The Joy of Excel


Yes it’s unusual to talk about UX away from web and ecommerce but so what, Excel is UX on legs.  Ok that’s two gratuitous puns too many but I was writing about risk management last time and it does that to you.  If you like to divide people into two camps (I know, there are those that like to do this and those that don’t) there are those that admit they love Excel and those that pretend otherwise – but everyone likes it – or loves it.  And yeah I know about Lotus 1-2-3 and I’m old enough to have used it but that’s history, get over it.

Excel is the perfect partner to Word, as numeracy is to literacy.  In fact, they could have called it Number but maybe they were wise to the fact that the concept of a spreadsheet (the huge bits of paper that hardcore accountants used to use to do their numbers on) would become a metaphor for what is in fact tables and records and things like that.  Metaphors are a big thing in computing but more on that another time.

It feels like the whole world uses Excel, in their work but also at home, even if that isn’t quite true.  Yes people still use it for balancing accounts but also for lists, managing projects (who can be arsed with the bastard child that is MS Project anyway), databases, reporting and anything else you fancy.  In fact, this versatility creates an End User Computing risk in some organisations as smart people in the business start to build non-supportable critical applications – ok UX can maybe create risk too!  People use it at home also – for balancing accounts, managing projects…the same things actually.

So what’s good about it?  The concept is great, columns and rows, lists and records.  You sort everything out, fair and square in nice little boxes and then do clever things very easily and then get to make it look good with charts and so on.  I’d bet there’s a lot of people who avoid going to parties to spend time at home on a pivot table.  Excel is easy to use but the fundamental concept puts you in control of whatever it is you want to do.  User Experience frequently takes account of putting users in control because they are people and people like control whether they admit it or not.  You want simplicity but you want control and sometimes these things seem at odds, ie simplicity = less functionality but control = more.

Giles Colborne of CX Partners wrote a great book called Simple and Usable which describes four strategies: Hide, Organise, Remove, Displace.  I like to turn these into the ironic mnemonic, HORD.  The key thing is to get shot of what’s needed and put occasional/first time functionality out of the way to retain simplicity.  This is what control means.  Over the years, Excel has grown and grown till its groaned.  Just how many toolbars were there?  The whole Office suite was exploding with functionality and something needed to be done, hence the move to the ribbon.  I’ve heard also that Microsoft got tired of requests for functionality that already existed so they made better use of the menu space by making it context sensitive.  The move to the ribbon in Office 2007 upset the hardcore Excelers.  Why move stuff?  Users were lost, for a little while.  I trust they did a proper information architecture research job to structure and label the information in the minds of the user.  But change is change and however good it was it was a major disruption to people’s habits.  It was a big step but it highlights the power of convention in usability.  If you’re used to it, it works, warts and all.  If you use Microsoft products then getting another one makes life easy because you get the layout and look-and-feel without having to think about it.  What’s best is not always ‘best’ in the eyes of the techy purist.  I think that simple fact, alongside compatibility and integration, is one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft dominates – it’s not just slick marketing.  Go on, mention the decline in Internet Explorer but face it, the controls are more on the websites than the actual browser so who cares.

Excel is probably the best thing Microsoft has ever done – and maybe will ever do.  They were lucky to popularise a great concept but they’ve done a great UX job on it nonetheless.  Whole businesses run on Excel (even if they don’t realise it) and whole households run on it too, from a simple list to a sophisticated database/reporting engine.  Excel gives everyone control and everyone the chance to be a spreadsheet geek; maybe the only thing it’s not good for is blogging.

User Experience Design as Risk Management


Exciting stuff, huh!  There’s no gags, puns, alliteration or other clever stuff in the title of this blog because it’s time to talk risk management which is – as you know – a very boring serious matter.  This blog looks at user experience strategy as a risk mitigation tool for web and software projects.

User experience is often miscast as usability or user interface design – which sound a little bit non-essential and nice-to-have.  Yes, UX encompasses those things but it’s the whole process that is important and sometimes misunderstood.  It’s about getting the deliverable right so I’m not going to talk much about usability or user interfaces here, just plain old projects.  And with projects come risks.  Sometimes risk is all that people understand and if you’re a fan of the psychology of behavioural economics then you’ll know about loss aversion.  In plain English, that means that people are more likely to be motivated to act if they think they will lose something than if they think they will gain something and risk is usually about losing something.  Which is why everyone loves, or rather hates, risk.  That includes project managers and rightly so.  So, let’s not sell the benefits of a user experience and instead sell the risks of not doing it.

Every project pack worth its salt has a list of risks and mitigating actions to ensure project success.  Risks come in many flavours but can include issues such as poor user adoption/loss of confidence, regulatory breaches, costly errors, loss of revenue, loss of reputation and so on.  Those risks can play out both internally and externally at an organisation and everyone wants to get the project right.  So, how do you get it right?  You go to the business or customer, ask them what they want, write it up in to a 72 page document, ask them to review it (which they don’t), call a meeting to talk them through it, chase them to sign it off (which they do – because they want the project done), maybe write a functional spec, hand it to the developers, months go by and, fingers crossed, test against the functional spec and done!

That’s a cynical but not wholly inaccurate take on the so called ‘waterfall’ software development method that has a linear set of steps.  Best of luck to everyone involved.  Unsurprisingly, it often doesn’t deliver to expectations.  People are now starting to turn to ‘agile’ because of this very fact – they have concluded that waterfall doesn’t work.  Agile is an iterative, little and often, show-and-tell approach with lots of questionable terminology (‘sprints’, daily ‘scrums’, ‘war rooms’) to make the new thing sound clever.  Naturally if you show a system bit by bit to users then you can clarify the direction of development which is great to ensure correct delivery but it can be hard to control scope and get the thing finished.  It’s also fun and removes planning and documentation so those that like to avoid such things love agile.  In other words, it manages some risks but raises others.  In some cases agile might work well, especially for an innovative piece of product development but for many projects it just misses out the steps and the clarity required to get things done properly, hence it’s often dubbed ‘fragile’.

So, nothing works.  Ok ok, I’ve been rather unfair about both these methods but the methods aren’t the point – the approach is.  I know waterfall can work well and someone must have seen agile deliver to keep on doing it.  However, the fundamental issues when projects do go wrong are simple – not getting the requirements right, not getting the design right, not getting sign-off right, not doing testing right, not communicating right.  I’d love to see these risks in a project pack – instead of lack of resource and the usual ones PMs feel they ought to put in.

This is where user experience design proper is meant to help: UX is doing waterfall or agile or whatever, right.  A user experience approach entails getting into the shoes of the user, identifying the types of user you have and noting their needs and preferences, observing them using a current system or process, interviewing them, understanding their decision-making processes, etc. It doesn’t have to take that long but proper research needs planning in to the project.  Once you start to gather this information you can clearly map user types (personas) to processes and draw visual diagrams to represent this alongside written scenarios.  These are the sort of documents that users will understand – and will sign off for real.  Requirements done then you can start to design to these requirements through standard techniques such as wireframing (as well as functional specifications).  There might also be a need for information architecture to help organise and label information in the most useful way.  This information should feed into the wireframes and a site/app map if required.  A visual design exercise may then come into play (especially if it’s a web application).  Again, visual designs can be signed off by users before commitment – even if the build has started.  Use workshops to present and validate the design, not to brainstorm and put the onus on the users.  Tweak it and build it and test it, against the functional specification but also against the scenarios and get the users to run through the scenarios – and observe them.  If it’s not obvious for them to use then it’s a problem.  Dig deeper and make changes before final testing commences.  Write a Quick Start Guide to help people understand the capabilities.  Again, ‘test’ it with a few users.

What’s good about this approach is that the users are engaged throughout the process to mitigate against the risk of designing to abstracted requirements.  The users are also involved in the design, sometimes in the information architecture or sometimes in discussing options around wireframes and designs.  There will be few chances for surprise and disappointment.  Also, with a defined set of users you’re doing change management by engaging them and getting them to sign off on tangible deliverables, helping to communicate the change and helping them to own the design.  In other words, the chances of adoption are greatly increased.

So, UX helps you get the system right because website or application building is a design process that needs to go through steps.  When you use words like architecture, design and build then the clue’s probably in the metaphor – it’s not too unlike building a house.  Waterfall and agile are sort of besides the point.  Only the largest corporates are beginning to understand the need for UX for software projects but you’ll see this approach catch on hugely in the next few years so it’s worth catching on before you have to catch up.

A pull handle on a push door


It’s annoying isn’t it.  Really annoying.  Which way that door is going to go.  Pull or push or both?  Who cares, you just need to get through it.  It’s got a handle on it.  Give it a pull.  Dah!  Fooled ya! Idiot! can’t you work a bloody door?!  How many times has this happened to you?  Not something worthy of an international crisis, sure, but add it all up and it counts.  Then add up all the other people that have had the same experience (as well as the irritation, embarrassment and distraction) and time is the thing that costs – and reputation.  Emotion counts.  If it’s a service or website or application, you may give up, or go elsewhere, or try and learn how the thing works – but only if you have no choice.

I’ve experienced very plush offices with just this door problem.  The solution?  Have ‘P-U-S-H’ stencilled on the handle.  This is called designing around a problem, or in medical terms, treating the symptoms rather than the cause.  Of course, people still wander up, alone in thought or busy in conversation, see a handle with their peripheral vision, and still pull it.  Dah!  In business, it’s the kind of issue that people try to measure with ROI.  We’ll show you how much you can save by solving these problems – something which, of course, will cost.  Don’t bother.  Just solve it. In this case, just remove the handle.

Now if you ask those guys in Facilities I bet they’ll tell you how it is.  Oh, we need to leave the handles on in case we need to reverse or reposition the door and the cost of removing the handle…  Oh come on, really?  How often do you need to do that?  You’d be surprised.  I bet I wouldn’t.  We’re always having to make changes to the office.  When did you last reverse the way a door opened?  Ah, I can’t remember but we’re always doing things like that.  Sure.

It’s the same in IT and application development.  It’s not obvious how to do that function – yeah, it’s a training issue.  So, we’ve designed it so badly we have to train people how to use it.  Sometimes it’s more subtle.  I was recently involved in the migration of an application for a FTSE 100 company.  The data had already been well positioned and structured in a data warehouse.  Thankfully, no one was interested in revisiting that and we could focus on the front end.  For once we could start with the user interface rather than the database, the only bit users care about.  So, let’s speak to the users and see what they need.  Well, we took the opportunity to revisit the information architecture (how information is grouped and labelled) as well as integrating the visual design with the rest of the Intranet and with a fully indexed search capability.  Great!  But.  But what?  They still want the ‘field finder’ functionality.  Ugh, really, they can’t find fields??  We don’t want to do that, surely.  Yes but people are asking where it is as they use it extensively in the current interface.  No, let’s not do it, we’re designing a product for them with their steer and our expertise so that finding information should be intuitive.  Out of scope.

We went live and no one’s missed the field finder.  In fact the system has been a huge success, one of the few projects we’ve been excited about putting live because we knew we’d got it right.  We knew that because we’d adopted user-centred design for a user experience that worked.  No, it wasn’t for a high volume retail website, just an internal application – one that is critical for the business – over which the users have no choice.  Afterwards, I said to the project manager that it was well worth all the extra effort and he said, no, it wasn’t extra effort, just a different approach.  Fair comment, this cost no more, we just did things better than we usually do.  Enterprise user experience is taking over the largest of corporates but everyone else it seems is still catching up.

User experience is not difficult, is not adopting “agile”, is not the sum of this or that set of methods but is an approach.  If you engage the user to understand how they work, use your design experience, and test your work then you’re more likely – far more likely – to have a successful project.  If you make people walk in the dark then they’ll ask for a torch.  If you put on the lights, they won’t think about light at all because they can crack on.  Do the work and give people what they want – and not necessarily what they ask for.