Unwanted Social Exposure

The volcanic growth of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by people very used to being in the public eye. Prince William is rumoured to have a profile somewhere on the site, albeit under a nom de plume, various BBC journos and media celebrities can also be found interacting with their public, updating their status and sending each other fish for their aquariums. Whilst such individuals may have come to accept their images being in the public domain, many of us more insignificant mortals find ourselves increasing losing control of our online identity.

Facebook has a lauded interface for restricting privacy. One can customise their profile so that only their closest friends can view their photos, post on their wall and find out what books they have just read. This control even goes so far as to hide your Facebook presence from particular members.

Where these controls come unstuck is in the sensitive area of posting photos; a paradigm not restricted to Facebook of course. It is perfectly possible for your next door neighbour to post a picture of you on their profile featuring you sunbathing in your garden in the kind of bikini that would make Jordan blush. They can then tag this photo and share it with the rest of your street. Worse than that, there is nothing to stop someone defaming your character on their wall, something that must happen with monotonous regularity amongst Facebook’s younger user-base.

That there is nothing on Facebook to stop these actions occurring is not the end of the story. Fortunately the British and European legal system is, for once, moving quickly to adapt. Fuelled perhaps by the thought of celebrity action and the associated fees, lawyers are lining up to unleash legislation not just on the operators of such sites but on the users themselves. Of course, under such circumstance you can bet that Facebook would be defended and a recent article by Ashley Hurst (a member of the media litigation team at Olswang) suggested that e-commerce law could provide that such operations are simply hosts of defamatory material and it is the users that are responsible. Now that’s not particularly sociable of them.

It’s at times like these that we’d all do well to stop inviting our friends to become pirates and tickling vibrating hamsters and spend some time reading through the legals on the sites instead. When we sign up we’re reminded that “content that Facebook deems to be harmful, threatening, unlawful … [etc] “ should not be uploaded or transmitted. Of course, such catch-all terms and conditions can only be invoked to remove content when it has been spotted and objected-to. In the Web2.0 era this could well mean that the image has been circulated or the statement copy and pasted widely before action is finally taken at the source. The fact remains that users only have control over the content that they post and, this is often overlooked, this extends to people who have so far resisted the urge to join.

Facebook recently announced (although you may have missed it) that profiles were to become searchable from Google. Although this can be switched off by users, once again you cannot control whether your ex-girlfriend’s profile can be uncovered by your prospective girlfriend’s Google search and her bitter rants about your sexual prowess poured over and dissected at will.

All this only serves to fuel Facebook’s near-exponential growth. The only defence is ‘attack’, or at least vigilance. If you’re not a member you’ll not know what people are posting and saying about you. Best you get yourself signed up, who knows you might even uncover something delightfully salacious yourself.


Buyers aren't always users

At The Company we've just been introduced to a new expenses system. This system for raising personal and business expenses has been deployed to replace the ageing paper-orientated process that existed before it. The old system necessitated the completion of an Excel sheet which was then printed, receipts attached and sent to Accounts Payable. The problem was that these were invariably untraceable. However, as an end user-experience it was pretty straightforward: use the most up-to-date template, complete, print, sign and send.

The new version is horrendous. This clunky piece of enterprise software (HRMS) sits on a preexisting bit of Oracle kit which manages a host of HR operations. Everything from logging an absence to checking your payslip and updating emergency contacts. For reasons of confidentiality I can't show you screens sadly but suffice to say it is a complete dog's dinner with some of the worst usability I have ever encountered. What's more, the launch of the new expenses system was preceded by a compulsory Flash-based training program. What's that old adage "if it needs instructions, it doesn't work" ?

I'm not denying that the old system needed reform to ensure service levels, audit and security were improved but at the expense of the end user?

What this exposed was the general piss-poor quality of enterprise solutions. Jason at 37signals' blog, Signal vs. Noise, posted a timely article today based on Khoi Vinh's Subtraction piece which highlights and tries to explain some of the failures of the expensive solutions. Essentially the suggestion is that it's not the end-users that are specifying, buying or deploying this junk, it's aspirational senior management who have been persuaded by a round of golf, a night at Spearmint Rhino and a good price to buy what's on offer.

I really wish you, and the people that buy this stuff, could actually see the end result. In a tight, cost and efficiency environment where every member of staff needs to behave as if the business was their own it would do these buyers good to understand the value of their purchase; As Jason so succinctly puts it: "There’s no camouflaging value when the buyer is the user".

(Oh, and we're forced to use Lotus Notes too, but don't get me started on that.)


The Pervasiveness of the Web

Interface orientated blog Functioning Form have used a recent NY Times article to highlight a seep of web-orientated design onto traditional media. Observing rolling news channels and interactive TV offerings certainly shows a similarity with web layout. And not neccessarily for the better. Do we, for example, really benefit from ticking news items below the moving image? Well possibly we do but once you start adding weather data, traffic reports, time and date information, the channel and show identities and possibly a picture-in-picture you have really crowded the real estate.

Where these screens work are in silent environments. The gym, a foyer or reception or at a transport terminus (Liverpool Street sation, London pictured) where sound is muted. Then the moving image becomes semi redundant and the surrounding data (clutter) becomes the focus.

By contrast, the traditional viewer who is able to hear the sound is increasingly distracted, particularly if the story is cognitively challenging. Part of the explanation here may be due to the evolutionary psychology and the way we perceive the visual field. Our high resolution focus is limited to small cone (foveal vision) - items on the periphery (rod cells) of our vision are in low resolution and ignored until they move. Useful for spotting a predator sneaking up on you when you're focusssed elsewhere, also particularly distracting if a peripheral banner ad is blinking on a website or if a news ticker is scrolling on a TV screen. This triage of information is something we should respect, not attempt to interrupt for attention*.

Anyway, back to the main point. High-contrast visual displays and interactive TV programming is apeing the web. Even newspapers are starting to look more web like as online newspapers become less print-like. The trouble is, some of the bad interface stuff is making its way onto this old media.
* - caveat: I realise that distant high-contrast displays like those at train stations are sufficiently far from us so as not to be as profoundly affected by the strength-weakness of foveal and peripheral vision as you might a TV or TFT screen, indulge me.

Unwrapping Apple's Packaging Moments of Truth

Regular readers (if there are any left after this ridiculous hiatus) will know that despite my vocational specialism in web user experience, my desire to comment on an array of customer experience issues is a recurring theme of this blog. Something which I have never touched upon until now is packaging design.

Inspired by a Design Critique podcast I wanted readers to consider the experience of owning rather than consuming a product. More often than not User Experience Architects (UEAs) like me will pour insight and design into the choosing and purchasing of a product or service. We sometimes refer to these as ‘moments of truth’. Experience design shouldn’t stop there though, because the experience itself doesn’t.

In the podcast they discuss the packaging of an iPod (the 1st generation Nano as it happens) which I also own. Where this resonates with me is the fact that I didn’t purchase this product, it was a Christmas gift and as such I didn’t have the purchase experience; my first interaction with the product was to unwrap the box. At this point I’ll skip to the end; the box for my Nano sits proudly on my shelf. I haven’t retained the box for some perfunctory purpose to store the Nano again when I come to move house. I don’t keep it so that I can put the Nano away every night either. I keep it because, in itself, it’s a beautiful little piece of design that is worthy of display.

That morning when I received the gift I remember distinctly being impressed with the occasion of opening the packing. The box opens like a book, or perhaps a limited edition CD, the iPod was recessed into the box and encased in a cellophane wrapper so I could see it clearly and see its virginal newness. The tape that stuck the cellophane wrappers down was printed in an established Apple typeface, the whole package (and I use the word literally and metaphorically) was an example of minimalism and lean design. It almost seemed a shame to ruin it by actually getting the iPod out. However, once having done so it remained intact and thus it remains on my shelf.

And I’m not the only one who was impressed. All over the web you’ll find blog posts, flickr photosets and suchlike documenting the arrival and unpacking of their iPods and other Apple consumables. Apple are thinking experientially about ownership, about the loyalty that owning one of their items creates. Hence why so many of their consumers are brand advocates. This is a wonderful example of marketing extending into ownership to create or strengthen a positive opinion of the brand.

Maybe this is not by design, but by accident. Maybe it’s the result of over-design; a marketing and design team that just don’t know when to stop? Who knows how much this packaging actually costs Apple. Is it the most cost-efficient packaging? Does it protect the item better than the usual bubble wrap and polystyrene? Is it environmentally ethical? To answer some of those questions we might well look at the 2nd generation Nano. This came packaged in a polycarbonate case, reducing the overall size of the box but retaining two core factors – clarity (the item was visible and did not require a cover photo - the item’s form factor was immediately obvious) and secondly, durability (the Nano was safely surrounded by shatterproof plastic). I can’t comment on the environmental aspects sadly but I’m sure Apple’s site has the answers.

Now this may seem a bit vacuous, after all we’re talking about the box for an MP3 player, but perhaps the type of device actually goes some way to explaining the effort Apple have gone to. Would you keep the packaging of, say, a new razor, if it was stylishly designed? Almost certainly not. Your MP3 player is not just a device to be used to perform a needed function, it is more personal than that. It reflects your style and your taste, it’s a personal accessory, a luxury item, a nice-to-have. Of course size helps here too – your new 50” Plasma might say similar things about your success and style but it’s a bit more impractical to store the box for that on the shelf. We need to look at items that compare in terms of cost, size and personal association, and for items that are similar we nevertheless find a dearth in experiential packaging.

I find it’s always worth putting a comparison alongside to illustrate the point even more clearly. Consider an alternative packaging style for consumer electronics, the clamshell. These hugely frustrating ultra-sonically sealed packages have no clear opening and require the consumer to cut them open. These are borne out of a fear from the manufacturer that their item, a highly portable and valuable product, will be divorced from its packaging and stolen. Their products are less popular and compelling than the iPod, Apple can afford to solve the theft problem not by introducing a clamshell but by ensuring customers have to ask for their product, they’re generally not left out on the shelf. Asking for the product only adds to the sense of luxury and exclusivity. Once again Apple have solved a problem in a way that enhances the user experience.

It’s certainly worth taking the time to listen to the (albeit lengthy) podcast over at Design Critique where Tim unravels these kinds of issues in some detail. The podcast discusses a fascinating paradigm of allowing non-dextrous patients (i.e. the arthritic) access to their medication whilst preventing the same medication from being accessed by highly-dextrous children. This problem and its leftfield solution is one which would prove to be a great interview question for aspiring UEAs


smorgasbord-design ... three months on

Facebook had started to take over my web time until a week or so ago when I realised I'd not done anything on Last Chance Saloon for a while. Then I realised I'd not posted our wedding website yet either. Then it became clear that I was falling behind on the stuff I actually get paid for too. But frankly that doesn't seem to matter as regardless of how far I fall behind on that stuff, the other people who'll plug it all together behind the scenes are even further behind and even more under-resourced than I am. So where to focus my attentions?

Well, the invites went out for the wedding and since then it's been a bit of a whirl of RSVPs, sorting out groomsmen's attire, stag events (thanks Robin), website stuff (Marisa and I are getting there on that) and more. Floristry and church arrangements seem to be a never ending saga with the former causing the most headaches both financially and logistically. I'm sure we'll get there in the end but it's hard to think that I'll not resent the money and hassle on the day when I look around at all the hours of work and £s of cash that have been poured into it all. It's all well and good starting the whole wedding process with intentions of project managing the whole thing to within an inch of its life but it's another thing when you reflect on some of the principle reasons it was never going to work that way:

  1. I'm not a project manager. In fact I'm not even half a project manager. I'm a thoughtful creative type who's easily distracted.
  2. I no-longer live with my fiancee and, worse still, I live 3hrs away in Norwich.
  3. My fiancee couldn't be less interested in the whole affair as she's got bigger fish to fry throughout the courts of England now.
  4. Two years of intermittent planning enthusiasm is enough to stall the momentum of the best laid plans.
  5. Financially it's all become so obscenely expensive that the scattering of luxurious touches has just been turned into paying someone a King's Ransom to re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

That said, there are moments of brilliance. The band, the invites, the reception venue, our enigmatic priest, my shoes ... so I'm quite sure it'll become more than the sum of its parts. I only hope SWMBO's employers let her have the day off now to enjoy it.

Wedding aside, Last Chance Saloon is careering along at a pace. A frankly bewildering generosity from the many nooks and crannies of The Company has ensured that much of the expense for our ludicrous project to drive to Rome in a tired old Volvo has been borne by generous benefactors. Some creative writing, a smattering of mediocre photography and a few long train journeys to Surbiton have resulted in an update this morning which starts to reveal more about the direction we're heading in (predominantly South West after we pass Paris).

The lack of a commute (Shank's Pony now gets me to work in under 5 minutes) has killed off my inspirational out-of-work thoughts around user experience and the intensity of the laborious projects i'm engaged on at work has stiffled some of my much needed thinking time. In a desperate attempt to nod myself back in that direction I have resolved to pick up listening to IA podcasts and have been networking on LinkedIn as well as joining the Information Architecture Institute to try and become part of a wider knowledge sharing community.

My intention this week was to write a lengthy piece about why Facebook has captured the imagination and web-time of millions of people who never before would have considered signing up with and dedicating time to photo-sharing, blogging and general social networking. Why, for example, is Facebook's growth causing people to peel away from Friends Reunited and MySpace in droves? I think I know why and, if you're lucky and I start to find some time amongst cars, weddings and work, i'll explain all next week.


Colin Turkington in-car with TeamRAC BTCC

Pretty good quality in-car footage of Mr. Colin Turkington in the BMW 320 touring car at Thruxton in the BTCC


Moving on

Morning readers. Just to let you know that I have recently moved house. My fiancee and I are still getting married but work and commuting and the landlady wanting to sell up forced our hand and I've ended up in Norwich with a good friend and she's ended up on Surbiton, Surrey. So I'm no longer a commuter ('one' breathe a sigh of relief) and it appears I'm not much of a blogger either. Attention has been diverted to setting up two 'homes', sorting out a huge 'to-do' list at work and generally catching up on life. This coupled with my archaic laptop at home, wedding planning and a general enjoyment of working on Last Chance Saloon instead has seen blog posting drop off for a bit. There's no point in me telling you all to hold fast since there's unlikely to be anything interesting on here for a while. In the meantime, take care and enjoy the spring sunshine.


Wedding Dances

Of course, James and Julia Boggio's wedding dance video is a well-known thing at the moment, according to Richard & Judy the subject of "international debate" after it was posted on YouTube. My better half and I had considered a show-stopping dance routine for our big day (1st September...) but have stepped back from that having seen such displays as this and the equally well-rehearsed Thriller routine. Actually, if creating an impact was what it's all about i'd have been quite happy to have done the OK Go Treadmill Dance too with the best man and chief bridesmaid. Anyway, we're not doing anything like that, but kudos to those that do.


Last Chance Saloon

A group of us at The Company are heading off in September on the infamous Home 2 Rome banger rally. To this end we have 'launched' a site to detail our progress, Last Chance Saloon. It's my first attempt using WordPress and is changing hourly as I get my head round customisations, CGI, MySQL and tweaking templates. It's going to be permanently linked-to from this blog but to keep up-to-date, here's the Last Chance Saloon RSS Feed (RSS 2.0) and the Last Chance Saloon Atom Feed (Atom 0.3).


Lost, bothered and bewildered

‘Lost’ has jumped the shark. Back in the halcyon era of “Happy Days” an episode aired in which Fonzie water-ski jumped a shark. Considered the tipping point of the series, this moment has come to be know as the defining demarcation of a television series’ slide into the mire. As Wikipedia explains, these moments “are typically scenes that finally convince viewers that the show has fundamentally and permanently strayed from its original premise”.

I have watched every episode of Lost broadcast including up to episode 7 of season 3 and and anyone else who has will know exactly what I mean. Until this point Lost had taken a place alongside The Sopranos and 24 as being one of a new breed of multi-layered, complex television dramas that epitomised the rise of Steven Johnson’s Sleeper Curve.

Lost needed no ‘flashing arrows’ to indicate important screen elements, it had complex mythology, multiple plot-lines, cross-overs, time-slips and more. Yet in series three we’re treated instead to obvious placements of characters and props, heavy-handed flashbacks and dialogue that, with little regard for subtlety, hold the audience’s hand through the first episodes.

The series was criticised in season two for it’s complex mythology and the writers reportedly toned it down for season three preferring to focus on relationships but in doing so the story (and I’m beginning to suspect there isn’t really one) is becoming laboured and sentimental.

Adding to the criticisms, the writers seem to ignore fundamental parts of earlier series:

:: What happened to the cave or the mortal dangers in the forest from Season 1? They never get mentioned despite the fact that the cave would still occupy a useful function for the beach dwellers. The beach dwellers are all seemingly content with their existence yet it doesn’t seem that long ago that a stroll in the woodland would result in a ferocious unexplained chase and attack.

:: What about food? With the hatch destroyed are they all relying on the airdrops for stores? With Locke off wandering around trying to unravel the island’s mystery who’s hunting for boar?

:: What about ‘the button’ – with the hatch destroyed how is the electromagnetic status being maintained?

:: What about Walt and Michael’s captors? What about the illusion of poverty in The Others’ camp?

:: What about Rousseau, her experiences, her maps, the French annotations?

:: What about the numbers? The black and white stones? The island’s healing properties – (which incidentally didn’t seem to work for Ecko’s mortal injuries or Ben’s tumour)

By ignoring these elements from earlier series the writers have lost credibility. The very nature of the show has meant viewers have absorbed masses of seemingly incidental information with the belief that it will be required to piece together plotlines later in the series. Remembering characters in flashbacks, the maps in the hatch, the cross-reference dialogues. Investing this amount of time in a series needs to be rewarded and, in this regard, I believe Lost is beginning to pay more attention to what clips will get salacious edits up on YouTube (and subsequent audience figure increases) than they are with continuing to form a complex, well-considered and intriguing drama.


Documenting the user interface

I recently spent an hour explaining to a potential colleague what it was that our team do. I’ve discussed this recently partly in reference to a recent Design Critique podcast but, as this particular person is closer to our business, it was possible for me to dispense with the coffee shop analogy.

Instead I chose to trawl through some of the documentation I produce. Since taking Dan Brown’s tutorial at User Experience 2006 and reading his excellent book I’ve become a bit of a documentation junkie to the point where the documentation is clearly overkill for certain smaller jobs. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to show off some of the styles and approaches I’ve adopted.

I tend to start with personas, which, as any number of user-experience articles will tell you, are a foundation stone for understanding how users interact with a system. This involves defining a group of users (generally from research data), building demographic profiles, and understanding their needs and motivations before sketching out the scenarios in which they might find themselves. I present each of these in a summary page and detail page . I am not a huge fan of using photographs to illustrate personas as I think the audience dwell on any physical appearance, so I have borrowed from Loz Gray’s work and introduced iconographic representations. These have the added benefit of being race-neutral and re-usable for various ages.

Having produced these, the next step in the process is to define a sitemap. The sitemap, such as it is, has a limited lifespan. In the next few years I doubt we will see many produced as the web moves away from individually coded static pages. Sitemaps do a great job of representing hierarchy, taxonomy and the long-view of how things fit together but they don’t really give us much insight into how, for example, a complex dynamic service application or something like Google Maps works. More and more I find myself representing stacks of pages in a sitemap rather than individually referenced HTML documents.

That said, in the absence of producing something more ambiguous, like a conceptual model, they are churned out continuously here at The Company. If I am honest, they are welcome relief for me as I am not a great fan of the chore of creating personas and prefer moving around boxes and arrows. I think this can be seen in the detail of my recent sitemaps, which present a considerable amount of information to the build team, the content developers, and the information architects.

For example, this blow-up detail shows the relationship between pages (connecting lines), their hierarchy (top down), their category (blue background), whether they have had content produced (green circle), where they are hosted (colour of title), their reference number (top left of box) their wireframe type (top right of box) and, of course, their title (centre). In other pages, not shown in this detail, I have used the bottom left corner to indicate whether there is any embedded video on the page.

Granted a sitemap like this has gone through much iteration as the project moves through the design phase toward build (hence there are references to wireframes and content) but to me it shows the level of detail to which one can go whilst maintaining an accessible document. The classic example of which is C. J. Minard's seminal diagramatic map "Napoleon's March to Moscow".

From the early sitemap we can walk the personas and their scenarios through the screens and map their journey. Interchangeably known as user-journeys, task flows, page flows or scenarios, these documents demonstrate how well your information architecture (as seen in the sitemap) works. Again, I borrow here from Loz Gray and use an isometric style that I think promotes a clear view of the journey the user takes. Flat 3D boxes and arrows don’t really inspire or compel stakeholders, if you put up a nice diagram like this it becomes easier for your audience to visualise the journey and the sense of the user being ‘presented’ with screens. I have used this approach for the last five months across static and active sites, allowing clients to visualise everything from amending personal details to clicking through a knowledge store or finding help. With the shape set now firmly embedded in my Visio toolbox I can drag and drop shapes leading left and right, different arrow forms to represent strong, weak and conditional paths, decision points (an isometric diamond is a difficult thing to draw indeed), error points and just about anything the sitemap can show.

In several instances, the barriers between processes have jumped out at me when presenting them in this format. Missing links suddenly seem even more obvious, lengthy diversions and crowded critical paths are quickly spotted and revised.

The final step in my documentation journey is the wireframe. Having experimented recently with the low-fidelity ‘page description diagram’ approach – which to me is like describing the front page of The Times when a blurred photocopy would have been more effective – I have resolved to stick to medium-high fidelity wireframes. In part this is because I’ve always liked the creative construction side of wireframing. I’d feel cheated having gone to great lengths in describing personas, the sitemap and the journey the user takes only to be produce an ambiguous written description of a screen. A well considered wireframe still leaves the designers with more than a colouring-in job. The designers can add visual prominence, alter sizing and positioning and consider complimentary form and colour. What I feel the information architect’s job is to do is to say ‘here’s how the page should function, this is where they should look for x, this is where they will find y and these are the relative levels of prominence’. It is less prescriptive than the building architect’s blueprint but considerably less ambiguous than saying “the room in this house should have three windows, two electricity points, a wooden floor and four brick walls”. So, my wireframes show text placeholders, pseudo-latin text, layout, order, scale, complexity and also contain build or dynamic element-related annotation.

I’m pedantic and fastidious about version control and document referencing. All my documents are peppered with notes about page and document versions, titles, page references, disclaimers (“Wireframes do not represent the final design…”), client names, contact details and relevant key/legends. It is crucial when so much documentation is floating around that we have a clear view of what it does, who did it, for whom and when.

I hope this has been an interesting read, please do get in touch (john at smorgasbord dash design dot co dot uk or in the comments) if you’ve got examples of documents you produce or alternative approaches to this kind of stuff.


BBC Descend on Wormshill for EastEnders spin-off

Having cleared the psychological log-jam of not posting, I’m now ‘in a place’ where I feel inclined to write a post every five minutes. Sometimes it takes posting an item to make you realise that it’s actually pretty painless and doesn’t take anywhere near as long as I remember it too. The biggest problem for me is hyperlinking. I always like my posts to contain a good smattering of contextual links, not just for Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) but because I think it’s good practise.

Anyway, found out today that my lamented home village,
Wormshill, has been taken over by the BBC as they film some nauseating spin-off show for EastEnders at the local church, St. Giles. They’ve also been up at nearby Ringlestone, a hamlet, as part of a storyline centred up Jim Branning and Dot Cotton looking for relatives (according to the village gossip). Of course, this being a Web 2.0 world I’ve already updated the relevant Wikipedia article.

I’m not an ‘Enders’ fan and actually feel quite sad that the sanctity and anonymity of the village has been compromised like this and I only hope that the Parish Council and, in particular, the church funds have benefited considerably from having the land and environment swamped in this way. I fully concede that this is a NIMBY (not in my back yard) approach and in other circumstances I have
roundly praised the BBC for their output. At least they’ve chosen a great little location, and one that I think typifies rural Kent.

For those of you who do watch, the episode is due to be broadcast as some kind of spin-off special during Easter.


Information Architecting The Coffee Shop

As a user experience architect I often get asked what it is exactly that I do. A learned friend once explained to me that if you can’t explain your job to your mum then there’s something wrong. I never understood whether this meant there was something wrong with my mum, my job per se or just the title but either way it’s time to address that very issue.

I think I feel that my job is more of a re-labelled Information Architecture (IA) role than anything else but that’s even more ambiguous. Plenty of people have tried to define IA, notably Rosenfeld & Morville (“Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”), Wikipedia and recently, Tim, Tom and Chris Farnum. Having recently discovered Indexed I’m in a bit of a ven diagram mood so I’ll borrow from that and the Design Critique podcast to visualise IA as follows (left). I think this encapsulates what we as IAs try and do, to balance the three (oft-competing) requirements of users, the business and the content we have to organise.

You’ll notice that this definition isn’t tied explicitly to the web. It’s a model that covers all kinds of information interaction and whilst I could sit here on a blustery January day and bang on about web-based IA I think it’s time to talk coffee. It’s quite a good analogy I think for real-world IA, where non-web people can get a feel for what practitioners like myself do.

I occassionaly find myself in need of a new place to go for lunch or for coffee. In Norwich this isn’t easy to do, it’s fair to say I’ve tried most of the sandwich bars and decent coffee shops and what strikes me in the same way it does in towns up and down the country, is the organisation and presentation of the menu board. In London these places tend to be quite busy at lunch with a healthy queue in most places giving you plenty of time to look up and read the menu while you wait. In Norwich there’s not so much time, you’re asked for your order within a minute of entering the shop and if you’re new to the place that’s not enough time. Part of the problem is the bewildering array of choice. Lame stand-ups (and my Dad) regularly joke about the ‘I just want a coffee’ situation when walking into a Starbucks but, coffee aside, sandwich shops like O’Briens have a range of sandwiches, toasties, panninis, ciabattas countless hot and cold fillings, salads and soups. I like variety in my life (!) so I want to try something different and will scan the menu boards looking for combinations, unusual fillings, relishes and breads. This takes time and it’s not helped by poor information architecture.

If I was re-designing a menu board to improve customer journeys in a sandwich shop or coffee bar this is what I’d do:

:: Prioritise. Order the most commonly requested drinks/sandwiches in a section of perhaps 10 items on the far left of the board. Most people scan left-to right and would hit this section first. I would use till data to define the top requested items and order them accordingly. The only risk here is that this is self perpetuating, new people come in an order the same things everyone else does but the trade off is that they’re likely to come back and their natural boredom threshold will encourage them to explore other options later, particularly if the alternatives are promoted successfully…

:: Structure. Group similar items, all the hot food items in one group, cold in another. Then sub-divide, meats, fish, vegetarian. In each subcategory, order these by price, most expensive to least. If there’s a consistent pricing structure, promote it: e.g. bacon and cheese sandwich £2.50, toasted £2.90, think customer journey. People come in and decide first what type they want: sandwich (brown, white, granary), baguette, panini, soup or ciabatta (olive, sundried tomato) first. Then how they want it: hot, toasted, plain then filling. The menu should reflect that from left to right.

:: Display. Use a clear and consistent typeface. Have bold headings, use colour sparingly and intelligently (‘Hot Food’ in red for example), don’t add illustrations. Most people know what a cup of coffee looks like, or what a baguette is. Position the board high and use as much space for it as possible. If your bar has two entrances or queues, have two boards. Consider having a second smaller version close to the till. All too often brand typefaces are used that are fine for the shop logo, napkins or coffee cups but don’t read well from 5m away and 3m below. Use space, less is more. Listing every possible combination is pointless, especially if all your fillings are displayed individually, make it clear they can build their own and promote a few suggestions.

Change it. Be prepared to change the board regularly. When you stop selling lines or start selling new ones, adding them with stickers, hand written notes or another board breaks the structure. It’s like a library getting a new book and sticking it on the end of the shelf. It might get found but it’s more likely to be if it’s categorised and filed appropriately. Be prepared to listen to customers and analyse their habits. Are people saying and buying the same things, can they find your new caramel frappuccino or is it that they just don’t want one? Do you only seem to sell salads to vegetarians, do people know they can have their soup in an oversized takeaway cup?

Ok, so I don’t work in the restaurant trade but to me, that’s a good thing. As a customer I know about the problems I have and as an IA I know of some of the ways these can be solved. I’d love to know if Starbucks uses IAs to define its menu boards before the designers are let loose with their crayons and I’d bet that two thirds of small-town sandwich bars write their menu boards by consulting a long list of what they plan to sell.

Take a look at my very quick sketch of how a well organised menu could be set out. I hope this helps to bring IA alive for some people, feel free to feedback either by commenting on this post or emailing me … john at smorgasbord hyphen design dot co dot uk ... P.S. No more posts about coffee, promise.
UPDATE 3 Feb 07: The guys at Adaptive Path have posted about trying to explain what user experience architects do using a few options. Worth a read...


Coffee Barometer

Have blogged in the past about coffee at The Company, Marc at Dancingmango and others have been discussing the barometric use of coffee provision to determine how employee-centric your employer is. for the record, we've got:

:: Option 1. Free vend, the classic Bunzl peculiar blend ... with a 'strong' button that adds nothing to the brew.
:: Option 2. Subsidised 'in-house' coffee shop, supposedly fresh brewed coffee at just under £1 for their smallest cup of Americano.
:: Option 3. Subsidised franchised 'Starbucks' where a grande Americano costs £1.40 and there's a 10 cup loyalty scheme.

Which I think covers all bases, quite appropriate given our line of business.


Supporting Common Pathways And Increasing Simplicity Through Disclosure

Progressive disclosure is a nice term don’t you think? Seems kinda academic when you first read it and then it rather becomes clear, progressively disclosing itself, metaphorically revealing the meaning within. I love it.

Anyway, in UE it refers to the way in which we hide features and functions that are not required, revealing them as the user’s journey progresses. Jakob uses the analogy of the print dialogue box. Going to ‘print’ reveals a stripped down dialogue; page size, orientation, copies. If the user wants more, they click ‘options’ or ‘advanced’ and are shown zoom options, colour settings, resolution, duplex etc. etc.

Stretching the analogy further, we could consider the tree menu system to work as a progressive disclosure. We could think about other examples all over the place on the web. How about the checkout process when you can click to change the delivery or invoice address (and so receive a detailed dialogue) or you can continue to dispatch if the settings are as you wish.

So progressive disclosure is a way of describing simplicity to support the most common pathways. At The Company we try and get masses of this stuff into our online applications. Dynamic layers that open up additional areas of transactional forms when users require a non-standard interactions. We understand that almost everyone is a special case, there are no ‘standard’ customers (and as such we don’t do personas for standard customers). We restrict interactions to the most common operators and offer a second or third set of options on request.

There is a school of argument of course that this prevents people from ever finding these ‘power tools’ but this just smacks of poor design. Make it obvious that there is more you can do and people will naturally explore. Particularly if the first set does not meet their goal. If these request points become decision points (E.g. “have I done all I needed to do”) within the task flow, then that will inform the solution you design. A solution which will ultimately be task focussed and with clear expectations of effect of the user’s action. A notable failure to perform correct user research into an implementation like this can be seen in Word's hidden menus (aside: how to disable hidden menus in Word etc.).

Progressive disclosure has another benefit: perceived hierarchy. By placing the most common activities on the initial part of the process, you are making an implicit statement about its importance; it enables them to prioritise their interaction. This prioritisation solves much of the problem above regarding the perception that the interaction only has a small set of features.

So, to get this right we have had to make some significant decisions: what is first-tier disclosure and what is second-tier? How many options should go into the first tier? (think of only a few … and then remove some), How can we make this initial feature set simple? How shall we reveal and direct users to the second tier?

Well we are solving these problems daily through some obvious UE techniques: Research – we know what our customers do on our site through metrics and qualitative usability testing. We use hierarchical design techniques, card sorting, site mapping and task-flow design to understand what takes priority. We also understand when a linear process might work better, where all features are provided by in a staged disclosure. The trick, as Jakob affirms, is to fit the design to purpose. Is there benefit in progressive or staged disclosure for a given task with a given user group.

Reading this far you will probably have a better idea than you did before.

Visual Guides for Tube Tourists

Two posts today, though I’m separating them so that their headers stand out as separate articles … gotta think SEO …

First is a bit of a cop out. A guy at The Company writes an intranet blog with a central tenet of inspiring great customer service. He’s a bit braver than I, often approaching people in restaurants, shops and the street to interrogate them when they’ve been part of a great customer experience or solution to one of life’s problems. His eyes are always open and recently he took a trip on the London Underground (a subject I’ve mentioned in the past in relation to navigation analogies). I’ll let him take up the story (used by permission):

“…On the tube and got off at Westminster. Now I was off to meet a Customer Experience 'guru' and I had the address but as I was coming up the escalator I was thinking, 'I wonder what exit to take?'. Now, most tube stations with multiple exits have text based signs pointing to each exit. I was surprised and delighted to see the [picture left]:

You see, many tourists won't be able to read the text signs and even Brits like me can often navigate far better through pictures of “what I want to see when I surface” (when I don't know street names).

So, I asked one of the staff, 'Who thought of that, it's bloody brilliant'. And the answer, 'we had a quick team pow wow and the boss asked for ideas to make things better for customers, Trevor came up with that, was given a digital camera and went out on his lunch and took the pictures'. He then said, 'and the best thing is customers seem to like it, and us staff don't lose anywhere near as much time trying to explain directions to people who are a bit confused'. I am not embarrassed to say that I gave him a hug. He looked somewhat alarmed. I asked for Trevor but it wasn't his shift so I wrote a note of thanks and congratulations (ironically on a complaint form as it was all that could be found).

So, anyhow, be a 'Trevor' today. Look at things from your customers eyes - have a pow wow and just do it!”

Cool huh? Ironically the London Tube map was actually designed by Harry Beck in the expectation that users didn’t need it to accurately reflect geography and scale as being under ground meant there were no landmark reference points. Many stations, along with highlighting the colour and having a unique design scheme (e.g. tiling at Tottenham Court Road) feature imagery of nearby attractions in their decoration however it is when exiting the tube that features such as photographs of what’s available at each exit are crucial.

But even more, the point of this piece is to illustrate how great ideas only take a little prompting and really loads of people ‘think customer’ regularly. This idea might have arisen with a staff suggestion box scheme but I reckon it probably would not. Trevor wouldn’t have got round to it, he’d have had second thoughts – thinking it was frivolous. However, a quick pow-wow and boom! Idea’s out there, acted upon and getting men in suits all excited at the same time as expediting the passage of tourists around the World’s greatest capital.

Epilogue: Can anyone else think of any Tube stops that feature imagery of tourist attractions that are in close proximity to the station. For example, somewhere in the tile mosaic, wall designs or in the exit/ticket hall? The
most obvious ones are Bank, St. Pauls (before rennovation), Baker St. and, to some extent, Victoria...


Welcome to 2007, Person of the Year, and welcome back monster workloads.

What with freelance work and two major projects at The Company I am royally snowed-under en ce moment so apologies for the lack of posts. I've had plenty of thoughts and continue to archive random print outs with the intention of posting later. The situation should ease toward the end of January and, unlike the Ashes, I shall return.

With best wishes to you, the user (person of the year) and I'll see you on the other side.

Christmas presents obtained: stuff from Reiss, T M Lewin, White Stuff, Oliver Sweeney shoes a Garmin nĂ¼vi 300 if you're interested.

Oh, and finally, I'm listening to Unni Wilhelmsen (left) at the moment, absolutely stunning (and available on iTunes in the UK, look for the album Til Meg)