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.


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.

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.

Why Business Analysis Fails the User Experience

We live in a world of opposites, or at least that is how people view the world. Previously, I talked about those that prefer either traditional, sequential waterfall software development or the more flexible agile approach. You also tend to find two polar opposites in the development of business applications in contrast to websites and e-commerce applications.  IT tends to attract those people that like to work with technology – and not people; whereas Marketing, where the whole point is to engage customers and interact with them, tends to attract those that like to work with people.  Yes there are exceptions but as generalisations they are true; I’ve worked on both sides of the fence and seen the differences consistently.  No wonder then that we find different worlds and tensions.  To get their websites done Marketing would sooner get their own team or outsource to design agencies who know the importance of getting across the right message, or customer experience in the fullest sense. This is all well and good in e-commerce but who will champion the corporate customer, the poor staff member with no choice but to be served by IT even when some of the systems they have to use look like they were designed by children?  We end up with a split between the user-oriented web/e-commerce sites that can delight their users (as well as sometimes frustrate them in their careless execution and lack of attention to detail) and business applications where the requirements are gathered and delivered to in a way that frequently fails to deliver to expectation. Have you noticed that the main difference in personnel is the presence of UX designers on the one hand and business analysts on the other?

Software development is full of business analysts whose job it is is to gather requirements, analyse them and propose solutions in consultation with technical staff.  It’s a very logical, rational process.  Business analysis is great because good analysts ensure a good coverage of requirements and system needs.  The problem with analysis is that it does what it says it does – pulls things apart, strips the engine to its component pieces to be comprehensive – but focuses less on how these parts are assembled and how people will make sense of them.  Business analysts are a bit like police – just the facts, ma’am.  In the functional specification (if there is one) there may be a flow diagram or two, clarification of fields on a form and so on but the design responsibilities often end up with the developers if only because no one has done the work up front.  In other words, a key part of the project hasn’t been done.  This approach is unthinkable in most product development practices where working hard to assess needs and validate designs is imperative.  The UX approach is to look at who the types of users are, their aims, their preferences and so on and what tasks these users need to do.  Personas and scenarios are modelled visually so that all project stakeholders can understand and comment on them.  This typically moves on to an information architecture/wireframing/visual design phase where key parts of the solution are prepared visually, again by designers who understand the requirements. These deliverables can also be reviewed and signed off by stakeholders before commitment to build so the users know what they’re getting and the developers know what they’re building.  Any scenarios can be reused to test the final deliverable which tops and tails the project quite nicely, ie testing the deliverables with the requirements.  In contrast, the traditional software approach is to test a list of functions individually.  Whilst this should also be done to ensure full coverage, what it fails to do is to evaluate how these functions work together, ie the user experience.

So, business analysts need a sea change in their approach and need to work alongside UX specialists to deliver user centred design.  Conversely, it would be good to see business analysts more consistently involved in the web/e-commerce world to ensure the job is done comprehensively (a lot of design agencies can’t be bothered to test in different web browsers for example – too boring I suppose).  The fact of the matter is that good software and web projects require both the detailed approach of business analysis and the holistic approach of user experience design to ensure that user needs are met both comprehensively and in alignment with real users in real life scenarios.