Legal Websites Failing To Make The Grade

Got passed a link to a page on legal gossip site rollonfriday (ROF) today which exposes some dreadful websites. Firstly, the incomprehensibly bad Fletcher Lewis site. Explore the solicitor profiles by clicking the three chaps' faces (Jason, Jeffery and Matthew) ... worryingly this site makes use of sound ...
Though that was bad, it's so bad that it's quirky. What's worse is when you see a site like Turner Parkinson who have clearly seen the involvement of an agency and the end result is a fish-orientated theme with, as ROF puts it, "end of the pier caricatures" on the lawyer profile pages. The ALT text on the menu says "booLawyers", "booTP" and so on ... and their Terms and Conditions page asserts "Before entering our Website you should read carefully these terms and conditions," despite this being on a page accessed in site-furniture rather than on a gateway. At least Surrey-based solicitors Buglear Bate scatter their clumsy offering with no little sarcasm.
finally, just to prove they can get it right some times, Wragge & Co. seems, on the surface of it, to be quite effective. I just don't like the grey on white text contrast.


A provincial town reflects on the news

Tim Fenton, an Ipswich local and BBC journo reflects on the effect of the recent events in Ipswich on the townspeople: "Community faces unwanted glare"
I used to love going for a run in Levington in the summer, riding out through Nacton and looking out for Copdock off the A12 on my way home from my parents' and in-laws' houses at the weekend. All locations featuring heavily in the unfolding events. As Tim touchingly writes "These are our places and we don't want them on the news."
:: Back to usability and user-experience articles tomorrow.


Ipswich Murders

It's late at night and as I sit here typing away on my blog I'm waiting for my fiancee to arrive back from a Christmas party. Ordinarily these things are par for the course at this time of year and yet the recent news of murders in a town I grew so fond of in the past few years means that her trip home feels longer and more vulnerable than it should have done.
Of course, at present, the crime is restricted to a localised area and to a particular segment of society though this makes it no less obvious that it has been comitted upon young women lured into a situation in which they were compromised.
Tonight the airwaves resonate with phone-ins and new analysis about the implications and scale of such a local serial attack but for me, and for all its faults, I'm dwelling on the thoughts of the people of Ipswich. Derided tonight on the BBC as a "small market town", Ipswich has, in recent years, done much to shake off a crumbling reliance on industry and ailing agricultural manufacture. At a time when the town so desperately wants to stand out on the map of the British Isles with its committment to technology, sport and commerce, it hits the headlines for a sordid crime involving the oldest trade in the world, and the friendly Suffolk townies who competed admirably with the amiability I experienced in my years at York, are left mourning the loss of three daughters.


Questioning if price is everything: The moral low-ground of price comparison.

So, uSwitch are in a bit of trouble. It appears that there may have been an attempt to encourage users of their site to switch providers by artificially presenting the results. To me this highlights a a growing concern about comparison engines and aggregators which is that they are not providing the sort of philanthropic experience to which they allude, and may actually produce inaccurate quotes/cover. These sites encourage you to compare primarily on price, they have commoditised - particularly in the insurance aggregator market - bespoke products. They encourage customers to compare apples with oranges and don't seem to take into account the all-important ancilliary factors such as customer experience, product features and loyalty discounts. By fueling a market where everyone switches all the time to the cheapest provider all that happens is that prices fall and margins are squeezed tighter and tighter to the point where the service you could have expected to receive in the past now resides in a poorly trained off-shore call centres, costs £s per minute to call and is increasingly unsympathetic to your individual needs.

Users and customers seem to be forgetting that sites like uSwitch, moneysupermarket and Confused have to make money. They make money when people switch and comission gets paid. Companies are rapidly wising up to this fact and are paring back their loyalty discounts and long-standing service standards to hack money off at the front-end and encourage more footfall through the front door.

Analogous to this have been the supermarkets. You can go into Tesco and see the price of an item compared to the equivalent in Sainsburys and Asda. The price transparency is thus designed to show how great they are at providing value for money. But once again this price-led marketing ignores the human at the heart of the shopping experience. Humans are not calculators and choose to buy a product through a subtle blend of price, product and emotion. Focussing all the attention on price leaves us all the poorer in terms of product and emotion. Take the current TV promotion for Iceland's frozen Christmas food range (feat. Kerry Catona). Touted as a cheap alternative to the traditional Christmas experience the marketing encourages us to spend less and indulge in a christmas of re-heating re-constituted meat and preservative-laden deserts, insisting that this must be better than the wholesome creation of a well-cooked dinner full of natural, fresh well tended meat, vegetables, sauces, spices and so on.

There's no doubt about it, premium insurance products, traditional utility products and organic food are all over-priced products that could do with having a tighter squeeze on them. The problem lies in the mass-market, middle-england purchases for which price transparency serves only to blinker the customer into considering short term financial gain and not lifetime value.

Emerging on the horizon to provide an alternative to this approach is a site called Wesabe. Wesabe is a community-based site for the review and dissemination of advice around personal financial services (read the Wesabe FAQ). A site that takes customer generated content to provide appreciable human comparisons of such products without dwelling on price, price price. Currently a touch US-centric, an increasing number of British and European visitors will bolster the relevance of the advice and experience for the rest of us. To me, these are some of the most encouraging uses of Web 2.0 thinking and I only hope that they gain traction and compete amongst the emotionally impoverished comparison engines.


Comment Moderation Applied


Apologies everyone but I have had to switch on comment moderation after being repeatedly spammed by some berk in India (IP trying to promote a dreadful search portal. At some point I hope to switch this off but in the meantime all comments posted will be emailed to me for review before posting.
Thanks for your patience and if anyone's got any ideas as to how I can blacklist or report this IP I'd appreciate it.


Viral - Or Is It?

The UK is in the grip of the spread of two 'viral's ... firstly the clumsy Polonium trail following the death of Alexander Litvineko and secondly the Thresher's offer.

The first is a murky subject that hints not at a slick KGB operation but of something rather more peculiar. The second seems even more suspicious, when is a viral not really a viral? I recieved my first copy of the PDF voucher at the start of the week and then saw it appear in both personal and work inboxes on a regular basis, each time doubting its' authenticity a little more. Of course the blogosphere couldn't resist and one of the first on the scene was wine site Spitoon - in effect giving the promotion some further credibility. The cynic in me thought, "could a national brand really honour a 40% discount spread so emphatically amongst the public?" Well, today's news reports suggest that they do intend to and, furthermore, that this wasn't intended for anyone other than family and friends. (Spitoon once again picked up the story).

I don't believe them. They must have known the viral power of sending out a voucher with no restrictive Terms and Conditions and in a portable format. Their mistake was not realising the scale of the distribution which -they freely admit - will hit their profit margins hard. There's loads of similarly cynical blog chatter about this. This is, however, one viral where monetisation is an obvious outcome. Contrast this with other successfully distributed but low-profit virals.

They do expect to make a profit so it will, nevertheless, remain to be seen how good a Christmas the directors at Threshers will have.


Iraq War Raises Statistical Questions

Some interesting data I unearthed today. The proportion of British forces deaths related to the size of the deployment is 1.58%. The US forces proportion is 2.13% (sources: About.com and icasualties.org). Does this reflect the danger of the theatres they are operating in or the quality of soldiering? It certainly does not represent quality of kit, everything you ever read about the war suggests the US have the world’s best equipment. But the highest casualty count by deployment is Bulgaria which has lost 3.25% of its troops.

What is also interesting is the proportion of deployment by population. 0.05% of the US population is in Iraq next is Georgia at 0.018% and then us at 0.013%. In this regard, the US has lost 0.0009% of its population in the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, the sketchy nature of the data means I am unable to comprehensively balance the picture with statistics on the percentage of Iraqi civilians killed, but some reports put this at 2.5% (source: BBC News article). Sobering stuff.


Young at Heart - Reviews

Following my post yesterday about Young@Heart I’ve been directed to a selection of equally gushing reviews.

:: A manly appraisal by TV Scoop (Shiny People)
:: A long review of ‘Road To Nowhere’ at the Lyric, Hammersmith in September

:: A review by Helen which draws on her own experiences trying to set up something similar
:: A short musing by an American ex-pat living in the UK in ‘A View From England


Young@Heart, An Extraordinary Documentary

Every once in a while you catch a programme on the TV that really hits the spot. It’s all too tempting in the evening to settle down and watch trash. Celebrity guff and salacious docu-soaps for example. Channel 4 last night added a corker to their schedule which I enthusiastically plumped for above my normal diet of crap. Young at Heart followed a chorus made up from old people (average age 80) who have got together under a charismatic and visionary musical director (Bob Cilman) to render pop, rock, punk and soul numbers in a way that you’ve never heard. It sounds, on paper, to be a terribly saccharine fly-on-the-wall but it was actually a profound exploration of ageing, death and our perceptions of both.

As we followed the game chorus line through the obvious challenges of re-interpreting Cold Play and James Brown and as we did so we also explored their deteriorating health, their unwavering enthusiasm, commitment humour and no little talent. Therefore, by the time it came to say the inevitable ‘goodbye’ to our first member we were right there with chorus in insisting the show must go on. And go on it did, with a heart-string-tug in the middle of a penitentiary exercise yard as the chorus sung to a group of incarcerated who – to a man – gave a standing ovation and many did so with tears in their eyes.

The sensitivity with which Stephen Walker approached the programme was extraordinary and struck a fine balance of warmth over sentimentality and no little degree of humour without descending into mockery. Above all this was a documentary with proud characters, philosophy and emotion and if anything justifies Channel 4 and More 4’s mandate it was this.

:: Read Stephen Walker’s statement on the documentary (and his IMDb profile)
:: Find out more about Young at Heart (website down due to bandwidth restrictions)
:: CBS Evening News piece about the chorus
:: UMASS alumni article about Bob Cilman


The Flicker Fusion Explanation For Driver Performance?

Got passed a good link today to an article by Robert Winkler which took me back to my Visual Perception classes at York (under the enigmatic Peter Thompson). It uses a sort of pseudo-science evaluation of the visual capabilities of hawks vs. humans and how this demonstrates the finite limits of driver reaction. I would be interested to see the reaction time differences between F1 drivers, WRC drivers, the public, and fighter pilots. How much is reaction time related to this ‘Flicker Fusion’?

Coincidence means this dropped into my inbox around the same time as I had my eyes re-tested and recently took part in my first Karting session. I suffer from a lazy eye and had hoped that this might explain my one-second deficit in average lap times against my colleagues. My optician had her doubts but I am convinced it explains this – and my ineptitude at tennis.

Any more insight into this kinda stuff really appreciated.


“We wanted no ghost to tell us that”: Acknowledging Our Expertise In Information Architecture.

We’re moving offices at The Company this week and consequently I’ve unearthed some dusty print outs of articles I meant to read. Some of these will end up in blog items in the next week or so and the first to prick my conscience has been a 2002 piece by Jesse James Garret. It was written at a time when jobs were being cut left, right and centre as the ‘new media’ industry euphemistically ‘consolidated’ itself.

With this in mind, it is quite an introspective and defensive critique of the purity of information architecture (IA), seeking to justify the role’s existence. What Jesse James Garret astutely points out is the tendency to justify every decision we make as being supported by user research and testable to within an inch of its life. Personally, I have dwelt on this as someone with a rigorous empirical background in psychology where, if it was not testable it was not truly meaningful. Taking a 'step back' (one for you, Matt) it is worth considering the role of a print editor. When they make decisions on layout, content and indeed the customer journey through their product, they are not doing this based on eight people in a room telling them what they think. They are using their insight, experience and gut reactions. They are doing what they are paid to do – to make tough strategic decisions about what they think is the right way of doing things without having the safety net of user-research to fall upon.

I wish I made more decisions like this. I wish I was able to be more bold and say, “you know what, this interaction should look like this because my years of experience tell me it should”. Too often, perhaps, we sit and listen to customers tell us exhaustively what they want and then agonise about what they meant. To go back to the wants and needs argument that Marc McNeill so effectively summarised recently, how many people would have sat in a focus group three years ago and said they would need to upload video and share it with the world? Not many, but then came YouTube … likewise, who would have thought kids would want to be creating web pages, writing daily blogs and sharing their lives with the world on an unprecedented scale? Not a huge amount but then came MySpace.

Now, I’m not saying that IAs would have foreseen YouTube or MySpace ahead of their users – if we all had that foresight IAs would be being paid a lot more – but it does demonstrate that user-research doesn’t provide all the answers.

If we dwell on making the most usable sites as defined as the sites that pass the user test then we become no better than the teacher who schools their pupils in just enough to pass the exam. The exam in this example is no more reflective of the challenges of life than the user test is reflective of the continued experience of a website by thousands upon thousands or users. The trouble is, testing and metrics deal largely with the quantifiable elements of experience, time taken, click volumes, conversion. Unfortunately these are the predominant currency of business and unless you present such information higher up the chain your credibility is called in to question.

To return to the publishing editor analogy, the editor is top of the tree. Their decision is respected not just because of the experienced opinion but because in the hierarchy there are few people above them. Information Architects on the other hand sit lower down, we don’t have that power and all too often we find our work being passed up the chain, interpreted, interrogated and ultimately ignored as the wishful thinking of an idealist. Peppering a report or proposition with research is our way of protecting our ideas, wrapping them in cotton wool to survive the journey to the senior manager’s desk.

At the end of this journey what lands on the manager’s desk is a collection of research quotes and some proposed designs. What is missing is the insight, the explanation of how we leapt from someone saying they wanted to be able to change their address to a panel in a wireframe with ‘change my address’ on it.

Fortunately the assertion by Jesse James that IA as a distinct role would fade away have not proved correct and in many organisations there exist a team of such professionals. Granted, we have had to broaden our horizons and think about technology and business at the same time but, at our core, we can still be information architects.

Nevertheless the advice still holds true. We should trust our abilities more and occasionally eschew the temptation to commission research at every turn to support our work. We must be prepared to act on hunches and still show our working. Explain and annotate why we have made these decisions but not be afraid to say it was our personal decision and not the decision of 83% of survey respondents. These hunches and gut reactions allow us to work and react faster. Take AJAX for example – we have not had the time to test and research this stuff adequately but we are under immense pressure to deploy it sooner rather than later for the UE and technological benefits. We should be brave enough to generate great interfaces using AJAX implementations based on our experience and get this stuff out there without waiting for XYZ Ltd to fling something out and observing how they get on.

In time, I hope senior management will begin to trust these hunches and – when augmented by the right amount of research – will begin to believe the value of the small collection of experts in their web teams. I’ll paraphrase for my final thoughts: Research data and formal methodologies do not guarantee better architecture. Better architects guarantee better architecture.


The Excel 2007 User Experience

Finally got round to reviewing a blog post from MSDN about the User Experience design supporting Excel 2007. Of course this is all related to my recent exposure to the Microsoft UE process but I’m very interested in this post as it interrogates the charting functionality of Excel.

I have always hated the generic purples, blues and greys of Excel charts that adorn the lazy man’s presentation, pin board or meeting notes. Ignoring the power of colour in visual communication (<- excellent blog link) and the need to engage their audience, many users of the ubiquitous spreadsheet simply deployed the wizard to create a generic chart. In this regard Microsoft approached the problem with the end-users’ problem in mind: how do I create a good looking and meaningful chart? When I create charts in Excel I take a (probably excessively) long time over the style and colour to ensure it’s clear and compelling. More often than not, I’ll begin my charting process by sketching out what I want to see before tracking back to the data to work out how I need to tell the Wizard to work. I consider myself and experienced (but not expert) user of Excel but it’s clearly the users without the time and experience who pump out the sort of drab chart output I described above. So the process needs to work for power users and novices. Sometimes the best charts are mutli-type or multi-dimensional. So, for example, you use bars with lines on two axes and maybe some colouring to demonstrate some other variable. Working out this kind of stuff the first time you hit the ‘make a chart’ functionality has previously been impossible. One of the great featurettes of photo editing software has been the preview functionality of applying changes. Adding this sort of creative sandbox to the charting process enables users to tinker and play with their chart in the wizard environment without getting to the end and committing themselves to the wrong design, only to have to re-launch the wizard to amend it.

The end result for customers has been a template heavy solution that suits beginners and non-creative types but where the design crumbles is its lack of support for power users. As one commenter puts it, the support for people working with complex data has made way for “fluff to make column charts with gradient colours”. Whilst Microsoft have to cater for the large number of business users that just need to present some simple data, the fact of the matter is the tool is powerful enough to be used to analyze far more complex data sets and by ignoring these users they seem to have missed a trick. However, one final ray of light, in responding to these comments it appears Microsoft continue to listen and, where possible, they’ll begin to introduce such functionality in later releases. Too bad their UCD wasn’t quite representative enough.


Do Users Want, Need or Desire A Startup Sound?

Couple of quick ‘hmm that’s interesting’ links. Firstly, related to my Vista post the other day, here’s a short NPR piece on the new Vista startup sound. They only get to the nub of the matter towards the end of this clip so I’d be really interested in other people’s opinions on auditory feedback in interfaces. It’s not something Tjeerd mentioned last week but it’s clearly something Apple take seriously too …

Secondly, I’m always a fan of Marc McNeill’s posts over at
Dancing Mango (etymology of the title?) so was delighted to read the ‘needs vs. wants’ item last week. Coming as it did on the back of Dan’s UX2006 session which had already got me thinking more profoundly about personas, this post is a good reminder about interrogating user motivation. Some of the comments it has received are a little rambling but worth reviewing all the same.


World Usability Day 2006: 14th November

Rather lamely I'm going to link out to the Making Life Easy (MLE) blog today to reference world usability day. I wanted to do something at The Company to highlight everyday usability (which basically involved the setting alarm clocks problem) but that never flew so this MLE blog represents someone else's attempt to illustrate great and grim design. I think this image from the Boston UPA site (and postcard they sent out) illustrates the concept fantastically.


PhotoSynth and Vista. A Leap forward in User Experience?

A lot of good stuff coming out of Microsoft recently. The presentation by Tjeerd at UX 2006 showed some lovely attention to detail for GUI design in Vista (even if some people insist it's a Mac rip-off) and then there's this PhotoSynth stuff from the Live Labs. I blogged about the demo video in August and now there's a working demo available. Be warned, you do need at least a Gig of RAM and admin rights on your PC.
Regarding Vista, There are plenty of jerky videos of Vista on YouTube but I'd read it straight from the proverbial horse's mouth here and take a look at Tjeerd's pages here.
Not sure if PhotoSynth quite works how i'd hoped it would but I do think there's a function of how many photos have been loaded in and how fast the PC is. Several times I clicked in for a closeup and got the other side of a building instead and I'm not sure quite how the 3D dot-map should work - is is a quide to the space you're in? Is each dot a unique photo?


User Experience 2006, London, “User Experience Documentation”.

It was inevitable that I’d want to blog about my session yesterday at the NN/g ‘conference’. What is unexpected however are the amount of thought provocations that I noted down throughout the day with little ‘Blog’ tags attached to them, some of which will end up as fully-fledged posts, others of which are, on reflection, nothing more than idle guff.

I’m glad I chose not to lug a laptop into the city and thereby blog on the day, and I’m even gladder that I took the preliminary letter’s advice to wear several layers too; the room we were in at the Millennium Hotel in Gloucester Road was borderline Arctic during the morning session. Not that that seemed to bother the extraordinary amount of Scandinavians that seemed to be in attendance. I still do not know whether their predilection toward User Centred Design is the consequence of having a Scandinavian guru at the helm (Jakob) or whether it is simply one of those accidental cultural niches that seem to develop. Either way, they were there in numbers, speaking embarrassingly great English and having a justifiable confidence in their abilities. The second largest group of attendees seems to have been the BBC. Looking down the delegate list, I would suspect that half their ‘new media’ department were there in one form or another.

I was there to learn from Dan Brown. An erudite New Yorker (now resident in D.C.) with a dry wit and a decent book to promote. We were a tough crowd, not because anyone was particularly controversial but because despite his attempts to lighten to mood with references to his experiences as a proud new(ish) father something was getting lost in translation and our continental delegates seemed more keen to read ahead in their slide packs. For the record, I thought he was a solid and amusing presenter and frankly when you are dealing with a subject as potentially dour as sitemaps, flow charts and wireframes then any smattering of humour is appreciated.

Dan’s approach has been to simplify web development documentation into ten key deliverables split by ‘User Needs’, ‘Strategy’ and ‘Design’. In the session at User Experience 2006 we looked at personas (user-need), sitemaps, flow charts and wireframes (design). As always, the best way to learn is through a combination of practical exercise and demonstration of the good and the bad, with appropriate discussion around the same. Within fifteen minutes of the session starting, we were already in and creating personas. This was absolutely the right thing to do. As we picked these apart, we progressed through what must have been a cathartic therapy for Dan as he displayed a healthy portfolio of confusing diagrams, schemas and flows from his past, this was a theme persistent through the rest of the day. Dan’s honesty in showing ‘hyperdocumentation’ (by which I mean diagrams and data visualisation on a large and complex scale) from his own collection was a compelling insight to the workings of a man who’s mind he freely admits craves the release of encapsulating his thoughts on paper and on file. Many of his examples showed an exquisitely sensitive use of colour and design to convey a wide range of attributes. A document that seemed inaccessible at first was presented gradually until it made complete sense.

He was challenged repeatedly on his intentionally inconsistent approach to documents (ironically it was internal document inconsistency that prompted me to attend the session) and his response was considered: no two projects are the same; no two audiences for those documents are the same. Bear in mind at every planning stage for your work those people who will be reviewing the document, and the document’s purpose. It seemed that there is no need to slavishly follow a given set of rules (e.g. that personas must show x, y and z and that sitemaps should be formed of boxes and arrows) if the document’s purpose can be communicated effectively without doing so.

Before I attended the conference I blogged that it was expensive and that you have to pay for the privilege of learning from the experts. In Dan’s case and, at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I am glad The Company paid up because it was worth every penny.

I’ll be returning to the themes of documentation and providing examples of my own styles in the next few weeks. Tomorrow however I intend to run through some examples of User Experience tweaks in Windows Vista following Tjeerd Hoek’s plenary session demo at User Experience 2006.
Finally, quick hellos to some people I met at the session: Tero Tikkanen (Vaisala Oyj, Finland) and Nick Pleydell-Pearce (Global Beach [yikes! flash only site], UK)
:: Update with Dan's slides originally posted on slideshare which contain the examples not in our take-out packs.


Mum, today I got an A* in Information Architecture

Remember my post about kids wanting to be User Experience Architects? Well this post from Adaptive Path proves that Information Architecture is so easy* kids can do it ... and they want to :)
* - I'm joking about the easy part. It's not and it costs lots to pay people like us to do it really ... (that's a joke too, sort of)


Browser Zooming, A Comparison

I like running a daft high resolution wherever I can and so sometimes have to make use of browser zooming capabilities. Previously the only option used to be a text size increase function where the CSS allowed but now, as an IE7 devotee I can use their total page zoom function. It's not always great though and this week's post by UK Usability contributor Alastair, does a great job of explaining what does and does not work and why.

And by way of a co-incidence, Paul at Headscape talks about the same issue on Boagworld

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It Pays To Answer Customer Emails

Online shopping isn’t all about click through, promotions and abandonment. It’s about the interaction between user, customer and business.

I’ve been looking to get a new jacket for winter. Commuting, and specifically walking between stations and waiting for connections, can be a chilly affair when the temperatures drop. I’ve done plenty of research offline and online. I’m a ‘brand advocate’ of
The North Face (TNF) and spent time looking at both their US and Canadian sites to find the latest gear. I ordered catalogues from Cotswold and Snow & Rock and I spent time in stores like Blacks, Venture Sport and Field & Trek. Eventually I settled on the Plasma jacket, it wasn’t showing on the TNF site for Europe (it was still showing summer gear in October…) but thanks to Froogle.co.uk, I saw it was appearing on several online stores but I was nervous that I would be getting end-of-line 2005/6 stock as we’re in a transitional season.

I had good service last year from Snow & Rock and I liked their extensive and well-produced catalogue but they didn’t have the item showing in stock. Cotswold I wanted to give a chance to as I visited
their store in Betws-y-Coed last year and was impressed. Finally, Venture Sport were the only company showing the jacket as available in the colour I wanted – and they’re local with a branch in Norwich and helpful staff…

Cue a salvo of identical emails to their various customer service addresses. All sent at the same time, last Wednesday. I received just one response, from Venture Sport two days later telling me the key information: The item is the latest version and the current stock wait time (7-14 days). It was friendly, succinct and useful. If I’m being picky I’d have liked a tighter delivery/stock estimate but other than that, spot on.

As a result I’ve just spent nearly £200 with them on the jacket and as of today (6 days later) I’ve still had no response from any of the others. The shopping experience wasn’t without its faults - I did get instant confirmation emails but there were three of them (two merchant receipts and one with registration details) but I was so pleased to finally be getting on with the order that I didn’t really mind too much. I was even able to add some additional delivery comments to ensure it reaches me through the complicated post system at The Company. When it does arrive I plan on spending even more money with them on a few additional clothing items … their prompt, friendly and efficient service has paid off. All because they responded to an email.


Corporate Mugging

Working for a corporation (c.f. agency) has its benefits. We’ve got a Starbucks concession as part of the catering facilities on site and as it’s ‘double stamp Friday’ I thought I’d pop down this afternoon for my usual Grande Americano (data on the GA) (aside: ‘americano’ was originally a derogatory term sneered at Americans when they asked for espressos with hot-water in them to temper the strength, according to a Gaggia salesman & Wikipedia). Anyway, this afternoon I noticed a sign saying 250 china mugs had been half-inched from the café in the last 6 months. Clearly the appeal of having a worldwide mega-brand and, (specifically a twin-tailed baubo siren) on their desk is too much to suppress my colleagues' kleptomaniac impulses.

A Mouthpiece For The Enemy: Is It Right To Interview The Taleban?

I've just added a comment to Peter Barron's entry on the BBC News 'Editors' blog regarding the recent airing of an interview with the Taleban. In my opinion it is a fundamental part of a free media in a democratic country to report all sides of a conflict no matter how challenging and unsavoury. The proliferation of WASPish outrage in the Daily Mail readers' responses indicates just how blinkered we have become in our view of the Middle East. I am no sympathiser of fundamentalism but I am no fan of anachronistic fascist ramblings either or a return to the days when, as one commenter put it, people cheered at the bombing of Hiroshima in part because it was reported reported it as a military success. Honesty, transparency and accountability are only acheivable from a balanced perspective. Read every paper, watch a range of news programmes, absorb the views and make up your own mind.
The debate on Peter's post now exceeds 100 comments, some of them erudite, others depressingly naïve but nevertheless reflective of an almost 50:50 split of opinion. Because this is my blog and I like to bolster my own opinions, here's someone who shares a similar viewpoint to me [hope they agree :) ] ... and here's a technorati log of recent blog commentary on the post. Finally, Norfolk boy and journalism professor Adrian Monck's has had a bit to say about it too ....


Leaving Logs ... And Checking Them

Though I've had a good old moan about commuting in the past, I'm pleased to say my displeasure with the operator and subsequent criticism never developed into the scatalogical. This deranged individual has, however, served to highlight another curiosity, the British fascination with salacious and sordid news. The BBC's popularity tracker inevitably gets dominated by such stories on slow news days ... I'd love to see Auntie's server logs to see how deep into the site people go once reading stories like this, almost as if they're the hooks that get visitors in to the rest of the news content.


British Web Users Search Less - But Find More

An update to my recent post about odd search behaviour, a colleague sent me a list to Jason Lee Miller's interesting article the opening paragraph reads:"Recent numbers are showing that Google is an even heavier hitter in the United Kingdom than in the United States. But it also appears that UK Internet users are conducting fewer searches, and finding what they need more often." The debate of course is whether this is a true cultural difference or one of coincidental accident.
The search stuff just keeps coming. Boxes and Arrows have a great piece about search behaviours. Combine this with their notes on Quantifying the User Experience and suddenly I've got a compelling need to get inside our site's search logs ... what are people looking for and how?


Windows Live Writer

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A significant amount of software has found its way on to my system this weekend. Got a webcam, got a duplicate email remover from Outlook (gave up on Google mail and ended up with 600 duplicates when I pulled the last few months mails into Outlook...) and got Windows Live Writer to help me update this blog more simply.

I'm not sure how this experiment will work out, particularly as it doesn't support the Blogger Beta very well (no label option), but it might at least allow some faster posting and an end to the days of poorly formatted posts or posts with clumsy pictures.


Seeing Red Over Bono's Hypocrisy

Yesterday I posted a comment on blueblog (which had been feted by Product Red's blog) which was duly deleted today (irritating comment moderation...). In essence it pointed out that we should clearly all be doing what Bono says and not what he does. For the record I applaud the (RED) campaign but i'd rather take part without the preaching of a multi-millionaire who uses (like The Stones) every trick in the book to avoid paying tax that would partially benefit the same or similar causes. Graham Norton's had something to say on the subject which, I think, makes a valid point. Albeit it does rather draw the comparison that a crumbling road in Ireland isn't quite as desperate an issue as AIDs in Africa.
> More blog comment about Bono's nauseating hypocrisy
> Fergal O'Brien's comprehensive Bloomberg article, "Bono, Preacher on Poverty, Tarnishes Halo With Irish Tax Move" (16.OCT.2006)


Search And You Shall Find

Each day I take a look at my blog stats and today I was mortified to find someone had found the blog not, as I’d hope, by searching for ‘web usability blog’ or a specific topic like ‘ambient navigation signifiers’ but rather “when does Primark in Doncaster open”. Looking at the search result, we can see that my blog is third but the summary returned shows no relevance to the intended search, yet still it was clicked on, why? Do users systematically work their way down the list from top result to bottom? Why do people not make an assessment on relevance before they click? In effect, is this confirming Jakob’s hypothetical question in 2001 that “Some People Are Too Stupid To Serve”? Todd Miller has a short article “In Defense of Stupid Users” which makes some valid points. Nevertheless, I do still despair of some people. Anyway, I hope they enjoyed their visit and, for the record, Primark in Doncaster is open 9-5.30 Monday to Thursday, 9-6 on Friday, 8.30-6 on Saturday and 10-4 on Sunday. (Their website has the detail but alas did not appear in the natural search for the original query)
>> UPDATE: Silly me, they were looking for details of a new store which opened 19th October. Some bloggers are too stupid to write...


The Rise of the User Experience Podcast

The rise of the user/customer experience podcast. A brief summary of current offerings with their three most recent posts…

Boagworld (not strictly a UX podcast but relevant all the same):
> Podcast 53: Ecommerce Usability (09.OCT), 52: JavaScript Libraries (02.OCT), 51: Better Google Listings (26.SEP)

UXpod (Gerry Gaffney’s regular podcast)
> Ethnography (09.OCT) World Usability Day (02.OCT) Market Research (22.SEP)

DesignCritique (Products For People, “Encouraging useful and usable design for a better customer experience”)
> World Usability Day (15.OCT) Alarm Clock Critiques (29.SEP) Wristwatch Critiques (10.SEP)

IA (Jeff Parks’ Canadian-orientated Information Architecture ‘cast)
> User Centered Design (sic) (04.OCT) Plain Language and Usability / Business Process before Technology (01.SEP) Using Metaphors / The Information Architect as Universal Translator (01.AUG)

“Ambient Signifiers” Subtle indicators to make you feel you’re on the right path

The web gives you the chance to do things that aren’t easily achievable in the physical word. It allows us to build metaphors and equivalent processes in a unique way. Take, for example, the fact that when you go to the supermarket you probably approach each aisle in the same order and generally from the same direction each time. Or, perhaps, when you go to your favourite spot on the coast in Cornwall you might take the same coastal path walk that you’ve done for years. Now, this is all fine if nothing ever changes, it becomes so familiar that you could do it without conscious navigation but what if they moved some items around on the shelves or they put a few houses along the coastal path, introduced some stiles and cut down a significant hedgerow? Though the route would be familiar it would not be implausible that you could get lost.

This happens all the time on the web. In fact, in the case of online banks, changing even the homepage style-sheet can result in hundreds of calls to a call centre to check that the site is still the same and is not a phishing cover-page.
Digital Patina
Back in 2002 when the BBC were doing a site re-design they introduced the idea of ‘digital patina’ (it may have emerged elsewhere beforehand, I’d be keen to know if it did) whereby a well-trodden path began to emerge online for return visitors. So, for example, if you regularly visited BBC Sport, the Sport section on the .co.uk homepage would darken over time. The point was not to ensure you always found the right link, your regular visits prove you had no trouble finding it, but rather it was to ambiently re-assure you that the site recognised you and was moulding to you like a well-worn pair of jeans. The BBC described it as ‘having a conversation with the user’.

In other cases this sort of subtle, unconscious cue of familiarity has a more direct role in keeping users on the right track. Underground or Metro networks the world over have to cope with both familiar and novice users completing the full spectrum of navigation paths from the short-stop to the long-haul. Over the years a host of navigation aids have been introduced: station names, coloured lines, matching carriage colours. In the case of the Tube in London the famous map takes its form from the very fact that the traditional ambient signifiers (landscape markers) do not exist underground. These are the obvious ones, but not everyone would realise that the ornate tiling at Tottenham Court road and at other parts along the network is a direct response to the need to introduce identifiable signifiers for the illiterate, which now work as effective ambient visual cues for today’s passengers. In Tokyo, the metro system is replete with unique chimes at each station, reminding the absorbed or dozing commuter that they are on the right route or perhaps providing an unfamiliar ‘wake-up call’ when they’ve over-slept or missed their stop.
Well Trodden Path & Visited Link Colours
There are two possibilities here for the web: Firstly, present some simple cookie-based JavaScript control of the CSS that identifies return visitors and applies style-sheet changes over time. Secondly, that the use of subtle, ambient cues is deployed across the site for everyone’s benefit. Taking these in turn it seems to be clear to me that the first is not widely applied, it didn’t even survive on the BBC and, as good ideas spread so rapidly on the web, I would assume that it simply doesn’t provide any benefit. The the well trodden path is retained in the users mind, much like last year’s footprints do not survive on the coastal path. It used to be the case that visited hyperlinks would be a different colour but this has declined over the years (through a natural coding evolution and the erosion of the ‘blue underlined’ hypertext convention) to such a point that users don’t expect this to happen and, from the usability tests I have seen, they don’t seem to be aware it is when it is employed. The only place where it still works effectively on a massive scale is Google, reminding you of which links you’ve tried.

Secondly, the subtle use of ambient signifiers to aide navigation is widespread on the better architectured sites. The use of relevant colour schemes (e.g. BBC channels online mirror their TV equivalents in colour and typeface), the subtle section colouring for Google, Froogle, Google Groups, Google Maps and Google Directory. But sites could go further. One cue which has developed by accident has been the use of different visual styles for secure or registered-user areas of sites. Traditionally many of these areas were built by IT departments whereas the main sites were built by marketing and creative agencies, the latter changing frequently whereas the secure/registered areas remain consistent. There is often a jump to a new window, occasionally stripped of navigation elements and so on. All of these visual cues remind customers that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Whilst there is a case for better brand alignment (particularly for reasons of consumer trust) which I and Marc at dancingmango (and here)have discussed recently, there is also a strong benefit from letting customers feel the join.
Still Logged In?
To end, two final examples. Sharing access to a PC (despite there being lots of capable hardware in the flat) means that I am forever going on to Amazon (UK), browsing around and then going to add stuff to my basket or wishlist before realising I’m logged on as my other half. Amazon are not good at making it obvious when you’re logged in. the “Welcome, John …” text is lost below the navigation tabs and I’m usually so task-focussed that the first thing I do from the homepage is search, ignoring the ‘recommended for you’ images which might have provided a first line indication that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d say this is a weekly usability annoyance that, even given the frequency that it occurs, as a user continues to thwart me. It genuinely surprises me that Amazon haven’t picked this up in testing. I simply don’t feel logged-in. On the flipside, the more contemporary styling of the US Amazon site instantly lets me know I’m in the wrong country without having to look for the $ signs. Finally, take a look at newsmap, a site I’ve mentioned in the past, try and work out what ambient signifiers are at work here … hint, it’s to do with recency and popularity…

The beauty of all this low-frequency stuff is that it doesn’t involve radical re-designs, adding noise to the page, icon development etc. etc. etc. It simplifies and clarifies the user experience. It makes sites feel bespoke or, in the BBC sense, as if they are having a conversation with you, but without needing to employ significant amounts of personalisation functionality.

:: “Ambient Signifiers, How I Learned to Stop Getting Lost and Love Tokyo Rail” – Boxes & Arrows
:: “The Glass Wall, The Home Page Redesign 2002” – Liam Delahunty
:: newsmap – data visualisation with ambient signifiers


"Stop Designing Products"

My regular trawling of blogs turned up this gem from Peter Merholz of Interaction Gurus, Adaptive Path. It has a huge degree of resonance for me as it deals with customer experience outside the traditional ‘sell a product and then support the service of that product’ interaction and inspires us to consider the total experience creation that Apple recently demonstrated is so successful with the iPod + iTunes + iTunes ‘Holy Trinity’. Peter cites Kodak in an inspired slide (page 6) which shows just how thinking about improving an experience results in a pioneering product. Hiding away the complexity from the end-user, sound familiar?

This is system design, looking at what the end-user finds difficult in interacting with disparate processes, technologies and so on and producing either a sealed ‘closed’ system (Apple’s integration or the Kodak roll-film camera) or an open, adaptable application (Flickr, Firefox). This leads on to examples where the integration and experience-orientated design spreads across channels. So, for example, the same interaction experience happens offline (in stores, on the phone) as it does on the web. To some extent it’s all about empowerment in both cases, you interact, we do the rest.

Some very basic online examples:

:: your online bank invites you to ‘consolidate your finances’. You click a button and the bank calculates where your money should be best organised, it suggests an amount is moved to savings, your current account is maintained at a given level and you set-up a direct debit into an ISA … you then click to confirm and it arranges it for you. Job done.

:: your train company allows you to log-in to their site via a mobile device and click ‘I’m delayed’, you tell it what train you’re on and where you want to go to and it suggests the fastest alternative route … “get off at Ipswich and continue to Norwich via Peterborough

There’s nothing worse than design that hints at this level of seamless integration and falls at the final hurdle. I recently moved house and was told about ‘
iammoving.com’. The premise was that we tell them once and my address change is taken care of by populating my information throughout my banks, credit cards, loyalty cards, the DVLA, council tax TV licensing etc. etc. The reality was considerably different. Of the 40 or so suppliers I identified I had a relationship with, only three had electronic notification set-up, so I had to manually go through adding additional information, generating a PDF, printing and posting that and invariably partaking in more correspondence once they sent me additional forms. The whole thing became a huge pain in the arse frankly and I wished I’d just used our re-direct with Royal Mail to respond to anyone who subsequently mailed us.

Contrast this with Virgin Atlantic, their adverts currently convey a
fully realised sense of experience. You don’t just buy an airline ticket, you buy a chauffeured trip to a pre-flight lounge, a simplified check-in process, a quality seat and in-flight service … they take care of you. I presume of course, I’ve not had the opportunity to try it out!

And it can be done in service industries I’m sure, I just haven’t really seen it yet. Hopefully someone reading this is responsible for customer experience in an organisation that can really benefit from this approach.


TrainBlog.co.uk - picking up the baton

Recently I announced a self-imposed amnesty on blogging about the appalling customer service I had experience on 'one'. However, I am happy to pass the baton to these guys, TrainBlog.
Produced by Norwich-based agency Soup, train blog is a centralised repository for commuters' displeasure and, I suspect, the vast majority of that will be local. Interestingly, you can (in a very 2.0 way) add your comments by texting.
(B)log-in and see what other people have to say. Over to you....

“The Sleeper Curve”, MySpace provides tangible evidence of an increasingly intelligent generation.

Last week I wrote an email to Steven Johnson, I didn’t get a reply. I don’t blame him for not responding, my email was a rambling list of questions and half-baked theories that, if I’d bothered to read pages 116 to 124 of his book I would have found the answers.

My thoughts had been centred around the use of social network sites and were building on ideas mooted in this blog about the “Noble Savages” of the web, the teens and tweens immersed in the likes of MySpace, Bebo and Faceparty. They were building too on themes discussed in the previous 115 pages of his book which talked of a rising “Sleeper Curve” of complexity in the social and cognitive functioning of recent generations. Johnson points to the scale and complexity of online gaming in virtual worlds, the multiple threading of plot lines, character complexity, reduction in signposting and chronological fracturing seen in modern popular television (Lost, 24, Sopranos) and the Emotional Quotient demands of that most-maligned genre of entertainment, ‘reality’ TV. I wanted to ask him whether he thought the mindless surfing and banal bedroom postings of teenagers in Woking really constituted evidence for an increasingly intelligent generation.

As it happens, I got to the end of the email and had started to answer my own questions anyway. Taking place within these social networks are a myriad of interactions the principle aim of which is to create more links, to find more people who are like you, who like the same music or can introduce you to new ideas, cultures, crafts and stimulation. In effect, people to whom you can relate. The manifestation of this is the buddy list, a publicly viewable incentive and tangible sign of success. Here, at work on the most ‘cutting edge’ popular technology, is that most rudimentary facet of personal development, conditional learning. The user learns with subtle, slow experimentation that adding a given song, mentioning a brand, blogging about a person, citing a celebrity or slating a school friend will encourage someone else to request to be added to their list. Over time these ‘new’ social skills are honed and polished in such a way that the most prolific of MySpace users can demonstrate a who’s-who of buddies, displaying the great and the good of their community.

Perhaps some of these kids (though by no means all of them are under 21) would have demonstrated these skills and abilities offline in a different time, but I contend that these sites have taken away some of the physical limitations of real life (time, distance, health and beauty) to allow a greater number of people to become popular in a world that previously would have excluded them.

[note: the image on this post is a Univ. Claifornia visualisation of a social network on Friendster]


Some of the most unlikely people now have Macs

Sat on the train the other morning minding my own business (well adding ratings to my iPod – more on that later) when a woman sat herself opposite me. She dived into her generic handbag and whipped out a MacBook, a big one too. I smiled to myself at the pervasiveness of this brand and then it all became clear; she dived back into her back, past a floral umbrella and deposited an Innocent smoothie carton on the table. I wanted to take a look under the table and see if there were Birkenstocks on her feet and then I realised I didn’t need to look as I’d already got a full house, she was wearing square, thick-rimmed specs.

If anything puts me off buying a Mac it’s this creep toward commonality (and maybe Steve Jobs’ insistence on wearing black shirts tucked in to jeans with all the collar buttons done up).

But back to the ‘pod. Last weekend I was clearing up my hard drive after the traumatic but oddly easy transfer of all my music and photos to a Buffalo Linkstation. I saw my old shared music folder and thought I don’t need to share that anymore, cue changing of file access rights. A few hours later after I’d reset and returned to do some more work I discovered iTunes wouldn’t open, complaining that it could find or change the ‘My Music’ folder. But I’d carefully saved that hadn’t I? I’d made sure when I changed the location of the music that I’d retained the .itl and .xml files with all my playlists, a year’s worth of ratings and play counts …

However, the priorities changing meant that windows had lost information about which ‘My Music’ folder I was now using and, despite attempts at file recovery and re-installs of iTunes, I couldn’t recover any of this information. Gutted. Ok, so the music was safe on the Buffalo, but the thing that really makes iTunes and the iPod work is use, a worn path that indicates favourites, preferences, moods etc. etc.

The solution was complicated and basically involved a session inside RegEdit (a 'how to' guide) to find the keys pertaining to My Music (a Shell Folder) and restoring these to a given location. TweakUI hadn’t been any help as it didn’t even show ‘My Music’ in the list. That done iTunes restarted, I switched to an Ethernet connection and imported 30GB of music again and began to set-up a host of playlists.

Fortunately the iPod had retained a load of ratings and play data so I made sure that, before I re-synchronised it I printed off a few playlists to go back and re-rate. I should consider it a positive. Hindsight allows me to rate more tunes in context and complete a process which I’d got bored of about three months after getting the pod, in a few weeks of long commutes I should have begun to get that wonderful sense of ownership and familiarity again.

And the best part about it? I don’t blame Apple one bit, it was a Windows cock-up caused by a naïve user error. Apple are blameless. In fact, after a weekend trip to the Apple store in Bluewater to show my fiancée the New Nano I’ve decided I’m getting one too (despite middle-aged frumpiness and Steve’s black shirts), sticking my worn first-generation Nano on eBay. But, before I do, any takers at a good price?


Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch ... do customers prefer it to function, look good or both?

Fortunately in the blogosphere (eeugh) someone somewhere will be talking about a topic that's pertinent to your current interests. This week my regular read of Marc’s dancingmango site hit a nerve (in a good way) by talking about transactional regions (“Most retail banking web presence is just not connected”). At The Company my colleagues and I were recently debating whether transactional areas should look different from static ‘brochureware’. I think they should, or at least that it doesn't matter if they don't. In the olden days, Jakob used to say that web-based applications shouldn’t ape browser interraction. But this was before XHTML and JavaScript reached near universality and the vast majority of users expect a rich interface.

Marc’s spoken in the past about breaking free from linear form completion in a wonderful post (“Shoot the wizard! Designing a real world form”) and I support this idea of complete user control. Where I differ from him, and to return to the point, is that I believe customers appreciate a pared-down approach to look and feel on transactional sites. Yes there are legacy issues and, from our own back-end, I know these things tended to have been built by systems guys rather than web designers but the effect has been that there tends to be less distractive marketing guff (page bloat is another thing .. see below) and provided they’ve been interatively designed and user tested, things tend to work functionally.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I think the future will see us move to a more conversational web and increasingly customers will eschew sites that hark back to the days of padded table cells in favour of sites where the brand fits their expectations and aspirations - but we’re not there yet. We’re still, as consumers, focussed on speed and task efficiency and so sometimes keeping the box of crayons away from the menu board helps keep this focus. That said I am aware of situations where non-native web coders (and by that I mean teams where the day job is back-end code) have been left to develop the presentation layer and the result is bloated code, high page weight and long download times. Not to mention accessibility and cross-browser compatability issues.

In short, I don’t think we need to sweat it too much when transactional elements measurably work but don’t look great but I do think we need to worry when we separate static from transactional for cost and infrastructure reasons only to find that we’re suddenly using a top-nav where a left nav was before and the page loads would test the patience of a narcoleptic sloth. Marc cites some great examples where this disconnect has resulted in sloppy coding on transactional sites (HSBC image and First Direct image).

My final caveat is that this holds true for financial services sites and the more tedious transactional elements online. It’s pretty brand dependant; Lloyds TSB for example don’t need an exciting online banking service, they need one that’s quick, fully functional, compliant, compatible and secure. On the other hand if the Apple store was all this but visually dry and plain you’d start to feel a disconnect with the brand because, for someone like Apple, their consumer brand runs right through the entire customer lifecycle.


National Customer Service Week

Just a short post to direct people to the National Customer Service Week website ... some of my 'favourite' non customer-orientated companies are listed on the participating organisations page.


User Experience 2006 Conference: What I expect to see/hear...

I’ve booked myself in for a day at User Experience 2006 on the 8th November to take part in Dan’s documentation session. As with most things NN/g you have to pay for the privilege of dealing with the most well-known and popular user-centric consultants so I hope I, and The Company get value from the session. (UPDATE: See Web Analyst, apparently John Boyd's session in Seattle left some people wanting)

Having been fortunate to have taken degrees in psychology and information processing I feel that the science behind UE is a given. Where I have had issues in recent years has been in converting my academic reporting and methodologies to corporate environments. A director doesn’t want to read a journal-formatted paper and it’s rarely appropriate to approach each project with academic rigour when the focus is on the baseline. Furthermore, your colleagues haven’t all come from the same background and so working together produces discrepancies in documentation and techniques.

The intention is therefore to consolidate my experiences to-date and emerge from this session with a standardised set of deliverables for real-world projects. Deliverables which will inform and empower the decision-makers and clients surrounding our projects with comprehensive data, insight and solutions.

Later on in the day I’m hoping to attend the session on Windows Vista. I think we have problems sometimes dealing with disparate teams across locations and so on but read this:
"...[the talk will cover] the challenges and ultimately the successes the user experience team achieved in driving product innovation and quality, despite their working in a largely engineering-driven culture, and having to collaborate, over five years, with several thousand people across multiple divisions at Microsoft Corp"
Crumbs. That's scale!

GRO Website Usability Improves

Took a look at the GRO website again yesterday after mentioning a difficult process last year in ordering certificates. Well, despite clinging on to the default ‘no’ option for the reference number (see original post for explanation), I’m pleased to say that they have re-structured the body content on the page to highlight certificate ordering within each registration category. In a delineated ‘shortcuts’ box you can click through to a generic ‘ordering’ page. There are still too many click involved from the homepage to get to that point but it is an improvement from having to dig around in text on the page.

Now, if they could just fix that right-hand menu on the category pages…