122 posts categorized "usability"

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 

November 05, 2013

But what if they leave my site?!

Small- to mid-sized companies may have a heck of a time getting attention. Because of their size, they likely don't have the resources to afford integrated, enterprise-level solutions, and therefore rely on third parties to fulfill certain functions in a potential customer's web experience. These third party solutions may, in the short term, take users to a different domain or subdomain. They may or may not include:

  • eCommerce storefront
  • Loyalty programs
  • Application process

And small- to mid-sized companies aren't alone. Even larger companies looking to be efficient with their budgets may run a trial program and hope to curtail some of the up-front development costs by leaning on the companies that specialize in these sorts of things. 

So the question inevitably arises -- When people try to access these services, should we open a new window/tab, or should we direct them to the service in the same window/tab?

Marketing professionals tend to think that they lose something if the user navigates away from their site. Over the years, they've learned to focus on the wrong things.

Let's go ahead and put that baby to rest. People will leave your site. They will always leave your site. In fact, they'll probably spend most of their time on sites other than yours. Now relax. And focus instead on delighting your customer. 

If you really think there is an opportunity to delight your users by increasing their pageviews and time on site (and there may be), give them something that delights them. Don't annoy them by making it difficult to manage their windows and tabs.

How annoying is it? In my years of observing and moderating usability studies, I've met people who have expressed...

  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in the same window
  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in a new window
  • ...disappointment that a link opened in a new window

What I've never once seen is someone who has expressed disappointment that a link opened in the same window. 

Ultimately, how you handle outside links depends on a number of factors that I won't go into here, but don't automatically assume that linking them off is going to harm your brand. - Cam Beck @cambeck

 

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

August 10, 2010

How to Use the Apple iPad (#112)

Lately I've been toying around with an iPad provided to my team at work in order to explore and study its slim design and touch screen interface. 

So far (and this assessment is subject to modification as time goes on), I've found that the interface lends itself to certain kinds of uses. But in spite of the fact that in can literally be used thousands of different ways (depending on the app it's being used with), a single owner will probably use it for a few things.

Here's one common usage I've observed.

- Cam Beck

August 05, 2010

It's Alive!

In my latest article for Insights from the Click Here Blog, I was happy to reference one of my favorite movies from childhood, Young Frankenstein, starring one of my favorite actors, former Marine Gene Hackman. As a little afternoon diversion, here is his scene from the movie.


When you get a chance, stop by to learn the 3 ways to make your undead website sing and dance. - Cam Beck

July 02, 2010

How to Create a Remarkable Experience

About three weeks ago, the inestimable Jay Ehret, AKA "The Marketing Guy" invited me to participate in a webinar about remarkable customer experiences. Jay's always been great to work with, and this project was no exception.

His Customer Experience Map Pack is an impressive piece of work. Very handy.

The funny thing was that I hadn't seen his part, so I had no idea what he was going to talk about specifically. I just know his work overall pretty well, and I was confident that our ideas would align. As it turned out, besides introducing and explaining how to use the Customer Experience Map, his other major theme was "How to break away from industry norms and create a remarkable experience by framing your business with a metaphor."

My part could be summed up thusly: "Your brand is either the parachute or the pavement; your website is the ripcord."

Enjoy! - Cam Beck

February 24, 2010

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

Apple-iPad-001

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

August 13, 2009

A Case for Moral Selfishness

"[H]aving lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment of others." - Benjamin Franklin


I am a skeptic.

To an outside observer, my skepticism may look a lot like cynicism. I don't just believe people and companies are motivated by self-interest, I've seen it with my own eyes.

A person doesn't simply buy a book from Amazon because they believe it will help Amazon make money or employ more people. They buy it because they want or need the book for themselves -- either to inform, improve, or entertain. This is most often true when people realize that they're spending their own resources - they tend to spend it in a way that benefits them, not others.

If they're spending other people's money, they tend to be less careful with it.

This doesn't make everyone manifestly selfish, necessarily, because self-interest can indeed be naturally reconciled with service to others, without requiring one person to pick another's pocket to do so.

For instance, recently I bought and read A Project Guide to UX Design because I believed it would make me better at my job. Continuous personal improvement improves my marketability (self-interest), but only if my improvement leads me to help others get what they want (service to others).

I also get a lot of joy (self-interest) by making a tangible and substantial contribution to the financial success of other companies (service to others), their employees (service to others) and the satisfaction of their customers (service to others).

It's remarkable how often those things go hand-in-hand, when you work in a service industry, when regulations do not unnecessarily restrict your abillity to operate freely.

Once you realize that no one is more important to individuals than themselves, you tend to require stronger evidence that supports others' claims of all the great things you'll get if you just follow their lead.

A personality or "brand" may persuade you to be either less or more stringent with your requirements for evidence, which is just another way of saying that you trust those people and companies who have previously delivered on their promises, to the best of your knowledge.

However, healthy sketpicism, in light of moral self-interest, will allow the evidence to lead you wherever it may, even if it contradicts what you previously believed.

As a skeptic, I'll be the first to admit that the process is sometimes uncomfortable, but it also allows you to be less judgmental of other people's errors in thought and deed (which are intertwined), because you will realize that, in pursuit of your self-interest, you've managed a few whoppers yourself.

However, if there is a self-interest that should transcend all others, it should be the pursuit of the truth, which requires being capable of contradicting yourself when you find  your thoughts and deeds to be erroneous. Do not let love or hate of either personalities or brands to stand in the way of your dedication to think critically. - Cam Beck

May 11, 2009

Insights: Are Your Customers Lost? Because You're Lost Without Them.

Insights

Findability is one of the most overlooked tools of marketing. There's just no glitz in making things easy to find. Yet, in nearly every case your customers and potential customers  come to you, they aren't seeking out a "brand experience." They're looking for a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. If they can't find it on your website, often they will simply look elsewhere.

Making sure they can find what they're looking for is the first step in making yourself approachable -- a trusted resource.

In this week's column at the Click Here blog, I wrote about 5 Ways to Ensure Your Online Customers Never Get Lost.

It's not likely to happen by accident. First you have to plan for it. - Cam Beck