I draw boxesA blog on user experience & design

May 20, 2011

What ‘The Social Network’ can teach UXers

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg creates facebook, as portrayed in The Social Network

I’ve always loved the democracy of the web – the fact that anyone can create their own site relatively easily and cheaply alongside that of a global corporation is what first attracted me to it as a medium. Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and youtube have only served to increase this effect by lowering the barrier to entry to the general public. Everyone with Internet access can have their own place on the web.

Since my move in to digital user experience design, I do somewhat miss building websites, and watching The Social Network recently made me think of a fundamental tuth: you always need someone to build a website for it to exist.

Being able to code and build gives you amazing power over an end product, and an ability to actually create what others can only sketch or wax lyrial about.

I would always advocate bringing your developers in to your UX work, and at a higher lever having developers on the board of a company or at Creative Director level. Developers are incredibly creative and up-to-date with their thinking and awareness of technology. Many understandably resent the term ‘creatives’ to refer to UXers and designers. Granted, some developers are not the best in other areas (and who is strong in every area?) but a brilliant developer inputting in a timely manner can be invaluable.

“my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing”
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

From what I can see from the film, Mark Zuckerberg puts great faith in his own skill – pure web development, hacking. The developer contests at facebook are legendary, and feature in the film too. It seems to me (and I would love to know if this is the case) that he puts a lot of emphasis on developers at facebook rather than other disciplines, for example user experience design or visual design. I bet developers run the show.

A key storyline in the film follows the Winklevoss twins who claim to have ‘invented facebook’ because they described a similar idea to Zuckerberg at some point. This should be a scenario familar to anyone who has worked at a small development agency – potential client comes to you with a ‘great’ idea. This idea will change the world. It’s amazing the world has survived so far without it. They will probably swear you to secrecy and brandish NDAs. In fact, you’re lucky they’ve chosen you to be a part of it.

“When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.”
Mark Twain

And so it was (and still is) with websites, especially in the dotcom boom.

And here is the key point: Zuckerberg is brilliant because he actually created facebook. This was only possible because of the democracy of the web. In theory, anyone could buy a domain name for £10 and create the ‘next big thing’. He coupled this with an acute awareness of what users liked about the product: exclusivity, 100% uptime, the ability to ‘stalk’ your friends and people you meet. These are the fundamental tenets of the facebook user experience – and he didn’t need a UXer to tell him.

“You know, you really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this. If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”
Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

As user experience designers and visual designers it is easy to get carried away with big ideas and things you’d love to see on screen. But we cannot make anything on our own. I fundamentally believe in the viability of our unique role and the special skills we bring to a team (empathy for users, user research, detailed planning, communication skills etc.) but it’s important to be able to do as much as we can to create websites. Get your hands dirty. Maintain your own site. Better, learn to code. At the very least, have great respect for web developers.

Let’s not become the Winklevii.

March 9, 2011

iPad UX tips


The iPad offers user experience designers a whole new way for users to interact with content

I’ve recently been working on a pet project for the iPad. It’s my first user experience design project for the iPad so I thought I’d share a few of my findings and thoughts here.

My first port of call was uxmag’s useful article on iPad UX guidelines. They summarise a number of key principles, taken from Apple’s Human Interface guidelines which is also a useful reference. The most important quote I think is this one, from Apple:

the best iPad applications: downplay application UI so that the focus is on content; present content in beautiful, often realistic ways; and take full advantage of device capabilities to enable enhanced interaction.

For me this returns to the old mantra of ‘content is king’ which has been true since the web was invented. Make sure the main ‘stuff’ you have to present is the main feature of the app and is easy to get to. The rest of the quote is about the nature of the device – it has a large, beautiful screen driven by a revolutionary touch interface. Here, Apple are encouraging user experience designers to make use of this to the full and really bring out the ‘magic’ of the iPad. I think this quote is excellent as it summarises a fundamental set of ideas for designers to keep in mind while working.

Next, as I have only used an iPad briefly I thought it would be important to familiarise myself with the basic interaction styles, or gestures, that the existing apps make use of. In interface design I always think it’s important to make use of what the user already knows – patterns, interactions and conventions that they have used before and are therefore more intuitive.

iPad Photos app pinch gesture

The iPad Photos app allows you to 'pinch' open a stack of photographs

I used the Apple guided tour videos (Part 1 on YouTube, Part 2 on YouTube) to get a feeling for the gestures that Apple feel will make best use of the iPad interface for users. Particular interaction patterns that stand out are:

  • The ‘pinch’ gesture to open a ‘stack’ of photographs (shown here)
  • The ‘swipe’ to move between photographs
  • The ‘scroll’ gesture to move through web or textual content
  • The page turn interface to mimic reading a book

I particularly like the ‘swipe’ gesture to move between photographs as it a) allows the photograph to be viewed full screen, with no interface elements at all, and b) because it is somehow very intuitive, probably because it mimics somewhat moving through a stack of physical photographs.

So in summary, review all the main existing interaction patterns and see if you can apply them in your design. For example, I also borrowed features from the Google Earth app, because the app I was designing needed a map interface.

Finally, a point on wireframe presentation. In order to get across exactly how your gestures should work, I would recommend taking the following steps to communicate as clearly as possible.

  1. Include links to Apple or YouTube videos showing how the interaction should work, if possible;
  2. Include a detailed textual description of the gesture in your wireframe notes; and
  3. Also use gesture icons on the page wireframes themselves with a small textual description. For example, this OmniGraffle template from LukeW.

Together these steps should help bring your exciting ideas for iPad interactions off the boring wireframe page. Also, a great OmniGraffle stencil is available from GraffleTopia.

The iPad offers a great chance to create a new style of relaxed, engaging digital experiences. By ‘keeping it simple’ and allowing the content to stand out we can really make the most of this new device.

June 18, 2010

The user experience of the World Cup

England v Algeria, Cape Town

England v Algeria gets underway in Cape Town.

As I write this I’m coming to the end of a great week in South Africa where I’ve been watching the World Cup in Cape Town. It’s occurred to me that the World Cup is so successful because it gets the basics right and is so well organised. Here I’ve decided to share a few of the aspects I think are particularly important.

The beautiful game

I’m going to start by stating the obvious: the World Cup is successful because of the success of association football – or soccer. And I believe soccer is so successful because of its simplicity – fundamentally the game has one rule (don’t use your hands) and one aim (get the ball in to the goal). This incredibly simple format makes it accessible to everyone. You don’t need a degree to understand the rules or a vast array of expensive equipment to begin. The “jumpers for goalposts” game of soccer takes place across the world – I saw no less than 5 games of soccer being played as we drove past a township outside Cape Town. It is truly the game of the people.

In my experience FIFA try to keep to this level of simplicity as much as possible – no video replays for referees, no ‘hawk-eye’ 3D replays, no different scoring system depending on how far out you shoot from (an idea I heard once originating from the States). They try and keep the games that take place in stadiums as close as possible to the games that take place in parks, and I fully agree with this.

World Cup location boarding

The world cup venues are clearly shown during each match to give the viewers at home a sense of 'visiting' the host country.

Competition format

The competition format is absolutely key to the success of the tournament. The group stage ensures any team that qualifies will get a reasonable number of games (3) before going home, so any visit by travelling fans is worthwhile. The fact that 64 games are played over four weeks is unique in world football, and the clever format of the competition means that only one drawing of teams is necessary to define the matches for the entire tournament (thus making the ‘world cup wallchart’ possible). Wherever possible games are played at individual times (when no other games are taking place) to allow for maximum viewers.

Also, FIFA does not hide the fact that the World Cup does not necessarily feature the best 32 teams in the world. It prioritises the fact that it is a worldwide competition and arranges the qualification groups by continent and global region rather than by the best teams, making it truly a global tournament. This helps ensure a worldwide participation and audience even if the teams are not always the best. However, the qualification system still means that in theory any team could reach the World Cup if they play well enough. This holds true with another fundamental tenet of association football: if you’re good enough you can succeed at the highest level regardless of the size of your club or nation.

Stadium camera

A new overhead camera for the 2010 World Cup allows for great shots for the viewers at home (shown below).

Broadcast experience

The World Cup is expected to achieve a cumulative worldwide audience of 26 billion people. This level of success is largely due to the enjoyment of the game itself, the scheduling, and the broadcast product. A new camera (highlighed in the photograph on the right) was introduced for this tournament, suspended from near-invisible wires above the pitch to achieve fantastic shots from above the players (also shown right). The camera is manouverable to virtually any point within the bowl of the stadium. Home 3D technology is also being pioneered by Sony.

Overhead camera view

View from the new overhead camera - Brazil v Ivory Coast.

The fact that the games take place across the host nation means that they can be scheduled one after another – enabling the armchair fan to take in 3 games per day during the group stages. It also means travelling fans get to see a number of venues within the host country if they want to follow their team. Significantly, the venue for each match is displayed on the advertising boards next to the centre line so the fans watching on television can clearly see where the game is being played. Without this the games could easily blend in to one experience for the television viewer. This valuable advertising space is given up by FIFA to enhance the overall user experience of the competition – the feeling of visiting a country for the viewers at home.

Related to this, I was disappointed to see the the BBC World Cup home page does not allow the user to browse matches by location – its main navigation is ‘groups & teams’ and ‘fixtures & results’. Neither of these offer the ability to browse by stadium that I can see. I appreciate that the BBC is largely targeting UK-based fans but as a fan travelling to Cape Town I was disappointed to see that I couldn’t find out which matches were being played there.

World Cup 2010 ticket

The ticket design caused problems for visiting fans because the match title was not prominently displayed.

Travelling fans

The travelling fans are the other large audience group for the World Cup, and ticketing is a major operation. Unfortunately there have been empty seats in South African stadiums and I think FIFA need to look at some kind of waiting list system to reallocate these in future. I had a number of friends who stayed at home because they could not get tickets.

The initial ticket sales take place in an online lottery. While this worked well, any online system comes with the inherent restrictions to people without internet access, credit cards or bank accounts. This was particularly a problem for African residents, and eventually FIFA opened up the ticketing to cash purchases. This is a good thing and I think they should try to expand this in future. Glastonbury festival has the same problem with ticketing, while the online lottery is fair up to a point it inherently excludes certain users and Glasto nowadays is far less diverse than it has been in the past.

Another small point relates to the design of the tickets themselves. We were told about problems where fans have presented the wrong tickets by accident and thereby invalidated their tickets for future games. This is a symptom of the fact that the name of the game is printed quite small and tickets look very similar. In the frenzied stadium checkpoint scenario it is easy for an official to invalidate (tear off) the wrong ticket. Simply making the match details printed on the ticket much larger would help fix this.


My first experience at a World Cup was in Germany in 2006. Since then I got the bug – and seeing how excited the entire country of South Africa has been this time makes me feel really happy about what it’s done for the country. Sepp Blatter made it his mission to bring the tournament to South Africa and I think few would criticise him.

Yes, the cynics say it can attract crime, is commercialised, benefits big buisinss and generates a lot of money for a relatively small number of people. But credit where it’s due – FIFA run the world game of soccer with a strong element of control (unified rules) and manage this event virtually flawlessly every four years. And it doesn’t happen by accident.

May 9, 2010

My review of UX Intensive Amsterdam 2010

UX Intensive - WelkomLast week I got back from the UX Intensive training course run by Adaptive Path in Amsterdam. It was a four-day training course covering a variety of topics in user experience. Day one was on design strategy, day two was design research, day three was information architecture and day four was interaction design.

My knowledge of Adaptive Path started a number of years ago when I first heard about Jesse James Garrett’s famous diagram entitled The Elements of User Experience (which has since become a book). In the diagram Jesse compares informational web sites against web applications and the processes that are involved in creating both. I used to have it up on my wall (at work!) back in 2004 when I first started reading about IA. JJG founded adaptive path soon after publishing the diagram in 2000.

So this was an exciting opportunity for me – the chance to learn from the best in the business, from a company who’s founder was one of my first influences in IA and user experience.

We flew out to amsterdam on the Sunday night and had a great seafood meal at Lucius to start the trip. As someone who was vegetarian for 25 years and only recently started eating meat the meal was an amazing experience. The food was so fresh and pulling out all the winkles, cockles and snails from their shells with all sorts of tools was really fun.

Sticky note creativityThe next day the course started and we were welcomed into a nice venue with a comprehensive pack containing all the printed slides for the course, as well as a notebook, stickers, post-it notes and a sharpie pen. This was a nice, professional touch. Good hygiene.

Day one started with design strategy presented by Henning Fischer, the head of Adaptive Path’s new Amsterdam office. He began by introducing the ideas of Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School. He focussed particularly on the business strategy of Swedish furniture chain, Ikea. Key elements of Ikea’s business strategy that he highlighted were:

  • Self-selection by customers
  • Low manufacturing cost
  • Modular furniture design
  • Limited customer service

Henning then went on to describe the process of putting together a business strategy with the following steps: focus, definition, customer value, and scope. We also completed a variety of exercises to put together a design strategy for a fictional hotel.

Amsterdam canalOverall the day was good but I would have preferred a bit more of an interactive style (involving the audience), some background to Adaptive Path to kick-off the course, and some examples that were more up to date than flickr, blogger and nike+. On the plus side the Michael Porter work was interesting and there was a great exercise on prioritising business opportunities – a scoring system to force clients to make informed choices and tradeoffs when defining strategy.

After the day ended we stumbled across a fairground in Dam Square so had a go flinging ourselves around on a ride ridiculously high in the air! Fun times.

Day two was design research with Paula Wellings, and was all about interviewing users and finding out what they like and dislike. We did a number of exercises noting down our thoughts on post-it notes as the interviews took place, and then grouping the common themes and ideas to form concrete deliverables such as personas and user experience diagrams.

Things started to hot up on day three with Kate Rutter talking about information architecture - Kate had a real rapport with us and her energy pulled us through a genuinely intensive day. For me personally it took me back to when I first started learning about IA 4-5 years ago, with references to the polar bear book, Jesse James Garret’s original diagram, and discussions about metadata and organising information.

Delegates listen intentlyThere was also a welcome nod to the present and the future with a quote from the recent Richard Saul Wurman keynote at the IA Summit, as well as some great slides at the back of the presentation on future trends in IA. These included the firefox operator toolbar which locates metadata within a page, an innovative classification system from wine merchant Best Cellars, and ideas around ‘fluid data’ including Moritz Stefaner’s revisit (for displaying tweets) and Tom Taylor’s Boundaries which uses user generated photo tagging to help define neighbourhoods.

On the final day we were taken on an interaction design journey by Andrew Crow. He took us through a process of first opening up ideas during the research phase and then closing them down, before moving in the the interaction design stage which also involves opening up during ideas generation (or ideation) and then finally closing down when developing a prototype.

I was surprised by the variety of outputs that are possible in interaction design. Andrew showed us not just prototypes but mental model diagrams, venn diagrams, matricies, pie charts etc. etc. I’m going to try to be a bit more creative in the way I think about diagramming my ideas.

Overall the course was a great experience and I learnt a lot. I’m going to follow up on some of the ideas in the future of IA. It also reassured me about my readings and practices over the last few years – I have been reading relevant publications and considering may of the right aspects of my work. The only thing that would have topped it off was a visit from JJG!

April 17, 2010

Consultancy skills training

Tea break at Sunningdale

Over the last couple of days I attended a consultancy skills training course run by my employer, EMC Consulting. It was a 2-day residential course set in the very smart grounds of Sunningdale Park, near Ascot in Berkshire. Around fifteen consultants from across the company attended, and most of us had never met before.

The course was run by managing consultant Tim Barker, who has been with the company for ten years. He was flanked a glamorous assistant on each day (also managing consultants), Siobhan Dowst and Linda Pakuls. Tim’s style was very direct and engaging, and he made us feel valued as contributors straight away by encouraging us to share our experiences as consultants throughout the course.

Much of the course was on presentation techniques, but we started with an overview of who EMC Consulting are and how we each fit in to this huge organisation. In my experience this is a much discussed and little understood subject, particularly amongst new employees. In short, EMC decided to move in to consultancy, and acquired a number of consulting companies in the UK to achieve this. I now have a much better understanding of the heritage of the company than I did before the course, and this gives me a little warm feeling inside. I’ve now met people from other divisions of EMC Consulting and that helps too.

Next we were asked to split in to groups and some presentations, one on Agile vs Waterfall project management, and one on the EMC Consulting Interactive Media team (of which I am a member). These went off fairly painlessly.

Working on our presentationWe then moved on to the main event which was to deliver a pitch for the website rebuild for a sandwich delivery company. This culminated in possibly the worst presentation I have ever been involved in. We failed to even get our files on to the same computer and so ended up swapping the projector cable around mid-pitch. Bad times. We also spectacularly ignored the advice to ‘keep it simple’ and spent ages getting in to loads of unnecessary detail which wasted time. We couldn’t even manage an EMC Consulting logo on the slides.

Laurel and hardy, eat your heart out. Tim was understandably unforgiving and declared that he was ‘very disappointed’ with both presentations.

After this traumatic experience we finished for the day and checked in to our very nice hotel rooms. Then we went for a wine-fuelled dinner and free bar afterwards which was full of various people in suits getting drunk at their companies’ expense. A good time was had by all.

The next day we had sessions on giving and receiving feedback, Belbin team theory and personality types and also a review of the day before. I got some feedback on my presenting style which was generally positive but I noted the following:

  • Avoid apologetic or indecisive language – ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’ should be replaced by simple statements
  • Maintain eye contact when you’re addressing someone directly

Overall the course was possibly the most enjoyable training course I’ve been on. The interactive style and genuine value placed on our own experiences was great. It was hard work and pushed many of us. But the fact that the company should invest so positively in its staff is really great – there aren’t many employers that I know who would put staff up in a hotel for 2 days and lay on such a good course.

March 22, 2010

UX People March 2010 review

Today I attended the first ever UX People event in London. The venue was the lovely King’s Place, a new entertainment and conference venue by the Grand Union canal. It was organised by Zebra People, a recruitment consultancy specialising in user experience recruitment.

King's Place conference venueI’ll whizz through the presentations and workshops, just giving a few throughts. Incidentally, this was the first event I’d ever twittered at (having recently caved in and joined twitter) and I did actually enjoy being part of the live feed of information, or conversation, that twitter enables. See the conversation about the UX People event here.

First up was Jason Mesut of The Team with some of his, erm, team. They were all talking about the importance of collaboration when doing UX work. This is a theme that’s been around the year dot (see JJG’s 9 pillars diagram) but I was particularly interested in Will Bloor’s thoughts around the journey graphic designers have come on over the past 15 years – from being in control of virtually the whole web creative process, then conceding quite a lot of their role to user experience designers & IAs, and finally getting a lot of it back with roles such as Creative Director or Creative Lead who work collaboratively. I’ve always thought that designers and information architects arguing over whether the designers just ‘colour in’ wireframes was a negative and unproductive debate.

View from King's PlaceNext up was Darren Evans talking about future trends in digital, for example LG’s recent unveiling of ePaper. There were a few titbits for thought here.

Then we had Robert Fein of Grand Union talking about the fact that communication underpins the work that we do – if we don’t communicate clearly then we’re wasting our time. He emphasised the value of the work we do, how to communicate this to stakeholders as well as stressing the importance of producing deliverables of the highest quality.

Finally, Jason Buck then discussed working at speed. He showed a series of techniques for producing quick and dirty (but actually very useful) outputs and also talked about the importance of under promising and over delivering – if you achieve things quickly people will respect your ability and ask for you to come back. In a way this links quite nicely with Robert’s themes of producing demonstrable value to clients.

UX People presentationIn the afternoon I had two workshops, one from Jason Buck on storytelling and from Robert Fein on pitching UX. I found both informative and enjoyable.

Overall it was a very good day, held in a lovely venue with good networking opportunites and informative talks. I’d say over time the curation style of the event will develop and possibly themes for each event, but for now it’s a great stake in the ground. The fact that it’s not-for-profit and relatively affordable sets it apart from other events and I think will see it grow in the future.

November 22, 2009

Working with Bunnyfoot

Today I’m working with Bunnyfoot, a user experience and usability testing agency at their head office in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

It’s interesting for me to visit the company’s labs, as I’ve had quite a bit of contact with them over the years. Firstly when I was at VisitLondon.com, they did the user personas and usability testing for the site. (Personas are characters that represent the users of a web site, their goals, needs, motivations and desires). Personas also look at the entire user journey or experience outside the site and detail the role the site plays for that user. Typically 4-8 personas are created for a project and they are based on audience research including surveys, telephone interviews and face to face chats.

The personas were printed up into A2 posters and displayed around the Visit London office to remind the development team of the target audiences for the site. The personas had names such as “young backpacker” or “luxury vacationer from america” and showed information such as the interests, user needs and online goals for that audience. I really liked the work and ended up using the posters as inspiration for some persona work I did last year for Marie Curie Cancer Care. They provide a great tangible deliverable for the client and look really nice, as well as containing an important, concise summary of your user research.

November 2, 2009

Life as a consultant

I’ve just finished my first 2 months working as a consultant. On 1st September 2009 I started work at EMC Consulting, the number 2 digital agency in the UK (according to the NMA top 100 list). Life as a consultant definitely seems different to working in an agency. I’ve jotted down a few of the differences here.

There’s no messing around – you have to be delivering the goods from day one

1. Working on-site with clients

This is the key difference for me – as a consultant you’re actually working with the client in their offices a lot of the time. The teams on the client-side tend to be web producers who oversee the projects and budgets and call in consultants to do the specialist work.

This means that you’re very much seen as the expert, and as an expensive resource. So there’s no messing around – you have to be delivering the goods and adding value from day one.
You’re also a more independent operator than at an agency. Moving from an agency to a consultancy almost feels to me like going from being at school to being an adult! I’m responsible for my work and output rather than being told what to do all the time. I can work from home if I need to, I can work at the London office, or I can work on client site. Whatever’s needed to get the job done.

The interactive media team consists of strategy, user experience, visual design and interface development

The model EMC Consulting use is the interactive media (IM) team consists of strategy, user experience, visual design and interface development. There are also hardcore back-end developers and technical architects who are in a separate division. Project managers and business analysts are organised into sector-specific teams, for example Retail, Media & Entertainment and Financial Services.

In my experience working on-site with clients results in much better communication between teams. Decisions are made quickly via a brief chat or over-the-shoulder show and tell, rather than lengthy emails or phone calls.

2. Changing projects

One of my colleagues here said that he feels like he has a new job every 6 months – and I know what he means. Once you become quite embedded on a client site for a couple of months or more, it becomes very much like that is your actual job. Which in a way it is, but you’re working for EMC Consulting all the time.
You can then be removed from a project quite suddenly and sent on to something else at short notice. You’re then going in to a brand new client and consultancy team, with all the challenges that a new job brings. You have to prove yourself and add value immediately while at the same time learning the client culture and the project.

It keeps things interesting, and personally I’m liking the variety at the moment, even if it is quite unstable/unsettling at times. I’m used to having a leaving do when I leave my friends at work, rather than just disappearing!

3. Bonus, on the bench & personal development

One of the big selling points of EMC Consulting when I joined was the personal development that in my mind they’re famous for. It certainly seems good to me so far – you have personal development goals every quarter which are logged by your line manager and you get some of your bonus based on whether you complete them or not.

When you’re on client site all your hours are directly billable to the client – so timesheeting is really important because it directly relates to invoices that are sent out. When you’re not on a project you’re what’s known as ‘on the bench’ – free to work on new business opportunities, or your own personal development, or just generally come up with ideas.

This seems like a really progressive approach to me. In a training session the other day we were discussing the concept of ‘slack time’, and how companies such as Google have become successful partly by letting their employees have some downtime to come up with their own ideas. I’m going to try and read up on this more.

4. Technology centred?

When I first accepted the job, one of the representatives from the other roles I turned down warned me that she thought the world of consultancy was too technology-centred. Although she was not referring to EMC Consulting directly but to consulting in general, she said:

“I know you’ve made your decision, but I have to say I’m always rather disappointed with the consultancy world – in my experience they tend to understand the theory of UCD, but are still driven by tech or business requirements. But then maybe that’s your challenge.”

Two months in and I do know what she means to a certain extent – the projects are very technical and business requirements do play a significant role in defining some of the projects I’ve worked on. Up to now, however, I have been able to successfully push the end user requirements and the client teams do understand that user experience is a priority in delivering successful systems.

The best way I can judge this as time goes on is by my frustration levels – if my suggestions are knocked-back repeatedly due to technical constraints (as has happened in the past in my career) I will be unhappy and feel like my work is not being valued. But this is not happening at the moment.

Ultimately I think websites will always be a merger of business requirements, user requirements and technology

Ultimately I think websites will always be a (beautiful?) merger of business requirements, user requirements and technology innovations and constraints. As a design team we all debate the features and design from our own point of view and produce a product which is ultimately released. There’s no point having a rose-tinted view of how products are produced – the reality is that businesses are paying for results, and the majority of the time user requirements are vital to achieving this. But sometimes business requirements or technical requirements have to take precedence.

The main thing is that the work I do is at the heart of the design and development process, enabling me to put the case for the end user at every opportunity. This is certainly the how it is at EMC Consulting.

5. Community day

Finally, community day is a show-and-tell day where the entire company get together every 6 weeks and share ideas. It’s a great way to meet all your colleagues (bearing in mind you’re all out on client site most of the time) and the presentations are largely interesting. Good stuff.

At EMC Consulting it feels like we’re doing some of the best work around


In summary, the world of consulting seems varied, interesting, and most importantly at EMC Consulting it feels like we’re doing some of the best work around. You do miss out on having a team who you see every day for years on end, but the flip side of this is that you get varied and challenging work week in, week out. The culture of ideas generation and sharing seems really positive to me.

January 19, 2009

My first usability testing

Ever since reading Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think a few years ago, I’ve wanted to run my own usability testing sessions. Usability testing is where you sit with people who have never used a site before, (preferably not web professionals) and discuss the site with them as they try and use it. Often their comments and mouse movements are recorded so you can go back and review what they said and did.

The idea is that when you are working on a site you can become so immersed in the project it is easy to forget what normal people actually want out of the website. Business objectives (e.g. “we must sell products and gather email addresses”) and technical constraints (e.g. “we can’t build that function and we have to display the data in this way”) often get a lot of priority on a project, and it’s the job of an IA to focus on the end user.

Usability testing is where you sit with people who have never used a site before, and discuss the site with them as they try and use it

Usability testing is a key tool in doing this – and importantly it provides evidence with which to inform your judgements and back up decisions. A video of representative users saying “I don’t want to give over my email address” or “I don’t understand the data when it is presented in that way” can be a powerful persuasive tool for making changes.

Another important point is that you can test sites when they’re in the prototyping stage – i.e. they don’t have to be fully built. You can create a clickable web mockup of full colour designs, or even wireframes and still get invaluable feedback from the process.

The bottom line for me is that it just seems such a simple and easy way to vastly improve your web sites. At my previous job I wrote a proposal offering to run low budget, ‘lost-our-lease’ usability testing sessions as advocated by Krug. The idea was to do cheap, frequent testing rather than expensive agency testing (which happened about once a year).

In the end they never went for it, and continued to outsource the work. But my new employer seems to be a bit keener to do usability testing, and let me loose to test the configurator for a large car brand we’re working on. A couple of weeks ago I ran my first ever usability testing sessions, with 6 volunteers from my work spending around an hour with each of them on the site.

The bottom line for me is that it just seems such a simple and easy way to vastly improve your web sites

The product

The website I tested was a car explorer and configurator system designed to give users a visual tour of various car models (the ‘Explore’ section), before allowing them to choose and configure their own car (the ‘Configure’ section). The ‘Explore’ section was already fully functioning and live on the web, while ‘Configure’ was in prototype form. I created a clickable version of the visual designs for users to interact with in the test.

In the Explore section you can view one of four models of luxury car in 3D, navigate around it, look inside at the dashboard and interior and change the colour and wheels with real-time updates. In ‘Configure’ you can pick your options from a list and see the price and car photo update in real time.

The outcome

The aim of the exercise was to get 4-6 key recommendations for improving the product, which could then be implemented to improve the user experience. We achieved this and made recommendations to the client, including video clips and justification for the points we made. Overall it was really good to see the users interacting with the system and I’m convinced we made genunie improvements to the system. I hope we can do it again on another project.

July 24, 2008

The user experience of a toilet on South West Trains

Whitney Hess’s recent post about the user experience of a staircase reminded me that user experience design is everywhere and affects us everyday. Don Norman’s seminal work The design of everyday things analyses the design of many objects, such as telephones and doors. I came across this terrible design recently and had to share it here.

There’s not a lot you ask for when using a toilet. A reasonably quiet, clean & private space will usually do – of course with a functioning lavatory.

We’ve all used the loo – or ‘restroom’ a million times, so you’d think it was not a difficult thing for designers to get right. They’ve had enough practice over the years.

Toilet door

Bog standard: a normal toilet door complete with lock, coat hook and roll

The user’s goals are quite simple: relieve myself in private, quickly and cleanly. We need a cubicle with a lockable door, preferably with a coat hook. The lock should ideally be some kind of obvious knob or handle that provides visual and/or tactile feedback to confirm it is successfully locked. The user can always pull or push the door a little to confirm that the door will not open.

There are rarely instructional signs or notices in a restroom – it’s obvious from the design of the elements along with our own experiences how to achieve our goals. The Please wash your hands reminder provides a different, ‘reminder’ function and is not instructional as such.

We’ve all used the restroom a million times, so you’d think it was not a difficult thing for designers to get right

A visual indicator on the outside of the door is a nice touch – it provides reassurance for the user that they will not have others pushing on the door; and it gives anyone sizing up the cubicle considering whether to try the door a clear indicator that the door is locked. A red/green indicator is common.

The key point is that privacy is a massive issue here. There should be no possibility of an embarrassing situation involving a user literally caught with their trousers down. It is unthinkable, particularly in the workplace but everywhere.

Toilet cubicle

Topographic view of a standard toilet cubicle

The standard toilet cubicle, such as the one shown here, has worked for centuries and is intuitive to use.

The toilets on South West Trains

So why, then, have the UK’s South West Trains got it so wrong? Their trains are otherwise great. They seem clean, fast, efficient and comfortable.

The toilets are an attempt to use a ‘high-tech’ system to operate the toilet. There is a large, rounded sliding door which is operated by buttons positioned on the outside and inside of the cubicle, as shown below:

South west trains toilet diagram

The design of a toilet on South West Trains

The buttons to enter the cubicle work ok. You have a set of Open and Close buttons, which are in the same style as the ones used to open the main train doors when boarding.

So you hit open, the door slides open, and you go inside. You have to look around for the close button because it is not immediately obvious where it is – it’s positioned opposite you as you enter, quite low down. The three buttons in a row are shown here.

Once you have located the close button the door slides shut, and the Lock button flashes slowly to indicate it needs to be pressed in order to lock the door. But this is far too subtle, and not intuitve. Consequently, it is very likely that the user will assume the door is locked and proceed with their business. Once the Lock button is pressed, the light stays solidly lit, as shown in the photo.

Buttons on South West Trains toilet

3 buttons for operating the toilet door

The key point is this: the feedback mechanism of the light on the lock button is not sufficient to communicate to the user that the door is locked or unlocked. By trying to emulate the door mechanism for the main train doors on the toilet doors the designers have made the toilets very difficult and unintuitive to use.

The net result is that it is very likely that embarrassing situations will occur. This is not the fault of the user but the designer.

I would question the need for a Lock button at all – as a user, when are you going to want to go in to a toilet cubicle and not lock the door? The designers should just make the door lock automatically – as the user might reasonably assume it has from the flashing light on the Lock button.

This is an example of very unfortunate bad design – not quite the Chernobyl incident cited in Norman’s The design of everyday things, but nonetheless a bad design that I bet has lead to hundreds or thousands of uncomfortable situations for users.

Update: I found Anders Ramsay’s article on New York City public toilet design. There’s also an OK/Cancel article on the usability of urinals.

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