Are you giving accessibility the consideration it deserves in the user experience?

We don’t talk about accessibility much here (because there are people who are much better at talking about it than I am), but I have come across two really interesting posts lately that I think you should take a look at if you haven’t already, and if you’re in any doubt as to whether – as a UX person – accessibility is part of your responsibility.

Over at SitePoint [Why Accessibility – Because it’s our job!] James makes it clear that he thinks that accessibility and usability are intricately entwined. More importantly, I think, he re-iterates that in most cases, it takes not that much more effort to make a site accessible in the first place.

Jeremy Keith also takes up the cause on his blog [Ignorance and Inspiration] quoting some truly ignorant responses to the recent Target lawsuit, but also pointing us to these great videos of people using assistive technologies to interact with the internet and other software. [via Richard Johansson ].

They are really quite inspirational and make it clear that even in the face of significant physical restrictions, peole are able to do pretty amazing things with their computers… if we design and code in such a way that allows them. In fact – they manage to do some pretty amazing stuff in the face of some pretty crazy design and coding as well.

Yes, it is true that many clients that you work with will not have a very active interest in accessibility. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve been told that ‘blind people are not in our target audience’. Not to start in on the fact that making your site accessible is about much more than just people with visual impairment….

There once was the perception that making your website accessible was a time consuming and expensive exercise. That is far from the case. The fact is, a standards compliant site is most of the way to being accessible – this is the way we should be coding our sites anyways!

There are still lots of ways for designers to screw up accessibility, and I think that a lack of exposure to how our work behaves for people using assistive technologies means that we don’t understand the impact of the decisions we make sometimes.

Developing an understanding and awareness of simple ways to avoid common accessibility problems, and ensuring that, as we design, we spend just a little time checking our work to make sure that we’re making life easier and not unnecessarily difficult will provide lots of benefits for very little investment.

As the advocates for user experience I think it’s important that we’re advocating for *everyone’s* experience and perhaps doing a little bit more than just whispering the word ‘accessibility’ in a meeting early on and allowing it to be just as easily dismissed. And not just because of the potential legal implications, but because it’s our job.

What say you?

Why collaborative research analysis rocks out.

dConstruct workshop - affinity sorting

(a quick definition, given that I’ve discovered that English is at least three separate languages: to rock out = to perform exceptionally well and give great satisfaction, as say, a rock band might ‘rock out’ on stage’.)

These days when I’m doing any kind of user research, rather than going to my secret consultant place and doing that consultant magic that results in a presentation of research findings, I much prefer to get into a big room with clean walls and several hundred sticky notes and my clients/project team, and to work out the research findings collaboratively.

Am I just being lazy and getting my clients to do my work? Well kind of…. but with good reason!

Why do it? Well, there are a few reasons.

Firstly, to combat what I think is probably the single most frustrating outcome of a research project – having your results either not accepted or immediately shelved, meaning that all of your work has come to pretty much nothing. By involving your clients in the process, they have a stake in defining exactly what the findings are, what is important, what is not. When you’re presenting the findings, you (or even better, the project team) are presenting the *team* findings, not just your own.

Secondly, to educate your client. To help them to understand that there is actually a rigorous process that occurs between the interviews or focus groups or whatever your research activity is, and when the findings magically appear in the presentation. To allow them to use the tools themselves when it is appropriate.

Thirdly, to get better results. Having your client with you will ensure that you apply appropriate rigor in reviewing research data. Not to say you don’t do this by yourself as well but it’s great to have the extra incentive.

Not only that but in this situation, three or four or five heads definitely are better than one. Take for example this study that Jared Spool shares in his article on the KJ Technique (which I’m referencing all the time!)

Back in the late 1970’s, the US government commissioned a study to look at effective group decision making. In the study, they asked 30 military experts to study intelligence data and try to construct the enemy’s troop movements.

Each expert analyzed the data and compiled a report. The commission then “scored” each report on how well it reported the actual troop movements. They found that the average military expert only got 7 out of a 100 elements correct.

Each expert then reviewed all of the other experts’ reports and rewrote their initial assessment. The average accuracy for these revised reports was 79 out of a 100.

What was different between the first report and the second? The experts didn’t have any new information. All they had were the perspectives of the other experts. When they added those perspectives to their own, their accuracy increased ten-fold.

It’s been my experience that if you can get your project team members (and their associated and diverse expertise) involved in the research analysis process, then you will most definitely get more accurate and more useful research findings.

So, how do you do it?

I’m sure there are a whole bunch of ways to do collaborative research analysis but I’ve gotten the most success from the following approach.

Firstly – encourage as many team members as possible to observe the research (if possible). Give them sticky notes and markers, give them the rules for writing sticky notes (one concept per sticky, clear handwriting in capital letters) and ideas about what kind of things should go onto the sticky notes. Don’t worry about the fact that you’ll have duplicates. Get them to write as many stickies as they can.

Then, when it comes time for analysis, you want a big room with lots of clean wall space. Plaster the walls with white or brown paper (whatever is easiest to get hold of) so you can move the stickies around en masse with ease. Then it’s time to get stuck into the process.

  1. start by defining the research question(s) – you should have done this before you undertook the research so this should just be a refresher. I like to get them written up and positioned somewhere highly visible in the room. This is what we’re trying to discover, the questions we’re trying to answer. They help maintain our focus.
  2. do a large scale affinity sort (follow steps 4, 5 and 6 from the KJ Technique). I know that this process looks completely chaotic at first… it is. Trust the process though, it actually does work. What happens is that you end up with lots of big groups with very vague names and some duplicates around the room. After you’ve done the very first sort, pick a big group and start dissecting it – look for groups within groups, and make sure that the group labels are actually meaningful in relation to your research questions. This is the tough part – you need to keep driving the group to keep seeking themes and meanings within the groups… and to sort and re-sort, and have lots of long, pedantic discussions – until finally the room full of stickies is completely sorted. (You can deal with the duplicate issue now by sticking duplicates one on top of the other so that they are not over-represented within groups).
  3. prioritise your findings. As a group – review all of the findings that you’ve come up with (each group is now a ‘finding’), and start grouping your groups together based on their relevance to your research question. You might have meta-group headings that are something like ‘Interesting but out of scope’ and ‘In Scope – High Priority’, ‘In Scope – Low Priority’ etc.
  4. then finally, go back to your research questions and work out what you’ve found. Based on the research you’ve done in this project, what are the answers to your questions?

Be sure to photograph all of your work, and then instead of the dreaded task of writing a ‘research report’, your job is then to gather all of this information into a digestible format for the team to use going forward.

And, of course, because they’ve actually been involved in the process, they’re much more likely to actually use it. Yay!

What do you reckon? Have you tried working like this? How did it go? Any other techniques that you’ve found work well? I’d be interested to hear what you think! :)

Gardening Tools for Social Networks

I had a bunch of interesting conversations with people at the recent Future of Web Apps conference in London. This is more and more my favourite thing about conferences… talking to people and seeing what you end up talking about repeatedly… what are the themes that just emerge from the zeitgeist, with or without any particular curation on the part of the conference organisers.

One of the conversations I found myself having repeatedly was to do with social networks and issues of scaling. That they can just get too diluted, too noisy, too predictable – that they kind of degenerate over time as you add more and more people to your network or as people’s behaviour cycles over time.

It seems to me that a big part of the problem is that whilst a lot of attention is being paid to the problems of adding more and more to your network, we’re not paying enough attention to cultivating our network. We don’t have good gardening tools for social networks.

One set of tools that I would find most beneficial is some kind of reflection of my recent and historical behaviour in the network and the behaviour of others that I’m networked too. As we know, what we *think* we do and what we *actually* do can be two very different things – and both of these sets of information – the perceived and the actual, are equally important. But I don’t get much opportunity to see ‘the real’ in my social network interfaces, short of being told how many ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ I have, for example. This is not particularly useful stuff.

When thinking about this, the closest example to the kind of thing I’d like to see is the ‘Trends’ page you get if you use Google Reader.

Google Reader Trends

What I like about the ‘Trends’ page on Google Reader is that it gives me a whole bunch of ways to cut through the way that I’m consuming my RSS reads, and also what people on my feeds list are doing – who is updating more frequently, who is inactive.

What would something like this for me in a Social Network environment? A few things I think.

Firstly, it will give me the opportunity to reflect a little on my own behaviour in this network – how noisy am I? (Particularly interesting if you can compare it to other people). Are there particular times that I’m more or less noisy (not sure whether that would change my behaviour at all, but it is interesting to be more aware of it). Are there particular people I’m communicating with more regularly than others? Are there types of functions or interactions that I’m engaging with more frequently?

Secondly, it will give me an opportunity to reflect more on the behaviour of those in my network – who are the really noisy ones? Who are the really quiet ones? Who starts conversations that I tend to engage in (responding, saving, favouriting etc.)? How closely are people in my network related? Are there any interesting patterns in the way that they communicate?

A really simple example of one of these kinds of tools can be found on Dopplr and also Jaiku, and it’s just a list of people ‘who I might know’ – using the network effect to help me find people that I might have overlooked connecting with because – as my social network has reached critical mass – the idea of finding new people to add to my network is often less than exciting (what MORE noise!). Avoiding these ‘adding’ tools though can mean that I’m missing out on people who would add real value to my network… so we need ways to overcome this.

Dopplr - People you might know

What am I looking to these tools to help me achieve? Basically, I want more information to help me ‘fine tune’ my social network so that I can make better decisions about who I include in my network so that I can continually fine tune it in a way that gives me the best ongoing value over time.

This is leading me to think that partly what is amiss is that for many social networks, ‘friendship’ is too much like an on/off switch.

When I get a message from Twitter to say that someone has added me, there is a very short routine I go through to decide whether to add them back or not:

1. do I recognise the name? (If yes then more likely to add back, assuming it’s a happy recognition)
2. do they have an obviously spammy name? (If yes, then ignore)
3. check out their twitter page – do they have interesting looking messages? how frequently do they twitter?
4. check out the following:follower ratio. The most appealing ratio is where there are more followers than following, but this isn’t a necessity. However, if your ratio of following to followers is anything more than 20:1 then it’s highly unlikely I’m going to be choosing to follow you.

And, that’s on a good day. On a really busy day where my inbox is very full, if condition 1 isn’t met then quite often it’s straight to the delete button.

This isn’t necessarily the best way to make these decisions. A few times, because people who are following me (who I chose not to follow back) have persistently engaged with me in conversations (that I’ve found through the @ tool, we’re talking Twitter again, sorry!), I have actually gone back and started following them – and my social network has been all the richer for it.

By and large though, once I make this decision, then that’s it. Done. The decision is never revisited again.

Something about this feels kind of wrong to me… really what I’d like is another place. A place where I can put those people who I don’t really know about or who I’m not sure about, or who I haven’t had the time to give enough attention to yet. I’m not quite at the point of thinking I have all the people I need in my social network… I’m still happy and excited about finding and adding new people, if they’re the right people. And I do kind of worry that I’m missing out on these opportunities because I don’t have another place where I can kind of monitor who these people are and whether they’re going to fit into my social network in the longer term… at the moment, they just kind of disappear completely off the radar.

Similarly, sometimes people just get really noisy or really irrelevant to me (it’s not you, it’s me, I’m sure!), and I want a place to put them too. I don’t to just cast them off completely, just a little ‘time-out’.

Is this as simple as ‘tagging’ or ‘categorising’ people, as some have suggested? I’m not sure.

My gut reaction is that having the ability to tag your contacts would be very useful and I’d definitely love to see it. I don’t think it’s the answer to this problem though because we know that people are not particularly good at tagging. If I hardly have time to bother finding out if someone is suitable to add to my ‘following’ list then am I going to have time to ‘tag’ them? I can see some people in my social network being very well tagged, and whole other sections being completely neglected. This is a broken, but it’s also terribly human.

I think that an approach that supports being human better is to provide gardening tools. I don’t know about you – I’m not that much of a gardener, so when I do it I set aside a chunk of time every now and then and I do what I can to get things back into some sense of order.

Similarly, I think we take a little time every now and then to look over our contact lists, our social network, and to try to get it back into shape. Some tools that help us cut through these lists in more helpful ways than ‘alphabetically’ (which seems to be the default.. not really all that helpful).

It makes sense, of course, that social design has been focussed, until now, on helping us add people and communicate with people in our network. Now, as our online social networking becomes more mature, a really interesting challenge will be how to maintain the value of these networks as they scale. I think that these ‘gardening tools’ could be really helpful in that regard.

Would you agree?

Ambient Intimacy at the Future of Web Apps

I was very happy to have the opportunity to hop up and share my thoughts on Ambient Intimacy at the Future of Web Apps conference in London yesterday. The slides are above.

This is a bit of a move on from the talk I presented earlier in the year at Reboot – a little lighter on the ‘theory’ and a little more emphasis on the practical impacts of designing for Ambient Intimacy.

There are still vast untouched areas on this topic that deserve a lot more attention (and perhaps we’ll give them some in the near future) – in particular, ideas around privacy and ‘containing’ ambient intimacy need to be addressed in much greater depth.

I’d be really interested to hear your throughs on this or anything you can glean from the slides above. (I’m really going to have to do one of those audio slideshare things soon… everything will make much more sense, I’m sure).