and eschew those experiences that do not take into account their mode of arrival.

If you want to attract planes, first build a runway.

If you want to attract people with enough disposable income to risk on a trendy device, build a remarkable experience for them for that device -- and give them the ability to share. 

Next time, I'll write about three mobile strategies to consider when planning your mobile presence:

  1. Duplication
  2. Replacement
  3. Displacement

- Cam Beck

March 11, 2011

Can You Compare Apples to Oranges?

Looking for some ideas for using imagery to communicate complicated subject matter, I stumbled across this site that curates or creates infographics from around the Web. This post from Smarter.org shows that infographics are so great, they can even be used to compare apples and oranges.

Apples versus Oranges.

Infographic by Smarter.org

Bon apetít!

- Cam Beck

February 24, 2010

Why this iPad Won't Kill the Kindle Platform (and how it could)


Many have already voiced glowing praise or strong disapproval of Apple's recently announced iPad.  Some proponents, such as Leo Laporte, call it a "Kindle Killer." Skeptics and haters call it "The next Apple Cube."

These judgments are premature, however. Whatever "magic" Apple has in store for the future, there's nothing in the first generation iPad that changes the market dynamics so completely that it will disrupt Amazon's economics with the Kindle solely as an eReader.

People who buy eReaders are typically going to take reading seriously. The advantages that they bring are best realized by certain types of people:

  • Heavy readers who want to enjoy the improved economics that eBooks bring
  • Heavy readers who want to conserve physical space
  • Anyone who travels frequently and likes to read on trips

With these audiences, the iPad falls short for a number of reasons:

1. Nearly twice the cost of entry
The starting price for the iPad is $499. For the Kindle, it's $259. By way of example, assume the average eBook price is $10, with its hard-copy counterparts costing twice that. A Kindle owner must purchase 26 books before breaking even. An iPad owner would need to purchase 50. 

So for the heavy reader, the economics are hard to justify. For the casual or occasional reader, they are nearly impossible -- if they're going to use the iPad over the Kindle simply as an eReader.

2. Back-lit display
The e-Ink technology that drives most eReaders today has some limitations, but it minimizes eye strain compared to back-lit displays, such as what the iPad has. For heavy readers, this is a significant drawback. It means they can't read as much without their eyes getting tired. It may still be viable for those who are not heavy readers, but in that case, the economics make even less sense solely as an eReader, and except by virtue of wide market distribution, Apple's bookstore cannot promise much revenue to publishers, making the marketplace less attractive (especially as a closed system, as it likely will be).

At least the format is open-source anyway, so they don't have to reformat their books specifically for the iPad.

3. Shorter battery Life
10 hours is a lot of time to be reading. And the standby time the iPad promises is remarkable, but a back-lit display capable of showing full-color images, videos and applications comes at a price. With wireless off, the Kindle can go at least two weeks without a charge, so there's no reason to be tethered to a power source for travelers.

Marketing Differences

Because the iPad does a lot of things, it's hard to describe it using terms that are clear and understandable by a lot of people. The tagline for the iPad is "A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price."

What's the frame of reference? It's a "product?" So is a refrigerator. And oatmeal. And manure. 

It's almost as if Apple believes an entire category can be created by adding abstract and glowing adjectives.

Plus, because the iPad does a lot of things, making promises about how many books it holds would undermine its uses as something other than just an eReader. And it is much more than just an eReader. It's a "product" that CAN be used as an eReader. Among other things.

The Kindle, by contrast, says it's a "reading device" and promises simply that it will hold 1,500 books. In other words, more than you'll read over the next five years.

That's much more concrete than "16GB," which is how much storage the entry-level iPad promises.

So, as an eReader, Amazon's Kindle enjoys the advantage of being able to be explicitly sold as an eReader.

Apple Raises the Bar for User Experience

Apple has done some things well. Even as an eReader iPad works in some important respects. The prevailing question is whether it works sufficiently for the consumer at their prices.

1. Intimacy
Though not flawless, the experience of reading a book on the iPad looks to be more intimate than with the Kindle. The page-turning metaphor is direct and closely resembles the experience of actually turning a page of a book. Along with the ability to deliver deeper content through color and multimedia (which is impossible with either the Kindle or a physical book), motivated publishers have the capability to engage consumers like never before possible.

2. Usability
The touch-screen interface allows Apple to dispense with the metaphors that drag down the Kindle. That makes interactions more direct and gives publishers and app developers more flexibility on how they choose to deliver their content. As such, students can hope that Apple's platform makes it easier to consume nonlinear books than the Kindle does. And since anyone with an iPod or iPhone is already familiar with the iTunes interface, assuming the experience of purchasing a book rises at least to that level of usability, there's very little reason to believe the experience would be any more difficult on the iPad than the Kindle.

3. Flexibility
The iPad does a lot of little things well, and it looks like it can be used to specialize or converge however its owner intends. It can be a personal assistant. It can be a gaming device. It can be used to stream music or movies (with the right app and know-how) from a media server. It can be used as a netbook computer (especially with the optional keyboard). It can be used as a home automation control pad. Or it can be used as all of these things.

The beauty and the curse is that the consumer controls what it will be used for.

The problem is that convincing the masses that something that CAN be used in such ways SHOULD be used in such ways relies on heavy, repetitive marketing, positive word-of-mouth, or consumers themselves having the imagination for its divergent possible uses. Oh, plus they must be willing to risk at least $500 on the prospects -- with no guarantee of success.

Here's where it gets exciting

I don't know how the mass marketplace will respond, or how much Apple is willing to reduce its margin to gain a wide penetration for the iPad if at first it does not take off.

But even if it doesn't, if Amazon is smart, they won't take this lying down. Nor will Sony or any other manufacturers of either popular eReaders or tablets. If it's successful, the iPad may either drive down the costs of pure eReaders and/or inspire the development of better interactions.

If that happens, people will be more willing to adopt the platform, the cost of reading will decrease, and publishers will be forced to participate in this space and -- hopefully -- embrace the efficiencies it represents for their entire industry.

Whether the iPad brings Apple financial success or not, Amazon will need to improve its interface (which is already very good for linear reading) and technology. The iPad (and -- perhaps more importantly -- the responses it will engender from rival tablet makers) will likely change users' expectation about how they should interact with books.

Even if Apple doesn't sell as many as they hope, I would still count the iPad a success if it resulted in widespread adoption and use of electronic readers in general. - Cam Beck

January 13, 2010

When can a comma cost you $2 million?

Little details matter. Ask Rogers Communications, Inc.

In 2006, this Canadian company witnessed firsthand how a single comma in a contract could cost them over $2 million.

What they thought they signed:
The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

What they actually signed
The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma changed the meaning completely. Whereas Rogers Communications thought only the subsequent extensions could be terminated on one year's notice, the clause created by the comma meant that the initial 5-year agreement could be canceled by either party. Consequently, the rates they were obligated to pay shot up immensely within the 5 year period they thought they'd have the prices locked in. (Read the story)

Details can make or break your website
Hopefully you have good lawyers who will, among other things, indemnify you in case someone maliciously uses your software or website to build weapons of mass destruction. Like Apple's lawyers did with iTunes. (Read iWMD: Why No One Reads License Agreements)

But even with that important detail taken care of, the little details matter in user interfaces, as well. And failing to pay attention to them can be the difference between success or failure.

  • Should that call-to-action be a button or a link?
  • Should those calls-to-action be together or separate?
  • Should the calls-to-action be of equal weight, or should one be given greater priority?

How you answer those questions depend on what it is you're trying to accomplish and what people are expecting to find. But on a high-volume or high-stakes site, if minding the details can improve your conversion metrics by just 5-10%, it could be the difference between profitability and a money-leaking ego booster.

The Web is your petri dish
If at all possible, don't rely on experts to tell you that something has to be one way or the other. Test early and often. Don't be afraid to try new things.

Work diligently on the details. In bits.

  • Is the headline effective?
  • Is the language on the button inviting?
  • Does the button look imminently clickable?

Let the data speak for themselves. You may want experts to design the page and the test, but you don't need an expert to know that a 15% conversion rate is better than a 10% conversion rate.

There are plenty of cost-effective experiments you can run to help you get the most bang for your buck, including A/B split testing and informal low-cost usability tests.

However, the characteristic you must first have is a willingness to fail. Because only through failure can you foster a willingness to search for the problem and design experiments to help you improve. - Cam Beck

February 25, 2009

Why Function Requires Imagination

"Good design is design that not only achieves a desired effect, but shapes our expectation of what the experience can be.” - Astrida Valigorsky via InspireUX

- Cam Beck

Round rock by postmoderngirl
Racing car by Ian Muttoo
Doughnut by uncleboatshoes

February 09, 2009

Alright, Amazon. I'm sold on the new Kindle. Now can you deliver?


When the first Kindle was launched, I admiringly took a look at the features it offered and considered some ways it could be improved. Others had some of the same ideas.  Although the next-generation Kindle that Amazon announced today doesn't implement all of the suggestions, it improved in two ways that convinced me that I could really use this device to become more productive.

2007 suggestion:

Enable audio and ability to listen in car. This would kill my need to buy a traditional book again, and would be well worth the cost. In fact, I'd pay three times as much for each book if the audio version were included, in spite of the difficulties above. Then I could listen to books on my commute and read and reference books elsewhere. I'd even repurchase the books I'd already bought just so I could listen and/or read on my own terms, in my own time.

Kindle v2 improvements

Read-to-Me Feature - Now Kindle can read to you. With the new Text-to-Speech feature, Kindle can read every book, blog, magazine, and newspaper out loud to you. You can switch back and forth between reading and listening, and your spot is automatically saved. Pages automatically turn while the content is being read, so you can listen hands-free. You can choose from both male and female voices which can be sped up or slowed down to suit your preference. Anything you can read on Kindle, Kindle can read to you, including books, newspapers, magazines, blogs and even personal documents. In the middle of a great book or article but have to jump in the car? Simply turn on Text-to-Speech and listen on the go.

Audiobooks - With Kindle, you are able to download and enjoy more than 50,000 audio titles from Audible.com, including bestselling audio books, radio programs, audio newspapers, and magazines. Due to their file size, audiobooks are downloaded to your PC over your existing Internet connection and then transferred to Kindle using the included USB 2.0 cable. Listen via Kindle's speaker or plug in your headphones for private listening.

I should mention that a couple of my 2007 criticisms were off the mark. For instance, owners would be able to access their entire library online, so if they lost or destroyed their Kindle, their library wouldn't be at risk.

Although I still recognize the social nature of discovery and therefore believe in the utility of temporary book sharing (peer-to-peer and library-to-user)  the practical side of me says that publishers will never agree to it as long as they fear poaching, which is always. However, their Whispersync technology may eventually prove me wrong.

All said, even with a $356 price point, the Kindle may be the must-have device of 2009. Hopefully Amazon will be able to overcome the manufacturing difficulties that plagued the launch of their first device. - Cam Beck

July 03, 2008

Missed Opportunities and Distributable Content


Every year around Independence Day some news websites like MSNBC.com create mini-citizenship tests  -- almost as if to prove how dumb we all are with respect to our own laws and history. Perhaps because journalists are in the habit of conducting idiotic and meaningless polls to develop news out of nothing (Such as "Which Presidential candidate would you rather invite to a barbeque?"), they consider polls such as this one to be satisfactory in the fulfillment of their public service. This particular execution, however, practically screamed for an opportunity for the online community to share their results with others. Sadly, it isn't something MSNBC seemed to consider worthwhile.

Undoubtedly, this poll is being passed around. The fact that I'm writing about it talking proves that, and I'd wager that at least some of the people who read this will likely take the test to see how they fare.

But then what?

MSNBC, like a lot of companies when given the opportunity, don't make it easy to share the results in a way that would entice people to share it.

Conceptually, the idea isn't that difficult. It's been done before (See "What's Your Blog's Reading Level?" or "How Many 5 Year Olds Can You Take in a Fight?"). The design can be mediocre (such as this hack-job I threw together), and people would still have fun with it.

Distributable content

As you can see, it can even be branded to serve as a sort of "product placement" within the content of someone's blog or MySpace page, which is more likely to be seen and used than if it were simply a display ad.

The execution of it just requires technical skill that the folks at MSNBC.com surely have at their disposal.

What's more, the results aren't exactly useless. Something like this can be fun and still inform people about some things that they didn't (but probably should) know. People don't get -- and many of them resist it anyway -- all of their education from a stale textbook. 

Don't know the term of a U.S. Senator? You will after you take the test.

Why aren't more companies (and schools) taking advantage of this powerful tool? - Cam Beck

April 15, 2008

Absolut-ly Overblown

AbsolutRecently Absolut has found themselves in the midst of an uproar about their new Reconquista ad.  The ad, pictured here,  created by  Teran/TBWA in Mexico City, was designed to appeal to the Mexican consumers specifically without any ties to the current election and the much debated issue of immigration reform. Absolut said the ad was intended to recall "a time which the population of Mexico might feel was more ideal."

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin posted the ad on her site while and hundreds of people have voiced their own ban on Absolut.  One reader had the following comment:

Absolut -

I run a bar in Pt. Richmond, California - where the Kaiser Liberty Ships were built during WWII. After seeing your ad Campaign where you show a western map of the United States in which California is part of Mexico again, I’ve decided to do the following…

1) Never carry Absolut. Ever.
2) Lower the price of Ketel One vodka to $2 a shot indefinitely to build loyalty.
3) Print a copy of your ad and put it above the Ketel One drink special.
4) Tell all my friends and family what Absolut thinks of the United States of America and our right to enforce border laws.

I am on the front line of illegal immigration and its effects. Where are you? Oh yes, Sweden.
Good riddance.


Matthew Rogers
Pt. Richmond, Ca.

My take on this is that people are just itching this political season to find anything they can jump on to point the finger at someone else.  Clearly this ad wasn't a power play to infiltrate American politics and insinuate that Mexican borders should include Texas and all of the western states.  Even if Teran/TBWA and Absolut were completely malicious in their intent, how are so many people offended by this ad?  Mexico is as much a threat to the United States as MC Hammer is likely to have a comeback. In the end, Absolut has to love all the press they've received off the ad even if some nuts are up in arms. - John Herrington