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!))

boxes and arrows (10 ways that packing up a house is like doing information architecture)

This Way Up

So, what exactly is it about packing and moving that is so entirely horrendous?

I’ve said to many people in the past week that it’s an exercise in ongoing under-estimation. Underestimating how much, how long, how expensive, how heavy, how tired.

It’s got a lot in common with working on an enormous project with not enough time and not enough budget, and the media booked for launch.

(This is why I’ve started encouraging my clients to work in increments now. I’m starting to think all enormous projects are doomed – not to mention rarely profitable… but that’s a whole other post).

I’m looking forward to only have two suitcases worth of gear. Must try to keep it to that for as long as possible. It will be good to not have possessions for a while!

I’ve noticed a few interesting behaviours in the last week of organising ‘stuff’ (see, packing up a house has a lot in common with information architecture… and I get to be the architect and the user at the same time! I am my own usability test!)

Some of these may be abundantly obvious, but I’m tired enough to find it interesting.

  1. It’s much easier to be diligent at the beginning of the exercise than it is at the end.
  2. This is because it’s natural to leave the trickiest things to last.
  3. Things are tricky when they don’t have a natural place. They don’t fit neatly into a box, or they’re hard to wrap, or no one wants to take them off your hand. They end up in a pile in the corner of the loungeroom. You enter the room with hand on hip, stare at the weird little pile, and sigh. Then walk out again.
  4. You will always argue over what can be thrown out and what cannot. The person with the best rationale wins. Except if the item was originally a present. (Although, I’m not sure how the present fits in the the IA metaphor… any ideas? While you’re thinking about it, read what Christopher Fahey has to say about throwing things out and web redesign.)
  5. Throughout the process you will group things together in different ways. Sometime because they are similar types of items. Sometimes because you will need to get to them at similar times, sometimes just because they’re the same shape or share a fragile nature. It doesn’t really matter. If there was a rational reason for the grouping, you’ll remember it and be able to refind the item quickly.
  6. You never group things logically at the end of the packing process. You throw things together randomly. This is when you lose things.
  7. Once you start throwing things together randomly, the entire system breaks down. Even those things that are grouped logically suffer because you lose faith in your system.
  8. The number of ‘special places’ you have to put important items is inversely proportional to the ‘specialness’ (read: useful/memorableness) of those special places.
  9. The only time you go through this process is when you move. There are some possessions you *only* see when you move house. You still don’t throw them out.
  10. The longer the time between moves, the more hellish the packing process.

We’re very close to hopping on a plane and heading off on our big adventure now, so posts might be a bit sporadic and possibly off topic for the next couple weeks. Promise I’ll brew up a few great posts for my return… (from a lounge chair in the shade on a beautiful Thai beach! Now that’s blogging!)

Image Credit: io2 @ Flickr

Whacky title explanation: Boxes & Arrows, a regular read for people who do stuff like me for a living. So, when I saw this picture on my blog I couldn’t resist. :)

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The ingredients of Good Experience

New York Hairdresser

I’ve been fortunate enough, in the past week, to be the recipient of excellent user experience in the ‘real world’. It’s got me to thinking – are there some key ingredients that constitute a good experience and how might they translate into work we do online?

It all started last Thursday night when I braved the cold, wet weather (no, I’m not in London yet… Sydney is just doing a good job of preparing me for it!) and headed out to visit my hairdresser for the last time. (*sob*)

A client/hairdresser relationship is an exercise in extreme user experience. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who is ambivalent about her hairdresser. She has either found one she *loves* or she’s on the hunt for one to love. It’s a trust thing.

Of course, the number one criteria that a hairdresser must meet is that they must be able to do hair in a way that pleases the client. (It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean that they do hair well, or tastefully… that’s all too subjective, and people want to do some crazy stuff with their hair).

I like how my hairdresser does my hair. He knows that I don’t spend much time maintaining it, so makes sure it pretty much does itself in the morning. I know he’s good at his job, so I don’t tell him what I want, I ask him what he thinks I should do.

He’s earned my trust by plying his trade well, but he does even more than that.

My hairdresser makes me feel like I’m a really valued customer. He does this in a couple of key ways. Firstly, when I’m there, he looks after me (and I should say, it’s not just him, it’s his entire team, they’re all great). He makes sure I’m comfortable, that I have a drink (wine? champagne? a coffee? what would you prefer?), he has good magazines, he checks in on me regularly when I’m waiting for my colour to do whatever it does in that 20 minutes.

The thing that really astounds me though is that he remembers me. He remembers little details of our conversation from six weeks before, and what’s going on in my life. If I was going on holidays between appointments, how my work was going last time. He remembers my husband’s name and where I live. (does this sound creepy? I can imagine how it might sound creepy, but as part of the ‘user experience’ it’s great!).

This is what I’ve learned this week. The essential ingredients of good experience: do what you do do well, boy (I can’t resist a country music reference), and show me that you care about me (and a musical theatre reference… these ingredients are now officially unforgettable, by me, at least!)

Do what you do do well, boy.

To get real customer love, you need to do whatever you do brilliantly. You can’t just do the job. Good enough is not good enough. You need to sparkle. You need to impress. And you need to make it look easy (for you, and for the customer/user).

Show me (that you care about me)

What makes the different between people who are really good at their work and people who create amazing user experiences is caring (or, at least, being very good at creating the perception of caring). Things like the glass of wine, the regular checking in to see that I’m ok, remembering conversations… (or whatever equivalents work in the situation you’re thinking of now) all of these things combine to make a customer feel really valued. Customers like that. They keep coming back and they tell their friends. All of this is very good for business.

When I went shopping for a camera the other week, I went to a few different shops.

  1. Big name store. The guy who served me really seemed to want to look after me. He offered me a $30 discount on an external hard drive I was going to buy with out me even asking. Unfortunately, he didn’t know much about cameras… except the one he’d bought 4yrs ago and had at home.
  2. Specialist camera store. Knew lots about cameras. Really didn’t want to spend time with me.
  3. Music discount store that I didn’t even know sold cameras. Knew *lots* about cameras. Really looked after me – both pricewise, and also answering all my annoying questions, asking lots of questions of me so that he really understood what I needed (and compared that to what I thought I wanted).

Guess where I bought my camera.

What does this mean for a ‘digital’ user experience?

Good enough isn’t good enough. You need to make the user experience ‘sparkle’. Spend time on the details, really think it through. Talk to your users and understand them. Test your work and refine it. Make it purr.


Find ways that you can ‘look after’ your customers. How can you do the equivalent to the glass of wine, the checking to see that your user is doing ok, the remembering of past conversations. But, don’t take this too literally! Every project will have very different opportunities to better look after users. We need to remember though that every ‘statistic’ that interacts with our interface is like a customer on a chair in a salon. We have the opportunity to make their experience with us amazing, or we can give them the Price Cuts equivalent. I know what I aspire to.

So, and if you’re in Sydney and looking for my favourite hairdresser, get yourself to Phillip Gallo on Crown St. His website is a bit dodgy, but his customer experience (and his hair cuts) are fabulous.

Anyone got a good recommendation for a haircut in London?

And I got my camera(s) from JB HiFi. (Who knew they sold cameras?!)
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reflections on a day (on QuickCheck, connectivity addiction & narrowband)

Black Mountain, Canberra

I spent today in our nation’s capital, Canberra. City of roundabouts, trees and public servants. Strangely enough, I think I’m growing to like it there. Anyway, it was a pretty interesting day, so I thought I’d share a bit with you.

Qantas QuickCheck
When I go to visit my client in Canberra I do a day trip – fly down in the morning and back in the evening. Because they’re organising my flights, I get to fly Qantas, instead of other less economical options. If you’ve travelled domestically with Qantas lately, you’ve no doubt encountered their new ‘electronic checkin’ touchscreens – they call it ‘QuickCheck‘. I like them very much.

Qantas QuickCheckIt’s interesting to think of replacing people with technology. Often it doesn’t work very well (I’m thinking of automated phone systems in particular here). Probably my favourite example of a *good* replacement is internet banking (which reminds me, I’ll have to post soon about how much I *love* ANZ internet banking and why). The Qantas QuickCheck is another great example.

I think there are two reasons why QuickCheck is such a great user experience.

Firstly – the design is beautiful. Unless you don’t know where you’re going or can’t spell your own name, it is very difficult to make a mistake with this interface. Sure, it’s not really such a complex transaction, but I’ve seen people screw simple stuff up many a time. This is easy. Choose your destination, choose your flight time, enter your name, and you’re away.

But the second thing is the killer – despite the fact that Qantas are now making their customers do work that their employees used to do – we do it happily. Why? Because for the cost of that extra work, we gain a range of great benefits. We don’t have to wait in queues like we used to; we can check in not only for the flight we’re taking now, but also the return flight; and – here’s the kicker for me – you can choose your own seat!

When you check in the system automatically assigns you a seat (not sure how they work that out), but then you can also see the other seats that are still available, and choose a different one, if you like. Me, I’m a window seat girl who likes to sit as close to the front as I can (perhaps I aspire to something other than cattle class… I’m not sure). I love this.

There’s a good lesson in this I think (although, not a new one). Ask your users to ‘give’ you something, and provided you’re giving them something in return that they value, they’ll happily oblige.

Connectivity Addiction

If you’re like me, you spend most of your time without straying too far from an internet connection. Your email is close to hand, not to mention instant messaging, Skype, your blog…

I spent the day on site with a client today and at about 10.30am she reminded me that their IT department had recently cut off all access to a whole chunk of the internet… including Gmail.

I had suspicions that I had a connectivity addiction, but this definitely confirmed it. A whole eight hours with out email! Torture.

My client thought this was quite amusing. I spent the day wondering if there was an internet connection to be had at Canberra airport.

Is this unhealthy?


So, on the question of internet connection at the airport, I can happily inform you that, yes, there is.

Continuing my experiences with touchscreens, I deposited $2 in a machine for 12 minutes of internet. *good sigh*

It was short lived pleasure, however, as it quickly became apparent that this machine had one of the slowest internet connections in the country.

Unfortunately – that is probably an exaggeration. We have some very slow connections in this country. Does anyone else in the world have to account for users with narrowband connections when they design web based applications?

(ok, then I remembered that link about how such a small proportion of the world even *has* internet connection and now I feel bad).

Although it was an awful user experience (sooo many mistakes – can’t stop clicking!), I think that it is good to have bad experiences like this if you’re designing interaction. It reminded me a bit of my experience learning to use the Wacom tablet yesterday.

Having thought on it whilst waiting for my flight then travelling the 45 turbulent minutes home (they weren’t going to serve wine due to the rough weather – outrageous!), I’ve realised that what made both the narrowband internet connection and the Wacom tablet particularly frustrating was a lack of feedback.

When I was using the Wacom, things either just didn’t respond at all, or happened without me understanding why. I accidentally deleted so much stuff with the Wacom (although, Denim is also partially to blame here). Learning the ‘gestures’ is tricky and new… and there’s nothing to really help you understand what you’re doing, or why what you’re doing isn’t working.

Similarly with the narrowband internet – I would make actions and get no response. As a user, my immediate reaction (even though I’ve tried to train myself to think differently) is that I’ve done something wrong. I hadn’t done anything wrong, the system was just incredibly slow to respond to my interaction. And there was no visible feedback to show that my action had triggered any kind of response from the system.

Basic stuff. All of the experiences I had today reiterated the some of the most basic, fundamental rules of interaction design.

But sometimes it’s good to experience it firsthand, and then to reflect.

Have you had any experiences like this lately?

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Image credit: for a change this is one of mine. Not from today though… today was cold and rainy and not so pretty. Oh, and my camera has died. *sob*