Attack of the killer Assumptions (and how to overcome them)

assume the position

Assumptions are something we battle in kinds of ways. I know when I was doing more project management, trying to get a handle on project assumptions and documenting them was a necessary challenge. Understanding and documenting assumptions was critical to managing my client’s expectations, and making sure that it was actually possible for me to deliver a project on time and on budget.

These days, I’m more likely to make assumptions about the way that people will understand an interface and what they’ll find easy to use. Even though I continually try to train myself NOT to bring assumptions to the table when I’m designing or testing designs – or at least, to position my assumptions more as hypotheses than as a personal truth.

I often learn as much about my own inbuilt assumptions as I do about how people interact with particular interfaces… even now when we are all conscious of the new challenges created by different kinds of novel interface element, it’s a constant challenge to keep assumptions under control (which is – in my opinion – to make them conscious assumptions).

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few years now and have asked lots of people along the way about their experiences so it was reassuring to see Kathy Sierra sum up my quandary so succinctly in her recent post on Assumptions (and their use by dates):

The really big problem is the assumptions which are so ingrained that we don’t even know they’re assumptions. They become an accepted Law of Physics, as good as gravity.

For me, assumptions are something that you usually become aware of after they’ve bitten you in the butt. Once they’re known, conscious and documented they’re not so scary… in fact, they’re not scary at all.

It’s kind of like being afraid of the dark… when you can’t see what’s under the bed, you imagine all kinds of hideous things. Once the light is on, you wonder how on earth you let your imagination run away with you so crazily.

Kathy is right – once you’ve recognised your assumptions, you can’t just leave them sitting there. You need to pull them out and re-examine them every now and then and make sure that they’re still as they should be, or update them if you need to. (Or, potentially throw them away as irrelevant).

But here’s my question – what do *you* do to try to expose these really dangerous assumptions? The ones you don’t even know that you have? How do you bring them to light and make them known and not dangerous?

Come on. Help me take out some of these killer assumptions.


Image Credit: Kayaness @ Flickr

when to use drag & drop (some informal research results)

One of the great challenges of Interaction Design these days is that we now have a plethora of new ways to design interaction on the web than we did just a few short years ago. Drag and drop is probably one of the best – creating a sense of empowerment over the interface that can sometimes result in an almost joyful user experience.

Despite the fact that we’ve been designing with drag and drop for a while now, it’s taken this long for me to have the opportunity to do some good solid user testing with users comparing drag and drop with more traditional interaction styles. That is … clicking :)

In the test that were we performing we were (amongst other things) examining the use of drag and drop and clicking to perform two types of tasks: to select objects and place them onto a stage, and to manipulate objects on a stage.

One interface used drag and drop for both tasks. One interface used click to select and drag and drop to manipulate.

When users were interacting with the prototype that used drag and drop for both functions it was common for them to make unsolicited comments about the interface – generally expressions of delight at the responsiveness of the interface and the novelty of the interaction method. Of course, drag and drop is not really so novel – many users are accustomed to this method, and we found that no users (of the 15 we tested) were unfamiliar with the drag and drop method or had any difficulties understanding how they were expected to achieve their task using drag and drop. (The interface did include a small instruction to drag and drop onto the stage).

Some of the tasks, such as removing objects from the stage and understanding how many objects could be dragged onto the stage were not immediately obvious, but through brief experimentation the users were rapidly able to achieve these tasks and exhibited no difficulty. In fact, in many cases they were saying ‘I wonder if I drag this back here will it delete the object’, as they performed the task and were pleased to discover that it worked exactly as they had expected it might.

When users were interacting with the ‘click to select’ interface, there were no such expressions of delight with the interaction, however they also had no difficulty achieving all of the tasks involved in the test.

Later, we asked the users to compare the two interaction experiences and talk about which they preferred and why. Without exception, we found that our test participants preferred the click to select interface over the drag and drop interface – despite the feedback they had given at the time of testing.

They agreed that drag and drop felt ‘fun’, and ‘creative’, but overwhelmingly stated that it was unnecessarily complicated, and that it was just as easy, or easier, to click. ‘Dragging was a drag’ was one of my favourite quotes. :)

On the other hand, users unanimously agreed that drag and drop was an ideal way to manipulate objects in relation to each other (particularly, to change the position of objects in relation to one another).

Based on the results of this testing, the logical findings seem to be that drag and drop is ideal for manipulating the position of objects on a stage, but that when ‘selecting’ objects, simply using click to select is preferable. Even considering that we may be wishing to create an interface that is fun and creative (which was why the full drag and drop approach was originally considered), the inefficiency of this method detracts from the user performing their task. Selecting the objects was considered a preliminary task, and the ‘fun’ part started when users got to manipulating the content.

When thinking of the best examples of drag and drop interfaces (and I think that moving around maps is a great example of this), it is once again the manipulation of objects on a stage and not object selection, that seems to be common.

Of course, it is also important to note that choosing a drag and drop interface also significantly compromises your ability to deliver an accessible interface. This should always be an important consideration when selecting an interaction method.

Designing a drag and drop interface? You could do much worse than refer to the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library where they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all of the components of the interaction and what you’ll need to consider.

Have you done any testing with drag and drop interfaces? I’d be really interested to hear what you’ve found.

the challenges of migrating & good experience design

20 Meg Broadband

A funny thing happens when you migrate to London. You lose your past. Or at least so it seems in many situations. Try to lease a flat to live in and you’ll need six months credit history in the UK and references from UK landlords. Real Estate agents are legally required to pay no heed to credit histories from other countries, or lovely references from your last landlord. They just don’t count. You can, however, pay 6 months rent in advance to secure a flat. (Yes, that’s six months… crazy stuff).

Try getting a bank account, and again, there is a legally required disposition to regard you as a potential money launderer and/or terrorist, unless you can show evidence of residence in the UK – preferably in the form of a drivers license, or a utility bill. Neither of which you will get without a flat that you own or rent, which you’ll probably not get without a bank account.

Want a mobile phone – for the first six months you’re pretty much stuck with ‘pay as you go’ – unless you can find a nice mobile phone dealership who are willing to be flexible with the truth. You’ll need a bank account and credit record here too. Even then they might require you to pay a large deposit.

I’ve been trying to get broadband on at home recently (you can get 8Meg broadband over here – I’m dying to try *real* broadband!). Of course, all the same problems are repeated and I’m being treated again like a person with a dodgy credit record until – amazingly and completely out of the blue – a man from TeleWest (who I’m trying to get my connection with) calls me and says that he specialises in looking after people who have just moved to the country and I’m to send him a copy of my *Australian* bank statement to prove my previous *Australian* address and he’ll look after my application and get me connected as soon as possible.

*massive sigh of relief*

We’ve been here almost a month now, trying to get our lives set up, and we did some research in advance to help make the bank situation not quite so dire as it might be, but it’s still been an informative experience.

I couldn’t find any stats on how many people move to London every year, but it must be tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of people having this terrible experience every year. I doubt it’s much better in other cities either.

Now, I know that there are issues that go well beyond ‘good experience’ that form the background of some of these examples, but this is no reason to just shrug our shoulders and say ‘well, that’s just the way it is’. These challenges create great opportunities for companies who are interested in good experience to differentiate themselves and capture market share (as well as making some stressed out people very happy!).

Creating good experience is a state of mind. Instead of seeing roadblocks like these as a reason to wash our hands of the responsibility for good experience, we should sit up, gather around, and workshop ways that we can turn bad experience to good.

It’s true for ‘real life’ experience like London banks and telcos, and it’s true for us as we design good experience online. Except instead of money laundering, consumer credit acts, and money laundering concerns, we have dodgy technical environments, aging hardware, and marketing departments.

It’s a challenge, yes, but that’s why we love it :)

Do you have any good ‘online’ examples where you (or others) have overcome a potential roadblock like this to achieve, against all odds, a good user experience?

Photo Credit: Phlzy at Flickr

technology is hard and scary (part 1)

Visitors at the Tate inspect an Interactive Exhibit

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been out in the wide, wide world and experiencing my technology in the wild, amongst all those ‘users’ that we theorise about all the time.

Along the way, there were a few moments that really highlighted for me how much work we have to do to make technology something comfortable for everyone to use, and how much distress technology can cause when we don’t understand it, or it doesn’t work as it should.

Episode 1: Where does email live?

The most disturbing was in an internet cafe down the road (a regular haunt of mine lately) where I was seated beside a girl who was trying to book a train ticket online for herself and her mother. They had to get the train that evening.

She was going through the process just fine until she realised that they were going to email her an electonic ticket and she would have to access her email in order to get the ticket. Not a problem for most of us, but for this poor girl, her email was firmly grounded in her computer at home, and so she was pleading with the staff of the internet cafe to give her their email addresses – thinking that they would be the only people able to access their email and thereby print her ticket.

I’m not sure what she thought all the people sitting around her typing passionately into hotmail etc. were doing.. I think she was focussed on her task. She was extremely distressed.

Episode 2: Text Messaging is just embarrassing

In the pub the other afternoon (enjoying being able to be in the pub on a weekday afternoon before I started fulltime work again!), behind me was sitting a woman in her early thirties who was bemoaning the popularity of SMS. Lots of her friends contacted her on SMS and she hated it, because she found it so difficult to use that responding to their messages was a very slow, deliberate and painful process.

She said (I eavesdropped) that quite frequently she would take so long to compose a message that she would be interrupted and forget what she was doing and think that she had sent the text message when in fact, she hadn’t even completed it. Just last week, she said, had she discovered predictive text messaging (although, she described it in rather different terms).

She felt that her lack of proficiency in text messaging was impacting her ability to communicate with her friends. That they were contacting her less because she was slow to respond. That their conversation was one sided and stilted (because unlike her, her friends were highly proficient with SMS).

She wondered how she would ever learn all the tricks of SMS and moaned that her phone was so difficult to use. (I didn’t get to hear what brand of handset she had).

Episode 3: Stand clear of the interactive artworks

The other day I went to the Tate Britain, an excellent Art Gallery in London. I saw a great exhibition of John Constable’s work (I’d recommend it to anyone in the vicinity – yes, I know John Constable is notoriously boring, but this is a great insight in to how he created his work – go see it!).

At the end of the exhibition was the ‘interactive room’ with two digital interactive pieces. The objective of these pieces was to reveal some of the process that Constable went through in planning and preparing for his artwork. You stand in front of the ‘painting’ and the painting senses where you are, and reveals beneath the ‘painting’ the equivalent sketch that was made for the artwork – kind of like an x-ray. (No, it wasn’t a particularly inspiring interactive exhibit – see picture at top).

What I learned, because I’m not afraid of interactive exhibits or looking like a goose, is that standing in front of the ‘painting’ actually doesn’t work. In fact, you needed to ‘move’ quite quickly in front of the work in order to create the ‘x-ray’ effect.

Very few people would have learned this though because they mostly stood much to far away from the work for it to react at all. And those who did approach it did so timidly – precisely the opposite way to achieve the desired effect.

People didn’t interact with this work, they watched it.

Thoughts on these episodes

Had I not been out ‘in the wild’ of late. Had I been sitting at my desk pondering projects. I believe that my thoughts about people like this would have been that they were annoying, minority, ‘out of target audience’ users. But there are lots of them out there. And they don’t get it. Things that we take for granted that *everyone* gets – because everyone has a hotmail account and everyone sends texts… they don’t. Lots don’t. Lot’s don’t even understand how it might work.

It makes me think a lot about who we design for, and how difficult it is to ensure that we’re designing well both for those who are highly confident and proficient, and ALSO for those who don’t even have a correct mental model for how a particular technology works. It’s made me think about design ‘safety nets’ that go much further than having a ‘help’ link in the footer that probably isn’t very helpful, or giving a phone number but charging people more for the services they need if they call the number.

It’s made me think about my gut response to think that these people are such a minority that they don’t matter. How often they end up out of scope.

It made me wonder if I design responsibly.

It made me remember all the times that I’ve thought ‘to hell with users who don’t get it’ whilst working on an interface that was much more interested in being sexy.

It made me think about when we decide accessibility is out of scope.

It makes me wonder how we can still do sexy things, but support everyone who needs supporting.

It makes me think about how this problem might go away because young kids are so good with technology and they’re ‘the future’.

It made me remember that the proportion of the population who even have access to a telephone, let alone a computer, is pretty small. And these people will come online soon enough – with no experience.

It makes me ask lots of questions. I’m not at the answer stage yet. But I hope I’ve lost my hard outer shell for a little while at least.

What does it make you think?

(Part 2: unknown things are hard and scary, coming shortly)

(Hellooo! is anyone still out there! It’s great to be back, I’ve missed you guys! I have a million emails and about the same number of RSS feeds to catch up on, so forgive me if I’m a little slow on the uptake on anything (including getting back to you!))