Three People having fun in the ocean.

Technology’s Place

In my mind, technology isn’t the pursuit of gaining more attention from the users of our products. To me, technology is about allowing people to give their attention to the things they care about most – and usually they aren’t like me. People don’t like poking away at a screen. They want to attend to other things. Our products should help people do that.

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The Future of a Card-based Interface

I recently read an article that talks about the concept of a notification-oriented approach to application development.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, let me give you the two main points:

  1. We will no longer need to open up apps to see what’s new or to act on that information.
  2. These actionable notifications and content will be facilitated via cards.

The idea of platforms, services and how it relates to the end user has excited me for a while.

I agree that cards are a great way to bring together disparate information, make it scannable and do it in a way that makes sense to the user. In fact, I have used this card-based approach in a couple of my more recent projects. It is a great intermediate step, but I would argue that this vision is a  bit short-sighted.

Are cards useful on a global or OS scale? Should I use cards for ALL of my notifications and apps?

When I think of these cards, I think of the days of the datebook, or the PDA. It is a place where you get to keep all or your information, but you need to continually look to stay up to date.

A list of cards creates this same problem. I get a list of cards, but I need to sort through them to see if there is anything actionable or interesting. Sure, these cards may be sorted by the priority that my personal algorithm thinks I need, but they are ALL still there, in a pile, waiting for me.

Seems pretty cumbersome to me. All of a sudden, a list of apps on a screen doesn’t seem so bad. At least I can see all of my notifications at a glance and pick the ones I want to know about.

There’s A Place For Cards

In fact, Google gives us some compelling uses for cards. And like I said, there are some great uses for cards that I have used as well. As great as these cards can be, this isn’t the future I want.

I don’t need to be inundated with more reasons to look at my devices. Neither do you. What we need is a system that can give us the information we need, when we need it, in the way we need it.

I know this is a tall order, but can we at least give this some thought.

Let’s allow technology to do more work for us. We want our focus elsewhere. Let’s talk about the day we see a true virtual assistant.

A True Virtual Assistant

I believe the day is coming when we don’t need to give explicit input to get something back. Why do I need to ask Siri when my next appointment is? Why doesn’t she just let me know. Why do I need to “check” the sports score. Can’t Google keep me up to speed on the “important” stuff?

Enter a true virtual assistant. Imagine, talking with your coworker at your desk about a meeting that you need to set up. Your phone is nearby an picks up the conversation. After the convo is over and you are back at your desk (after the extended coffee break), your computer lights up. After all, it is rude to talk. It confirms the appointment with your coworker for next week. This assistant knows that you like coffee so it set the location for your favorite coffee shop.

Sure, this scenario may sound a little creepy. But, hey, people are listening anyway. Why don’t we at least use the data for our personal gain as well.

The technology that I just described is already here. The market may not be ready for it yet, but it is possible.

So why are we still talking about the continued need to look at our devices? We should be talking about how we can get our devices to do more for us so that we can use that extra bandwidth to do our best at the things that matter most.

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The Relationships of Discovery

Discovery is part of the adventure of life.

With the intrinsic value in discovering new things, why is it so difficult to facilitate discovery in the digital world?

Curators of the internet build machines that put everything in neat little categories, packaged perfectly for another machine (Google) to read it. Meta-data is added so that a search engine can present things to the user when he/she is searching for them.

But what about the times we aren’t searching for anything specific?

I’m thinking of the last time I was at Target with my wife. She wanted to shop for clothes. To entertain myself I headed to the electronics section. I had no specific goal. No list. So, how did I end up leaving with that expansion pack of The Sims 3 very non-geeky something.

Sure, there is something to be said about the psychology of impulse buying, but in order to buy one must first discover.

When focusing on discovering something, the relationship(s) to the things someone is discovering are important. Items may not be categorically similar, but somewhere along the line, the connection was made.

Helping build these relationships and allowing the user to discover things is no easy task. It is more than simply connecting similar items.

There are some website that do this extremely well: Medium, Ted or YouTube for example.

I think Medium does a great job at encouraging discovery because they bring in the human element. Medium uses what others are saying and what they are reading to help someone get lost in “just one more article”. The suggestions aren’t based solely on a tagging system. Human interests are not contained in neat little categories. The recommendations that help us discover new content shouldn’t be, either.

All of that being said: Separate interfaces for each piece of data or category is not conducive to discovering something new. It is my desire to see creators of digital products continue to design serendipitous experiences in their digital products.

Let’s keep asking: How do we enhance the human element of our products?

UX is NOT a Feature Set

I have been reading a few articles that critique web sites from a UX perspective. This is a great exercise and I thought I could learn something. However, I started to realize something: these articles pointed out a lack of features as poor UX.

Target Markets

I would probably think a little differently if the authors talked about the market for these apps. Instead, the articles were first person. “I think” has no place in an app that you will never use.

A lack of features may create a poor experience for someone, but that doesn’t mean the experience itself was subpar. It means that the user may not be the target market. Sometimes, the best thing an app can do is leave out some features that everyone thinks is necessary — especially when that “everyone” is not the person the app was designed for.

Trim the Unnecessary

The best apps take the essence of a problem and create a solution. Take everything away except what solves the problem. Everything else is waste. Feature after feature will not help you solve a problem if you are asking the wrong questions.

Using Positive User Feedback to Improve Your Product

Over the past week, I have been sorting through user feedback our team has received from user testing. The goal is to refine the app we are working on, making it easier to use and understand. I keep an Evernote notebook handy with all of the notes from user tests. This feedback is given by people who can articulate what they love or hate and how this app makes them feel.

All of this information is insanely useful, but only if you know what to do with it. I want what any good UX Designer wants – to make a product people love and use.  “It’s obvious,” I thought. “The best way to make something lovable is get rid of everything people hate. Right?”

Wrong!

Sometimes, negative user feedback is someone saying, “Give me more of what I love.” They simply don’t know how to say it. Of all feedback that we get, it is natural pay attention to the bad more than the good. It’s human nature. We want to improve. It is reasonable to assume we can improve by listening to negative feedback and fix the app. As true as this is, let’s take a moment and learn from the good.

Learning from Good User Feedback

I started to refine the product I’m working on by magnifying the things people love. As a result, some of the negative feedback has solved itself. The app is now more focused than ever and we have not sacrificed anything that people have missed. We’ve added a thing or two as well. The results have been amazing.

Why the positive?

After watching Kathy Sierra’s talk on creating the minimum badass user, I started to think about what we can do to make people feel awesome. If you want to know how to make people feel awesome, doesn’t it make sense to listen to what they love and why they love it? They are telling us what makes them feel awesome.

Listen to the positive feedback. Amplify what people love. Make them feel more awesome. Do this over and over. Eventually, you have a great product that makes millions of people awesome at the thing your product does.

Translating the Positive to Action

It may be difficult to translate “I love this thing” to the next design decision, but it is possible. An example might be helpful:

Organizing Categories

Category Sketch

A sketch of the original list of categories

I was trying to make a list of categories as simple as possible. Flat, fast, easy to scroll through. It made navigating through all of the items quick and easy.

I knew that people would want to edit their categories. To hide some of the complexity, I thought this was best solved in settings. People wouldn’t be doing it that often.

When people found the edit categories section, they made simple comments in passing. “I really like this,” or “I’m glad I can edit these.”

Once users saw the edit categories screen, they were excited that they could take ownership of this list. No one had anything bad to say. We were ready to move on.

However, in the spirit of amplifying what people loved, I thought it would be a good idea to take the joy of editing the categories and make it part of the original list.

Users had the ability to reorder, rename and delete categories from here.

Sketch of editing categories. Users had the ability to reorder, rename and delete categories from here.

Sure, the original list is now a little more complicated, but it worked! Now, people can take ownership of this list of categories without hunting for a place to do it. They feel more in control and more awesome!

What about negative feedback?

We don’t like anyone saying bad things about us. Our egos can get in the way. We decide to fix problems by pleasing the naysayers. It is easy to convert a list of negative comments to a list of features to add or things to fix. When we do this, we miss what makes people feel awesome.

When listening to the negative feedback we need to listen for what people are actually saying. People want to feel empowered. They want to feel awesome. If we don’t give people that, then they will complain, but not in ways that are useful.

Listen to the negative user feedback in light of the praise. Challenge yourself to combine what people love with what they want. If we amplify what people love, chances are we will also give them what they want. If we listen to how we make people awesome and capitalize on that, maybe some of the critics will become fans because we are making them awesome, too.

Listen to the positive, and make sure to magnify what’s working. Your users will thank you for it.

Service Station, 1942

User Experience in 1937

I found an example of the user experience methodology in a most unlikely place — a 1937 book commenting on the effects of the Great Depression.

I was not reading this book in order to glean some classic design guidelines, but there it was right in front of me: The future of the economic model demanded that the public be served with excellence. 

The author goes on to give many examples of the self-important companies that met their demise to make way for a professional who cared about the people he served.

The public can be served in many different ways. There have been industrial designers making sure everything fits together in the most convenient and efficient ways. They have made products beautiful and usable. There have been salesmen and women that go the extra mile. All of these extra efforts make the “user” feel special and empowered.

In the 21st century, we are having the same discussions about digital products that Napoleon Hill had in 1937 about professional services. The user experience professional gets to amplify the messages that a business wants to tell. We get to make products beautiful and usable. If we do it right, we make the user feel special and empowered.

I will leave you with the original quote:

The real employer of the future will be the public. This should be kept uppermost in mind by every person seeking to market personal services effectively.

Hill, Napoleon (2012-10-10). Think and Grow Rich: The Original 1937 Unedited Edition (p. 170). The Napoleon Hill Foundation. Kindle Edition.
Customize it or drive it?

The Science of Customization

Customization is a good thing, isn’t it? We all love to move our furniture where we think it fits best. We choose what we are going to wear or what we are going to do for the weekend. Choice is awesome … or is it? Let’s take a look at the software we use by looking at the car that we drive.

There are hundreds of things you can do to make a car perform better. Should it run lean or rich? Do the tires have the right tread for this surface? Should the suspension be tweaked?

There are a few gearheads who enjoy tinkering with those things, but by and large, most people want to get in a car and drive. They expect it to work. All four wheels should be turning and get them to their destination safely. The better the ride, the better the experience.

When we drive a car off the lot, gearhead or not, we don’t want to bother with minutiae. That car shouldn’t need to know my height, weight or eye color to operate—and, if the car company wants to keep my business, the car had better work to perfection without having to manually adjust the timing.

When we begin to build a product that solves a problem for our users, are we going to give them the option to solve it the way they choose or a predefined route that works perfectly to unravel the complicated tasks with a workflow to make it simple? There are inherent problems either way, and we are forced to ask (and answer) certain questions:

1.How steep is the learning curve?

2.What if the user doesn’t know what we expect them to know?

3.What do errors look like?

4.What about the workflow?

Some items may be up to the user. How much should we allow them to change? When I pick up my phone, it should “just work.” And when it “just works,” the default options should be sufficient to be a pleasure to use and help me with communication. The limitations housed within a well-planned workflow make it easy to move throughout the ecosystem of an app, an OS or a physical work environment. Ultimately, our products should be great at doing one thing: facilitating the user to solve the problem we are helping them with.

Where is the line when allowing for customization?

This post was originial published at Develop with Purpose: http://www.developwithpurpose.com/the-science-of-customization/

Is it the Memory or the Medium

I’ve been thinking about why people are so entrenched in the “paper books all the way” or “video stores will never die” mantra. There is no business logic. There might be some economic logic, but does it have more to do with the memories of our experience with the product. So I started to ask:

Is it the reminiscence of the experience that keeps us so attached, or is there actually something better about the physical medium of the product? And does this impact how we should design our experiences on the web?

Let’s take a look at video stores. These once-iconic hubs of entertainment, and their collapse, are a tribute to the impact of technology to our way of life. But even though they are on their way out, I’m sure there are some who would argue that they are here to stay. It can be argued that they are a greatsocial environment. What better place to get expert advice on movies? Or to pick out movies with a friend?

In fact, there was a time when I would agree. I remember my friends and I riding our bikes on a hot summer day to our local video store to pick up some movies and games for an epic weekend of pubescent manliness. But was it the memories with my friends that made the experience exciting, or was it the fact that we were renting a physical DVD? Did the expert advice matter, or was it the cumulative decision of my friends that made the movie a great choice?

But was it the memories with my friends that made the experience exciting, or was it the fact that we were renting a physical DVD?

The physical DVD that made us laugh pales in comparison to having someone to share that laugh with. User experience is a growing topic of conversation, partly because it is the experience we have with a medium that shapes how we feel about it.

Looking at the printed book, does reading it on paper actually make the content more engaging? Obviously not—the text is the same. Reading a physical book may not be as important as where it is being read. What would happen if we were reading the perfect novel on our Kindle while sitting on the porch, drinking some iced tea on a perfect spring day?

It is entirely possible to begin building a connection with the devices we use to read with. Memories are built by the experiences we have. The smell of the air or the emotion we get from the content may impact us forever. If the memory is created with a different medium, is it any less valuable?

I believe that as we begin to make strides forward in how we consume media, our memories will change. My daughter will most likely grow up browsing the Netflix queue rather than visiting a video store. She will get to experience interactive books with me on the iPad, and she’ll receive notes of encouragement in her inbox. So will she be attached to the idea of browsing for movies on our TV? Probably. But what happens when we start to experience movies in 3D space, similar to Star Trek’s holodeck? Well, she might be attached to the 2D medium that she watched with her dad, but Ihope that she embraces the new medium all the same.

As experiences are created that affect how people interact with their life, we should continually facilitate the human connection, no matter what the medium is.

Originally published at DevelopWithPurpose.com.

The Blame Game

My wife was trying to post to Facebook, showing all of our friends how cute our kids are. She made a simple statement:

“I can’t even post something on this stupid phone!”

When the situation couldn’t get any more frustrating, the app closed without any interaction by her. She was frustrated and confused. Did she loose her work? She blamed the phone.

I was aware that this was “Facebook’s problem”, but she was content blaming the phone. After all, it was the tool in her hands at the time. Facebook showed no error and the phone didn’t express it’s displeasure.

There is a tendency to place blame on the last touch point. If an app crashes, the phone will be blamed. If there is an error in an app, it is the app’s fault — regardless of the source of the error.

We tend to have an emotional response to the thing we are using, not the source of the problem. This might explain why we want to throw our phone when we loose some work due to an unexplained circumstance.

Software can be inappropriately blamed, too. I’ve been working on a budgeting app for a while now. This app will be depending on some third party services, and my wife’s comment made me think: How are we going to handle “their” problems?

Ultimately, the app will be judged on it’s own merit. A user will not care that an error happened with some unknown service — even if it is explained. The fact will remain, they couldn’t accomplish what they came to do.

“I can’t even _____________. Why isn’t this app working?”

Sure, there may be some development magic that can reduce the possibility of that happening, but it can still happen. When striving for an amazing customer experience, we need to be ready for the errors that are outside of our control.

Language of the errors matter. Reducing the repetitive workload of our users is important. Ultimately, assurance that “it will be ok” matters. It is important to ease the emotional concern when something goes terribly wrong.

It’s good to sweat the details, and make way for those uncontrollable factors — it certainly isn’t the user’s fault.