The Goal of User Experience is Invisibility

A new boss once said to me, “I suppose you’re a bit of a gadget man, then?”  I wasn’t and never really have been, except maybe a bit as a kid.  I wondered if I ought to be.  I wish then that I’d had the clarity of mind to say, “No, and it’s precisely the fact that I’m not interested in the latest thing or the coolest piece of technology that I’m passionate about delivering a positive user experience.”  Oh well, benefits of hindsight.  I would go as far as to say that the ultimate goal of user experience is technological invisibility.  People only really care about content: finding something out or putting something in: the latter, usually to complete a task.

The bare truth is that the only people that care how good your website or your app are, are the geeks, the gadget chasers and, perhaps, the competition.  In other words, if you love technology then it could well be that you’re not best placed to deliver user experience.  The technology is the enabler and the latest isn’t necessarily the greatest. For example, pushing a product to only work on HTML 5 and being dismissive of those that don’t have the latest web browser is the kind of technological ignorance and snobbery that is suprisingly prevalent.  You can actually exclude users and give them a worse experience: but you got to play with your new toy (I hope it was worth it).  As with other areas of life, it’s what you do with it that counts.  It’s more mindset than toolset, to keep up the analogy.

It’s actually very liberating when you face up to the simple and what-should-be obvious truth that users want one or both of two things: data out or data in (other than playing games maybe.)  When you see it that way then you realise that the system/website/app/whatever will either facilitate this or just get in the way.  And that is user experience.  In fact, you may not even deliver a system/app, you may just give users the data if they already have the technology and a familiar interface…and if you really care about what they want rather than doing what you want.

When I was designing a corporate user experience strategy for a global company I shied away from saying this: perhaps because it still wasn’t crystal clear to me then.  I wanted to say something about making systems invisible or making them facilitate access to information or the completion of tasks.  For me, that’s the nub of it, that’s precisely what user experience is.  No one wants to see your hard work, they just want the end result.  Information technology begins with information for good reason, yet everyone focuses on the system.  Technologists love systems, versions and upgrades and users even rate systems for the quality of data, which is invariably due to processes and governance that have little or nothing to do with the system.

And, by invisibility, I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter what a system looks like or getting your online branding right isn’t important.  I completely support the idea of design in the fullest sense: something should work well and look great.  A symmetrical home page with clear calls to action will not appear as such – it will just appear easy to use.  No one (except geeks, early adopters, etc.) will ever sit down and analyse why your site/app/etc. is so damn beautiful that it delights them.  All people will tell you is that it works well and, yes, if you push them, that it looks the part and is nicely laid out.  The point is this: the site/system/app bit is the frame but the information or the task is the picture.  And once you start to see things that way then you know what your real objectives are: speed and ease, information and task, nothing else.  The means by which you get there will be hard work, demanding and challenging (if you do it right) but invisibility is the ultimate, seemingly contradictory, goal.  And, ironically, it is invisibility that that will make you or your organisation memorable and give you strategic differentiation, user adoption or whatever is your main business goal.  The rest is just noise.

Managing a Global Digital Proposition – A Framework to Help You

These days digital is a large and complex beast requiring a broad range of skillsets – and even more so when managing globally.  And that alone is a big problem to solve and very few digital agencies will have the experience or capability to support you in the grander task – they’re simply not big enough and haven’t been there.  So, here’s a guide from the front line for you, the person who has to carry the can.  The attempt is to be broad in approach but also to pick out some of the nitty gritty issues that you read about less often but which you absolutely must address.  Some of it is blindingly obvious (but still not always done properly), some of it is downright tedious but nevertheless imperative.

Most global organisations will have a digital capability that touches the areas below but the question is: how well does it address them?   You can use this framework to review where you are and what you might need to pay attention to.   

  1. Business Objectives – even if you’re working in an organisation that doesn’t have a fully fledged business strategy, there will be an implied one.  Understand it.  What does digital mean here?  What are our expectations of digital?  Is it primarily a point of sale or awareness or both?  Then think about the market, do some competitor analysis.  Know the brand. What are its messages?  Who do we want to communicate to?  Who do we need to?  What is its scope?  How does it work globally?  What is the degree of global brand coherence or is it little more than a badge for different offices around the world.  This can be really tough as sometimes digital is the one place where things must come together globally, even if that isn’t how the organisation works.  Think globally.  Are their local flavours?  What does this mean culturally?  What should it mean?  How is this enacted in terms of design for real?  If you’re from an Asian country you’ll likely enjoy some strong colours.  This may not appreciated the same in Europe unless it’s intrinsic to the brand.  So what visual accents are allowable that bring the brand to life for local audiences but without compromising it?  This is so important if you want global buy-in internally.  Know your stakeholders, speak to them, engage them, update them and keep the wheels well oiled.  Consider also your ongoing governance at the strategic level: this means you not only do things right but, let’s be honest, give people little comeback if they’ve signed up to something in the first place.  People are people.
  2. User Experience (UX) Strategy – a misunderstood term which is often equated with usability.  It’s a whole lot more than that. Think of UX as a mentality required to achieve the successful communication and processing of information through technology.  There’s a definition you won’t see too often.  Think of it as meeting your audience’s underlying – as well as expressed – requirements.  Think also of UX deliverables as the body language surrounding the verbal content.  How do you communicate?  You step outside of yourself and understand the other’s perspective.  Firstly, then, you absolutely need to know: who are the audiences?   Don’t ignore traditional marketing territory: it’s there for a reason.  A starting point should always be an understanding of your customer segmentation and/or channels.  But don’t forget the other stakeholders: the shareholders, the journalists, the prospective employees and so on.  What do all these audiences want?  What do they do?   How is this different globally?  Is it really just a matter of translation?  Research, research, research.  This is the part which is most likely to give you your digital USP, whether you regard yourself as a digital business or not.  Get at the underlying requirements, get into users’ heads, research the information architecture (IA) and design it around them, make content as intelligible and findable as it can possibly be.  People always focus on the execution of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Pay Per Click (PPC) but that’s the easy bit.  Designing your IA around the thinking of your users will solve the problems later on.  It’s no good skipping the foreplay.  Look at your current analytics and see what people are doing.  Ask them what they need.  Observe them using the site (to find the requirements that they won’t/can’t verbalise).  Typify user types as personas to guide design thinking.  Map out the priority user journeys.  Allow for the hygiene factors and follow conventions where they make sense (Logo top left, About Us and Contact Us are standard wordings, search should be top or top right, etc.).  Redesign as necessary and test, test, test.  Don’t get lost in the research, prioritise.  If you can’t talk about it without referring to a complex segmentation model/persona map, then you’ve gone stupid by being too clever.
  3. Content – You’d be forgiven for thinking this is the easy bit but the fundamental issue here is to structure your approach by designing a content architecture and content lifecycle.  Analyse what content you have now and what you could or should be putting out there and organise it into a coherent map/diagram that is simple enough for senior colleagues to point at and discuss meaningfully.  Focus on themes and purpose and audience and shelf life.  Then have a think about governance.  Who owns which bit of content and who needs to sign it off and how often should it be reviewed?  Do you have a legal and compliance team that need to see it?  Do you need to keep records?  How do you identify content opportunities and how can you be sufficiently responsive to make decent use of social media?  What does this mean globally?  Is it just a matter if translation or is it different content?  Can it be translated internally?   If it’s just a translation, how do you make sure the original language and its variations or all updated at or near the same time?  Who will manage and publish this?  Do you need publishing responsibility in each time zone?  Think of it as a strategy of responsiveness, planning to be reactive.   Don’t ovedo it, think devolved authoring, controlled publishing.  On the social media front, it’s healthy to know which outlets are for which marketing discipline.  Start with the obvious: Twitter for PR, crisis management general brand awareness and thought leadership, Facebook is for fun, LinkedIn is about brand awareness, thought leadership, recruitment, Wikipedia – just the facts, etc.  Start simple and map your content to its purpose and its output.  Wrap the governance around that and ensure you have a mechanism to identify opportunities.   Once you’ve done this you also need to plan your website architecture for a global proposition with the goal of making it easy to maintain and quick to add to, ie simplicity is the goal.  A typical model will have the global, corporate site with country or regional level satellite sites addressing the local audiences.  Draw it out for your organisation and kick the tires on it with senior stakeholders before implementing anything.
  4. Capability (resource/process/technology) – you need to design and implement an operating model for efficiency, robustness and responsiveness.  This piece is large and pretty chewy in places but you can’t ignore it.  Map out the processes (governance, content, compliance, record keeping, campaigns, lead management, change, etc) and align resources to them.  Think about direction, ownership, design, execution and what should be in or outsourced.  It should be obvious but ownership should always be inside the organisation.  That said, you’d be amazed at what people think they can outsource.  There isn’t a single right answer to outsourcing however there will be a single right answer for your organisation.  Mistakes are costly so try to get it right first time.  Think what should be core and what is non-core specialist.  An online-only business may do everything but infrastructure and probably with good reason. Outsource the specialist stuff (which may be design and hosting to one organisation or SEO and PPC to another).  Then comes the real teccy stuff.  I know I said you should seriously consider outsourcing hosting but make sure that your set-up has sufficient ‘redundancy’ and no single points of failure (your infrastructure folk should help you prove this – invite them out of the basement with promises of lunch, sunlight, etc.), disaster recovery capability, denial of service protection, and of course a sensble time to market for publishing content. Don’t insist on real time but longer than 15 mins is no good.  Don’t forget to get the final build both penetration and performance tested.  For global performance you should seriously consider paying for a Content Delivery Network (CDN) which saves you putting infrastructure all round the globe at great cost and ongoing overhead.  If you don’t bother then your customers in other parts of the world won’t thank you as performance will be rubbish.  On top of that infrastructure will typically sit your content management system (CMS).  If you haven’t already got one then write your requirements, look at the Gartner magic quadrant and get those in that are best fit.  Think about what you want to do, technology fit, existing skillsets, the support model and so on. Select carefully and ensure you run your own proof of concept to establish comfort on the user experience within.  Your governance and content lifecycle identified in point 3 will be key in making this a success – don’t skip it or you’ll regret it big time.  Regarding record keeping, use a cloud solution as there’s loads these days and it saves you having to worry about backups or rewinding your CMS.   The last honourable mention is customer relationship management (CRM), in particular lead management.  A key aim of marketing is to establish qualified leads.  Define what that means in terms of measurable touchpoints (website visits, email open rates, roadshow attendance, etc.) and design a governance process for exploiting opportunities, be it a hand off to the Sales folk or gearing up your digital response to closing the sale, sending saved checkout reminders, special offers, whatever is your online closure model.  For everything in this section, think 24×7 – availability, publishing, audience responsiveness in different parts of the world at different times, support, the lot.
  5. Delivery/Execution – Once things are in place then this is all about planning and co-ordination.  Digital, if done right, is part of your integrated marketing activity.  It all needs orchestrating, particularly when it comes to campaigns.   I won’t go into all that here but don’t forget co-ordination of the other things like company results, job ads, Twitter posts, etc.  The other key think here is measurement.  Measure everything you can but be very selective about the measures you choose and what they mean.  Absolutes are tough here but relatives are easier (benchmark your email open rates against the previous product launch, industry averages, etc.)  Go for awards as well and shout about them when you win or are shortlisted.  Celebrate your plans and wins with posts to your Intranet – involve your colleagues.

And that’s about it.  If you follow the above you should be all done in a couple of weeks.  I jest of course.  Running a global digital operation is a significant undertaking which needs to be addressed in phases by different resource and skill sets.  Hopefully, this gives you a few pointers on where to focus your energies, if only some things you might need to review .  Best of luck!

When your shiny new website is no better than the old one.

You come across this so much with websites.  It’s the same with other applications too.  The new project will save us.  Just the thought of having a new thing, like a new car, to blow the cobwebs away, nice new design, nice clean smell, lovely.  It might be a new web design or it may be a brand new website but unless you’ve done the research and put together a content strategy then you’re leaving it to chance.  At worst, you’ll irritate people by changing something for the sake of it.  Amazon may not be the most flashy of sites but customers rate their overall service proposition so highly that Amazon are probably, and rightly, very cautious about changing it.  Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with changing a site but unless you have clarity on who it’s for and how you’re improving it for them, then you’re on high risk ground.  Don’t just do it to make yourself/senior management feel better.

Let’s be clear, a website is just another means of communication.  I know, what a revelation….  But it’s so often forgotten.  I’ve made this analogy before.  Think of web content as speech and the site structure and design as body language and it might just focus the mind a bit.  If the two things are clumsy and don’t work together then it’s awkward.  Think, as you would with any other communication, of your audiences next.  Then think again and dig deeper.  This is the research part.  Know your segments, trawl your web analytics, scrutinize your marketing data, look at what your competitors are up to.  Interview user representatives about their needs and how they want to interact with your website or digital offering.  Build personas for each user type and use them as tools to guide and test design for the future.  Use the outcomes to build scenarios and understand how these users move between emails, devices and other touchpoints as well as what they do.  Don’t bother with a mobile strategy, it shouldn’t be a separate thing.  Have a digital strategy, know your capabilities and brand and build a proposition and user experience around it.

Then there’s the content.  This requires some strategy of its own.  What content can you provide or syndicate?  What are the themes?  How do they relate to each segment?  Who’s going to provide it?  Who approves it?  What requires regulatory compliance and what doesn’t?  Research what content works well now and bin the rest.  Start afresh with the right tone to reach the audiences and put some personality (preferably your brand) into it.  Write small chunks for people to digest and don’t try and teach them general things about your industry – users will find this elsewhere.  Show them what is of value and nothing more.  Then work out your trending themes and what types of content you can add value with that has a shorter lifecycle.  Once you know all these things, you’ll want to put a full content lifecycle process in place and have that supported by a content management system.  Please don’t buy the system first and then work it out.  As with a new website, unless you’ve done the work upfront, the system won’t save you.  Whatever you do, don’t migrate content that is old, stale and barely used and, if you’re putting in a new content management system, don’t let it dictate your content governance model.  It’s the same with any system, you have to do this the other way round: sort out your data and sort out your governance and then implement otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Upgrading your website is hard work but rectifying a mistake is even harder and more costly.  Good luck!

The Coming of Enterprise User Experience: Why CTOs and IT Directors Need a UX Strategy

Whilst yesterday’s blog was about governance and getting your website or intranet under control through information architecture, this one takes a look inside the organisation to lift the lid on the pressures on good ol’ internal IT.  UX is barely touching the corporate world with so many producing systems the old-fashioned way and some hoping they’ll solve past failures by running to agile.  And yet very few have devised an enterprise UX strategy.  The world is now awash with UX designers and architects which is great but the focus remains on external websites for customers – and on design.  I’ve previously highlighted the lack of internal focus as pure monopoly – the staff can’t choose – but that’s not entirely true.  After all, staff are consumers too – when we let them have a break anyhow.  People are now seeing good design all around them as consumers.  They are standardising corporate and personal email on one device and stroking their iPads on the train.  All this means that expectations are going up.  The days of IT Directors getting a ribbing in the boardroom about their crap systems are over; they’re now being told to sort it out.  But how?

It’s time to get some focus on this and devise a User Experience Strategy for the enterprise.  All seems a bit grand doesn’t it?  Are we not just talking up UX design here?  Do we not just need to get a few specialists in to sort out the crap apps (crapps?)?  No, this is not the design bit, some direction is required first.

Here’s a paraphrased story…picture IT management in a room having a post-beating meeting about this problem…

What’s the problem?  I don’t get it?  So what is the user experience for one of our members of staff?  Is it another gimmick, should we not just sort out the systems we know have problems and…?  No, take a step back, we need to define what it means to be a user in this organisation.  Okay.  Anyone fancy starting?  Erm, right, so users get the standard stuff as well as stuff according to their role – or department – great, we’ve got that on Active Directory so we can start to profile staff from a technology point of view and hopefully automate the desktop for new starts.  So what actually is the standard?  Ok, everyone gets MS Office and the Intranet and then their specialist apps according to their profile.  Great, so what is the Intranet for, exactly?  It’s a presentation layer over the data warehouse and a comms tool.  Is that it?  Ah yeah, but it’s being reviewed isn’t it?  Gawd knows, supposedly.  You know I think we might need some UX objectives and principles here.   This is a useful brainstorm: we’ll come back to that.  What else should be standard?  What about Single Sign On as people are going crazy about having to log in to everything, never mind the security issue of passwords being written on post-its and stuck on the monitor…. Hmmm yeah, and how is that delivered through mobile devices?  Is it all pushed through Good?  Ah, but that uses the Safari browser on the iPad but didn’t we agree to standardise on Microsoft?  No, we never agreed that.  Well it feels like we have.  Yes, but the new version of product x doesn’t work on MS Internet Explorer so we need to upgrade the browsers.  Oh, we’re still on Windows XP so we can’t go to IE10 until we’ve upgraded Windows across all locations.  Ok maybe we need to change browsers.  But doesn’t some SharePoint functionality stop working if you don’t use IE?  Really?  Ok so maybe multiple browsers is good.  But then half of our specialist web apps have not been tested (let alone designed) on anything but IE.  Right, well that needs to be built into our software procurement process.  Oh, have we got one?  Sniggers.  In fact our website is the only thing that works on Firefox and Safari (although the sandal-wearers at the digital agency forgot to test it in IE and we sell to other large corporates who also standardise on Microsoft for an easy life – and they keep moaning about our website!)  Can I just go back to SharePoint a minute – we haven’t actually decided what we’re going to use it for have we?  Are you joking?  Well we rolled out out-of-the-box team sites to get going.  Which was a mistake.  Don’t start on that.  I’ll have to tidy up the mess, thanks!  Too much devolution!  Anyway, we need to migrate our Intranet onto SharePoint at some point.  Why?  It makes things simpler and will integrate with everyone’s presence and profiles and so on.  True.  Has anyone thought about the enterprise information architecture?  Ugh, not now, stick to the apps.  Response times aren’t great in AsiaPac are they?  I wish we’d clouded it.   Oh by the way, does anyone know how users will log into our cloud apps?  Hmmm, I think we’ll need to workshop this whole thing some other time, so who fancies a coffee?

What a headache and that’s why IT Directors get paid so well!  It’s something akin to stripping the engine whilst going round the track.  And it all got a bit teccy didn’t it?  But the challenge is not for UX designers but instead for strategists and technicians: it needs to be both strategic and technically validated so that the user experience is both defined at a high level and then proven technically.  A number of people need to be involved but it must always be strategic and for the long game.  It might help to engage some friendly tech-savvy users in that workshop as well.  In fact, set up a working group because it needs user validation as well as technical validation.  Obvious really.

And lastly, let us not forget what seems like a simple choice for our IT leader to make (keep your head down and hope it will blow away vs sort it out) is more complicated because of all the moving parts at different stages of maturity and focus.  It all comes down to projects and budgets but if you can lay down a strategy then you can start to prioritise and come up with a programme of work that becomes more realistic and communicable.  It’s the user journey for IT.

Getting Your Website or Intranet Under Control: the Power of Information Architecture

This blog looks at how to direct and control your web application, be it a website or Intranet.  What is often forgotten is that information architecture is fundamental to what a web application is and does: it defines its scope.  A good information architecture meets both business and user objectives by means of a user experience strategy.

Previously, I gave a general introduction to information architecture and I referred to a supermarket website and how you might group things together and label them in a way that users understand.  This is generally a good idea, as long as it’s aligned with business objectives: we have to be realistic here.  Sometimes it’s for the public’s own good because, as i guessed in my last blog, some people (65% according to this BBC article – will just think of meat as meat, cooked or uncooked, and be happy to put them together in a bag and probably on a user-defined supermarket shelf – something of a hygiene factor!  And, as I also said previously, customers (especially parents) would be unlikely to group sweets next to the checkout in a physical supermarket architecture!

So, what is all this about?  Governance.  Like it or not, things need a bit of control but where that control comes from and how it is managed is the subtle part.  It’s an issue both for websites and intranets.  Websites are at risk of being driven by the whims of the Sales & Marketing seniors or, even worse, by the whims of an agency they hire.  Engaging users in card sorting exercises helps to design a structure that makes sense.  Similarly you can validate a site structure – or changes/additions to that structure – with a tree test.  Tree tests are great because it allows the users to truly test the fundamental information structure without being cluttered by the design or layout of your actual site.  This all seems tremendously democratic.  What about those 65% who get things wrong?  Well, the reality is that sometimes the users do get it wrong so in reality you shouldn’t be too literal about all parts of user research such as card sorting and like it or not some stakeholder (steak-holder?) or other will want to find some way of putting certain things in users faces – in a language they may wish to choose.  A compromise is made but objectives for both parties are met as far as possible.

When it comes to intranets then having a good information architecture in place is critical as it provides a validated reason for the structure of the site.  In governance terms it also provides you with good reason not to change it willy-nilly.  One of the greatest problems is that everyone wants a piece of it – “oh could you just add a tab for my product/team on the home page” or whatever.  Sites that give in to those kind of requests become a mess and then become another project, until it becomes a mess again.  In other words, information architecture governance helps you manage change control to ensure that you don’t lose and confuse your users by constantly shifting things around and letting the structure go at the seams.  No one will thank you for letting it go, except the people you bring in to sort it out.

So in summary, a good user experience strategy means good information architecture which in turn means good governance.  In reality, this is the happy compromise between the objectives of the business (that wishes to sell or say things) and those of the users (who wish to find things as easily as possible).  It is critical in not only getting a website or intranet right – but in keeping it right through the process of change control.

Information Architecture for Children, Supermarket Shoppers (and Beginners)

I recently tried to explain information architecture (IA) to my 13-year old daughter.  We’re trying to get our house extended just now so we bore the kids a lot with talk about architecture – so I thought I’d bore my daughter some more.  I’m not sure how well I explained it but I think she got it.  I explained that IA is about organising information in the best way, mainly so people can find things – like on websites.  I then talked about a specific example, a supermarket website.  I said that when you go to a supermarket website you want to find things easily – by looking in the right categories or searching.  To design this right, you could ask customers to group various items like tinned tuna, bananas, apples, cooked chicken, raw chicken, etc and ask them to label them.  You can be pretty sure that bananas and apples would be grouped together in Fruit or Fruit & Vegetables but some people might put all meat together and others would separate cooked meat – for hygiene.  In user experience terms, this activity is called a card sort as this is traditionally done by writing items on cards and getting people to sort them into groups and then provide names for those groups.  There are plenty of online tools to do this now.  This gets the site designed in the minds of the user.  It’s not perfect but it helps you structure information in the most optimal way.  I think that’s about as far as I got before we entered Waitrose to get some food.   We didn’t think on it any further.  Waitrose is a nice customer experience and we’d been shopping there for 10 years (and, however good their website is, I’d sooner pick my own fruit and veg thanks!)

What’s interesting about this example is that with shops you have a hybrid real-information architecture as shops have to decide how to group products in their stores and how to label them.  What’s also interesting is that this physical layout has been dictated to users (ok, shoppers) but they’re so used to it that if you asked them to come up with the categories that they’ve got used to over the years then they would probably replicate their local supermarket (though I don’t think parents would opt to split the sweets and confectionery area and put some of it by the checkouts.)  Does it matter who’s idea it was in the first place?  Absolutely not.  What’s easiest for people is what counts and what’s easiest is what’s familiar.  Convention rules again.  What’s nice about information architecture is that because it isn’t physical then things can be described in more than one way – so salami might sit in the Delicatessen category and raw chicken thighs in Uncooked Meat but both could also be tagged as Meat.

The web already has quite a standardised information architecture that has established over time. You know this because when you go to a website you’ll almost be guaranteed to find About Us or the increasingly fashionable Who We Are.  If you’re looking for directions or a phone number then you’ll go to Contact Us or similar.  There’s little point changing these conventions unless you have a very good reason – some companies don’t make Contact Us very obvious as perhaps they don’t want to meet the cost of being contacted!  IA is also relevant at the page level by having key information displayed in priority or relevant places (top and left), having clear information hierarchy (eg text size and image placement to draw the eye): conventions we know from centuries of publishing.

So, information architecture is critical for websites to be successful: it’s a lot more than just visual and functional design.  IA is also important for information systems and business applications although its use is more mature on the web because companies have to compete.  There’s rarely any competition inside an organisation so only the largest or highly information-based organisations have really grasped IA in a big way.  This is of course rapidly changing as people’s awareness of standards is changing: users won’t stand for a poor user experience any more.  It also becomes more important in an era of record-keeping and compliance.

Net time we’ll get into more detail about how information architecture works, how it should link to business objectives and how it can be used for information governance and settling arguments!