less is not enough

Less is Less - How Cover

OK. So I’m finally almost brave enough to send you in the direction of my very first ever podcast that I did for the Office 2.0 Podcast Jam. (Assuming you haven’t wandered over there and had a listen already.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this ‘cult of less‘ that 37 Signals seems to be leading and whether, in fact, it has an evil side. Well… ok, not an evil side. But is it all as good as it seems?

I started thinking this when I was listening to Peter Morville give the keynote at EuroIA the other weekend. He was pondering the ever increasing abundance of information that we have around us now, and wondering if it was helping us to learn, to make good decisions.

I wondered the same about information architecture and interaction design.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about these web based project management solutions such as BaseCamp and GoPlan and thinking about what they *don’t* do when compared to more complex software such as Microsoft Project.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that there aren’t some *serious* problems with Microsoft Project but it was, for better or worse, instrumental in teaching me how to be a project manager. This is something that neither BaseCamp nor Go Plan could do.

Similarly, we’ve seen some interesting user testing lately that has shown users asking for more complexity to help enable their decision making.

So our natural response as designers, to simplify the interface, may in fact, be reducing the ability of the people using our software or websites to be able to learn, and to make good decisions.

So, that’s the crux of what I’m thinking of. What do we lose with ‘less’? And is it (always) worth it?

If you want to hear the full blow raving version, you can find it here.

I think I sound a bit less like Judith Lucy in this one :)

Image credit: 37 Signals being featured in HOW magazine

How a little change could make a big difference.

I ordered some tickets from Ticketmaster the other day. For reasons known only to them, the only delivery option I have is Secure Mail. A few days ago I got an email or a txt message to let me know that they were planning to make a delivery sometime within a ridiculously large window of time.

SMS from Secure MailOf course, TicketMaster doesn’t let me use my work address for delivery, it has to be the mailing address for my credit card. So, from the very beginning, I had a bad feeling about this. It was a pretty good assumption that I was going to be home when they wanted to make the delivery.

(Why do so many companies work on the utterly flawed idea that so many of us are so able or prepared to not go to work for a day in order to receive their services? Do so many people not work these days?)

This is Secure Mail’s explanation:

Your secure delivery will be made between 9am and 5pm. To increase security our delivery agents constantly change their delivery routes and times which means we are unable to give a specific delivery time.

OK, so security. At least it’s on brand.

This morning, I receive a text message from Secure Mail (Murphy’s Law, not fifteen minutes after I’d left the house to go to work). They informed me that they’d tried to deliver my tickets but, surprise, surprise, I wasn’t there. To rearrange delivery, they said, I should go to their website.

So I did.

Please tell me if you can see what I am supposed to do now?

SecureMail homepage

Yep, that’s the complete set of options on the Secure Mail website.

Where’s the bit that talks about re-delivery, missed a delivery, received an SMS? Any kind of keyword that I would see in this situation and identify that yes, that’s the right section for me.

As it happens, the section I’m supposed to go to is ‘Book your Delivery’. That made no sense to me as I was convinced that this was some kind of a courier service and that the Book Your Service was to initiate a courier service.

From what I can gather, SecureMail lets you know if they have something they need to delivery to you, either by If we are holding a secure mail item for you we will have let you know by text, calling card or letter.

What if, instead of saying ‘arrange delivery’ (even though that’s how the people at Secure Mail might think about it), you put a little section on that page that said something like ‘received an SMS, letter or calling card?’ or ‘did we miss you earlier? need to rearrange a delivery?’

I’m betting that a whole lot more people would find what is actually quite good functionality allowing me to re-schedule the delivery (even to my work address) on a day that suits me.

How could Secure Mail tell that this has worked? Well, I’d be looking for more transactions via the website and fewer phonecalls and contact form submissions. I’d be looking for shorter session times on the website, and less angry and frustrated customers.

OcardoAnd I’d be looking for blog posts the opposite of this – saying how great the Secure Mail service is because it let’s customers have more control over the crazy, annoying ‘we deliver when and where we want to, even though we’re delivering your stuff’ approach that far too many companies take.

More like the good stuff I’ll say one day about Ocardo, who let me choose a 1 hour window for my grocery delivery! What luxury is that. And they let me add items to my list after I’ve submitted my order! See, good delivery service. It can be done!

The trick is putting your customers at the centre of the design process.


heart stoppingly bad user experience

It was a busy day today, so at about 3pm I grabbed my bag and my phone and headed out to grab some lunch. Just as I got out the door, my phone rang. It was an unknown number.

I answered the phone, and a woman said she was from the Police.

She asked me to identify my husband.

Now… perhaps I watch too many episodes of CSI, but when some one says ‘can you identify this person’ it makes me kind of nervous. Particularly when they’re talking about a loved one.

With my past, present and future life flashing before my eyes, I tried as best I could to identify my husband. I asked the woman why she needed me to do this. She said the police were dealing with it and she’d get back to me. She asked me a few more details – was he a white male? What colour was his hair?

Then she put me on hold.

Now… perhaps I was over reacting, but at this stage I was physically shaking and imagining all kinds of horrible things I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

Eventually (and, there was no hold music, just silence) she came back on the line and told me that my husband was using my debit card to pay for a few pounds worth of fuel. He’d lost his wallet on the tube a few days before so I’d loaned him my debit card… and because it said ‘Mrs’ (which, incidentally, I’d never asked for it to say) they’d assumed it was stolen and called the police.

So, for a few minutes, I thought that something dreadful had happened to someone I loved, because of the way that they handled that customer experience.

Now – hours later – I still feel powerful effects of that conversation.

Surely, people who work for the London Police don’t do that to people all day, every day. If so, it’s a miracle any of us are sane.

Surely, if someone had considered personas and user scenarios – there is no way that a call like that would ever have been made.

I whinge a lot on this blog about user experiences that piss me off. But this one has shaken me in an incredibly powerful way.

I’m not writing this so you say ‘oh, poor you’. I’m posting this so you think about how what you do might impact on peoples lives.

User experience is way more than not making my day frustrating. User experience might be not making me confront mortality when I just want to go get a sandwich.

Is that too much to ask?

Where’s the Gantt gone?

Gant Chart

Having been a project manager in a past life, and still working day to day on projects, I watch with interest the deployment of a range of web based project management tools. In a lot of ways it’s like a dream come true. For most of us, Microsoft Project – the only real project management tool available beforehand – is possibly the most over featured piece of software in the world.

I’ve heard it said that most people only use about 5% of Microsoft Word’s functionality… I can’t imagine what a miniscule proportion of functionality most people use in Microsoft Project. And like MS Word but worse, often times that unused functionality would rear up and cause problems for users who didn’t understand it or weren’t aware of it.

Not only that, but it’s also prohibitively expensive. So unless you’re working in a company where they’ve got the finance and inclination to pay for your license fee – you’re unlikely to get access to it.

Then along comes 37 Signals with Basecamp, BackPack and TaDa Lists . Project managers everywhere were ecstatic (not to mention all those David Allen Getting Things Done disciples). With the ability to create and assign tasks, to post messages, to do simple scheduling and starting at the bargain price of free – 37 Signals and their products soon had a lot of evangelists wondering aloud how they ever managed without these web based project management tools.

Just last night I got my invitation to check out GoPlan. It’s been developed by the team at WeBreakStuff, so I had pretty high expectations. These guys think a lot about usability and user experience, so their work should be top notch. And, I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

GoPlan is a spunky looking piece of web application, and it has lots of great functionality.

GoPlan Screenshot

You can create multiple projects with multiple users (users with varied permission to access content and functionality), there’s notes, a project blog, a calendar, a file upload.

GoPlan also has two similar but different sections called Tasks and Tickets. Tasks, I assume, are things you have to do in the course of the project. You can assign it to a category but not a person, and you can assign a deadline to it (although, strangely that doesn’t make it show up in the calendar). Tickets, I assume, are for bugs and variations. You can assign a priority, a severity (is it just me, or are these two *very* similar criteria… when is a critical severity ever a low priority? I guess there are exceptions… nevermind, tangent).

Oh, and there’s a cool inbuilt ‘chat’ so you can have your rapid fire online discussions AND keep a record of what you actually decided!

All good. All a lot like the 37 Signals offering. But all slightly disappointing to someone who’s managed some reasonably complex projects in her time.

I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the Gantt Chart.

I think it’s quite interesting that both 37 Signals and WeBreakStuff have not used any visualisation tools as a part of their project management offerings. (Well, ok GoPlan has a calendar… do we count that? I might if their task deadlines integrated with the calendar, so for now.. no).

One of the most recognisable features of Microsoft Project is the Gantt chart it generates. Back when I used to make lots of big MS Project files, I thought that I was really just making those charts for my clients (they’re pretty, they look seriously impressive – wow! that’s one complicated project!… this was before Getting Real, ok!)

Interestingly, if you take a look at 37 Sig’s Manifesto for BaseCamp, this is one of the first things you’ll read:

Projects don’t fail from of a lack of charts, graphs, reports, or statistics, they fail from a lack of communication.

Ah yes. But what I’ve come to notice is that charts, graphs, reports and statistics do more than just impress clients. And they can play an important role in communication, and motivation.

What is a Gantt Chart? Well, GanttChart.com (yeah, who knew!) says:

A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of the duration of tasks against the progression of time.

You can see why that might come in handy.

At a simplistic level – nothing focusses attention like a Gantt Chart with lots of red on it – indicating that you’re way behind schedule.

On a more practical level – when constructing project plans, I’ve come to realise how much I did actually rely on the Gantt Chart to help eliminate errors in my scheduling, and to quickly see the implications of alternate scheduling, risks and delays.

When reviewing a complex project plan to see if I’d made errors in scheduling, or understanding project relationships, or if I’d just missed lots of stuff out – it was the Gantt Chart that would most quickly let me know if I’d stuffed up. Breaks in the flow, a critical path that just stops (before the end of the project), tasks that just look too long or too short compared to the tasks around them – all rapid visual indicators that something’s not right.

It get’s really hard and boring to read through a long list of tasks, and even more difficult to understand the relationships between tasks in this format. This is where the Gantt Chart comes into it’s own. Relationships between tasks and groups of tasks are immediately apparent. Tasks that are on the critical path are obvious.

Gant Chart

In retrospect, I’d have to say that Gantt Charts were really important in eliminating errors in project planning for me, back in the day.

So, the Gantt Chart is much more than just client eye candy. It also plays a real role in faciliating the detailed planning phase of the project. It also helps with rapid comprehension of project progress and task relationships as the project continues.

Gantt Charts allow you to understand how long your project is going to take, in what order tasks need to be undertaken (no, it’s not always self evident!), and what tasks are dependent on other tasks. This means that if you move tasks around, or some tasks get delayed, you can see what’s going to happen to your project as a result.

This is all really handy stuff to know if you’re managing a team and have a deadline. It helps you communicate within the team, and to your client, early and accurately. It helps everyone make decisions.

In both the 37 Signals products as in GoPlan, there seems to be no notion of a critical path, or dependencies between tasks. To me, that means that I either have to work a lot harder to keep my projects under control or to impose a structure of my own, or that these products are only intended for reasonably simple projects where, perhaps, the deadline is not such a big deal.

I’ve been using BackPack and BaseCamp for almost as long as they’ve been available, and I have to say that they’ve certainly been valuable to me. Particularly when I was freelancing and had to manage my own tasks on several projects. In these cases though, when I was working on big projects, I was a resource (information architect) and someone else was a project manager who had the biggest Gantt Chart you’ve ever seen in your life! (I needed a separate tool just to manage my tasks!)

I find it intriguing that both 37 Sigs and GoPlan seem to have taken such an anti-chart approach to their tools (and there’s much more than just the Gantt chart that they could have included). I suspect it’s to do with the lack of the critical path. Or perhaps, they’re not actually *project* management tools, but ‘sets of tasks’ tools.

Either way – if any one’s planning a web based PM tool that *does* include a critical path and some pretty pictures… I’d really love to see it!

What about you? Do you miss the Gantt chart? or are Critical Paths soooo 1.0?
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