What we need, right, is a big volume control for Ambient Intimacy

If you’re designing a social application at the moment, think about how you can be quiet.

This is just one of a million pleas from socially networked people everywhere who are going to great efforts to manage the noise that their networked applications are generating at times when they really need some quiet time to focus.

Some systems (ahem, FaceBook) can be VERY noisy and make the process of quietening more difficult than it needs to be.

Facebook Notifications

Others seem simpler, but the lack of ‘friends management’ tools mean that you can be a lot noisier than perhaps you’d like to be.


But – perhaps the biggest challenge of all is that there are soooo many different systems we need to dial down – just when you think you’ve got them all, something else sneaks through to interrupt you.

Imagine if there was one panel somewhere that all of your noisy applications could hook into and then a big volume control that you can adjust based on how available you are to your network. (Is there some kind of a microformat we can make for this Jeremy?)

So when you’re super busy and you need to focus, you can, with minimal effort, dial down the noise to allow you to concentrate. And when you’re hanging out and are completely open to connections – dial it back up again.

Kind of like how you need different levels and types of ambient noise to match various activities in your day. (In my my presentation on Ambient Intimacy at Reboot I suggested an important challenge for ‘social designers’ was to think more about how to design for ambience in social applications).

In the meantime… until we get this great big volume control… let’s those of us who are designing social applications be thoughtful about this particular user requirement. Let’s make sure it’s easy for our users to quieten us down, and then pump us back up again.

Otherwise they’ll keep banging on about this attention scarcity thing even more and switch us off altogether.

The Halo Effect – Why Apple gets away with rubbish interaction design

As have many others in the past year or so, I recently swapped from PC to a new MacBook.

It certainly has been an experience, and it’s nice to actually have something to take out of my bag at conferences that looks so cute, that doesn’t make that embarrassing Window’s startup sound, that has a half decent battery life and that doesn’t take half a century to boot up. (My old laptop was generally out of battery by the time it finally booted, making it all but useless in conference environments anyway).

It has to be said though, that when it comes to interaction design, there are quite a few examples where the Mac falls short of my old PC.

This is not a post about the things that Apple does badly though (although, seriously – can we get past the one button mouse already? and I do think that dialog box is pretty shocking, and those little triangles that so often hide much of the information I’m looking for in Mac applications…. please!). This is a post about what Apple does well, and how this helps them get away with doing some things not so well.

As a general rule, Apple does a brilliant job with design. Highlights include the iPod, their in-store experience, the ‘out of the box’ experience, and the product design for most of their computers.

Enter, the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is a Cognitive Bias (something our brains do that kind of tricks us or is a bit lazy, but also makes us more efficient than, say, computers). This particular cognitive bias means that the impressions we already have of someone or something colour how we perceive their current and future actions. Or, in Wikipedia speak ‘the perception of a particular trait is influenced by the perception of the former traits in a sequence of interpretations.’

So, all of Apple’s good design work of the past influence our perception of other design work we encounter. It also influences our reaction to things like, say, their customer service once you’ve bought their product. In some instances, some of these traits are not so desirable, but because of the great positive association we have between Apple and design, we are almost blinded to the fact that they’re not really delivering to the standard we’ve come to expect.

This accounts for the effect that new Mac users would be familiar with whenever they dare complain about something that Apple has designed – the almost-killer-attack of long term Mac users who seem to be almost blind to the idea that there may be something imperfect about a Mac!

OK, so that’s an exaggeration. But I bet you know what I mean :)

The Halo Effect and attractiveness are also closely linked, meaning that we are more likely to imbue attractive things with positive traits than we are less attractive things. Thereby, simply by virtue of the fact that my MacBook looks a whole lot more attractive than my now retired ThinkPad, I’m more likely to attribute it with traits like good interaction design… even when there may be much evidence to the contrary.

We can learn a lot from Apple and the Halo Effect though. If our company or our product becomes associated with good design over time, and if we design attractive products, then our customers will not be waiting to savage us when, in the future, we slip up a little accidentally. Quite the opposite – investing in good design now is almost like investing in a margin for error in the future. And couldn’t we all do with one of those now and then.

Meanwhile, next time you are attacked by rampant long-term Mac users, play nicely.

They may get a little over enthusiastic at times, but that’s just their cognitive bias talking ;)

Four kinds of failure (for Richard Branson)

I’ve been experiencing some pretty average customer service lately but it really all came to a head when I moved house recently. As I spent hours and hours repeatly calling VirginMedia, who were supposed to supply us with an internet connection, cable TV and a phone line, I had plenty of time to contemplate the ways that companies fail us. By my calculation there are about four types of failure. And, perhaps surprisingly, they’re not all bad.

  1. Might as well set a trap. This is the worst kind of failure (and the one I experienced – continue to experience – repeatedly from VirginMedia. You know this kind of failure, because you can feel the blatant disregard for your experience as a customer. These companies seem to go out of their way to avoid or ignore customer feedback. THis is clear in both their service design and any UI design you come across. It’s typified by long waits on hold, little and/or contradictory information provided, a strong sense that you (the customer) are being a pain in the butt and causing the company and it’s representatives unending trouble, user interfaces that are so poorly designed that it is inevitable you will not get to the end successfully, a sense of loneliness and hopelessness as a customer. Mistakes happen often. The company couldn’t care less.
  2. Could try harder. Obviously some effort is being made. Most of the information you need is available and reasonable (sometimes good) design is in evidence, but there are still major customer experience failures and no obvious feedback channels. Often the solutions to these experience failures are quite simple. Frequently they’re as simple as building in more feedback or simple error prevention. But often… these easy fixes don’t happen. Contextual research is required to identify the pain points to enable these simple fixes to be designed and applied. There is a lot of potential for improvement here.
  3. Thoughtful and Responsive.  Things still go wrong from time to time but you don’t mind so much because it doesn’t happen often and when it does, it is clear that an effort is being made to be responsive and supportive and to take responsibility for the failure. Failure is still frustrating, but it is no longer necessarily a negative exchange between the company and the customer.
  4. Surprise and Delight. For some, failure is actually an opportunity to make contact with a customer and learn from them – and having the chance to surprise and delight them. Kathy Sierra wrote of screaming users:

    “As Henry Petroski writes in To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, we learn more from our failures than our successes.  But only if we pay attention to the failures and figure out what to do right the next time.” 

    Every now and then I fire off an email in annoyance, and every now and then, an actual human emails me back much more quickly than I expected and resolved my failure. Jeff Turner of Blogbeat (now Feedburner) did this all the time. Even when the server was down and I annoyingly couldn’t get access to the data I wanted, his quick and helpful response would always make me smile and think well of his company.

So, what’s the moral?

Failure happens, but through contextual research and good service and interface design you can minimise the negative impact of these failures and actually turn them into positive points of contacts with your customers.

Oh, and think really seriously before you sign a contract with VirginMedia.

Design starts with Proposition (ergo Usability)

Layers of Customer Experience

Here’s a typical story.

A project is in its final phases when it gets to the part of the Gant chart that says ‘usability testing’, and so they do.

People come in and are asked to perform tasks, and so they do, with greater or lesser degrees of difficulty. And yet, something else is wrong.

It’s not so much that they *can’t* use your website, it’s just that they don’t want to.

People ask me all kinds of questions about usability. What are the most common usability problems? What’s the best way to make sure our site/application/system is usable? That kind of thing.

It’s pretty clear when they ask these questions that they’re thinking on the presentation layer. Is that button in the right place? Is it big enough? Has it got the right label.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the presentation layer is important, but it’s not the biggest usability problem I see in my work. The biggest problem is that you’re designing something that people don’t care about. You’ve got your proposition wrong.

What’s your proposition? Well, basically it’s the value you’re offering to your customer. Are you offering something they want? Are you solving *real* problems for them? You’d be amazed how often this is not the case, and how often people don’t know about this until they’re about to launch their product or, worse still, once it has launched and is failing.

The diagram above is one that I pull out fairly often these days (it’s another one I’ve borrowed from Flow). It talks about how you need to design from the proposition down. You need to get the value offering right, then look at the model for delivering that value to clients at a conceptual level, then start looking more at what elements go on a page, what functionality is included, how it is structured and ordered. Unless you have all of these in order, it doesn’t really matter where your buttons go or what they’re labeled. Appearance level usability is the most superficial, easily remedied and perhaps even least important of all of the levels of design.

If you’ve got a flaw in your thinking at the top of the chain, then no amount of surface usability is going to save your product.

So, how do you approach this kind of Proposition design and usability? It’s pretty simple really, you test your proposition. This kind of testing (or really, research) is more about talking than tasks, and it’s about understanding your customers better and checking whether you are conceptually on the same page as they are.

I’ve been involved in several projects just in the past twelve months where doing this kind of research has saved companies tens of thousands of pounds (double that if you’re talking dollars) in *not* designing and developing functionality that either was unwanted by their customers or was designed to solve the wrong problems.

Working this out when you have a few pencil sketches or a couple of visio wireframes with a few days invested is an awful lot better than working it out when you get to the ‘usability testing’ line in your Gant chart.

So, if you really want my advice about usability, it’s that it starts right at the very beginning. Before a line (or a box) has been drawn. If you’re not designing the *right thing* then no amount of design expertise is going to get you a really usable product.

Talk to the people you’re designing for.

You’ll save lots of time and money and look really smart.