UX Labs

I spent a good hour yesterday in the User Experience lab. Talking to UX specialists about Social Software and how I think it could improve. Now why is that important? Well it’s not and it is… My opinion on it’s own isn’t important at all but by being one of those thousands that is actually sharing it I might be able to make a tiny difference in how the products I work with, and my customers work with are build. And isn’t that what ‘being social’ is all about? Making a difference together…?
Now apart from it being good it’s also a lot of fun. People who know me know that I can be a very opinionated person who will not shy away from speaking her mind. And if there’s one thing that is really…. correction: REALLY close to my heart it is usability and UI logic. So being able to sit there and just tell about all the pet peeves, ideas and possible improvements I’ve got swimming around in my head with someone who is not just politely nodding but actually taking notes is just fantastic. Ofcourse there is no guarantee that any of it will be used but at least you get a chance to talk to the people who do have the ability to make a difference.
So if you haven’t done so yet get your butt down there and start talking! They will ask you questions if you don’t have any direct ideas and you’ll be surprised how much you actually have to add!

Structure for an unstructured mind

I just created a new tab on my Lotus Notes Workspace. ‘Workspace?‘ you ask. Yes, workspace. Ok, I know, it has been more or less buried by Lotus since Lotus Notes V5 came out. But every time I install the Lotus Notes Client the first thing I do is to reinstate the Workspace back to being the Homepage. I just find it so much easier to work with.

It’s a visual thing. I hate having to scroll through extensive lists and if you’d see my current workspace you would know I have a lot of databases listed.

On my workspace I can easily find certain databases blindfolded (CRM database: 1st tab, 1st line, 1st tile from the gap). But if you asked me what the application name was though….
This is because I use visual indicators for finding an application. Things like location on my tabs, icon image and relative position towards other applications. I rarely look at the name.

Having a workspace allows me to structure things visually and in a way that is logical to me, like placing templates below the databases and grouping things the way I want them to, not just into alphabetically sorted lists by name.

Why don’t I like the alphabetical lists?

Well… people who know me will recognize this but I’m simply horrible at remembering names! Be it people, brands, databases, etc. I will make a mess of it. I’ll easily call a Volvo a Volkswagen, mix acronyms up and still sometimes search for the names of my own cousins. So to put an alphabetical list of 100+ database names in front of me is like saying :”Good luck!“. Give me a workspace and tabs though and I have no problems what so ever.

I think this is also why I’m so fond of my iPad. Things are more visually-orientated then list-orientated and that makes it easier to work with for me. I think Lotus could learn a thing or two from Apple there. The visual way of working that Apple has developed would really benefit a lot of people like me that just don’t work in structured lists. Take for instance the “Application-Open”  control. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to find databases if it was portrayed in an AppStore like fashion? With a search box and tiled overview, suggestions lists and maybe even preference recognitions? Ok, yes, I know the list-lovers now cringe but I’m sure a lot of ordinary users would absolutely love to have a more intuitive way of locating apps.

How often have you had users you literally had to walk through opening an application on the server?

“Ok, press CTRL and ‘O’ keys simultaneously. You should see a window called ‘Open Application’. Now enter ‘x’ in the server name field. Do you see a list of names below it? No? Ok, press the [Open] button. Do you see the list now? Yes? Ok. Scroll down until you see the yellow folders and locate the ‘x’ folder. Double click it. Yes. You see another list now. Find the “xx” name and double click it”…..

So until Lotus decides to permanently take out the workspace (or comes up with a better replacement) I’m really happy with my Workspace and the 14 tabs and 100+ tiles I have on it. Let me work in my own quirky way of visual structuring. I’m sure I’m not alone!

User friendly

Sometimes images just speak for themselves……

If your site shows input examples to show users what is expected of them, than make sure your example entries match the fields validation rules! Putting in an example with an underscore (“j_smith”) while an underscore is not allowed is really stupid and very annoying!

Feedback? You bet!

With Google heading in a new and possible exiting direction with its Google+ project and their new Me on the Web tool I was checking out some of the new features and stumbled upon the Google Profile. Not something I had ever seen before (even though it supposedly has been around for a while) but nevertheless another Social Profile so why not try it out.

While doing so I ran into some simple things that I just didn’t get from a usability point of view. One of them was that when I wanted to add links to the ‘Links’ section and choose the ‘Manage Connected Accounts’  option I’m rerouted to another page. Nothing wrong there but when finished I don’t see any option to return to the profile. Ok, yes of course I eventually tried simply closing it and that worked fine but it didn’t feel logical to close it like that and gave me the uneasy feeling I might lose the data I had just provided. A simple “Finish” or “Return to Profile” button would have been nice.

I believe in the power of giving Feedback to help further the development of products and will not hesitate to give it when asked. So when I noticed the ‘Feedback’ button in the bottom lower corner of the Profile form I decided to report it back to Google as something they might be able to take into consideration.

And then….

So, first rule of involving your users: If you want their feedback and ask for it be ready to receive it!

Error handling

Love this! Something goes wrong while writing a DM on twitter and in stead of deflecting blame (“Something went wrong”) or assigning blame (“Oops, it seems you did something wrong”) it simply takes full blame for the problem. Wish more sites / software would be so insightful!

So Twitter, now you’ve got the error message right….. please solve the problem too!

Business Partner Locator

Was entering IBM Partnerworld today when I noticed the link to the Business Partner Locator. As I had heard someone complain about the fact that finding BP’s through the IBM site was rather laborious and outdated and that they couldn’t even find all BP’s in there, I decided to check it out and clicked the link.

“Business Partner Connections has been replaced by the new and enhanced Business Partner Locator. You will be redirected in a moment, please update your bookmarks”

Mmm, ok, apparently this site recently changed. Not that I’m interested in knowing that, I’m clicking a direct link so just forward me to the new site. It would be different if I was using a bookmark, but I’m not! I’m directly clicking a link on the IBM Partnerworld homepage so how difficult is it to change that link itself?

The site opens and the first thing I see there is:

“Finding the right Business Partner just got simpler!”

Good! Apparently someone figured it needed some updating as well and decided to spruce it up.

The site itself seems relatively easy. A dropdown box on the left  to select a country, some text helping Customers & BP’s  and a demo link on the right.

Now, I’m a visually oriented person. So when I see something like this and I’m trying to orient myself, my eyes automatically draw to the Demo link. It’s big, it’s in an important spot and looks as if it’s a video. I love vids, so I click it….. and regret it

It turns out to be a full length demo in 13 stages. Illustrated by the impressive Table of Contents on the left…..  My god how difficult is this tool?
So I start and let the video go through the first four screens. Now I’m not a native English speaker but in my ears this guy is articulating as if I’m a three year old and still I find my mind wandering of. Keep it short, please!

I end up at screen 5. “Demo 1: ……”. Again the guy starts talking, welcoming me at the demo part of the video and explaining we will start with a demo about Search criteria.

And then it stops

Yes it actually stops without any explanation. I wonder why. Is it broken? Is my browser crashing??? Is this a demo that would normally be done live and where the guy giving the demo would now switch to his live environment to show something?
No it turns out it’s suppose to do that. I have to scroll down (apparently my 1280*800 screen resolution is not big enough to fit the whole video on one screen) and in the bottom of the screen, below the copyright footer I find a button that I need to click to start the demo part of the demonstration.

??? Am I the only one not finding this very logical? I mean this is why I was actually watching this video in the first place, so why stop it and make me manually restart it to see the most interesting part?!?

So I start the demo and it all got a bit corny by then. I mean listen to the guy and watch the screen and count the amount of times the word ‘Business Partner’ is used either in the text balloons or in the text he’s reading. I’m not listening to what he’s saying at all anymore at this point. Just wondering where this will end up.

Well, at another stop it turns out. Because as soon as this part of the demo ends and the video goes over to screen 6 “Demo 2:……” the same happens again.

Needless to say I didn’t actually watch the whole thing after that. No clue how long it is but I’d say about 20-25 min at least. And all this to explain how to select a country, define some criteria using dropdown boxes and watch the details of a business partner.

So I ditch the video and even though I’m ready to simply chuck it all away and return to the Yellow pages by now, I decide to actually open the tool itself. I must admit: It works and looks pretty nice.

Nice….nice!?! Is that all you have to say after all that?!?

Yes, that’s all. So IBM please drop that video, correct the link, take out that irritating redirect (according to the video it’s been up for weeks anyway) and trust your users. We’re not that stupid.

ps. If you want a real good laugh than please click the “Thank you” entry in the video’s Table of Content after having tried to watch some if not most of the very elaborate video….. Apparently they do know how to be short. 🙂

Captcha

Did you now what a Captcha was? I didn’t until I started writing this blog. Searched for it and found out it’s actually a term, not a product or company.
Oh well.  This wasn’t my reason for writing this blog, I just found the below Captcha quite funny. I mean they are a pain in the … without having to use specific diacritic symbols so this one really makes the difference.

And no, it did not work without the Umlaut on the ‘o’.

Has Google gone beserk?

Yikes! Have you’ve seen those new background images Google put in yesterday?!? My God, here I was opening my trusted Google page to do a search and instead of the simple white page with search bar and funny but discrete picture I got this:

What the …..?! Do the want to make me color blind???

Now, I don’t mind a bit of color but this is insane. It lacks all sense of proportion and balance and you can hardly read the text below the search box anymore because of the white lettering on a multi colored background. It looks as if some starter designer has gone wild and nobody discovered it (He, it’s only the most used page on the web…..dôh).

Luckily for my sake this morning they turned of the imagery and returned to the trusted old white page. An option in the bottom (which I only noticed today as it completely falls away against the colored background) still allows you to change it to the image background but the default is back to plain old white again. I really hope they keep that novice designer in check from now on. Change is good but with all the resources and money Google has they should be able to do better than this!

ps. I’m clearly not alone in this…….!  link

Usability

Wikipedia has a nice definition when it comes to ‘usability’ in relation to computer science:

“the elegance and clarity with which the interaction with a computer program or a web site is designed”

A very, very important part of designing applications and websites and at the same time also one of the most difficult things to achieve. People often think that coming up with the technical stuff, the way things work, is what makes designing so difficult. Partly it is, but I think the real hard work is in making things work in a way that is both logical and intuitive to the user as well as technically advanced. Face it, the best applications aren’t necessarily the ones that are technically the most advanced or best looking. No, the real winners are those that the user likes to use, and what a user likes to use is often something simple. Something he can understand.

So why is it so hard? Well because developers like to be advanced, they like to offer everything they’ve got and most importantly they think differently. A developer is used to solving puzzles all day long. “How am going to do that while x and y and z……..” or “Mmm….changing this influences v which in turn causes w“. They’ve got complicated Functional Designs to adhere too and existing code that needs to be incorporated and they are used to working in lots of different environments. In doing so they quickly learn not to think ‘ordinary’. In fact the best trade a good developer could have is to think ‘outside-the-box’!

The problem is that normal users are not trained like that. For them an application sometimes is nothing more than a brightly coloured screen with lots of information and buttons. Understanding what that information is there for and how clicking the buttons will cause the application to work, is often a big mystery to them. Especially users that are not used to working with computers.

Most users tend to think in very distinct patterns. They like actions and buttons they recognize from other applications or settings and expect them to do more or less the same. So clicking the “Exit” button should result in closing the application, stopping any actions going on and maybe saving anything still open. If an “Exit” button starts doing other things, like showing the user a popup congratulating him with his birthday, you would get really confused users and they would lose trust in your application pretty soon.

Sounds logical you think? Well you’d say so…..

About a year ago I was in session where a developer of a large International company presented a prototype of some new functionality in an application. While going through a Wizzard like set of screens I suddenly noticed something. At the bottom of the screen two buttons were located. “PREVIOUS” and “NEXT”. Nothing wrong there you think?

You don’t see it?
Let me explain with a second picture:

Do you see it now? 
Now this example is an obvious one but building a usable and intuitive application is really hard work. A great book on website usability is “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug. Not only is it really informative it’s also really funny if you’re a developer yourself. You’ll start recognizing the pitfalls you’ve stepped in yourself (Yes, I’m absolutely talking about myself here). Check it out, it’s certainly worth it!

p.s. By looking up his site for this post I found out Steve Krug wrote a second one called “rocket surgery made easy” on how to do usability testing yourself. I ordered it immediatly!