Category Archives: User Experience

I want my apple to be technically savvy

A lot of people seem to be getting all bent out of shape at the prospect of technology replacing humans, or in some cases the fear that they will not just replace us but repress us. Whilst Stephen Hawking is predicting that AI (artificial intelligence) is the biggest long term threat to humankind, many people are more concerned about the more immediate threat to manual and lower skilled jobs. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons, the first being that the idea technology is only just about to replace humans is rather behind the times, and secondly because some of my recent experiences as a consumer make me scream for something more automated as the human run ones were infuriating.

I recently attended a conference called ‘Agile on the Beach’. It was a very enjoyable couple of days surrounded by peers and colleagues from the world of IT (and other sectors) discussing the approaches, benefits and culture of the agile way of working. One of the keynote speakers, Dave Farley (a pioneer of continuous delivery), discussed his three laws and one of them was rather apt…”People are rubbish”. What he meant by this is not that people are incapable, but that by our nature we make mistakes, we overlook things, we are infallible. It is true. In recent years Moore’s Law has allowed technology and software to progress to a point where the world is a drastically different place to where it was only ten years ago. We have replaced a secretary who opened the post and replied to correspondence with an iPhone and auto-messaging. We have replaced people on a construction line with automated machines. We have replaced health & safety officers with failsafe software. The list goes on and on. And that is somewhat the point. The idea that technology is going to start replacing people is old hat, because it has been going on pretty much since the beginning of time. We aren’t in some position where suddenly this is going to happen, it is just the natural evolution of society and technology. A good example is that a large proportion of us now use self-service checkouts at the supermarket, where we would have previously had a person sat at the checkout swiping our items for us. This has been going on ever since we invested industry. Once upon a time we used to row our ships, but then we invented steam engines. We hauled massive stones with hundreds of stoneage men, until we invented boats and realised we could roll them along on logs. At each step of our technological evolution we have replaced people with technology and in each case the people have moved on to new roles. So I don’t think we are yet at the point where we are all going to become obsolete.

But one of the things that did surprise me not so long ago was the lack of an automated experience at Apple. I recently had to go to the Apple store to have the screen replaced on my iPhone. I booked the appointment online and that experience was completely self-serve and automated. So what was then surprising is arriving at the Apple store, the mecca of trend setting and sleek experiences in technology to find it all rather backward. Having not been to an Apple store before I made my way to the ‘Genius Bar’ and sat on a stool awaiting someone to ‘check me in’. There wasn’t any guidance around to tell me the process so I waited for a staff member to help me. And I waited…and waited…and waited.

During my ten minute wait, for that is what it ended up being, I noticed at least half a dozen members of staff just stood by the shelves of products. This perplexed me as I am still unsure exactly what purpose they served. At one point I did see one of them talk to a customer browsing one of the products but after a short chat that I wasn’t privvy to the staff member resumed her security guard like stance and re-found her bored expression. At the same time no less than four separate members of staff wondered by me, determinedly ignored my attempts to grab their attention and generally seemed determined to prove that whilst they were apparently geniuses they were also rather dim!

Eventually I got the message that I wasn’t going to get any proactive help from the staff at Apple and so sought out someone who finally helped me check in and so my problem was dealt with. But as I then wondered around the shopping mall for an hour, waiting for my phone to be repaired and dwelling on the experience I’d just had I realised how counterintuitive it was. Why on earth does the biggest technology company in the world have an experience that is so uncoordinated and relying on people who are quite clearly letting down the side? Certainly my opinion of Apple employees was diminished to the point where I am almost entirely convinced they don’t really care about the customers at all. And that really isn’t great for a company that prides itself on providing the best user experience. With the technology they have at their disposal surely the experience at an Apple store should go more like this…

I turn up to the store and immediately make my way to one of the iCheck terminals. The bluetooth technology means that the terminal instantly picks up the signal from my iPhone and welcomes me, asking if I’d like to checkin. It guides me through a few quick screens and then tells me that I have been checked in and that they aren’t quite ready for me yet but a message will be sent to my phone at the correct time and that I can browse in the meantime. As I browse around the other products they have on offer I am able to select a complimentary beverage from the iDrink machine. As I’m fiddling with one of the latest gadgets my phone starts to buzz in my pocket. I take it out and a message is telling me to make my way to the Genius bar to a specific stool. As I get there a member of staff is waiting to take the device from me and already knows exactly what the problem is. They inform me that the phone will be ready in an hour and hand me a little device that will alert me when it is ready to collect.

This is just a snippet into how technology could make my experience better. Going to the Apple store was a frustrating experience. It was uncoordinated, awkward and I felt unloved as a customer, but the experience I have just described would make me feel very well looked after indeed. So what is the moral of this blog? Well there are a couple…the first is don’t fear technology is going to replace us because often it actually improves our lives, and history has taught us that it doesn’t replace us, there are just different jobs that we then take. And the second? Well the second moral of this blog is that Apple should employ me to transform their in store experience!

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Google Is Your Friend?

Richard Branson founded a tremendously successful brand in Virgin, based primarily on the principle that he looked after his employees, his employees looked after the customers, the customers looked after the profits and the profits looked after the share holders. It is a simple principal and one that works. If your staff are happy then they will do a good job, which in turn means your customers get a good service. So on and so, the company does well. So why is it then that so many big brands these days seem to be neglecting the most basic of customer needs?

Today it was announced that EE are going to be fined one million pounds for poor customer service. Well about time. I have moaned before about the appalling state of the usability on their online self service portal. It was one of the many reasons that I moved away from the provider when my mobile came up for renewal last year. But it isn’t just EE. The monopoly holding telecomm providing BT are well overdue for a massive fine. They seem to have developed a reputation for appalling customer service and seem to rely on their infrastructure monopoly to see them through. I know countless people who have been left with no service for weeks, to be offered compensation to the amount of £1.50. Is that really how you treat a treasured customer? But BT have been doing it for years. Let me share my own experience of BT with you, which is the sole reason I wouldn’t even let them come and clean out my toilet, let alone provide me with any services. Following a series of incorrect bills and service outages, where I had to make calls on my mobile, I finally managed to speak to a manager. He assured me they would refund all of the costs I had incurred. I took this very helpful mans name and a call reference and then waited for the remuneration I had been promised. And of course it didn’t arrive. What did happen was when I phones up to query it I was told that no such person existed and that wasn’t a valid call reference! The threat of legal action on the back of this fraud was enough to ensure my contract was cancelled, leaving my account in £2.61 credit. They have been merrily writing to tell me this every month for six years now. I wonder how much that has cost them?

This one little example of not just rock bottom, but non-existent customer service, shows not only a lack of engagement with the concept that making your customer happy is actually good for your business, but also shows an astounding lack of respect for the customer as well. As a result I will never use the company again. I won’t even start about the BT engineer who was trespassing on my property a couple of months ago, and when I asked him why he told me to “fuck off!”. That is top quality staffing in a fully branded BT Openreach uniform. Top marks all round.

But customer service is not just about the person on the end of the phone. And for every example of a tragic customer service team there is an example of a very helpful and pleasant team. But that is not the be all and end all of customer service. We now live in a world where self service online is a massive part of how we engage with our chosen providers. In fact in some cases that will be on the only way we ever engage with them. So the question is, why do so many of them make it so hard for us?

There is a common saying “Google is your friend”. And of course it is. We can go to an incredibly simple interface – a single search box – but in what we want to know about and we will get back results. Often before we’ve even finished typing! What is not to love about that? So why is it that, when they have proven that they can develop such simple and clever things, do they insist on the rest of their products being so damn difficult to use? A bone of contention I have with online services is when they have been built in a way where it is almost impossible to find how to do something. And when you mercifully do find some instructions on how to do it they refer to the previous version. It is beyond frustrating. Don’t get me started on PayPal, who represent a an example of some of the worst online experience I have ever found. But back to Google. Take the simple act of setting up a Google Places account. Trying to find where to manage the wallet settings, or where to shut down the account (I realise it is not in their interests to help you do this) is almost impossible. And considering the prompt to do this came from an email from them, you’d expect a link in the email taking you directly to the right place. But no, that is apparently too hard for the company who have developed the most complex search algorithms in the world to handle. It seems that the concept that smart people have no common sense is indeed alive and well at Google. In this case Google is definitely not my friend. It’s my annoying little friend that won’t do anything I’m asking of it!!

I have spent the majority of my career being concerned with trying to make an experience as intuitive and simple as possible. Whether that be a business process, an interface or a video. The general principle of simple is best works. And making it easy and simple for people to do everything also works. Even if the customer wants to close their account with you, make it as easy as possible to do this. Because at the end of the day they will remember that and may come back. If you make it almost impossible for them to do it then their last memory will be knowing that they were justified in leaving such an awful brand. Instead make their last memory a delightful one, because they will leave with that good memory and then when they are looking for a supplier again they may just come back. At the end of the day, not many people leave a supplier because they are happy with their experience. Plenty though can tell you why they would never use a particular supplier ever again!

IE – that is, the bane of our lives!

One of the obstacles to progress in digital is the limitations placed upon us by the tools available to users – the browsers and devices. In a perfect world all devices and browsers would use the same code base. We could write some code and we would know that every device and browser would treat it in exactly the same way. But of course we don’t live in a perfect world, instead each developer of a browser or device treats code slightly differently and this adds overheads to projects because we then have to text against each of these. This is why standards like HTML5 and CSS3 are introduced, they are supported across the board (by all the major browsers). But the other problem we have is with legacy versions of browsers. Unfortunately older versions of browsers don’t support newer versions of code, which leaves us with two choices when developing new things:

  1. Use older technologies which limit creativity and make it harder to achieve a good result
  2. Build something that has a ‘graceful fallback’ for browsers that are older

The problem with the above is you have to make a compromise either way, option 1 limits the experience and option 2 adds budget and testing. Of course the 3rd option is to ignore older browsers…which may or may not be at your own peril.

So the online world is frustrating for developers, to say the least. But one particular browser has traditionally caused a lot more problems…and for each generation there is a new version to cause issues. Of course I speak of Internet Explorer, a browser that has become synonymous with cursing developers and irritated clients, inflated budgets and frustrating user experiences. When I first started out in digital the real problem was IE6, which at the time was still used by a lot of bigger organisations despite the fact IE8 was out. Thankfully this relic browser was retired a few years ago but with the emergence of HTML5 and CSS3 IE7 then became the new 6.

We are currently in the throes of developing a new CMS system, which utilizes a lot of the real time JavaScript technology AJAX. This has not only presented us with lots of problems in IE8, but also in the latest versions as well. We are in the position where we have to test the system in Firefox, Chrome and Safari once and then basically rebuild the code just so that IE will use the technology in the same way. Frustrating doesn’t cover it!

A couple of years ago an Australian shopping site got so fed up with the overheads imposed by Microsoft’s browser that they decided to impose a tax on users of the older IE7 browser unless they switched to another browser. Obviously Microsoft weren’t impressed, but maybe they should have taken note of the reasons behind the move.

One of the reasons this has occurred is no doubt that for years Microsoft had an unchallenged share in the market. Pretty much every PC in the world came with Windows and IE installed and for the most part people didn’t know there were alternatives. For Microsoft’s part, they have time and time again chosen to interpret the standards differently to the other browsers, causing issues for developers and bad experiences for users. An example is their interpretation of multiple file uploads. Most browsers would allow you to hold down Ctrl and multi-select files by clicking on them. Microsoft decided, in their infinite wisdom, that in IE you would have to select a file, add it to the queue, then go back and browser for another file, add it, and so on. A ridiculous experience.

Microsoft’s perceived arrogance in this area is being tested now. They continue to make the same mistakes and cause the same problems as they always have done, but they are being forced to change. One of the reasons for this is that IE no longer has a vast majority stake in the browsing market. Gone are the days of dominance, now Firefox and Chrome has made massive advances and on MAC no one would contemplate using IE anyway…lest their MAC would literally shut itself down out of embarrassment. The other reason is that users are becoming more savvy. Users realise that IE isn’t a very good experience when compared to other browsers and so make a choice not to use them. Of course, the growth in the use of devices that don’t have IE as their browser has also helped here. Hopefully Microsoft will take further note and try to converge rather than diverge and let us develop better experiences more easily and cheaply than they currently do.

But a word of warning to finish with. For years Microsoft created a rod for it own back by choosing not to go with the flow and insist on their own proprietary way of doing things. Sound familiar Apple? Already in development we are seeing issues arising that are not seen in other browsers. For example, the way Safari deals with PDF downloads can cause issues without the right plugins. Apple only accept their own formats of certain file types as well. And of course, they are renowned as a company a company that rejects all other tech except their own.

Of course it is unlikely their will ever been a completely unified approach to code and with more and more devices being used this is only going to get worse. Luckily they mostly stick to the standards, but there will always be problems that we need to solve as developers and that is why the job isn’t easy!

Putting the U in UX

We bandy round the term ‘UX’ or ‘User Experience’ quite freely, but what does this actually mean? Often people talk of ‘good UX’ and refer to examples where the experience is obviously very good but there are few examples actually shown that demonstrate why ‘UX Design’ is so important.

Firstly, let me state what I believe good user experience design is. Quite simply it is designing with the end user in mind, so that what they see and use is intuitive. It is very easy to design and build something that is completely functional but actually very difficult to use. It is even easier to design something that is incredible to look at but the average user has next to no idea how to use.

So lets look at how problems arise when this approach is not taken. I have a phone contract with EE and having received some junk mail from them recently decided to use their online portal. We’ll put aside the issue whereby clicking on their link loaded a dead page. After a stroppy tweet to them it seemed to be working again. But having logged in problems soon started to arise. The main task I wanted to achieve was to see when I could upgrade my phone. This is where the problems started.

EE1

You can’t really fault the general design of the page. It is neat, easy to see, on brand and attractive. However, there is no where obvious on this screen that states that my portal is currently restricted, except for the small ‘Access Level: Restricted’ link in the account details section. This would be useful except that clicking the information icon doesn’t do anything!

So I carried on along my merry way and clicked on the upgrade options link. This loaded a new screen:

EE2

Success, this is what I want. Except that when I click on any of the links literally nothing happens. And to make things worse, most of the navigation items in the header also don’t seem to work. It was only when I did a print screen that the prompt text appeared giving some information that my account needed to be activated, but that didn’t even fit onto the screen properly.

Having stumbled blindly upon the problem I then returned to the account details screen and found the small link that allowed me to upgrade my account to full access.

EE3

But even now problems occurred. Having put my account number in, which seemed a bit of an odd step to have to take seeing as I was already logged into my account, I clicked OK and nothing seemed to happen. There was no on screen acknowledgement and the content just got blanked. I then input the details again and then on clicking OK it said that the account was already activated. I returned to the account details screen to see that it did indeed now say I had full access. I was then able to discover that I wasn’t yet eligible for an upgrade (sigh).

This experience is a classic example of how little things have big impacts when it comes to user experience. This isn’t the snazzy, sexy, all signing and dancing type of UX, it is the practical kind that almost all of us come into contact with. EE have spent a huge amount of time (and no doubt money) creating a nice brand, but they let themselves down massively here by simply ignoring the simple things. An absolute basic is to give on screen prompts, help and information that works and is obvious. I am a very savvy user and yet I found this frustrating and difficult to use. Less savvy people would no doubt have been on the phone to the helpline or simply would have given up.

The EE portal site is a classic example of where even 30 mins of user testing and IA input would make this experience so much better. It is a lesson we should all learn from. UX is not just about the big things, it is fundamentally about the little things. A seamless experience is created when a user feels they have everything they need to do the task simply. In the case of EE the site is clunky and has bugs and they have tried to just ‘tick the box’ for things like prompt messages, when they should have actually dealt with them properly.

As web designers it is our responsibility to put ourselves in the shoes of the users. That is hard when you are attached and close to a project for a long period of time, which is why user testing exists. It doesn’t take long to do, but it will make a world of difference to the users.

Running towards a virtual future.

I enjoy running and in the last couple of years I’ve started to enter a few races. More than anything else the driver for me is to stay fit and at the same time challenge myself. One of the best ways for me to do this is to enter events, as this gives me something to train for and thus prevents me wallowing on the sofa watching re-runs of Grey’s Anatomy.

Recently I entered my first virtual run. This isn’t some way of pretending you are running when you are actually sat on the sofa enjoying McDreamy and McSteamy. No, it is the growing phenomenon of running races that instead of having a fixed venue simply have a time period and in order to compete you record and post your entry during a given time period.

In this case I entered the Tweethearts 5k. This is a new one setup by my wife and some of her friends to raise money for the very worthy Moonwalk later this year. It was an interesting experience. Barely two weeks earlier I ran in the Richmond 5k, a race in Richmond park that attracts in the region of 150 runners and is a great occasion. The two experiences couldn’t be more different.

On the day of the Richmond race you arrive early and watch on, stretching in the park and trying to stay warm, queuing for one last go at the toilets, before congregating by the start line, watching the minutes tick by before the 10am start time arrives. The klaxon sounds and off you go, a runner amongst others, maneuvering for position, finding your pace and picking out the next runner in front that you want to catch and pass.

On the day of the virtual run I had breakfast, watched the morning news and even an episode of Games of Thrones before deciding that late morning would be the start time for my run. I got my running things together, took my time to select my playlist and stretch my legs out. I even waited a few minutes more for the rain to abate before heading out on to my usual route, devoid of any running marshals cheering you on, only cars passing by.

The two experiences couldn’t be more different. Richmond is a proper race, where you are competing alongside others, seeing them and sharing an experience with them. There are people around you, cheering you on and at the end you get handed your medal. It is a group experience that is entirely tangible from the moment it starts to the moment it finishes. The virtual run became something more personal. It is you and the road, you are there in that moment because you chose to be and no one else is there with you.

For me the virtual run experience was an interesting one. As someone competitive the Richmond run is great. The irresistible urge to try and catch the person in front of me, to try and get higher up the finishing list, is part of the thrill. All of this is stripped away in the virtual run and instead I am simply racing against myself. The pride comes in presenting my time to the rest of the community at the end of the day.

Virtual runs are very popular in the USA but I can’t help but think that they currently lack something that makes a running race what it is. In a world where our relationships, our entertainment, even our jobs are moving to a virtual model, the challenge for virtual runs is to try and capture the same excitement of the real races. The technology is there to allow us, as communities online, to have that excitement. Apps and websites can be created to allow real time competition between entrants. For me that is the key. I want to compete with my fellow runners, to see how they’re doing and to see if I can better them…or even just better myself.

Would I do another virtual run? Yes I would. The experience was interesting, it opened up new groups of people online to talk to and interact with. Do I think the virtual run is the future of running races? Not yet. The experience needs to be refined. I like running and a virtual run, as much as any other, gives me something to train for. But it doesn’t yet provide the experience, the excitement, the challenge and the occasion that a real run does. The online experience needs to be evolved to fill this void, to fill us with the urgency and excitement that we would otherwise feel when being in that place with those people. The gaming world provides this, so why not bring some of that gamification into the virtual running world? It will happen, of that I have no doubt. For now I will have to be content with knowing that I ran a good time and waiting for my medal to arrive in the post!

Are wireframes less useful than sketches?

I was recently watching a presentation where a deck of wireframes were introduced as:

Wireframes are intended to show navigation, user journeys and page content structure but do not imply exact layouts or any design approach.

I have a problem with this because it begins to make me question how useful a wireframe is. Wireframes came out of an older world when websites were more static than they are now and, if we’re honest, designs were less trend setting as well. Having worked over the last few years with some very good IA teams and some top notch planning and design ‘thinkers’, I have had the luxury of seeing how the pre-design process can work at its very best (and when it fails as well).

So lets address the statement in a little more detail. I agree with the first part, that wireframes should show navigation and user journeys. This is precisely the point of doing pre-design work. Wireframes, sketches, prototypes or whatever else you use, the point is to instill a level of thought about the end user needs before applying the ‘colouring in’. Similarly, planning out the user journey is paramount at this point because if it isn’t thought through properly at the start then you are potentially left with a site that isn’t optimal for the user groups. Therefore the wireframes / sketches should be mapping out the on page real-estate to reflect where content will be for the user, where the calls to action are and how the user will therefore interact with and move through the website. This is where the content structure starts to come in as well.

But this is the point at which I start to have a problem with the statement. One of the most annoying things for an Information Architect, UX Planner or anyone else in that pre-design role is when they spend a lot of time thinking through the page to then see a graphical designer produce something that has changed the layout of the page. I have seen this a few times and when questioning the designer about their motives often they have just said “I felt it would work better this way”. The problem with this is that the previous work has not just been thrown together on a whim, it has been heavily thought through, researched, user tested, and iterated with the client (or at least it should have been). All this could then be undone in one swift sweep of the Photoshop paintbrush. Now, to be pedantic, yes the layouts will not be pixel perfect, but the layouts should be almost exact, down to the positioning, the proportion of the screen that an element will use and indeed the general layout of that element in terms of the content.

Further to this, I also believe that this stage is the first stage of design. It might not apply the ‘sexy’ final design, but at sketch level (and I advocate sketches rather than wireframes – I will explain the difference in a minute) the styles that will be used should start to be applied because this is key in identifying prominence on the page and guiding users to certain areas before others. For example, a sketch can show how a background colour can be used to highlight one section, or how button styles can be applied across the site. It can show icons, possibly even the actual style of icons. It can show general typography approaches, and it can show colours. What happens after the sketching is that the designer then has a crystal clear brief for what they need to come up with. They can then take this and make it look amazing by refining it, tightening up the lines, making it pixel perfect for the grid system, applying the typography with actual fonts and colours and perfecting the imagery and icons.

The key to the sketch > design > development approach is that it is iterative and representative from the first step. And that is a key point. One of the things that often causes issues in a project is the client not being able to visualise what the final page will look like until a long way in to the process. Often this is caused because wireframes are too paired back, they don’t show enough of the styling approach and this then doesn’t resonate. It is also a problem if they have seen a wireframe and made assumptions about how this will be realised in a graphical design, only to be surprised and disappointed when a designer has come up with something quite different. It comes down to effective management of expectations, on both sides. The earlier you can understand what a client likes, holistically (design, layout, user journey) the better. This doesn’t for one minute limit the designers creative ability. In fact, it should help the designer as they don’t have to worry about the UX planning. I would incidentally always recommend that the designer is involved in the UX planning and sketching (if they aren’t the one doing it).

Ok, one final line to draw then. What is the difference between a wireframe and a sketch? Well, put quite simply, a sketch applies more styling than a wireframe. Whilst a wireframe will literally be a collection of black lines and boxes on a page, a sketch will apply more. It will have an element of design thought attached. It implies not only layout and journey but also iconography use, colour use, block level styling (e.g. background colours, lines, rounded corners vs square corners, etc.). And this is important because this is what your client starts to get excited about. A sketch starts to show how the page is actually going to look and means that they can actually visualise what they are going to get. It might even use example and representative content. It is truly iterative as it shows the first step of the design, meaning the graphical treatment should then be a logical step forward rather than a jolt. Wireframes just don’t provide this. They aren’t as useful, as warm and as fluffy. When it comes to it, wireframes simply don’t excite as much as sketches do!