Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Web Usability Top 10 Peeves

Okay, so it seems as if everyone has a "top 10". I'll join in the fun and add my list (for this month, anyhow):

10. "We need a blog/wiki/web site."

What for?

If you can't tell me 1) what audience wants it, 2) what content will be there and 3) how you will maintain it, don't bother. Trust me: you will struggle to come up with engaging, current content on a regular basis that no one else has already contributed to the web-o-sphere. Instead, spend time with your family, or donate your services to the needy. I'm not kidding.

9. "We don't have any budget for usability on our project. We'll select a big, respected vendor and implement what they've done for others."

Super! Then you can watch me do the 'I Told You So' dance after you lose your usability budget three times over on training and support for a poorly-chosen system.

Usability should be part of your vendor evaluation. Just because they are big and respected doesn't mean they have done any human factors work. And--even if they have--they haven't done it with YOUR users in YOUR environment meeting YOUR usage scenarios.

8. "Our team uses software, so our team is qualified to design and evaluate usability."

Gosh, we all use software! And yay for that. But if you are developing something for a specific audience, involve that audience. I know this from personal experience: I designed a mobile interface for sales reps for a medical company. When looking for a very short navigation label to refer to "file documents" I chose the abbreviated term "docs". When I tested the application, the testers told me that "docs" means "doctors". That's a significant difference in meaning, and I'm grateful to have them help me make a better product, so I don't look like a narrow-minded IT moron. (At least not because of that.)

7. "We don't have any budget for accessibility on our project, but it's okay, because we have no users with accessibility needs."

Really? Have you polled every single user to see if they are colorblind or use alternative input methods? Conformance with most of the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines is very cheap. Just do it, because it's the right thing to do.

6. "Why are you so expensive? My neighbor's high school kid does programming." (variant: "My husband designs web sites and he looked at our design and said that we should do it this way.")

The kid may be awesome, but s/he's only beginning to learn what 20 years of experience and deep industry knowledge has taught our team. Does s/he understand color theory? Usability engineering? Sustainable technical architecture? Technical writing? Will s/he be there to support it when it breaks? Does s/he work for and understand the industry and its customers? Does s/he have the context of the regulatory and organizational issues within the company? (And are you in violation of some non-disclosure somewhere? Mm-hm, I thought so.)

5. "Our site should have [no more than three clicks to get to content]/[no more than seven navigation items]/[no horizontal scrolling]."

Ah, you've been reading usability gurus again. That's really excellent! However...these are not hard and fast rules. Engineers tend to love data-rich sites with no white space, where musicians may not. Teachers love to have clever ideas, where archeologists may want to search for research. Those are all very different audiences, scenarios and implementations. Findability is as much a function of the scent of information as the number of clicks.

Make the effort to understand your audience and do research before you set forth requirements that may not apply. But--please--set them forth if they make sense, and demand adherence!

4. "We have no budget for usability. We will do usability ourselves if you give us a template."

See #6 and #8.

3. "We don't have any budget for usability. Can you just take a look at this and tell us if it's usable?"

No, and it's not because I don't want to. You can't check the "We Did Usability" box if one person gives their opinion.

(Incidentally, I ask this question of each person who interviews with us. One interviewee told me, "Oh, sure! That's called a 'heuristic evaluation'." No, it's not. An heuristic evaluation involves identifying heuristics, then evaluators test the site against those heuristics. Don't get me wrong: an heuristic evaluation is a super technique as part of your usability inspection, but one person giving their 'professional' opinion does not a usability effort make.)

2. "We need to bring in outside firms to do design/usability/strategy. We get the best, most creative work from third parties."

Really? I thought our company hired the best people. Like you and me.

1. "Thanks for your awesome usability services. Our awesome site has launched, and it is so much more awesome because of your work! We are done! Awesome!"

Awesome! Hooray for us! But--technology, people and needs change. Keep evaluating and adjusting. That's the beauty of the web: it's changeable, and you should be, too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wouldn't it be easier...

Wouldn't it be easier to place the BLUE window over the (BLUE) month, and then the BLACK window will show the (BLACK) replacement month?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


How is it that kids who can't remember to brush their teeth, where their shoes are, or to say, "thank you" can remember every single Pokémon character and intimate details of its powers?

Has someone done a psychological study of the genius of Pokémon?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

User Instructions (Child in Training) II

Today's holiday gift request:
I also want a book bundle; Jedi academy training manual, you can draw Star wars, and how to draw the Clone Wars. How to get to the training guide and you can draw star wars, go to and go to shop at the top then go to star wars at the top again and click on star wars. then look on the LEFT side and scroll down until you find BOOKS & COMICS then search on that bar for SOURCE/GUIDE BOOKS then click on that and search for it. to find the clone wars how to draw book do the same except click on clone wars at the top.

It's helpful to have all the instructions for accessing the gifts.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

User Instructions (Child in Training)

I got this in my e-mail today, from some child I know:
Your friend Joseph has sent you an email about

I want at least a $30.00 gift certificate for Christmas. Oh and I want it from Just go to and click on the top bar there is a shop button click on that. Then there will be a side bar scroll down on the mouse until you see a button that will say gift certificates click on it. Then select $30.00 or more. For the name select Obi-wan Kenobi. May the force be with you, Obi-wan Kejoebi
I suspect Obi-wan Kejoebi is related to Obi-wan Kenobi, and I'm very happy to have received such detailed instructions for how to accomplish the specific task (of $30.00 or more).

Friday, September 18, 2009


I saw a stairwell recently with a sign posted clearly at the top: "Warning: Slippery Stairwell". I wonder how much it cost to find and post a sign, versus simply making the stairwell less slippery.

So often we do the same thing when developing applications: present warnings and errors rather than designing to eliminate the errors to begin with.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Usability Testing: Quotable Quotes

My colleague and I recently conducted one-on-one usability tests over several days for an internal project. The tests were very productive and revealed findings that helped our client make some informed design decisions.

During the week, we had many "quotable quotes" from the participants. One of my favorites was the following helpful tip: "You know what you should do? You should talk to a bunch of different people about how they would use this, because everyone is going to have a different perspective."

Say...wish we had thought of that!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Research to Help Users Enter Dates

Interesting date study from William Hudson and Syntagm Design:

Note that this is not a study to see which date order format should be used, but it's still quite interesting and informative. The summary:

"Overall, 76% of respondents made no use of leading zeros. So, it’s official – don’t reprimand users for failing to supply leading zeros in date fields. Other results are interesting but less useful in interaction design: 54% of all respondents used Arabic numerals for the month and 62% preferred full four-digit years to the two-digit variety (these are measured independently so it is no surprise that the total is more than 100%).

"So, if you are dealing with dates and users have no artifact to work from (such as a credit card), numeric dates with a four-digit year might be the way to go. However, if you are asking people to enter dates from another source (credit card, form, email and so on) do take account of what they are looking at and allow for variations. In any event, only complain if you really cannot make sense of what has been entered.

"(Do not take this as a license to use three drop-down fields. This is very inefficient compared to typing a date in. Also, don’t forget that your solution needs to work for assistive technologies such as screen readers.)"

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Only Design Guidelines You'll Ever Need

For a variety of reasons, I've been thinking a lot about design and usability guidelines. I'm often asked, "What's the standard?" or "What's the best way to do such-and-such?" Well, as anyone who's worked in design knows, the answer is: It depends. Now, that's nothing new, but this morning I've formulated a new set of "über-guidelines", if you will.

1) If you have guidelines and they have been proven with users, follow them.
2) If you have guidelines and they have not been proven with users, follow them for consistency (and offer to prove--and improve--them).
3) If you do not have guidelines, develop and let users prove them.
4) If you do not have guidelines, nor the time to develop and prove them, the designer gets to pick. Just be consistent.

Beyond that, it's a matter of opinion, and the designer--who (by definition) is in the role of, um, "designer"--wins.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Usability and Forms: Default Values

I have a client with whom I've had several lively debates about when to use default values in a complex form. I have searched for studies, writings or heuristic references with no luck. In the mean time, until someone points to better work that someone else has done, I offer the following suggestions for when default values are appropriate:
  1. If you are trying to save the user mouse-clicks.
    If you don't care because the form isn't complex enough or you don't have the time or resources to define and implement default values, then don't bother.
  2. If the user of the system would most likely select the option chosen.
    If 80% of your audience is U.S., then make U.S. the default with the option to change. (Don't, however, put U.S. on the top, if you care about having an equitable, global form.)
  3. If the user is not being asked to make a declaration for legal or compliance purposes.
    Don't default them to the "correct" answer if you want them to make an explicit electronic declaration. Don't default them to the "incorrect" answer, either to make them pick the "correct" answer. A recent usability test I conducted on just such a page showed us that users expect a defaulted answer to be the "correct" answer.
  4. If the default option is the "right" option.
    See 3. above.

Additionally, user expectations would be that, if you are providing default values for some controls in a form, you would provide default values for most similar controls in the form (for example, all yes/no combinations or all dropdown selectors would behave similarly).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Don't Assume: Usability in Enterprise Applications

Our organization has a thing we call "Enterprise Applications". It is used to describe applications that are used across the various business groups within the company, and it's also used to describe the people who work on those applications.

Many of the applications are third-party. There are big, BIG players in that space: for customer relationship management, finance, employee forms, HR functions, training records, procurement, get the drift.

My understanding is that there are always efforts underway to unify and integrate the data that is behind all of these systems. I choose to think that's a good thing. Data is great. We all need data.

As a usability engineer, I am often conducting interviews with users of corporate systems to learn about their needs and behaviors. Without fail, when talking about the current process or system, one of these "enterprise" system comes up, and they ask me if I can make it work better. (I have found that some do not distinguish it from the system we are talking about--"IT is IT", which is a fair assessment, or they see our conversation as an opportunity to get a word in with someone who claims to understand usability--a "while we're on the subject..." sort of thing).

Over and over again, we roll out awful user interfaces that come out of the box with the software. We have the expectation that the manufacturer has a huge staff of user experience engineers and has done the research and design to make usable software.

In my informal inquiries into this, I've found that it's usually due to some combination of the following issues. The evaluators and implementers (usually IT people):
  • thought it was usable out of the box
  • relied on the hope the manufacturer has a huge staff of user experience engineers who did research and design to make usable software
  • fixed a couple of things they saw, but did so without involving users
  • felt usability work would add expense to the project
  • obtained inadequate or incomplete usability services
  • never even considered usability
The applications I use on a day to day basis in this arena seem to have been designed primarily for those who are in data-centric roles in the organization. Then some of the functions are stripped away so the average user can use it. Very little, if any, consideration for what they are trying to accomplish.

Here are some lessons I've learned:

1. When evaluating third-party software, include sufficient usability work.
2. When implementing third-party software, ensure you have well-defined audiences and clear usage scenarios.
  • That doesn't have to mean a 257-page document of every use case including alternates and dependencies.
  • A data-centric user interface is great for the 20% of users who understand the data; the other 80% of task-centric users probably need a different interface to support their tasks.
  • Knowing your audience and usage scenarios can help you design for effectiveness, as well as usability testing throughout the implementation process.
3. When rolling out third-party software, ensure that users have ample warning, training, reference and help available.
  • Don't drop a specialized application on everyone's desktop and expect everyone to immediately understand it or "figure it out".
  • Remember that different people have different learning styles, so a multi-pronged approach is good.
  • Don't assume that the third-party software manufacturer has done good human-centered design. They may have designed a convenient way to manipulate their data, but they are not the experts in how your employees do their jobs.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Usability and Frame of Reference, or "Dude, I'm Not In Your Head"

A musical friend of mine sent me an e-mail with a reference to the following site:

with the following amusing description:

...for a few of you musical pals of mine, I was just browsing the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour home page (a history of that show, just because I loved it), and I came across this fantastic paragraph. Seriously, this is a copy and paste directly from their page. Read on.

The musical phrase utilized for all of the titles of all Bugs Bunny cartoon shorts, the Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoons with them posed on stage and Sylvester holding Tweety in his hand, and most cartoons with characters other than the regulars, went as follows:

"Da-da-da... da-da. Da-da-da... da-da. Da-da-da-da-da-da. Da."

....Music with the tree-oriented title cards of Tweety-and-Sylvester cartoons, all cartoons titled with the semi-circle of Foghorn, Pepe, Speedy, Yosemite Sam, and Elmer, and all Road Runner cartoons, was a variation on the phrase opening the original theatrical Looney Tunes from the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, combined with the closing motif from post-1964 cartoon shorts. First used for cartoons shown on The Road Runner Show, it sounded like this:

"Da. Da-da-da... da-da... da. Da. Da-da-da... da-da-da. DAAA! Da."

Right. So, here's what I get from those musical references:
  1. They are instrumental
  2. A vague indication of note duration.
Here's what I don't get from those phrases:
  1. Meter
  2. Actual note durations
  3. Actual musical pitches
I don't know about you, but I think actual musical pitches are pretty important in, well, music. (My friend said "I can make a case for the first sequence being the Jurrasic Park theme...")

This reminded me that I had seen some time ago a discussion of how to express music using ASCII notation. A search turned up the following:

which refers to Phillip Hazel's music writer:

The idea of communicating many aspects of a language (music) in a relatively primitive medium is academically interesting if not entirely practical.

That said, the real point to the story is: don't assume we all hear the music in your head.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ropes from the Moon

Several things got me thinking about the way we direct traffic recently:
  • During reconstruction of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, lines and lanes were re-drawn on several other major roads to accommodate the extra traffic. After the bridge was finished, some of the re-drawn lines worked so well, they have remained.
  • On winter roads covered with ice (or black ice), it's not possible to see the lane dividers.

What if we could have the lane markings always "on top", and easily changed to accommodate rush hour, presidential motorcades, HOV lanes, and so on?

Like football games on television, where they do that cool yard-line marker which is smart enough to go behind the players...or those Bluetooth projected keyboards, and Smartboard technology.

Couldn't we project the lane markers on top of the roads? Now, I recognize that out in the country, you can't project lane markers from outer space*, but in the city, near intersections, we have the infrastructure of lights and signage to house projectors.

Someone else has a similar idea to create your own bike lane:

I don't know how legal that is, but I love the idea.

*Reminds me of an infamous grade-school prank. This may be an old wive's tale, but someone told me it happened to them:

(Phone rings)
Victim: Hello?
Prankster: Hello, is Mr. Wall there?
(you know mostly where this is going, but stay with me here...)
Victim: Um, no, I think you have the wrong number.
Prankster: What about Mrs. Wall?
Victim: No, you must have the wrong number. There are no Walls here.
Prankster: Then how do you keep your roof up? Haha!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Usability and the Wii, Age 6

Playing Little League World Series Baseball on the Wii for the first time with my 6-year-old. (He said he'd "go easy on me" since I had never played.)

While batting, I was having trouble making contact with the ball. The timing was difficult to figure out. There are all these gauges and symbols on the screen that I didn't understand, so the conversation went something like this:

Me: Is there something I can look at on the screen that shows me when I should swing the bat?

Joe: No....well, actually, yes. THE BALL.

Me: Ha-ha. I meant a gauge or something.

Joe: Ha-ha. Yes, I knew what you meant.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Driving and Usability (Loosely)

After a frustrating drive home yesterday, I started thinking about turn signals, why they're important, and why people use (or don't use) them. So, I did a highly informal survey with a very small pool (okay, 5 people that I know personally). Here are the results:

Of the people surveyed:
  • 20% claim to use turn signals all the time (Group A)
  • 80% admit to not using them all the time (Group B)
  • 0% claim to never use them (Group C)
When asked why they don't use turn signals all the time, those in Group B responded that they usually just forget.

Now, I believe there are people in Group C, though I haven't met any (self-admitted, that is). I also believe the pool I found is somewhat skewed, because these are all people close to me, and I usually hang out with considerate people who drive reasonable vehicles and understand that the road and everything on it does not belong to them.

I also searched to see what had been written already about this topic. I should have known that Don Norman had an article about signals. His take is more on how we might get our machines to be as expressive as human faces, but I was intrigued by the bits about the importance of signals in communication and understanding.

When I cycled to work the last two summers, I noticed that the other cyclists smile, wave and greet each other while commuting. I had people ask if I need help when I was fixing a chain. I remember growing up in small-ish towns where people would drive down the main streets and wave to each other.

This doesn't happen in our cars any more. Our obscenely big-assed cars have so many amenities that we have grown accustomed to treating them as isolated bubbles of human existence--an extension of our private living space.

But they're not. We are interacting with the world when we are piloting a moving vehicle among moving vehicles with other pilots.

So, dude: use your turn signal.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

PDA Wishlist

I've owned several PDAs: a Psion, two Handspring Visors, a Palm Treo, a Windows Treo, a Dell Axim, a PPC6700 and now an iPod Touch. Here's one more blog from one more blogger about the perfect device.

The next one I buy should have (not in preference order):
  • Touchscreen: So far, the iPod Touch wins. Except for the keyboard part (see below).
  • Bluetooth: for an external keyboard or file transfers.
  • Camera: frankly, this is a "nice-to-have" for me, but it would be nice to have. Doesn't have to be great, but should take photos of whiteboards in meetings or the position of your vehicles after the accident.
  • Real GPS: Not that half-assed wi-fi-dealy that the iPod uses. There's not quite enough public wi-fi around where I hang out. It's just not good enough for the potential of the location-based applications. Google Earth and Urban Spoon rock! But not on the half-assed wi-fi-dealy.
  • Wi-Fi: duh. Good-enough wi-fi that I can use the PDA as a Skype or Fring device.
  • A tactile (even external) keyboard (like the Psion Siena or PPC6700): Remember the folding keyboards for Handsprings? AWESOME. I can total imagine docking my iPod Touch on one of those puppies and being able to ACTUALLY TYPE. And, if it's a keyboard on the device, it needs to have a tiny depression in the center for a stylus to settle so you can type with a stylus if you had too many french fries last night. (This is not my idea, but I don't remember who suggested it to me. I'll give credit if I can remember.) My PPC6700 had a really nice keyboard, but the stylus would slip off of the smooth, rounded keys. I really dislike the Touch keyboard. (Yes, I practice, and yes, I have small fingers, and yes, it's gotten better, but why not make it easy to use out of the box? The auto-complete helps, for sure.)
  • External speaker with hardware control (Apple figured this out in the second generation Touch): I can't tell you how annoying it is to either be deafened, or to not be able to hear something, and have to type in my security password, find the app and then move the volume slider.
  • A solar battery. Just kidding, but wouldn't that be great? Or how about one that lasts a couple of days even when wi-fi and Bluetooth are on?
  • Ability to copy and paste text: Zowie...I can't tell you how frustrating this is on the Touch. And how simple it is on the PPC.
  • A phone with voice and data plan for way less than $70/month, and multiple provider choices: Come ON, Apple/AT&T!!! Is that really necessary? I won't do it, as long as this is my only choice. How about pre-paid plans?
  • Graffiti-like character recognition (or handwriting recognition): Yes, and I still think WordPerfect 5.1 was the greatest word processor EVER. But Graffiti rocks if you have a sucky keyboard like on the Touch.
  • Easy-to-use syncing software: Apple does really with iTunes and the Application Store. I was pretty happy with ActiveSync but not so much the Vista Version. At some point, Microsoft lost the ability for a one-way sync, which is important when you want to have a sad, old device that is simply a consumer of the calendar and contact information. (I still have a Handspring Visor that pulls contact information from Outlook 2007, which pulls from AirSet, which is pushed by Outlook 2003 and acts as an address book in our family room.)
  • Ability to customize the user interface: I LOVED the theme generators for PPC. I don't like the inability to easily group my applications on the Touch. It's just a big, black board with a bunch of sticky notes on it that I have to move one at a time. I'd like to be able to, say, arrange alphabetically or categorize. The drag and drop is clever and intuitive, but somewhat cumbersome if you have a lot of apps.
I dig my first generation iPod Touch; I really do. The second gen has added some of my wishlist items, but not quite enough for me to justify the couple-plus-hundred bucks.

Maybe the next generation of the iPod Touch, or maybe a new Google PDA?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Usability: Age 6

My six-year-old was making a book by gluing pictures back to back. He put the glue in the center of the pages so the edges were loose. I suggested that he glue the edges together, as well. He didn't understand why it was important, so I asked him to try to "read" his book by turning the pages. He had to turn two edges to see the next page, so he then understood the user experience that needed to improve.

Test, test, test. And catch 'em young, that's what I say.

On Design

From Leah Buley, via Jeff Patton via Twitter:

"[UX] design isn't something designers produce, design is a process that desigers facilitate."

What I Learned This Weekend

1) If you decide to leave the frozen goods out in the garage at 0 degrees while you make room in the freezer, make sure the garage door is closed.

2) Squirrels like soy corn dogs.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What to say first?

I thought a lot about what to say before creating this blog. What's the draw? What can I contribute? What can I say that someone else hasn't already said? And who cares?

Well, there's no telling, yet, now is there?

The description of the blog includes a reference to one of my great aunts, Virginia:

She was one of six children, three boys and three girls, all of whom went to college when women didn't. She became an English teacher at a public school in Honolulu and wrote and travelled all her life. When as a child I wrote her a letter, she would send it back with corrections ("Don't write on the last line of the stationery." "'Stationery' has an 'e' as in 'letter', while 'stationary' has an 'a' as in 'stand'.") She visited us frequently between her world travels to see starving children in third-world countries (no joke). During one visit (I must have been 8 or 10) she asked what I had been doing. I replied, "Oh, going to school and stuff like like that." She asked, "What kind of 'stuff like that'?" I responded, "Well, piano lessons, playing with my friends, and stuff like that." She asked further, "What kind of 'stuff like that'?" After three or four iterations of this, running out of 'stuff like that' to explain, I realized that she didn't want me to keep talking. She was pointing out that I should be clear and concise in my communication and put language to good use.

So, here goes.