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!

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!

User Experience as Body Language

When designing technological interactions, more often than not, we are designing virtual social interactions.  And social interactions are about communication.  And a key aspect of communication is body language but let’s call it non-verbal communication (nvc) as it’s a bit more inclusive of things like tone.  And communication is conducted by individuals guided by conventions.  And I know you’re not supposed to start sentences with ‘and’ but who cares because it’s a grammatical convention that doesn’t really matter any more and certainly not in such an informal context as blogging.

I’ve previously stated that User Experience Design addresses the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ when it comes to system requirements which traditionally focus mainly on what – ie the data, content and functionality in principle.  (UX of course takes this further with information architecture, content strategy, and so on).  If we liken the ‘what’ part to verbal communication then the ‘how’ part is equivalent to nvc, the positioning, the gestures, the tone, even the clothing.  How many systems and websites do we come across that can meet our needs but it’s like dancing with someone who has two left feet or dealing with someone who is socially awkward – like the boys in IT.  I’ve worked a long time in IT which allows me to make mean cracks like that…

Problems in system design arise for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s not a real interaction and most people are not used to modelling virtual interactions in technology to produce something that makes sense. The other, on the web anyway, is the desire for organisations to stand out and be different – and breaking conventions as a consequence.  I once worked on a project with a design agency who had designed a site for another organisation with the navigation on the right.  Interesting, I thought, for right-handers you don’t have to work across yourself.  But that’s nonsense, we mostly read left to right.  And everyone else does it on the left.  It wouldn’t work.  We’re not looking for logical here, we’re looking for understanding.  It’s the same when you see a site or web application with the logo on the right hand side, the search at the bottom, the content not grouped appropriately, the clumsiness of redoing or undoing something, etc.  As usability legend Steve Krug says, conventions are your friends.

The point of the nvc analogy is to always remember how something is conveyed.  Is it clumsy?  Is it awkward?  Can they understand it?  Do people get it?  Should we try it out?  All the usual questions you might ask about, say, a presentation, a best man’s speech, an email, or whatever.  Or is it the abominable ‘training issue’ which you can’t afford online – so dump it in Help/Frequently Unhelpful Questions.  It’s best to try to think of systems as modelling human interactions and to know when it’s time to stop reinventing the wheel.