Why UX should mean User Expectations

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As UX professionals there’s little that we do that isn’t steeped in expectations. Sure, we can have high-minded discussions about design, the vision of Steve Jobs, and of course Henry Ford’s ideas about faster horses, but what we’re really talking about are expectations. Whether we’re talking about the expectations around the speed or performance of a website, app or product or around the design, functionality and usability of those offerings. There’s just no way around it. That’s why, for my part, when I think about UX, I think of it as user expectations rather than user experience and I think that you should, too.

Think about it — Many of the practices that make up the discipline of user experience are, in fact, centered on establishing user expectations. Whether, we’re talking about personas, use-cases or journey maps, these all revolve around establishing user expectations. Additionally, user-centered design, which is really at the core of UX is all about getting a user’s perspective on what they expect through research and iterative development, ultimately delivering on user expectations.

It’s all about expectations.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the term ‘manage expectations’. For a long time, I thought of it as almost a pejorative perspective, like I had to sell something that wasn’t quite up to what a user wanted, and at times that’s exactly what I had to do. At other times, though, especially when I could get in front of a project or an initiative before it got off the ground, managing expectations became something entirely different. The managing of expectations became a practice in determining expectations, researching user needs and making them part of a product vision.

Many organizations still try to manage expectations as “requirements” during this phase of a project (waterfall), but the speed at which a project tends to move and the maturing realization that not everybody can visualize what they want in a software, app, etc… 6-12 months before they ever see even a paper prototype (show don’t tell) has increased the need to undertake UX in a different way. Many organizations are doing this as “lean UX” or building a UX approach into some form of agile software development. In my experience I think that we have a ways to go here, but were on the right track.

The right track being the maturing of the UX discipline and building out that discipline across organizations to capture user expectations and include them as part of the product vision… That’s why, for me, as a UX professional, there are times when the work that I’m really doing is researching and establishing user expectations, that work alone, defines the user experience, and for that matter designs the user experience, too. After all, if you don’t know what the user expects how can you design a user experience that suits those expectations?

The privilege of service

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Today, I began thinking about a blog post that I wrote onmy mattborghi.com website back in 2009 – The tool of choice, the privilege of service – It feels like a dog’s age since I wrote down those words, and it was well before the idea of ‘user experience design’ was getting used as much as it does today (corroberated by Google Trends, below), but the ideas there were as true then as they are now.

uxd_google_trend

Let me set the stage…

Google was the king of search, kind of like they are now. Microsoft had just released Bing and they were working very hard to knock Google off the search mountain. Many folks thought that they would succeed. As a heavy Google user then, well before mobile/Android ubiquity, I didn’t think Microsoft would be able to pull it off.

Back then, I wrote:

The thing that’s easy to forget is Google did next to no marketing for their search (interesting Salon article from 1999 that touches on this a bit, as well as a 1998 Cnet article here). I know for me, back in 1999 or 2000, numerous people recommended that I use Google, as I had been a big user of Yahoo! for everything. Eventually, Google became my search tool of choice, not just for me, but for a lot of folks. Was it because it worked well? Was it because it was lean and uncluttered? Was it because it was quick? Honestly, it’s probably some combination, but I know that value that Google offered came to me through word-of-mouth, and when I tried the tool, it delivered as promised. It was no frills, just a simple tool that worked well.

What I wrote here really is the essence of what user experience design is all about. Google worked well, it was lean, uncluttered and quick; It wasn’t bogged down with ads or Flash graphics… It just worked, quickly and the results were good. Google understood user experience and user-centered design, whether intuitively, or otherwise, and that was the tool that they brought to the marketplace.

This isn’t new news, but rather a history lesson, of sorts, to remember the roots of user experience and the benefits of user-centered design.

More from 2009:

Again, Google did very little marketing; they put something out there that worked, and people came to it. Clearly, they knew what people wanted, and how to add value… to serve is a privilege, and if your tool is chosen, then it’s bonus and bonus! Create the tool of choice, and cherish the privilege of service.

The fact is any company that stops thinking about, or doesn’t consider their, customer is going to go out of business; whether they’re selling Web services or hot dogs…

As true today, in 2016, as it was in 2009, I’m reminded that as a designer and then a design manager, my goal was always to ensure that we were serving the users, to ensure that we were delivering the best possible user and customer experience possible by delivering the best possible solution. That means that you have to be conservative and not just jump on every new trend. Try things out and see what works. Of course, there’s a balance between this and analysis paralysis, but you don’t want to be constantly throwing new tools at your users or your customers… vet the tools with research and always try to undertake a user-centered design approach. It’s not always easy, as simplicity is almost always complicated, especially when you’re working with pre-web companies, but the privilege to serve is a great and noble pursuit. And if you get your chance, it just might make you one of the richest and most successful organizations in the world.

Threefold path to UX bliss or what being snowed in taught me about UX

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I’ve been snowed in before. If you live in a region that gets any kind of regular snow, then you’ve probably been snowed in before, too. Generally, there are phases to the thing. First, you’re kind of excited by it, the anticipation; you get sort of a cozy feeling and you want to warm up near a fire with some hot cocoa and, I don’t know, maybe, if you’re me, a copy Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. But, eventually, the fire dies, with all the remaining wood covered with snow, the hot cocoa no longer is, well, hot… and Steinbeck, just induces its own kind of discontent. For the final phase, a decision diagram could be inserted…

I could:

A.) Let my restlessness and agitation grow; 

B.) Surrender to circumstance, put on a recording of Claude Debussy’s Images for Solo Piano and crawl under a great big down comforter for a long winter’s nap.

flowchart

Ahh… Option B sounds really good right now… Unfortunately, if you would have guessed Option A, you’d be right. I’ve done both at different times, but this time I went with Option A, growing restlessness and agitation… And while this is not generally a state of clarity, at least not for me, this time it was as I was given a fresh new perspective on user experience, or the threefold path to UX bliss.

So, let’s look at the phases, or the threefold path, within the context of using a new website, app or really anything that you interact with:

  1. Anticipation (Seeds of expectation begin to germinate)
  2. Use (Seeds have become full expectation)
  3. Acceptance/Refusal (Expectations met/not met)

Any user experience begins with anticipation, it could be weeks before a website or video game comes out, or it could be the ten seconds that it takes you to download a new app from the Apple Store. In either instance there is anticipation and with that anticipation, seeds of expectation begin to germinate. Now, sure, there are some folks who come at things with an open mind, but mostly UX, as a discipline, is not designed for this rarefied cognitive superhero, but rather the everyday schlub like you and me who wants stuff to work like all the other stuff we use.

Use is where the rubber meets the road. Does the thing meet the user’s expectations? This is why we do research, this is why we measure and this is why we test. We want to ensure that we’ve nailed the expectations and met them. When you talk about a minimum viable product, you’re talking about the minimum viable expectations. What can be released that’s enough to keep the user interested and satisfied knowing that we can’t give them everything they want with the first release.

Finally, we’re at the acceptance/refusal — Will the user accept it or refuse it? Were there expectations met or not? Of course, when we talk about UX, what we’re talking about is always clearing this hurdle of acceptance easily and clearly with few notes and fewer revisions. After all UX is iterative, so what may have been missed will be caught the next time through; that’s the goal of UX and the heart of user-centered design which is the less buzzwordy bedrock of what it means to do user experience work.

Ultimately, what we’re talking about are expectations. UX is the work of defining, designing and testing for those expectations. Experience and expectation both begin with “ex” the Latin preposition for “out of, or from”. Whether you’re talking about the experience that comes ‘out of’ the expectations, or experience that comes ‘from’ the expectations, there’s little distinction, which makes the user-centered design aspect critical to a successful UX, or put another way creates the UX bliss.

I’m still trying to recover from that cabin fever, and I hope that I’m not snowed in anytime soon, but if I am I’m definitely going to temper my expectations and make few plans. In fact, I heard there’s another storm front moving in next week. Now, where was the last place I saw that CD of Claude Debussy’s Images for Solo Piano…

p.s.

In case you’re curious:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mskURYO7DiA]

You don’t know me – Why user interviews matter

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At USAGE, one of our favorite things to do, when doing UX evaluations, is to talk to actual users. But it wasn’t so long ago, in a land pretty much where we’re sitting right now, that considered user interviews around website usage inconceivable.

Them: ‘Our website users don’t want to talk to us about how they’re using the website! That’s crazy! Just make the website pop!

Us: “Umm… Ok.

Sigh… how many times have we heard that… Isn’t it great that times have changed and folks now understand the value of talking to your users; in fact a whole industry is growing around the idea. Excellent!

UX is growing and we’re excited to be part of it. Generally, we focus on the user experience of human-computer interaction, but as time goes on our user relationship with all manners of product and service is being scrutinized, evaluated and reconsidered. User interviews are a really great way to get to the core issues of their usage, but, as Jakob Nielsen, the Father of Usability states:

“What users say and what they do are different…”

It’s true that what users say and what they do are different, but it’s still one of the best ways to get into the mind of the user.

Admittedly, user interviews are more art than science and this is one of the reasons that some folks like them, while other folks would prefer to use moderated and unmoderated remote user testing, or some other form of quantitative testing — the classic qualitive (user interviews) vs. quantitive (A/B testing) research dilemma. At USAGE, we prefer both and take a mixed-method approach. The science is nice, but it’s kind of cold, we prefer the warmth of human interaction; this approach creates checks & balances that gives a space for the quantitative information but allows it to be tempered by qualitative information.

If you haven’t done a lot of user interviews they can be tricky to get off the ground, but Charles Liu gives some great pointers in his article Never Ask What they Want – 3 Better Questions to Ask In User Interviews, where he suggests these three questions:

  • What are you trying to get done? (Gather context)
  • How do you currently do this? (Analyze workflow)
  • What could be better about how you do this? (Find opportunities)

These are great questions to get the conversation flowing. You are quickly able to determine what a user’s expectations are around how something works, but also how they’d like it work. As the user talks about their experiences, you get an insight into their world and you’re able to get a feel for what it’s like to walk in their shoes. In our experience this is the best possible way to get to know your users. While a mixed approach is necessary and pros & cons abound, there’s no substitute for getting to know your users and having that one on one relationship with them.

User-centered design hugs you back

 

 

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(Snazzy graphic courtesy of Daniel Kim)

We’ve talked a bit about user experience, so far, specifically with the 10 promises of user experience design, but at the core of UX is the dedication to the philosophy of User-Centered Design (UCD), and that’s the key ingredient to getting UX off the ground at most organizations.

UCD at a high level is an ongoing, iterative process that requires planning, research, design, adaptation and measurement, basically on an infinite loop throughout the life of a product or service. I won’t even say that an organization needs to be dedicated to it operationally, let alone have an operationally-mature UCD practice in place, but embracing the philosophy is the starting point.

But… wait… Actually, before I go any further, I’m getting ahead of myself and need to step back…

Embracing the philosophy of UCD is important for one specific kind of organization, a type of organization that falls into what Paul Boag called in his excellent book, Digital Adaptation, the “pre-web” organization. The pre-web organization is what we’re most familiar with at USAGE, that’s because “post-web” organizations were born thinking web and mobile-first; UCD is built into the fabric of these organizations, so there’s little we can say about them for this article. Instead, we’ll focus on the pre-web organization, as there are many lifetimes of work to be done there.

These pre-web organizations, very slowly, are getting the joke: A great user experience pays. Disney taught us this, Apple taught us this, Zappos taught us this and so, organically, organizations have learned to adopt this themselves. Adoption is hard, because adoption means a user-centric perspective. Coca Cola didn’t ask people what kinds of ingredients people wanted, they gave them what they were selling, but learned a valuable lesson with New Coke. Henry Ford introduced nearly a dozen models of cars, before the Model T, the others were too expensive for the average person… While they might not have started off being user-centric, their success would depend on this critical pivot.

As I write this, though, I’m reminded of the Nielsen Norman Group article, “UX Without User Research Is Not UX, specifically, the area of the article called “Paying UX Lip Service”. This line really says a lot about current state of UX at most organizations. Folks can talk about it, praise it, even evangelize for it but the actual work of organizational UX is no small undertaking and poses unique challenges. Fortunately, that’s where we at USAGE can help.

The first step for any organization is spreading the idea of a user-centered design approach. At a recent O’Reilly Design Conference, Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer at 3M pointed out an equation that really underscored, in a quite manageable way, what’s required to begin changing an organization: “The square root of employees is the number of ambassadors you need for transformation.” So with math not being one of my strong suits I went to work finding a square root calculator to figure out if his anecdote matched my experience, and sure enough it did, it matched our experience at USAGE exactly. So, for example, a company with a thousand employees would need roughly 32 ambassadors to advocate for transformation.

When we work with any organization we immediately go to work figuring out what the feeling is around the idea of a user-centered design approach or how knowledgeable an organization is about UCD or even just researching their users. Most organizations like the idea, after all what’s not to like about getting to know your users and then giving them what they want. Beyond the heady terminology a user-centered approach is really just taking care of your users. Designing something for your users without their involvement is like hugging somebody who doesn’t want to be hugged, user-centered design hugs you back.

The 10 promises of user experience design

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This article began with me referencing a variety of sites and other articles about user experience. I began borrowing ideas that I was going to attribute here, but as I did this, I realized that none of what I found, for me, truly captured the feelings we have at USAGE where user experience is concerned. Much has been written about UX, there’s the oft-referenced Nielsen Norman Group site, and their articles about UX, I also found a great Slideshare presentation that framed Walt Disney as the first UX designer by @josephdickerson a UX Lead at Microsoft, as well as dozens of “commandments” and rules regarding UX, but when I finally put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, as it were, I just didn’t feel like any of those truly captured the promises of UX the way that we view them here at USAGE. So, here goes — The 10 Promises of User Experience design:

1.) Know your users
Knowing your users is rule numero uno for a reason. If you don’t know your users from user interviews, personas, testing, etc… then you’re shooting in the dark. You have to cater the user experience to their usage and their needs.

2.) Focus on your users needs
Focusing on the user needs is the primary thing that one gets out of user and usage research. Understand the user, what they want, how they’re trying to accomplish tasks and what might make their lives a little easier and build that into the design.

3.) Design for the user
Like a series of building blocks, you can’t design for the user if you don’t know your users and their needs. When you know who your users are and what they need, designing for them is a cinch. Also, when you know you’re designing something that will help and serve your users it’s also very satisfying work, but that’s just a sweet little bonus!

4.) Make it seamless
So, you know your users, you know their needs and you’ve got a design that pretty much nails it on all accounts… at least until you’re given some third-party tool that must be integrated, can’t be customized and sticks out like a sore thumb. You have to make the experience as seamless as possible. You’ll note that the title of this bullet isn’t make it absolutely seamless, because that’s impossible, and, anyway, relative… the definition of seamless resides in intention… When you’re working on the user experience, put simply, you do the best you can… and that’s not always perfect.

5.) Set user expectations early on and maintain them consistently
There are many things that you can’t control, but if you set expectations early and do this consistently you can establish a positive user experience. Again, nothing’s perfect, but there are ways that allude to perfection even if you’re not able to achieve it absolutely.

6.) Don’t make users work to figure things out
This one is an allusion to the very first book we here at USAGE read on Usability, Steve Krug’s classic Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. The title of that book pretty much says it all, but I’ve added a bit of specificity to it. If something is designed well then your users won’t have to figure it out and there won’t be much of a learning curve. This could really be part of the next bullet about instructions.

7.) Keep instructions to a minimum
We here at USAGE don’t like designs that require instructions, whether it be a website, a mobile app, or IKEA furniture… Life is short, time is at a premium, we have to do the heavy lifting for users and get the design to a place where they can walk up and do what they need to do. Specifically, as human-computer interaction increases its those products that do this in the first release that will rise to the top.

8.) Measure, Test and Refine
How do you get your product to be highly usable by the first release, well, that’s where measurement, testing and refinements come in. Whether you’re in a pre-launch phase or have a website or app that’s been out there a while, you have to be measuring, testing and refining based on that research. In fact, this brings to mind one of our favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality management who said: “You can’t manage, what you can’t measure.” Measurement is a key to success and testing is just another form measurement. Take all of this and use it to make refinements.

9.) Know what you’re good at and focus on that
Knowing what you’re good at when considering user experience might seem a little counter-intuitive, because of course, you want to serve your users, but just like McDonald’s doesn’t make cars, and Ford doesn’t make hamburgers, don’t try to be something you’re not. Do what you do well and hire out the rest to folks that do it better.This probably fits somewhere within creating a seamless experience, but we felt it was important enough to stand on its own. Play to your strengths.

10.) UX is iterative – Repeat steps 1-9
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. User experience design is iterative; it doesn’t end. It continues on and on for the life of a product or service. Repeat these steps and you’ll be fulfilling the promises of experience design and you’ll always be doing your best to ensure that you’re creating the best possible experience for your users. After all, perfection may be elusive, but making something better is well within reach.

What the heck is web usability, anyway?

Without Jakob Nielsen’s pioneering work on usability and his undying passion for it, USAGE might not even be around, today. Ok. Probably, we wouldn’t be around at all. So, it makes sense to us that our first blog post on the brand, spankin’ new USAGE website be dedicated to Jakob Nielsen’s thoughts on usability and usability heuristics.

In Jessica Miller’s excellent post, How Jakob Nielsen Changed the Face of Usability from the Usability Lab website she notes, quite aptly, that:

“Chris Kringle is the father of Christmas,
Abner Doubleday is the father of Baseball,
Enzo Ferrari is the father of the Supercar.
Jakob Nielsen is the father of Usability.”

It’s true, and it’s pretty much that simple. Jakob Nielsen graduated with a degree in human-computer interaction in the early 1980s, a time very different from now with regard to said human-computer interaction. Personal computers existed, but really this was the period of the mainframe supercomputers that took up entire floors of massive facilities, a fact that makes Nielsen’s ability to forecast what was to come quite exceptional, even if that vision is overshadowed by so much of his other pioneering work; particularly the work he’s done with his Nielsen Norman Group, where they’ve, almost, single-handedly evangelized and spread the gospel of usability and user experience in the age of personal computing, so it’s with that that we dig into one of our favorite areas, the definition of usability and usability heuristics, or as Jakob Nielsen put it, “broad rules of thumb”… rather than specific usability guidelines…

Jakob Nielsen defines the 5 components of usability, thusly:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

He goes further to talk about those ‘broad rules of thumb,’ or the usability heuristics, as:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.

Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

These 5 components of usability and these 10 usability heuristics create the bedrock for what we do here at USAGE and how we evaluate the sites that we work on. This is high level, of course, and there are many considerations when considering various platforms and how user-friendly something is, along with many other specific considerations, but at the core of it Jakob Nielsen’s work is a fundamental ingredient in the secret sauce here at USAGE; it’s this knowledge that we’ve used with customer’s around Lansing, Michigan and throughout the world for over 15 years.