Stuart Silverstein Experience Strategist/Designer

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Iterative process diagram

In 1995, cialis 40mg drug following the success of Toy Story, Pixar animation studio tossed around the idea of starting a sequel to the hugely popular movie. The project was approved by Disney, and the production started in 1998. The initial scope of this project was to be a direct-to-video 60 minute video, however, on initial viewing of preliminary reels, Disney execs Pete Schneider and Joe Roth, decided to upgrade the movie to a feature length animated film.

Seeing as the movie was not a primary concern when production started, most of the more experienced team members were working on A Bugs Life. Additionally, Director Lee Unkrich described the story as “all over the place.” Once the movie was upgraded to feature, 12 minutes of footage needed to be added to the movie, so Chief Creative John Lasseter and the rest of the story team scheduled an emergency “story summit” over a weekend, which at the end they had hoped to have the initial 12 minutes that they needed.

In actuality, what came out of that meeting was a whole new story. Top to bottom rewrite. The team members took a hard look at what they had, and realized that ultimately it was a mess, and needed to be scrapped. It was a tough decision, but having an incredibly high level of creative integrity, they knew that they had to start from scratch.

But it gets better. They burned through so much time, that they had to deliver a completed film in 9 months. Just to give you perspective, a normal animated film (let along a cutting edge 3D animated film) took about 3 to 4 years. So this was not only an issue of throwing away thousands of man hours, but also producing the new movie in a quarter of the time.

As we now know, the movie was insanely good (I am an unabashed Pixar fanatic), and this was indeed the right decision. I am sure it was not an easy one though. However, the team had learned so much in the stuff that they threw away, that they were able to start again, from scratch, and build a story that met the goals of the new criteria: a feature length film.

Starting from scratch

When starting a new design project, we start by defining scope and requirements for the project, and once scope, requirements and strategy are defined, we start working on concepts. Oftentimes, we try several comps with different approaches. In trying those different concepts, we pick one to start with, and then retrofit requirements that are not met on to the approved direction, with varying degrees of success.

What happens when there are one or many several fatal flaws in the design that start to be uncovered? On a complex web project with several moving parts (social, commerce, advertising, etc), no matter how many questions you ask upfront, you are going to hit roadblocks. There are going to be requirements from other departments that the core team is unaware of. There is going to be a learning curve, especially if you work for an agency. At an agency, you will not have the benefit of a history and will have to take requirements at face value by a third party, and you may not have access to have a conversation with these people. This makes the job even more difficult.

If you add to this an expectation by client or stakeholders that the approved design would remain in tact, but that a few things will be retrofitted to accommodate the requirements, there can be trouble. I personally have found this situation a “lose, Lose” situation until I figured out how to handle it.

After presenting initial concepts, throw them out and start from scratch.

The Spike

Why would someone work for a few weeks, and throw away all the work? A builder doesn’t work for 3 weeks, and then tear down the house and build a new one? Filmmakers (usually) don’t film a movie and then start from scratch? Why would you complete a design and then throw it out.

In Agile development process, there is a term called a spike. A “Spike” is a short period of exploration where a developer will try a few things simply with the idea of learning what they need to, and finding out a strategy to move forward. It is timeboxed, usually to a sprint, and at the end of the sprint, all the code is thrown away.

Yes, thrown away.

The idea with a spike is to learn all that you can by doing it once, making mistakes, not worrying about clean code, trying stuff out, uncovering possible risks that can only be uncovered by working on something, and then writing clean code on the second attempt. Developers are often faced with new technology, and often have to program things that they simply have never done before. You can’t get everything right the first time you try something.

In design, we have experience with solving similar issues, but we never create the same project twice, so we are doing the same thing as developers: trying something new that we have never done before. Furthermore, we are working with a complex set of moving parts, all of which need to move seamlessly, so that the business, consumer and developers all are able to complete their tasks. It requires exploration.

The Fail

As projects have gotten more and more complex, I found by accident, that the idea of creating a concept and refining it, doesn’t work. I had the fortune of being on a few projects where the business lacked focus, and we had to start from scratch. In doing so, the things we learned in the first iterations led us to a bulletproof v 2.0. Fortunately we had not started development on a project that was just not right. We did what Pixar did, and threw it away. It just wasn’t right and it wasn’t working right.

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that good design does not need retrofitting. Good design just works. There is not a long list of exceptions for use cases. There is a minimal list of adjustments for use cases, but overall, I’ve found that if you find yourself coming up with an unreasonable amount of interactive accommodations, you have the wrong concept. Another barometer, is that after one round of revision, the excitement is gone, and there are a bunch of additional use cases that are not met. This is another sign that your design is not right.

The Solution

When working on projects now, I treat every concept as a spike, and throw it all away. I make note of all the things that are working, and bring those over to the new concept. I also have all the assets from the previous iteration, which saves a lot of time (although I start with a completely new document as well). By trying a lot of things, running into problems, asking more questions, thinking through more operational and user scenarios, you will compile your “real list” of requirements. Some things that you thought that might be negotiable, might not be possible due to time or budget constraints, and it is better to create a unique solution that is solid from the foundation than to retrofit an idea.

I also make it very clear to stakeholders that we will be starting from scratch on ONE concept from our findings, and we can do it in less than a quarter of the time. We will also come up with the right solution this time, and that the exploration allows us to try new things without hitting it out of the park on the first try.

If it’s the right solution. It will just work and you will know, and all the stakeholders will know.

Don’t be afraid to throw everything out and start from scratch.
 

Minimalism has always had a great relationship with retail. Since the 60’s when minimalism started to take off, treatment upwardly mobile consumers have embraced the design concept’s beauty, find and closely associated it with products of high quality. Ever since, minimalism has been a design style that emphasized a high design aesthetic. It is closely aligned with the principles of simplicity from whence it springs. Using it in design and marketing makes products seem more designed and “simpler” as well.

Influences on Minimalism

early-influences

In my research for this article, I came across minimalism of all types: design, art, film music, photography, architecture. All of the disciplines embraced the concept and had their own take. I would say the most known disciplines to embrace it are art and architecture. Drawing from Japanese concepts of balance, simplicity and geometry, Architects have been inspired by minimalism for over 90 years. The concept of minimalism removes everything unnecessary and only keeps the necessary. It seems a good fit for architects, who in an attempt to create harmonious space, want to create an environment that feels spacious and expansive. The expansive design in a physical space gives you a feeling of relaxation and calm, which is the goal of most spaces.

The other main concept architects brought to minimalism was the use of top notch materials. Architects brought in high quality woods and textures, and added them to open spaces. The effect is that you really notice the nicer materials. Also adding a minimal amount of furniture allowed architects and interior designers to invest budget into a smaller quantity of furnishings, but at the same time purchasing higher quality. These higher quality furnishings and materials had more impact because they were left on their own to create impact. If you have little to look at in a room, you focus even harder on what is there. If what is left is high quality, it evokes a feeling of quality. Plus the feeling of expansion.

Web designers have taken the concepts of architects and applied them to the web. Whitespace, high end materials (such as custom photography, and illustrations), minimal elements and simplicity are all concepts that translate well to web and UI design. Visual and web designers have embraced the concepts and applied them to the medium. The effects of minimalist are the same in web design and architecture. In essence minimalist design:

  • helps users focus only on what is important by removing all distraction
  • gives users a feeling of relaxation and space
  • connects with an emotional desire
  • uses space and geometry to instruct and guide uses
  • maximizes impact by removing all extraneous elements
  • engages users by making them think about how the interface works
  • creates a sensation of value by aligning it with other high design
  • but most of all… minimalism embraces simplicity.

 

Remove Everything Till It Breaks.

Minimalism embraces only what is necessary, and removes what is not. It is about using only the best elements, placing them in an expert fashion and removing all that is not necessary…. and it is not easy. It takes focus, prioritization and restraint. It takes balls. It is bold to remove everything but what is necessary, and not fear that the viewer or user will not get it because of a lack of information. It is precisely this boldness which catches people’s attention and draws them in.

Take a look at the ad below. You notice a speck in the center, and try to make it out. It is only after you read the copy on the right (which is the only other element that draws your attention), that you figure out that it is a car. This ad plays a great visual trick on the user, in which the artist has got them to think by making them look for something hidden, and then, drawing them in to question what it is. Only then do we give them the answer in the lower right.

minimalist-ads-car-starter

This ad illustrates a perfect example of how minimalism works. It makes our prediction sense fail, and we pay attention. We expect the page to be filled with a lot of stuff that is easy to see and to read. Most of what we see is full and easily legible. When we see something missing, it engages us and makes us question why what we expected is not there. It draws us in and makes us demand an answer to what is the speck in the middle of the page.

When it comes to minimalist web design, we engage the user by putting few elements on the page. We further engage by using beautiful elements on the page, and expertly placing them to lead them in the direction we want them to go. We minimize options and give the user only the right choice at the right time. The following trends are techniques that web designers have used to create the same effects of spaciousness, beauty, and simplicity for maximum impact and engagement.

5 of 9 trends in minimalist web design:

 

1. Big luscious photography

With minimal elements on a page, a beautiful photograph sucks you in like a vacuum. Imagery provides an anchor for you to focus on and balanced with a minimal amount of distraction, are incredibly impactful. The below sites each uses photography in a unique way.

  • Suit Supply– Unique Image Stylesuitsupply

    Suit Supply uses a unique image style to create engagement and draw users in. The designers of the site have done more than just create great photographs, they have created a compounded effect by unifying the style. They all have a specific look, as well as an action to them.

  • Lilybalou – Minimal impact navigation
    LilyBalou

This site maximizes the impact of the full screen images by using a thin minimal navigation system, and then placing it at the bottom, so the page feels more like a photo gallery than a website. They compound that with interesting front face shots of children to suck you in.

  • VanMoof – Full Screen Background images
    van-moofVan Moof is a bicycle manufacturer based in New York. The company offers simple bicycles that demand top dollar. This site ups the ante by using free floating content and navigation, and full screen images. This allows the images to be even bigger (or smaller) and makes the images and the navigation look separated.
  • Manufacturer d’essai – Emulate a Magazine ad
    manufactureUsing a continuous scroll this site, this site uses large imagery to emulate a gigantic magazine spread, adding interactive elements on the page.

2. Minimal UI and navigation

Simplicity should not only apply to the amount if items on the page, but also ornamentation. The next samples are ones that remove all elements from the UI framework – all extra strokes, shadows, heavily contrasting colors, and nav bars, and removes them. These samples minimize the amount of options for navigation in order to make users go down a rabbit hole, and not distract them with extra elements. The UI is also transparent, and sometimes removed all together. The concept is to make the page look like art, and less like UI.

  • Apple – forked navigation
    ppleWhile Apple is a company that often exemplifies good design, and there is probably not an experienced web designer alive who hasn’t been told a million times to design it “simple like the Apple website,” one of the main concepts of the apple website may not be known. The Apple website has a very simple navigation system that forks users down a certain path, and does little to cross pollinate the path. The site, as of this writing, forks by product, and immerses you in the experience of each product. It removes distraction by strategically using the fork strategy. The forked strategy is further characterized by a limited amount of navigation options (anywhere from 4 to 8) on the top level main nav. The minimalist nav philosophy is that if you have less options you will not be overwhelmed with choice and will try one of the main options, as long as the “scent” of the information is clear. Apple does a great job using this approach and giving users the scent of information to keep them clicking.
  • Shoe Guru– free floating products and navigation
    soeguruShoe guru removes almost all UI elements, and free floats products. The nav bar is simply text without any ornamentation – shadows, strokes, button effects. The product display emulates a shoe wall that you would see in a shoe store, and shows only the price and name. This allows the products to really shine and be viewed without the design overpowering the product photos.
  • Shopbop – Type as navigation
    shopbopShopbop does a similar thing as Shoe Guru by using only type as navigation. The site further reduces all UI to simple boxes with black borders to simplify type and maximize the impact of the banners and product display.
  • RueLaLa – content as navigation.
    ruelalaBecause of the limited amount of product in each nave category, RueLala.com uses a different strategy. They put all of the content available in one long page, and have users click direct to the category grid simply by clicking on a big beautiful product image. They use a grid approach, and while they do display a lot of content on the page that one may not technically call “minimalist” the approach here is to maximize engagement with a single page, which creates simplicity for the user, which is a key principle. Also, while not technically discouraging the user fro using the nav bar, the strategy is to use the nav bar more as a filter than proper navigation. This style of navigation has been popularized by the iPad and tablets, which in the interest of space, designers have been using hidden/collapsable navigation in order to create more space for content. As a result, they made large tap targets, that they designed for users to click on, and voila, the use of big images, minimal navigation, forced users to tap on the images, which in turn causes content strategists to create more intriguing targets to tap on.

3. Balanced Typography

The hallmark of minimalist design has always been type. When used properly, Type can create balance, asymmetry, clutter, space, density, and color. It has been the weapon of choice for minimalists for years because of its ability to convey messages when combined with images. And let’s face it beautiful typesetting is… well… beautiful. It’s engaging and exciting, but can stand all on it’s own to communicate messaging ideas. It can be used in and of itself to prioritize attention, and can be used all by itself. The below sites, use type, (expertly placed, expertly set) to create interest and lead the user to the most important items on the site.

  • Bored of South Sea – Typesetting to clarify calls to action
    boredBored of South Sea does a grew job of using dynamic to to draw attention to it’s calls to action. When used in conjunction with a minimal amount of type styles (as illustrated here), larger or contrasting type calls attention to itself to clarify calls to action in buttons and banners, and UI.
  • IWC – dynamic type for interest
    iwcIwc has a bit of a different approach. Instead of a simplified approach, IWC uses several different sizes of type with the same uppercase setting to create a rhythm.
  • Fossil – simple typesetting for clarity
    fossilThe Fossil site uses less type styles and contrast in order to draw attention to the main image section, and reduce attention from navigation. The effect is a very “cataloge-y” feeling website. It feels much more like a great catalogue than a typical e-commerce website.

    4. Hiding everything

    “If you can’t get rid of it… hide it.” —John Maeda

    As Interactive designers in e-Commerce, we often are told that you cannot hide anything because of the hit to conversion rates. The thought is that if consumers can’t see it, they don’t know it exists right?…. hmmm…. not always.

    As designers, we are constantly in search of the beautiful, the simple and the elegant, and nothing is beautiful, simple nor elegant about filling a page full of a bunch of crap. It is no longer design at that point. It is retrofitting. John Maeda in his book “Simplicity” has a long section on the topic of reduction. His thought is that simple design only contains the necessary, and removes the extraneous. If something cannot be removed, then the next course of action is to hide it. In designing products, this means covers and minimal controls. In interactive design, we must create intrguiging UI and delightful interactions in order to engage users and make them want to click. It is very difficult and a slippery slope. How do we create a visual design that draws attention to hidden things so users can find what they need, without going so obvious that the site becomes clunky. messy and disorganized. At the same time, conversion rate and usability cannot be sacrificed. The below sites do a great job of engaging the user, so he wants to click around and find the hidden UI elements, making it very fun along the way.

    • Nixon – Interactive elements using patterns for learnability
      nixonnixon.com is one of my favorite sites on this list. It makes you want to play with it, because on every interaction, something cool and new happens. Information is displayed on interaction, not upon load. Things like expanding menus, the banner images with hidden captions, and filters that expand, all create a great cohesive experience that encourages engagement, while serving users at the same time. It sacrifices little usability for the cool factor.

      One of the concepts they use in order to create predictability is reuse of interactive design patterns. The 2 key ones are the expanding menus( which are used fortop level navigation, as well as the filter set), and the hover captions on the large images. This minimal set of patterns makes learning the site a breeze and improves usability.

    • Uniqlo– Universal scroll to reveal more
      uniqlo
      ,p>Uniqlo uses a different technique of hiding that some might not call hiding – the universal scroll. I would argue the way in which they do it is a hiding technique… you just use your scroll wheel instead of your click to expose. The effect is the same – it feels like you are discovering more content as you scroll and it feels like you are uncovering content.
    • Makr.com – Hide labels
      makrMakr.com does a greet job of keeping an ultra clean page by removing all type from the page until you hover over an image. The effect is an easy to read and elegant product page. They further enhance the page by adding an accordion display of the product upon click, which reveals more information as the user requires it.

    5. Graceful Responsiveness

    One of the fringe benefits of minimalism has been to make responsive design easier. The approach of minimal navigation, large images and minimal ornamentation makes responsive design easier, because there is simply less to scale. Large images scale nicely, there is less type and less ornaments that need to be retrofitted to the multiple screen size. If there’s less to scale, then it makes design, development and upkeep simpler and faster.

    • Indochino – Going larger gracefully
      indochinoIndochino does something most designers don’t consider— going large gracefully. While everybody is rightly concerned with mobile devices, this site also accommodates big screens very nicely. Using large tiled images, this site fills the screen and creates a beautiful experience not only for small screens, but for big ones as well.
    • Tattly – minimal oranmentation to make responsiveness simpler
      tattlyThe Tattly site is truly simple: Just text, images and a few strokes. Their strategy of keeping things simple makes responsiveness easier because there is less stuff moving, shifting and scaling. This means easier coding, QA time and implementation time. If you put a site like this together the dev team will love you. Simple, elegant, AND easy to code.
    • Five Simple Steps – Simplified grid
      FiveFive simple steps combines minimalism with a basic grid structure to make responsiveness easier. They use a simple 2 column grid that expands and contracts and scales images. They have worked this into the design so that it feels right and scales nicely. They took advantage of the simplicity of the layout and the whitespace to make the grid flow smoothly and make the scaling to alternative devices headache free.

     

    That’s it for this issue!

    I will do numbers 6 -9 in the next few weeks. In the meantime, you can checkout the presentation slides on slideshare.net. Email me with any questions.

     

It’s no secret to my friends that I am a thinker. I think deeply and profoundly about the most insignificant things, help like when Mystic Manor will open at Hong Kong Disneyland, price to why am I here and what does God want for my life. I think constantly.

The other thing that is no secret that my best thinking is when I am walking my dog. He is my best thinking buddy, sales and we have had full on conversations about my career, life and often times technology and User experience. He has helped me solve some pretty tough UX problems. If you need a senior UX dog, he’s pretty good.

Anyway, I was walking my dog the other day, trying to solve some problems about next generation interfaces that I am working on. I have been thinking about the next frontier in technology, and it seems obvious that the next generation of computers is going to free us from screens and keyboards and touch screens. We are in the infancy of the infancy of computer human interaction, and as crazy of stuff that we are able to accomplish now, I firmly believe you ain’t seen nothing yet. I mean my wife’s grandmother was born when automobiles were new, and they barely had running water in their region. Now they can have a computer in their pocket that can show them their great granddaughter in real time, tell them the weather, tell them the traffic and how much money they have in their bank account at any given time.

DO YOU REALIZE HOW CRAZY THIS IS????????

This IS science fiction already!!

But we really are in the infancy of Human computer interaction. We still have the mouse and keyboard – both devices that are over 40 years old. We just haven’t had the technology to find alternate input devices…. but with the wide spread use of the multi-gesture touch screen, we are now in a position to blow this interface thing wide open.

For years science fiction movies have been dreaming up interfaces that are free floating gestural interfaces. Look at Iron Man or Minority Report. These interfaces are projections on real objects. They are a blend of the real and the digital. The next wave of input devices will get us beyond the screen, back into real life, and will require us to not only use screens, but to overlay digital into real life.

So, back to the future…

In trying to come up with my own interpretation of these new interfaces that don’t exist, I felt it was appropriate to break down interface types into their essence, so they can be rebuilt and remained with hands free devices. The below exploration is my attempt to break all types of interfaces into their essence —why they exist, what problem they are trying to solve – regardless of format or type of software. These principles apply to desktop apps and iPhone apps as well as any website.

Universal approaches to data interaction.

The classes of data interaction interfaces:

  1. Consuming data
  2. Monitoring data
  3. Data visualization
  4. Transactions
  5. Search data
  6. Enter/Capture data
  7. Organize data
  8. Edit data
  9. Authorize access to data

Consuming/Reading data

This is how most of the web is designed. The largest portion of how we interact with the web is the consumption of information. The class of consuming and reading data can take the form of not only words, but audio, maps, graphs, video, or any other type of static data. The goal of this type of interface is the transfer the data from the computer to the viewer as quickly and efficiently as possible in order for the user to do something with with it, or to simply be informed.

The main controls of interfaces like this are:

  • Control the amount of content you view at once time – scale window, zoom, etc
  • Manoeuver through content – scroll bars, play/Stop, next arrows
  • Advance to next segment of content – article video, etc
This USA Today detail page is an example consumption page. The page is designed around understanding the text, and provides similar content to encourage further consumption.

This USA Today detail page is an example consumption page. The page is designed around understanding the text, and provides similar content to encourage further consumption.

A few types of examples of a consumption interface:

  • USA TODAY News article
  • Google Maps
  • Marketing websites
  • Flickr display page.
  • YouTube player page

Monitoring data

This is the review of data that is constantly changing. The timeframe for the change can be from milliseconds to years. The purpose of this interface is to see progression and see in real time how data is changing, and to recognize the change. There is also a priority that must emphasize numbers that are changing and removing all other information in order for this type of interface to work.

Main controls:

  • Ability to view whatever numbers are needed. This can be a “show everything at once” approach” or the ability to switch quickly, since this type of interface is time sensitive.
  • Ability to see past data or compare data
Sample monitoring interface

This Bloomberg app for iPad is an example of a monitoring app that allows users to see multiple streams of info in order to make decisions on buying and selling stocks.

A few examples:

  • Bloomberg stock window
  • An Airplane cockpit
  • Google Analytics dashboard
  • Weather forecasts – hour by hour, 10 day, etc.

Data visualization

This type of interface is designed to show you information in a new way. It takes information and displays it in a way to hopefully show you trends and insights or communicate abstract ideas that otherwise would be hard to communicate. This is the computer equivalent of using infographics to display information, however the data visualization interface allows the user to manipulate the parameters of the data to his liking on the fly. Almost like having a infographic designer at his fingertips to instantly create the infographic that he desires. All in a pixel perfect accurate fashion.

What are the differences between Data Visualization and Monitoring interfaces?:

Although this type of interface frequently can “look” like a monitoring interface, the key difference is that Data visualization interfaces are not designed for split second or timed decision making. Data visualization interfaces are mainly there for absorbing data and interfaces and letting the information stew prior to action. Monitoring is designed for immediate action. For instance, there is bad weather ahead, so I need to steer the plane in a different direction. A Data visualization may be an analytics report where you can see how people are using the site over time, so that as you make design changes, you can take that information into consideration. Visualization is for consideration, monitoring is for action.

Needs of this type of interface:

  • Control the parameters of the information – change date, change units
  • Compare/Choose multiple streams of data
  • Choose visualization type – possibly graph, list, overlay, 3 dimensional,
  • Manoeuver through visualization – advance time, see more/less, move in direction (3D)
This Mint.com dashboard allows the user to visualize his/her spending habits in a way that might change behavior in the future.

This Mint.com dashboard allows the user
to visualize his/her spending habits in a way that might change behavior in the future.

Examples:

  • Mint.com
  • Analytics detail/reporting pages
  • Photo timelines
  • Weather Radar Maps

Transactional

This type of interface involves 2 way communication with the computer. Much like a game of chess, this type of interface works on a move by move basis. You move, the computer moves. You move again, the computer responds again. Back and forth into a dialogue between human and machine. The machine is in essence doing the work for the human. This may be using the computer to control the physical – i.e. routing a plane to a location. It may be digital – i.e. using the computer to place an order, or send a print job to the printer.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Feedback to the user. Since this is a dialogue the user must get constant feedback on what is happening
  • Controls to adjust outcomes- As information comes to the user, the user needs to be able to adjust what is happening. This can be movement controls such as in a map type interface, or it can be in unit adjustment – how many what kinds of unit or even where the information is going – i,e, switch printers.
  • Send/Submit information – The computer needs to know when the user is done and ready to complete
This Product page is a perfect example of a transactional page. At this juncture, the user is supposed add the item to cart and have a 2 way dialog with the interface in order to complete a "transaction" or a specific task.

This Product page is a perfect example of a transactional page. At this juncture, the user is supposed add the item to cart and have a 2 way dialog with the interface in order to complete a “transaction” or a specific task.

Examples:

  • Checkout on an e-commerce site
  • Buying tickets at Ticketmaster
  • Print dialogue
  • Adobe Photoshop artboard

Search Data

This type of interface is concerned with the location of information. This is the type of interface you use when you need to give the user the ability to find information. This can be things like open search fields, but this is also the class of interface for browsing. Much like trying to find something you are looking for in your house, the user needs to find a piece of data in the system, and needs ways to find it. Since they cannot physically get into the machine and start looking for stuff (at least not yet), they have to use a viewport and some controls in order to find what they need in order to manipulate, monitor visualize, etc.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Hierarchy of data: Data structure in order to browse information according to a classification.
  • Open ended search – the ability to search free form. Some examples might be type your search, but it also could be voice activated, where you tell the computer what you are looking for
  • Parametric search
  • Submit search – a method for letting the computer know you are done setting parameters or entering your open ended search. This could be a button or a pause in your voice.
The classic search interface. Google's search interface is one of the world's best for a reason. The Google team has removed all extraneous information from the search task

The classic search interface. Google’s search interface is one of the world’s best for a reason. The Google team has removed all extraneous information from the search task

Examples:

  • Google Search
  • Siri
  • Category trees
  • Shazam

Enter/Capture Data

The ability to add new data to the system is another key feature of any interface. Data does not appear out of thin air, so there must be a way for a user to capture data, be it by filling out a form or using an external device to record. Like the monitor interface type, this type of interface must have no distractions, to keep the integrity of the data, and maximize ease of entry. Let’s face it, nobody likes entering or capturing data, but it is a necessary evil.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Ways to input: form fields, start record, take picture, etc
  • Ways to stop input; stop button
  • Submit data
This time tracking software is an example of a data entry screen. The screen focuses on form fields removing all other information, so the user can focus just on the task of entering data into the computer.

This time tracking software is an example of a data entry screen. The screen focuses on form fields removing all other information, so the user can focus just on the task of entering data into the computer.

Examples:

  • Time tracking software
  • CRM system customer page
  • Sound recorder

Educational/Instructional

Some interfaces are designed to instruct you on how to do something. Similar to monitoring and transactional interfaces, these are done in real time. In contrast to consumption interfaces, this interface breaks the information up for you in bite size pieces in order for you to respond in a timely fashion. It may also be something that teaches you how to use another interface, or it could be instructing you on how to do a physical task, such as play tennis, or turn by turn directions in order to drive your car to the right place. The instructional interface gives you quick references to do another task be it digital or physical. It can also be used in learning information, but the structure is shorter and faster than a consumption interface, and often gives you more information to choose from at once.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Labels ; in the instance of a software tutorial, this may be label overlays on all the tools of the software. In a virtual reality software, it may show you places on the street.
  • Additional information: This info is the additional information needed by the user to complete the task. This may be the address or phone number of a place on a turn by turn GPS software, or a short video on how to swing your racket.
  • Steps: Another difference between educational interface and consumption is the introduction of steps, and that a user must complete several steps in order to complete the task. A short tutorial on InDesign will have several sequential steps that you must do in order to learn how to use the software.
  • More detailed information: This is an option for the user to get much more in depth on the topic at hand. for instance. If there was an anatomy software that labeled the lungs, and had a shore video of how the lungs worked, there may be an additional library on lung related diseases, how to maintain healthy lungs, biochemistry of the lungs and more. Or for instance, you are looking for a restaurant, and the interface offers reviews by critics, the history of the restaurant, articles on its owners, etc.
This GPS is an example of an instructional interface. The goal of the interface is to instruct the user how to do something and react to his movements or actions.

This GPS is an example of an instructional interface. The goal of the interface is to instruct the user how to do something and react to his movements or actions.

Examples:

  • GPS directions
  • Software overlays: ipad and iphone apps often have a quick introduction on the software along with overlays of the controls telling what each control does.
  • Lynda com – This is a consumption/learning interface because the content is exhaustive, but each tutorial is designed like an educational interface.
  • Yelp virtual reality mode
  • Stargazer app

Organize data

Users need the ability to take data an rearrange it to be findable. This is more likely a part of a screen, such as a search screen, but this type of interface allows users to classify, label and organize data, such that the search interface can find it. This can be an interface that allows metatags or a category tree for moving customer records around from one section to the next. The key of this interface type is that it allows you to move data around into places that make it easier to find, and creates metadata for parametric and freeform search.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Create/Edit categories
  • Move data to category
  • Label data
Evernote notebooks are a way for you to organize data into folders, The interface allows you to update folder names and move notes from one folder to the next easily.

Evernote notebooks are a way for you to organize data into folders, The interface allows you to update folder names and move notes from one folder to the next easily.

Examples

  • Evernote Notebooks page
  • OSX Finder
  • Email client main screen- Mac Mail, Outlook, etc
  • iTunes

Edit Data

The goal of the edit data is to take data that has been entered, and to give the user the ability to modify this data. This is not always text or form fields as we might be inclined to think. This may be to edit photos or video, which is why it is distinct from the capture enter data. It may also be to edit field data, However the difference between this type of interface and the enter, is that it may afford the user to edit the data one piece at a time, which requires a different interface than entering data. For example, a user may create an account in the checkout process, but the “edit account” will be a different form because the task is different, and may contain all the parts of the record that were not required to enter the data.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Edit data
  • Separation/categorization of information on the record
  • Submit changes
  • View/preview changes

Examples

  • Magento product
  • Amazon customer profile
  • Quickbooks edit check

Communication

Since there are now video chats, audio chats, instant messages,etc, there is a different class of interface that is not for communicating with computers, but to communicate with other human beings. This class of interface allows you to select a person to contact, a method by which to contact, and an interface for the actual contact. This class also includes virtual collaboration tools, for people to work on or see the same things from 2 different terminals or locations.

Requirements for Interface:

  • Select a person/location to contact:
  • Select a type of communication – may be video, text or audio or photo
  • See who is available to be contacted – may be availability or security issues
  • Controls for communication – size of window, bandwidth, mute, etc.
iChat is a class of interface that allows users to communicate with one another. In this case, video, audio and text are all used.

iChat is a class of interface that allows users to communicate with one another. In this case, video, audio and text are all used.

Examples:

  • iChat
  • Google Hangout
  • Skype
  • email clients

Authorize access

Interfaces that authorize access are very simple. They have one goal: To get the computer to recognize who the person using the machine is. While most often we think of a login screen, if you think outside the box, this can be voice recognition, retina scan and/or thumbprint. The key is that the user inputs something into the computer that allows the computer to cross reference and serve up the appropriate information or access based on the identification.

Need of the interface:

  • Input of verification information: While we all know the “user name/password” type of verification, this might be a microphone, a video camera or thumbprint scanner
  • A means of submission: This can be automatic such as a pause, or when the computer has a match or a submit button or a change of focus on a field.
  • Feedback on why or why not authorization has been approved.
  • Alternative means to verify: there might be an additional method for verification, such as sending an email to recover password, a different data type – such as an email vs user name verification or Security questions versus user name password.
This MailChimp login is a screen we see every day. It's goal is to authorize the user to access his account.

This MailChimp login is a screen we see every day. It’s goal is to authorize the user to access his account.

Examples:

  • Mail chimp login screen
  • Edna Mode’s house in the Incredibles
  • FTP/VPN/Connect o server screens or modules.

 

What does all this mean?

The above classification is the results of an exercise to understand interfaces better and to break them down to their essence. I find that we don’t spend any time wondering why we have a content detail page or a category tree. Those tools evolved as a way to solve the larger problem of interacting with data, and what we as humans need from our machines. Why do we even have computers in the first place? They allow us to help interpret our world, help us see new things, new information that we otherwise would not be able to see. They help us communicate. They help us store data for repetitive tasks.

In innovating for the next generation of computers and interfaces, it is important to know the essential types of interfaces that we are encountering and what are key elements of those interfaces, so we can reframe the problem. Does a data capture interface need to be a form? Can it be voice? Maybe it’s brain waves at some point? Who knows. If we don”t consider the problem from alternate angles, how do we expect to get us from where we are now to a new solution.

This list is not exhaustive, but meet the requirements of most interfaces I could come up with. In the future, I may add some additional types, but these are the main models that I could come up with.

Does classification help you in your everyday work now?

Maybe … or maybe not. I am an over-analytical fool, and love to look at problems from different angles. If I am designing a content site, and I realize that I need a consumption interface, and a search interface, I might try recreating these elements in a new fashion. If I know that my main task is to monitor something, I might add a visualization tool to the mix to make monitoring easier and more insightful. You can try breaking up the pieces of the puzzle at their essence and put them back together in new and exciting ways.

And let me know what you come up with.

Personal:

I am at a cross-roads right now. One journey is ending, clinic and another is just starting. My wife and I have been working on adopting a little girl from China for the past year and a half. This journey ends at the end of the month. We still don’t have travel dates, more about but in all likelihood, we will travel to China on May 29th, and meet our daughter 5 days after. It has truly been a life defining moment, and I am amazed at how this little girl has been able to touch people. She has the most amazing spirit, and in spite of all her medical challenges continues to smile. We have about 20 pics of her taken over 2 years, and she is radiating happiness in every one.

She was born with Spina Bifida, and has significant medical issues. We do not know her condition, but we have prayed for her every day. We pray that she is delivered to us safely, but however she comes to us, she will be perfect as she is. We believe that she just is our daughter and she was just born to another person on the other side of the world, that simple… And if your kid is on the other end of the world, you just go get her. That’s it. We are confident God has big plans for this little girl and we are just happy to be chosen to be part of the ride.

I will post some pics of China when I get back. I’m sure I will have a ton. Please pray for her health and her transition to the United States. I am sure it will be very traumatic, but we hope it goes as smooth as possible.

Design

On the work front. I just finished a contract on a Symptom Tracker for Corcept, which I worked on as part of the Heartbeat Ideas team. This was a great experience to design for people whose health depends on medical records. We designed a tracker tool that includes medical record keeping, data visualization and photo features. It was also a fully responsive web app, which was a fun challenge to tackle. The project goes live in Alpha on May 7, and will be posted here as soon as it is.

Experiments

I have also been experimenting with alternative interfaces for collaboration software. I am trying to see what kind of interfaces I can design that would solve current collaboration software. There are so many limits to current collaboration software, and travel is so expensive and disruptive, that it is an obvious choice for the next generation of screen-less- hands free interfaces. I have been working with a combination of projector based/gestural technology. The idea is to make online collaboration more… collaborative. Our current generation of collaboration software really sucks. It is better than a phone conversation, but lacks the ability to collaborate in real time, as well as the ability to consolidate the notes and knowledge of the group for others to have access. My solution includes video, whiteboarding, collaborative notes, and web access all in an intuitive real world style interface. I have sketches, but it’s not polished enough to present.

I am doing this in an effort to design the software of the future, knowing the technology will catch up sooner than later. I have been using this as a part of the “wallboard” project, and it is a very cool concept. I am picking the Wallboard concept up again this month, and it is moving forward, so keep an eye out for an MVP.

Teaching and speaking

I spoke again at the Internet Retailer Web Design Conference on Minimalism in e-Commerce. Check out the deck and the blog post here. This is a summary of the presentation. I also spoke on Competitive Analysis at the How Interactive Conference.

I am going to be offering a workshop on Managing UX/UI workflow soon. Stay tuned. The workshop is in request to several people’s interest in my workflow I designed with my former partner Ben Thompson. It is mainly a tactical workshop on using specific tools, responsibility and formulas to prevent the chaos that ensues on most projects. My thought is that a lot of it comes from a lack of definition of roles and process, as well as using the wrong tools for the job. My opinion is that using the right tools can help manage chaos, mainly because it helps manage the amount of documents and formats that various people are using. The more documents, the more room for miscommunication, duplicated work, lack of time, and wasted effort. Please sign up on my email list and I will send out notification when this happens. I really hope to change how the industry does web design. I think there is a lot of effort that is costing creatives the precious creative juice we need to create, simply because of the wrong tools.

Personal:

I am at a cross-roads right now. One journey is ending, clinic and another is just starting. My wife and I have been working on adopting a little girl from China for the past year and a half. This journey ends at the end of the month. We still don’t have travel dates, more about but in all likelihood, we will travel to China on May 29th, and meet our daughter 5 days after. It has truly been a life defining moment, and I am amazed at how this little girl has been able to touch people. She has the most amazing spirit, and in spite of all her medical challenges continues to smile. We have about 20 pics of her taken over 2 years, and she is radiating happiness in every one.

She was born with Spina Bifida, and has significant medical issues. We do not know her condition, but we have prayed for her every day. We pray that she is delivered to us safely, but however she comes to us, she will be perfect as she is. We believe that she just is our daughter and she was just born to another person on the other side of the world, that simple… And if your kid is on the other end of the world, you just go get her. That’s it. We are confident God has big plans for this little girl and we are just happy to be chosen to be part of the ride.

I will post some pics of China when I get back. I’m sure I will have a ton. Please pray for her health and her transition to the United States. I am sure it will be very traumatic, but we hope it goes as smooth as possible.

Design

On the work front. I just finished a contract on a Symptom Tracker for Corcept, which I worked on as part of the Heartbeat Ideas team. This was a great experience to design for people whose health depends on medical records. We designed a tracker tool that includes medical record keeping, data visualization and photo features. It was also a fully responsive web app, which was a fun challenge to tackle. The project goes live in Alpha on May 7, and will be posted here as soon as it is.

Experiments

I have also been experimenting with alternative interfaces for collaboration software. I am trying to see what kind of interfaces I can design that would solve current collaboration software. There are so many limits to current collaboration software, and travel is so expensive and disruptive, that it is an obvious choice for the next generation of screen-less- hands free interfaces. I have been working with a combination of projector based/gestural technology. The idea is to make online collaboration more… collaborative. Our current generation of collaboration software really sucks. It is better than a phone conversation, but lacks the ability to collaborate in real time, as well as the ability to consolidate the notes and knowledge of the group for others to have access. My solution includes video, whiteboarding, collaborative notes, and web access all in an intuitive real world style interface. I have sketches, but it’s not polished enough to present.

I am doing this in an effort to design the software of the future, knowing the technology will catch up sooner than later. I have been using this as a part of the “wallboard” project, and it is a very cool concept. I am picking the Wallboard concept up again this month, and it is moving forward, so keep an eye out for an MVP.

Teaching and speaking

I spoke again at the Internet Retailer Web Design Conference on Minimalism in e-Commerce. Check out the deck and the blog post here. This is a summary of the presentation. I also spoke on Competitive Analysis at the How Interactive Conference.

I am going to be offering a workshop on Managing UX/UI workflow soon. Stay tuned. The workshop is in request to several people’s interest in my workflow I designed with my former partner Ben Thompson. It is mainly a tactical workshop on using specific tools, responsibility and formulas to prevent the chaos that ensues on most projects. My thought is that a lot of it comes from a lack of definition of roles and process, as well as using the wrong tools for the job. My opinion is that using the right tools can help manage chaos, mainly because it helps manage the amount of documents and formats that various people are using. The more documents, the more room for miscommunication, duplicated work, lack of time, and wasted effort. Please sign up on my email list and I will send out notification when this happens. I really hope to change how the industry does web design. I think there is a lot of effort that is costing creatives the precious creative juice we need to create, simply because of the wrong tools.

Rule number 1 in web design: Every project has way more ideas than time or resources.

No matter how big, there how many people, prostate or how much money the project costs, more about you will always have more ideas than resources. The difference between a successful project and a mediocre one is always in the execution. I’m sure that the vast majority of mediocre websites started out great, and probably included some truly innovative solutions, however, then …. reality sets in. Product team, meet your resources, and that beautiful product you have been planning, gets hacked to a mere shadow of the career topping project you had so much hope for. Bit by bit it gets widdled down to something buildable. And often it’s hacked to the point that the original vision for the project is just some sort of half usable UI, that barely passes for MVP. The wrong features get built, and the project has little traction, and makes little difference in the bottom line. The decision makers loose interest and you move on.This story replays itself over and over for teams without a clear UX strategy.

The above story is a tale in accumulating UX debt that you have to pay with compounded interest. One way I have found to help bridge the gap between a ton of ideas and something buildable that results in the biggest increase in attaining KPI’s is a technique called “Funnel optimization.” Typically it is a marketing visualization, however in my UX approach whereby the strategist outlines the funnel, assesses the funnel, compares the ideas on the backlog with the effectiveness of the funnel, and prioritizes improvements. It helps take some subjectivity out of backlog grooming in order to make improvements in the areas that your application really needs, versus bolstering areas that are already performing well.

The funnel metaphor is always good because it is analagous to real life. Each of the funnels have holes in them that leak out water. There may be holes near the top that are really large, which may cut out half of the water getting to the lower levels. Or, the opposite may be true, where you are getting all the water to the last funnel only to lose at the bottom of the funnel. The same is true for any website – especially a commerce/transactional site. The consumer goes through the different stages and all stages need to be optimized. It just may be that the stage you are throwing your resources at is the one that is already the best optimized. Then you are wasting your resources. The trick then is to find the least optimized points in the funnel and then tighten those up first.

Defining the funnel

Since the 1960’s, a classic method of defining the sales funnel came from a Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith article called “AIDA.” AIDA stands for

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Decision
  • Action

This model describes how consumers move from step to step, advancing through the purchase funnel getting closer to sale, and ultimately retention. It is the best model I have found in helping visualizing steps in an e-commerce process (thanks Tim Ash!) as this model illustrates a method of assessing the interaction design of the site in a very transferable way,. When you add “Satisfaction” as a last step in the funnel, you ultimately close the loop and can accurately assess the funnel from an experience standpoint.

The steps are defined as follows:

“Awareness”

Attracting the attention of the customer. This is the goal of most advertising and Search campaigns, however, the info plays a key part in defining the experience. The user comes with knowledge and a problem, and the experience designer must understand both thoroughly in order to design an effective solution.

User Questions:

  • Does a product exist that meets my need or desire?
  • If I know it exists, is my image of it intriguing?

UI Solutions:

  • Landing pages, and the ability of the user to grasp the Unique selling proposition instantaneously.
  • Banner ad integration, and the role it plays in the acquisition experience.
  • The ability of the creative to grab the consumer, both aesthetically and in messaging.

“Interest”

This is the point where the user looks for information on the product. This is the stage where the consumer is doing information gathering. For designers, in order to satisfy this need, we must have a good understanding of what knowledge they have in their head versus what you need to supply them with. The user must know that they have the need and decide to buy.

User Questions:

  • Does this do what I need it to do?
  • What does it cost?

UI Solutions:

  • Clear product pages, knowing the user’s needs, and demonstrate a knowledge of the user
  • Great photography and media access
  • Curated products and top level pages
  • Email capture for more information/offers
  • Cross sells

“Decision”

This is the point where the user has realized they need the product, and is ready to buy, but needs help deciding on “which one?” This may be between competing companies (Dell and Mac), various models – such as a Macbook Air and a Macbook Pro.

User Questions:

  • What options are available?
  • What does it really cost?
  • What are the differences between product x and y? The advantages? The disadvantages?
  • Is there anything else I need with this to use it?

UI Solutions:

  • Comparison features/information/shopping comparison engines
  • Refine/sort/parametric features
  • Mini carts showing Total costs – including extras like shipping and service fees
  • Local/personalized information prior to purchasing, such as deals in your area.
  • Sales Support – live chat, phone/email support, etc
  • Reviews
  • Options
  • A dealer locator to see where I can buy it
  • Upsells

“Action”

This is the place you really don’t want to mess up. The consumer is now ready to purchase and all you have to do is take the money. This oftentimes is complicated, due to different types of payment, gift cards, discounts, sales etc. All of which need to be effectively communicated to the user prior to completion of the process:

User Questions:

  • Where/How can I purchase this?
  • Am I getting the right price? (discounts, sales etc applied)
  • How do I pay for this?
  • Is there anything fishy about this that may cause me to mistrust this transaction? Will anything bad happen as a result of this transaction?

UI Solutions:

  • Checkout/Registration
  • Invoice/Cart totals
  • Apply discounts/alternate payments
  • Return/Support policies
  • Purchase support – Live chat

“Satisfaction”

This is the last step where you either retain or loose the customer. If the customer was satisfied, the chance of a repeat purchase increases.
User Questions:

  • Did I get what I thought I was buying?
  • Was the quality of the product and product experience up to snuff?
  • Does it actually do what it claims? How well? Was it worth the cost?
  • What was the purchase process like?
  • How do I get support on using this product? Is it adequate?
  • Do I have a need for more products to add with this purchase (additional or refill)?
  • What happens if I have a problem?
  • Was it easy to find more relevant products I aim interested in?

UI Solutions:

  • Confirmation emails
  • Autoresponders – encouraging further action relative to relevant info
  • Personalized suggestions
  • Thank you emails
  • Additional offers
  • Product Support/Quick start
  • Brand engagement apps like games
  • Upsells/cross sells

Translating the funnel to UX strategy

The next step in the process, is to translate all the actions on your site that move a user down the funnel. No doubt there will be primary actions – make a purchase, sign up for email. Find a product, etc – and secondary tasks – find out reviews, ask a question about a product, etc. If you have a rich e-commerce experience, this list can be pretty large —50+ tasks — on a mid range site, you should have about 20-30 that makes sense. Any place you can consolidate and remove functional duplicates do so. For instance, if one of your actions is “Repeat visits demonstrating engagement” and “Monthly repeat visits showing loyalty” – each of those actions might have some crossover in terms of analysis. If you have different user groups or personas, each with unique actions in the funnel, you will need to break each of those tasks per user out.

After assigning each of the tasks, you will want to rate the effectiveness of the site in helping the user achieve his goal on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best. (I never give 10’s except in very rare instances). This rating scale must be bought into by all stakeholders or the technique does not work, so it is paramount that the ratings are discussed and agreed on prior to moving forward on the strategy

Here is a guideline for interpreting numbers:

8-10 User understands most or all of the information necessary, and is able to complete the task with no difficulty. A 9 or 10 indicates a level of intuitiveness, grace and sophistication that is exemplary.
6-7 A users can accomplish their task with a little difficulty and may or may not be able to understand all information presented in completing the task. The user will definitely have to think here and might stumble and recover to complete.
4-5 A user completes most or all of his task with difficulty
2-3 A user completes most his task with significant difficulty, at the same time a large constituency would not be able to complete their task.
1 Most or all users would not be able to complete their task at all.
0 Task is unable to be completed because the feature to complete the task does not exist.

 


 

Sample action list:

Clickthrough from adult targeted media
3
Wishlist email click through/opened
6
Visits to a store/product detail page(2)
7
Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer
6
Share content (2)
2
Like it/Want it (2)
0
Regular Monthly visits (2)
4
Online Purchase
7
Registered user signed up to receive promotions
0
Purchase at a brick and mortar store(2)
6
Repeat purchase
7
Repeat visits from Wishlist
5

(2) = 2ndary action

Pulling it together

So by now, you should have your funnel defined, and your actions defined and rated. Now it’s time to put it all together. The next step is to assign each of the actions to a step in the funnel. Go through each of the actions and assign it to a funnel level like below. Calculate the average score in order to see where the biggest holes are and highlight anything that is a primary task with a score lower than 5.

Awareness

Clickthrough from adult targeted media 3
Visits to a store/product detail page(2) 7
Average Score 5

 

Interest

Wishlist email click through/opened 6
Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer 6
Registered users signed up to receive promotions 0
Average Score 4.5

 

Desire

Share Content (2) 0
Like It/want it 0
Average Score 0

 

Action

Online Purchase 7
Purchase at a brick and mortar store using online
info such as wishlist printout or find a store(2)
6
Average Score 6.5

 

Satisfaction

Increased Regular Monthly visits(2) 4
Repeat purchase 7
Repeat visits from Wishlist 5
Average Score 5.33

 

As you can see above, this site is having issues getting users to sign up for promotions, like/want a product and click though from adult targeted media. Once you have this info, you can either brainstorm ideas on how you could help the user do those actions, or see any ideas that best attack those problems. For instance, you can add social media like buttons or add a systemwide like/want system where users can see all their likes in one place. Those would be good use of resources since the business desire is to get users to like content or show an indication of intent or preference. Likewise, for the “click through from targeted media,” this means there is a problem that happens when a user arrives on the site without messaging to answer their question. Maybe a sections for adults or a landing page dedicated to handle this media might best help this portion of the funnel.

Conversely, the 2 levels of the funnel with the biggest holes are level 2 and 3. This site is doing a good job of helping users purchase, but most don’t get that far. So another approach would be to see how best to improve the average scores of the funnel levels. This can be done by brainstorming functionality that would address that issue or by pulling from the backlog of ideas that need to be worked on.

Finishing the job

So you have your priorities and your functions so you can start your next sprint planning with a focus. You still need to get technical timing, but once you have an LOE attached to your prioritized list, you can start to make some decisions and plan. You want to focus on features that improve the funnel and measure against it. It is important to make sure all your actions are measurable and co-ordinate effort with the Business intelligence team/analysts in order to see that measurable improvements are being made. The analytics will give you the results of what is currently happening, so if you did something right, something like Time on Site or conversion should increase for the segment that was served a specialized landing page. Or if your target is to increase regular monthly visitor engagement – look at the number of visitors that return monthly, and see if that is growing.

The quest to fight the swiss cheese product is a battle we all fight every day. In the trenches, it is our job as UX designers to lead the way for the experience to both satisfy the user needs, and make sure the business is getting results where it wants them, By using this technique, you not only produce a list of build able features, you are also making improvements in the areas you need them in a more objective fashion, thus making the overall experience tighter and more effective.

Personal:

I am at a cross-roads right now. One journey is ending, clinic and another is just starting. My wife and I have been working on adopting a little girl from China for the past year and a half. This journey ends at the end of the month. We still don’t have travel dates, more about but in all likelihood, we will travel to China on May 29th, and meet our daughter 5 days after. It has truly been a life defining moment, and I am amazed at how this little girl has been able to touch people. She has the most amazing spirit, and in spite of all her medical challenges continues to smile. We have about 20 pics of her taken over 2 years, and she is radiating happiness in every one.

She was born with Spina Bifida, and has significant medical issues. We do not know her condition, but we have prayed for her every day. We pray that she is delivered to us safely, but however she comes to us, she will be perfect as she is. We believe that she just is our daughter and she was just born to another person on the other side of the world, that simple… And if your kid is on the other end of the world, you just go get her. That’s it. We are confident God has big plans for this little girl and we are just happy to be chosen to be part of the ride.

I will post some pics of China when I get back. I’m sure I will have a ton. Please pray for her health and her transition to the United States. I am sure it will be very traumatic, but we hope it goes as smooth as possible.

Design

On the work front. I just finished a contract on a Symptom Tracker for Corcept, which I worked on as part of the Heartbeat Ideas team. This was a great experience to design for people whose health depends on medical records. We designed a tracker tool that includes medical record keeping, data visualization and photo features. It was also a fully responsive web app, which was a fun challenge to tackle. The project goes live in Alpha on May 7, and will be posted here as soon as it is.

Experiments

I have also been experimenting with alternative interfaces for collaboration software. I am trying to see what kind of interfaces I can design that would solve current collaboration software. There are so many limits to current collaboration software, and travel is so expensive and disruptive, that it is an obvious choice for the next generation of screen-less- hands free interfaces. I have been working with a combination of projector based/gestural technology. The idea is to make online collaboration more… collaborative. Our current generation of collaboration software really sucks. It is better than a phone conversation, but lacks the ability to collaborate in real time, as well as the ability to consolidate the notes and knowledge of the group for others to have access. My solution includes video, whiteboarding, collaborative notes, and web access all in an intuitive real world style interface. I have sketches, but it’s not polished enough to present.

I am doing this in an effort to design the software of the future, knowing the technology will catch up sooner than later. I have been using this as a part of the “wallboard” project, and it is a very cool concept. I am picking the Wallboard concept up again this month, and it is moving forward, so keep an eye out for an MVP.

Teaching and speaking

I spoke again at the Internet Retailer Web Design Conference on Minimalism in e-Commerce. Check out the deck and the blog post here. This is a summary of the presentation. I also spoke on Competitive Analysis at the How Interactive Conference.

I am going to be offering a workshop on Managing UX/UI workflow soon. Stay tuned. The workshop is in request to several people’s interest in my workflow I designed with my former partner Ben Thompson. It is mainly a tactical workshop on using specific tools, responsibility and formulas to prevent the chaos that ensues on most projects. My thought is that a lot of it comes from a lack of definition of roles and process, as well as using the wrong tools for the job. My opinion is that using the right tools can help manage chaos, mainly because it helps manage the amount of documents and formats that various people are using. The more documents, the more room for miscommunication, duplicated work, lack of time, and wasted effort. Please sign up on my email list and I will send out notification when this happens. I really hope to change how the industry does web design. I think there is a lot of effort that is costing creatives the precious creative juice we need to create, simply because of the wrong tools.

Rule number 1 in web design: Every project has way more ideas than time or resources.

No matter how big, there how many people, prostate or how much money the project costs, more about you will always have more ideas than resources. The difference between a successful project and a mediocre one is always in the execution. I’m sure that the vast majority of mediocre websites started out great, and probably included some truly innovative solutions, however, then …. reality sets in. Product team, meet your resources, and that beautiful product you have been planning, gets hacked to a mere shadow of the career topping project you had so much hope for. Bit by bit it gets widdled down to something buildable. And often it’s hacked to the point that the original vision for the project is just some sort of half usable UI, that barely passes for MVP. The wrong features get built, and the project has little traction, and makes little difference in the bottom line. The decision makers loose interest and you move on.This story replays itself over and over for teams without a clear UX strategy.

The above story is a tale in accumulating UX debt that you have to pay with compounded interest. One way I have found to help bridge the gap between a ton of ideas and something buildable that results in the biggest increase in attaining KPI’s is a technique called “Funnel optimization.” Typically it is a marketing visualization, however in my UX approach whereby the strategist outlines the funnel, assesses the funnel, compares the ideas on the backlog with the effectiveness of the funnel, and prioritizes improvements. It helps take some subjectivity out of backlog grooming in order to make improvements in the areas that your application really needs, versus bolstering areas that are already performing well.

The funnel metaphor is always good because it is analagous to real life. Each of the funnels have holes in them that leak out water. There may be holes near the top that are really large, which may cut out half of the water getting to the lower levels. Or, the opposite may be true, where you are getting all the water to the last funnel only to lose at the bottom of the funnel. The same is true for any website – especially a commerce/transactional site. The consumer goes through the different stages and all stages need to be optimized. It just may be that the stage you are throwing your resources at is the one that is already the best optimized. Then you are wasting your resources. The trick then is to find the least optimized points in the funnel and then tighten those up first.

Defining the funnel

Since the 1960’s, a classic method of defining the sales funnel came from a Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith article called “AIDA.” AIDA stands for

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Decision
  • Action

This model describes how consumers move from step to step, advancing through the purchase funnel getting closer to sale, and ultimately retention. It is the best model I have found in helping visualizing steps in an e-commerce process (thanks Tim Ash!) as this model illustrates a method of assessing the interaction design of the site in a very transferable way,. When you add “Satisfaction” as a last step in the funnel, you ultimately close the loop and can accurately assess the funnel from an experience standpoint.

The steps are defined as follows:

“Awareness”

Attracting the attention of the customer. This is the goal of most advertising and Search campaigns, however, the info plays a key part in defining the experience. The user comes with knowledge and a problem, and the experience designer must understand both thoroughly in order to design an effective solution.

User Questions:

  • Does a product exist that meets my need or desire?
  • If I know it exists, is my image of it intriguing?

UI Solutions:

  • Landing pages, and the ability of the user to grasp the Unique selling proposition instantaneously.
  • Banner ad integration, and the role it plays in the acquisition experience.
  • The ability of the creative to grab the consumer, both aesthetically and in messaging.

“Interest”

This is the point where the user looks for information on the product. This is the stage where the consumer is doing information gathering. For designers, in order to satisfy this need, we must have a good understanding of what knowledge they have in their head versus what you need to supply them with. The user must know that they have the need and decide to buy.

User Questions:

  • Does this do what I need it to do?
  • What does it cost?

UI Solutions:

  • Clear product pages, knowing the user’s needs, and demonstrate a knowledge of the user
  • Great photography and media access
  • Curated products and top level pages
  • Email capture for more information/offers
  • Cross sells

“Decision”

This is the point where the user has realized they need the product, and is ready to buy, but needs help deciding on “which one?” This may be between competing companies (Dell and Mac), various models – such as a Macbook Air and a Macbook Pro.

User Questions:

  • What options are available?
  • What does it really cost?
  • What are the differences between product x and y? The advantages? The disadvantages?
  • Is there anything else I need with this to use it?

UI Solutions:

  • Comparison features/information/shopping comparison engines
  • Refine/sort/parametric features
  • Mini carts showing Total costs – including extras like shipping and service fees
  • Local/personalized information prior to purchasing, such as deals in your area.
  • Sales Support – live chat, phone/email support, etc
  • Reviews
  • Options
  • A dealer locator to see where I can buy it
  • Upsells

“Action”

This is the place you really don’t want to mess up. The consumer is now ready to purchase and all you have to do is take the money. This oftentimes is complicated, due to different types of payment, gift cards, discounts, sales etc. All of which need to be effectively communicated to the user prior to completion of the process:

User Questions:

  • Where/How can I purchase this?
  • Am I getting the right price? (discounts, sales etc applied)
  • How do I pay for this?
  • Is there anything fishy about this that may cause me to mistrust this transaction? Will anything bad happen as a result of this transaction?

UI Solutions:

  • Checkout/Registration
  • Invoice/Cart totals
  • Apply discounts/alternate payments
  • Return/Support policies
  • Purchase support – Live chat

“Satisfaction”

This is the last step where you either retain or loose the customer. If the customer was satisfied, the chance of a repeat purchase increases.
User Questions:

  • Did I get what I thought I was buying?
  • Was the quality of the product and product experience up to snuff?
  • Does it actually do what it claims? How well? Was it worth the cost?
  • What was the purchase process like?
  • How do I get support on using this product? Is it adequate?
  • Do I have a need for more products to add with this purchase (additional or refill)?
  • What happens if I have a problem?
  • Was it easy to find more relevant products I aim interested in?

UI Solutions:

  • Confirmation emails
  • Autoresponders – encouraging further action relative to relevant info
  • Personalized suggestions
  • Thank you emails
  • Additional offers
  • Product Support/Quick start
  • Brand engagement apps like games
  • Upsells/cross sells

Translating the funnel to UX strategy

The next step in the process, is to translate all the actions on your site that move a user down the funnel. No doubt there will be primary actions – make a purchase, sign up for email. Find a product, etc – and secondary tasks – find out reviews, ask a question about a product, etc. If you have a rich e-commerce experience, this list can be pretty large —50+ tasks — on a mid range site, you should have about 20-30 that makes sense. Any place you can consolidate and remove functional duplicates do so. For instance, if one of your actions is “Repeat visits demonstrating engagement” and “Monthly repeat visits showing loyalty” – each of those actions might have some crossover in terms of analysis. If you have different user groups or personas, each with unique actions in the funnel, you will need to break each of those tasks per user out.

After assigning each of the tasks, you will want to rate the effectiveness of the site in helping the user achieve his goal on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best. (I never give 10’s except in very rare instances). This rating scale must be bought into by all stakeholders or the technique does not work, so it is paramount that the ratings are discussed and agreed on prior to moving forward on the strategy

Here is a guideline for interpreting numbers:

8-10 User understands most or all of the information necessary, and is able to complete the task with no difficulty. A 9 or 10 indicates a level of intuitiveness, grace and sophistication that is exemplary.
6-7 A users can accomplish their task with a little difficulty and may or may not be able to understand all information presented in completing the task. The user will definitely have to think here and might stumble and recover to complete.
4-5 A user completes most or all of his task with difficulty
2-3 A user completes most his task with significant difficulty, at the same time a large constituency would not be able to complete their task.
1 Most or all users would not be able to complete their task at all.
0 Task is unable to be completed because the feature to complete the task does not exist.

 


 

Sample action list:

Clickthrough from adult targeted media
3
Wishlist email click through/opened
6
Visits to a store/product detail page(2)
7
Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer
6
Share content (2)
2
Like it/Want it (2)
0
Regular Monthly visits (2)
4
Online Purchase
7
Registered user signed up to receive promotions
0
Purchase at a brick and mortar store(2)
6
Repeat purchase
7
Repeat visits from Wishlist
5

(2) = 2ndary action

Pulling it together

So by now, you should have your funnel defined, and your actions defined and rated. Now it’s time to put it all together. The next step is to assign each of the actions to a step in the funnel. Go through each of the actions and assign it to a funnel level like below. Calculate the average score in order to see where the biggest holes are and highlight anything that is a primary task with a score lower than 5.

Awareness

Clickthrough from adult targeted media 3
Visits to a store/product detail page(2) 7
Average Score 5

 

Interest

Wishlist email click through/opened 6
Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer 6
Registered users signed up to receive promotions 0
Average Score 4.5

 

Desire

Share Content (2) 0
Like It/want it 0
Average Score 0

 

Action

Online Purchase 7
Purchase at a brick and mortar store using online
info such as wishlist printout or find a store(2)
6
Average Score 6.5

 

Satisfaction

Increased Regular Monthly visits(2) 4
Repeat purchase 7
Repeat visits from Wishlist 5
Average Score 5.33

 

As you can see above, this site is having issues getting users to sign up for promotions, like/want a product and click though from adult targeted media. Once you have this info, you can either brainstorm ideas on how you could help the user do those actions, or see any ideas that best attack those problems. For instance, you can add social media like buttons or add a systemwide like/want system where users can see all their likes in one place. Those would be good use of resources since the business desire is to get users to like content or show an indication of intent or preference. Likewise, for the “click through from targeted media,” this means there is a problem that happens when a user arrives on the site without messaging to answer their question. Maybe a sections for adults or a landing page dedicated to handle this media might best help this portion of the funnel.

Conversely, the 2 levels of the funnel with the biggest holes are level 2 and 3. This site is doing a good job of helping users purchase, but most don’t get that far. So another approach would be to see how best to improve the average scores of the funnel levels. This can be done by brainstorming functionality that would address that issue or by pulling from the backlog of ideas that need to be worked on.

Finishing the job

So you have your priorities and your functions so you can start your next sprint planning with a focus. You still need to get technical timing, but once you have an LOE attached to your prioritized list, you can start to make some decisions and plan. You want to focus on features that improve the funnel and measure against it. It is important to make sure all your actions are measurable and co-ordinate effort with the Business intelligence team/analysts in order to see that measurable improvements are being made. The analytics will give you the results of what is currently happening, so if you did something right, something like Time on Site or conversion should increase for the segment that was served a specialized landing page. Or if your target is to increase regular monthly visitor engagement – look at the number of visitors that return monthly, and see if that is growing.

The quest to fight the swiss cheese product is a battle we all fight every day. In the trenches, it is our job as UX designers to lead the way for the experience to both satisfy the user needs, and make sure the business is getting results where it wants them, By using this technique, you not only produce a list of build able features, you are also making improvements in the areas you need them in a more objective fashion, thus making the overall experience tighter and more effective.
Recently, treat I was faced with a bit of a new challenge: establish new research procedures and set up a research department. While I had done projects for companies like this with my agency, cheap what made this unique was the fact that this was not a single, unique project… this was a big hairy problem that required several phases, and a lot of prioritization. The company had very little in terms of analytics, and had done almost no user research, save a few unmoderated usability tests. However, the product team knew that they had to begin to focus on User Centered Design. The product team consisted seasoned veterans who knew the benefit of doing user research, and they needed my help in procedural expertise combined with my experience in doing user research to help them make the transition from Executive centered design to user centered design.

Add to this the fact that the platform now was on multiple devices, and an undefined experience strategy and you now have a tangled web to untangle. There were so many issues in so many directions to uncover, and the company needed answers at an impossible speed. Every area possible of research needed help: Usability, user strategy, analytics, industry research…. and it needed to be done six months ago. The business was a sort of start up in the fact that it didn’t know exactly who the users were, and more than a startup because they had some very sophisticated people who had created 2 versions of the application…. without much user feedback…. so the design team and the product team desperately wanted some answers. It was very hard for them to effectively design without knowing who they were designing for and what their needs were, so they hired me to help them start; first by setting up an infrastructure, then creating a program for testing.

Starting a new research program

While the above situation is but one we encounter, there are many other situations you may find that you need to set up a research program. You may be a UX team of one, where the company just found the need or the funds to hire a UX designer, and you will be expected to validate, as well as design, the products you create. You may have inherited or started working with a team of UX designers that once reported to a creative director, and because there was no UX leadership their was neither the desire or the need to create a UX research program. You may also be working in a creative focused environment, such as an ad agency, that simply focused on creating a great concept first, then the UX designers are expected to do the interaction design with minimal research because the project team didn’t build in the time or the budget for any type of research.

In all of the above situations, it is a challenge to create truly meaningful products as a UX designer without the benefit of some sort of research. You can just continue to crank out wireframes based on the ideas of the creative team or executives. You can just put your ideas out into the world and not know anything about how effective what you did was. You can just accept the fact that, in some organizations, UX design is just not valued (even organizations that are digital products!)

You have the choice… but you also have the choice to start to do something about it. If you can start to show the value of the research, prove that the work it yields is valuable and worth the investment, you can get more resources allotted to research, which in turn will improve the process, and yield more meaningful products.

Even if you do not work on a “digital product,” starting some research into your process on marketing or informational sites will help your team be more effective in making design decisions. It will help you fix easy problems (low hanging fruit), and gain momentum for those projects that you know will impact the overall experience, and thus improve performance of the site. Also, you will discover new areas of exploration that can lead to new products or marketing campaigns. Research can be as much inspiration as it is verification.

So where do you start?

If you are starting in a company with no history of research or User-Centered design, you will have a ton of questions, and little concrete confirmed answers. You’ll want to start with the basics – infrastructure, current status, and user definition. This will most likely not be in one study/project, so you will need to break all of this into bite size pieces and assemble once you have the chance, The below list are good places to start your audit when first start to develop your research process. You can do any or some of the below, however you will need to do all of the following to really start to flesh out your strategy.

  1. Audit usability of current applications: You can do an audit of current applications or website(s). I find a heuristic evaluation of the apps can be done relatively quickly and will give you a good sense of where the apps are at. You can make notes of any questions that you have that pertain to the core functionality of the site. I usually mark down each app, and the questionable items.In addition, you can also do a run-through of the core tasks of the site. Collect all the data necessary to create a list of the main tasks on the list, and go through them one by one. Keep notes of the experience, and any issues you encounter during your run through.
  2. Audit of projects in the pipeline. Talk with the product managers and see what is currently going on, and where each of the projects are at. You may find that a product or new piece of functionality may still be early enough to get a quick round of testing in. to get feedback back and incorporated. You may also find a product that is just about to be released that you can do Consumer Acceptance Testing on. Even if you cannot do anything about these current projects due to release timing, see when they are going to be at a point that you can do some kind of testing with them. This will allow you to see if there are any major usability issues and/technical bugs that might need to be addressed in the first revision. You might find some mission critical issues that need fixing, and you can get those on the backlog.
  3. Audit of software, tools and data available. Find out any of the tools the company already has at its disposal. Some of the tools might be usable, some might not, and some you will have to make do with even though they are a less than optimal for providing insight. You should also talk to all departments if possible – especially Business Intelligence and Marketing as they might have tools they are using for surveys and analytics that are already in place. The more you can piggyback your efforts on the heels of the other departments the more complete your data set will be, and the better the insight. You may also want to ask them about any industry data they have available, such as individual reports or any subscriptions the company has to reports by Nielsen or Forrester, etc.
  4. Get a list of login credentials you might need. Once you have a list of the apps, create a document or wiki entry that has a list of all the tools, and their logins. You’ll need this handy when you need to start doing tests. You’ll want to distribute credentials to other UX and product team members if applicable. A few tools to look for are:
    • Survey distribution – such as SurveyMonkey, Foresee, Qualtrics Research suite, etc
    • User recruitment/recruiters – such as ethn.io or Qualtrics Site Intercept. You may want to supplement that by having a local market research recruiter. Some survey or remote usability testing software company will provide users for an additional cost, so keep that in your back pocket as well. I prefer to have a mix of site intercept, recruiter and email list so you don’t exhaust any resource, but you will want to make sure you have at lease one of those three available at a moments notice.
    • A/B or Multivariate Testing – Such as Google Website Optimizer (included in Google Analytics), Omniture Test and Target, or Optimize.ly.
    • Prototype/Flat artwork click testing– such as VerifyApp/SolidifyApp, Usabilla, Silverback, Loop11, or Chalkmark. These will be good for quick prototype and concept testing.
    • Unmoderated remote usability testing – such as UserTesting.com or UserZoom. Some will provide users, and some will require you send users from your own list, or a recruiter.
    • Moderated online usability testing – Online meeting/screen sharing applications for online moderated usability testing, such as join.me, Skype or Google hangouts. Don’t forget, you’ll need a way to record the screen session and audio, so that will need to be part of your plan.
    • Video cameras and recording software —  desktop, mobile and any additional devices you’re going to test such as TV’s, GPS units, etc.-I like to use Morae, or Telestream. For cameras, I like the Logitech C920 and the Elmo Visual presenter for mobile. I have seen the MOD 1000, which I think looks pretty cool as well.
    • Analytics packages – including things like scroll analytics and heat mapping – A few of my favorites (in addition to the old standbys Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics) are KISSMetrics and ClickTale.
    • Online card sorting/Taxonomy testing – such as Treejack
    • Customer feedback – Customer feedback apps are great place to find unsolicited feedback. Apps like Get Satisfaction, Opinion Lab and Kampyle are great for gathering open ended feedback. Some even give metrics and word cloud analysis to better understand the open ended responses.
  5. Review analytics – Results usually speak the loudest in organizations that do not have much UX research… especially business results. Make it your job to become intimately knowledgeable on all engagement metrics (pages per visit, time on site, return visitors, visitors with time on site over 10 min), and conversion metrics (sales, acquisitions, retention and any other funnel metrics). Before making any case for research, start here, and articulate to stakeholders how the data can be interpreted multiple ways, but, without the UX research to back it up, you are just making supposition. For instance, you may see low conversion rates, but a very high Net promoter score, which proves contradictory. That means the people who purchase are happy once they convert, but why are they not converting? Is it a technical issue? Is it a pricing or value issue? Is it a usability issue? The qualitative will help uncover this but the analytics has to lead the conversation.
  6. Rooms available/space for in person usability testing – At some point you’ll need to do some in-person usability testing, Inquire with an office manager or secretary who manages the meeting rooms. Do an inquiry as to what rooms you can block out for a day and keep things set up. Also, find out how far in advance do you need to book those if you were able to run a test.You want to also assess the feasibility of using that room. If it is dark, and cold, and has terrible lighting, you may have a hard time making users comfortable. If the room is less than desirable, figure out what it might need to make it more comfortable. It may be a lamp and a sofa, which will cost all of a few hundred bucks, and its all set up for you to use whenever. Plus, You will need to find a place for viewers. It may be that you broadcast sessions to stakeholder’s cubes and then reconvene in the session room afterwards, but a best case scenario is to broadcast to a room for all to view. The more you can make it a spectacle, the more people will come. The more people who come, the better the company will know the users, and the better decisions the company will make. It will start to become part of the culture. This starts with finding a place for everybody to gather during sessions, and promoting that people sit in and listen.
  7. Interview customer service. The single best source for any user information in a company not currently doing research is customer service. They are the eyes and ears of the company, and are the one who has the best representation of the voice of the user. In the CSR reports is a goldmine of User research. Usability problems? Check? Product Features? Check? Value Prop? Check? All of those can be seen in CSR reports as, well as interviews with CSRs. You may need to create a custom dashboard within the tools used for customer service reporting, or you may need to get your hands on the reports that are issued to the company by the business intelligence team. In any case, you want to look for the classification of tickets, and the details on those tickets, and try to group them into issues to investigate.You will most likely see a lot of technical issues – such as a lot of refunds because a product failed to transact or deliver the merchandise—such as a download. These affect UX metrics, and are all a part of improving the experience. You will also see marketing failures—whereby users did not know what they were getting, ,how the service works or that they thought they were getting something different than they received. You will also see usability issues, such as users calling to complete a transaction because they didn’t know how to do it online.Another thing to do is sit in on several sessions of customer service phone calls. That will help you really hear the voice of the customer, and hear real stories of how the product is not meeting its objectives. It is also great for helping to develop empathy with consumers who are using your product.
  8. Benchmark study: A benchmark study, no matter how small/big, should always be included as a part of the start of any program. You have to know where the product is in order to make effective improvements. Some of your initial research you will need will be collected during the investigation phase (such as customer service reports and analytics). Some will need to be added on – such as a benchmark usability test. A Benchmark can be done in pieces – so you may start by adding a few extra tasks to your remote studies, or add an ethnographic interview to your in person studies. If you start collecting a little bit of data in your other studies, you will find yourself with the data to conduct a benchmark study at the end of a few months. A benchmark should include:
    • Usability assessment of current platforms – heuristic and user testing
    • Customer service and analytics reports
    • Demographic and ethnographic study information
    • Quantitative research on attitudes and behavior
    • User Journey map (optional)
    • Information on industry trends (optional)

Creating a strategy:

Once the audit is done, you will start to see gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed in order for Product and leadership teams to make better more informed and less risky decisions. Once you have compiled a list of questions or gaps in knowledge that the company has as a whole, it is time to collect those into a spreadsheet, and categorize them into one of the five areas.

Five areas of concentration:

  • Improve Current products – How do we make our current products better and easier to use?
  • Assess work in the pipeline – How do we know if the ideas we are currently working on are going to work tactically and if these pieces of functionality are useful to users?
  • Understand the user/business opportunity – Who is our user? How do they behave? What are their needs, and how are we meeting their needs for a profit?
  • Put the right features on the backlog – Once we know who the user is, does the backlog help us to create a complete experience to engage them? Have we put the right stuff on the backlog that will matter to the company bottom line.
  • Look for new ideas and business opportunities– Once we know our user, are there other opportunities just outside of our field of vision that we can create to engage the user?
  • Infrastructure and procedural implementation- Once we have gotten our research established, how do we make it easy for us to continue researching by having the right tools and procedures at our fingertips? How do we evangelize this throughout the company?

Before we get into the prioritization of the research program, I am first going to assume that you have done research and are familiar with most standard methods of research (usability testing, focus groups, card sorts, ethnographic research, etc). There are many great books on the various methods, so I will assume you have done at least a few of the above, or at least know how to start to do any of the above methods, and which method is best for the information you need.

IMG_1938

Prioritization party:

In any sort of predicament where you have way too much stuff to get done in the amount of time you have to get it done, the first thing is to prioritize. We needed to make sure current products were usable, we had to test work in progress and we hadn’t defined exactly who the user was. This created a lot of chaos, so the product team needed to have some sort of information on which to base its decisions. I was working on some interaction design projects in addition to the research and found it difficult to design when the target was not clearly defined. In my experience, in order to hit a target I met first have it defined. You must know who your user is, so that you can make all the micro interactions work, and make the interface intuitive. However, when you have a broad audience it is all to easy to justify any decision because you can come up with a multitude of reasonable use cases that make your solution work. Without a target then, you are just chasing after every shiny object because any shiny object could be a diamond. The product team was also frustrated that they couldn’t get any answers on if their design was getting them closer or further away from who the audience was.

So, once we identified the questions, and the categories, we held a prioritization party. We got the design team in a room and gave them 3 points per question on the board, and they had to force rank everything on a scale of 1 to 5. That means if you have 10 questions, you have 30 points to distribute. Do this same exercise with the product management and leadership (if you can). Make it a party! Buy some beer and pizza and have a good time with it. Plant a seed with those teams that with a little bit of extra time and money, you can all make more informed decisions, coming to better results in the end.

Priority strategy:

Put together a focus plan based on the results of the exercises — i.e. 20% improve current products, 50% Assess products in the pipeline, 20% Understand the user. Once you have this use this as a guide for planning subsequent studies. Remind the leadership that this fulfills the strategy agreed upon by the team and will help the company make better UX decisions. To that effect, start to see if you can incorporate tests to find some of that information on new projects.

Execution of the plan

After the audit and prioritization is done, it’s now time to start getting some projects in order to gather your data. The first place to start is with senior management to get the questions that they want answered first. This will make getting research approved easier. It will also get you credibility the fastest. They will also be your allies in distributing information to the other departments in the company. The best way I have found to start the conversation with them is to ask them, “If you could ask a genie to come and tell you anything about your customers, or the website(s) or application(s), what would that be?” Take very careful notes about these questions and try to answer as many as you can explicitly in the first presentation.

Infrastructure first:

As you are starting to add tests and research to your work, the first thing you must prioritize is the establishment of key infrastructure items. You will need to have tools in place before you can execute any test, so you will need to make sure to work on that before executing any new tests. Your remote testing tools, survey tools and recruiting are the most important, so get those up first before working on in house usability equipment. It’s a lot easier to get some quick wins remotely before asking for several thousand bucks, and a room blocked out for a week.

Another item at this point is to start working on getting any tools you might need integrated into to site on the backlog. This may be analytics packages, or recruitment packages. These can take a while to get implemented, so get the info on the software, talk it over with tech/finance, and get it on the log so you have it available when you need it. Interrupter software (like ethn.io) are crucial, as they will be the future lifeblood of the research program, providing the most accurate user, so make sure to get that into the queue as soon as you can.

You will also need a recruitment email, so start writing copy, gathering a design template, and talking with the email marketing crew about how you can harvest users from that list. Get it ready. You will need it to execute the plan, so do it in advance when you have some down time.

Execute in small increments

So first thing when starting out, it is important to put together a list of possible projects that you feel will start to improve the quality of the product. To start, pick the top 2 categories that arose from your prioritization party. and execute one test from each category and efficiently as possible. You may be able to piggyback a few infrastructure items on these first tests, which will be good. The idea is to set up a few things little by little, and after a while you will have an entire infrastructure built. Things will go very slowly at first, so allow extra time for you to create plans, test, integrate and iterate on the internal process. Prepare for your plans to change and you will be derailed on to another task. Put aside a small amount of time per week to work on it. As soon as you have some down time, pick it up again. It can take a long time to get to where you want to be if you have a lot of design work to get done.

Start with easy wins:

In order to get some momentum going, you will want to start with the lowest hanging fruit, these can be things like demographics or usability studies, or analytics reviews to see which content is the most viewed, or a flat artwork test on a comp of a current prototype. Since most people believe in quantitative vs qualitative, the first test might be quantitative – such as a survey or flat artwork – recruited by email. While not the best representation of users, most companies can support an email blast to users with a link to a quantitative test. Use the initial quantitative studies to start the conversation, explaining that it is only one side of the equation, and some qualitative will help you better understand your results.

Another easy quick win can be remote unmoderated user testing – such as user testing – on a new feature to be released. This can help you start to see the value of feedback, and you can start to get some qualitative feedback at the same time. Furthermore, you can use this to see how well your screener behaves and start to fine tune it. If you have a good screener, (and your company is not too specialized in its audience) you will get some good users and some good feedback. Usertesting.com also has really easy exports, so you can add some video to your presentations.

Next Steps

Once you have completed a few studies, the below is a list of suggestions for you to implement to make sure the research gets traction, and can make a lasting impact on the business.

Publicize results as much as possible:

The research is of little use if it doesn’t make it past the UX team. The place to get buy in is from Product and design leaders in the organization, as they will see the most value, and be able to help you figure out how to publicize the results. Also, it is a great idea to invite the entire product and/or dev team to the review of the results. That way other team members can learn as well, and make better decisions.

Follow up with product teams :

After you have finished a round of research, go out and discuses the implications. The is best done casually over a beer or two where you don’t have the stress of the clock, and a conference room reservation that ends in an hour. Discuss the problems users are having, and what the current road map looks like. Are you addressing any major problems? What can you do together to make sure that the bigger UX problems get addressed as soon as possible.

Find out what else keeps your boss/client up at night

Take the boss of the product owner out to lunch and listen to what keeps him up at night. All C-level/Directors have burning questions that they want answered before moving confidently in a direction. Most are willing to take calculated risks, but if you can inform them how a user views the product, you might find that issues get fixed faster. I’ve found that if you find out what the biggest question is, and design a study to answer that question, that you can get approval for more research projects (provided you do a good job of proving your conclusions). Also, be aware, that if you are going to take on a project that keeps your bosses up, quantitative will always win over qualitative with C-level, so make sure you have the quantitative tools in place first to initiate those conversations. Also, speed + accuracy = respect, so if you can do these studies in the fastest yet accurate ways possible, you will be better positioned in the future to do more research.

Discuss some hypotheses

Once you have a few studies, you can start to create hypotheses on why you are getting the results you are. You hopefully will have some user interviews, some quantitative, industry research, etc, so start to create some hypotheses to explain the data. Unless you have enough data to back it up, this can be something as simple as a Word doc with some notes explaining who the users are, and why they do what they do. Once you have these, bring them up and the next UX/design team meeting to see what others observations are, and see what tests you can do to prove the hypotheses, or collect data to prove or disprove your theories.

Create straw-man personas, scenarios, etc and then start to refine over time:

As part of your hypotheses, you should definitely take a stab at the “who” in the UX equation. With some basic research, you can take a stab at some straw man personas (personas that are rough, and maybe lack some detail). Over the next few months, flush those out by adding contextual inquiry to your usability tests, or adding questions to unmoderated tests, etc. Here are a few exercises:

  • Put together a list of questions that you need answered in order to confidently find out “who” is using your product. Then see if some of the other more important questions (especially the ones that keep your bosses up at night) can be combined with your persona questions to create a study. Most C-level people don’t care about personas and UX strategy, so you may need to create these for the UX team at first.
  • Have a persona party with the product team, where you discuss the audience segments, and tasks. Try to develop a UX team view on the personas, and create a straw man for circulation amongst the team.

A final thought

Research is key in gathering consensus and collecting information to create truly meaningful design. However it is the first thing to get cut when time and resources are short. A lack of research can lead you to make incorrect assumptions that have minor impact or it can lead you to create products that are entirely wrong, or lead you to chase bad business opportunities. Creation of a research process can help the organization stay in touch with users, and stay on track and focused building meaningful products and websites. It is also the “proof” you need to help guide the product in the right direction, and informing team members and product owners.

Resources:

Below is a list of my go-to software for creating a UX research program:

Survey distribution
  • SurveyMonkey
  • ForeSee
  • Qualtrics Research suite
  • User recruitment/Recruiters
    A/B or Multivariate Testing
    Prototype/Flat artwork click testing
    Unmoderated Remote usability tests
    Moderated online usability testing
    Video cameras and recording software
    Analytics packages
    Online card sorting/Taxonomy testing
    Consumer Feedback Apps

    Personal:

    I am at a cross-roads right now. One journey is ending, clinic and another is just starting. My wife and I have been working on adopting a little girl from China for the past year and a half. This journey ends at the end of the month. We still don’t have travel dates, more about but in all likelihood, we will travel to China on May 29th, and meet our daughter 5 days after. It has truly been a life defining moment, and I am amazed at how this little girl has been able to touch people. She has the most amazing spirit, and in spite of all her medical challenges continues to smile. We have about 20 pics of her taken over 2 years, and she is radiating happiness in every one.

    She was born with Spina Bifida, and has significant medical issues. We do not know her condition, but we have prayed for her every day. We pray that she is delivered to us safely, but however she comes to us, she will be perfect as she is. We believe that she just is our daughter and she was just born to another person on the other side of the world, that simple… And if your kid is on the other end of the world, you just go get her. That’s it. We are confident God has big plans for this little girl and we are just happy to be chosen to be part of the ride.

    I will post some pics of China when I get back. I’m sure I will have a ton. Please pray for her health and her transition to the United States. I am sure it will be very traumatic, but we hope it goes as smooth as possible.

    Design

    On the work front. I just finished a contract on a Symptom Tracker for Corcept, which I worked on as part of the Heartbeat Ideas team. This was a great experience to design for people whose health depends on medical records. We designed a tracker tool that includes medical record keeping, data visualization and photo features. It was also a fully responsive web app, which was a fun challenge to tackle. The project goes live in Alpha on May 7, and will be posted here as soon as it is.

    Experiments

    I have also been experimenting with alternative interfaces for collaboration software. I am trying to see what kind of interfaces I can design that would solve current collaboration software. There are so many limits to current collaboration software, and travel is so expensive and disruptive, that it is an obvious choice for the next generation of screen-less- hands free interfaces. I have been working with a combination of projector based/gestural technology. The idea is to make online collaboration more… collaborative. Our current generation of collaboration software really sucks. It is better than a phone conversation, but lacks the ability to collaborate in real time, as well as the ability to consolidate the notes and knowledge of the group for others to have access. My solution includes video, whiteboarding, collaborative notes, and web access all in an intuitive real world style interface. I have sketches, but it’s not polished enough to present.

    I am doing this in an effort to design the software of the future, knowing the technology will catch up sooner than later. I have been using this as a part of the “wallboard” project, and it is a very cool concept. I am picking the Wallboard concept up again this month, and it is moving forward, so keep an eye out for an MVP.

    Teaching and speaking

    I spoke again at the Internet Retailer Web Design Conference on Minimalism in e-Commerce. Check out the deck and the blog post here. This is a summary of the presentation. I also spoke on Competitive Analysis at the How Interactive Conference.

    I am going to be offering a workshop on Managing UX/UI workflow soon. Stay tuned. The workshop is in request to several people’s interest in my workflow I designed with my former partner Ben Thompson. It is mainly a tactical workshop on using specific tools, responsibility and formulas to prevent the chaos that ensues on most projects. My thought is that a lot of it comes from a lack of definition of roles and process, as well as using the wrong tools for the job. My opinion is that using the right tools can help manage chaos, mainly because it helps manage the amount of documents and formats that various people are using. The more documents, the more room for miscommunication, duplicated work, lack of time, and wasted effort. Please sign up on my email list and I will send out notification when this happens. I really hope to change how the industry does web design. I think there is a lot of effort that is costing creatives the precious creative juice we need to create, simply because of the wrong tools.

    Rule number 1 in web design: Every project has way more ideas than time or resources.

    No matter how big, there how many people, prostate or how much money the project costs, more about you will always have more ideas than resources. The difference between a successful project and a mediocre one is always in the execution. I’m sure that the vast majority of mediocre websites started out great, and probably included some truly innovative solutions, however, then …. reality sets in. Product team, meet your resources, and that beautiful product you have been planning, gets hacked to a mere shadow of the career topping project you had so much hope for. Bit by bit it gets widdled down to something buildable. And often it’s hacked to the point that the original vision for the project is just some sort of half usable UI, that barely passes for MVP. The wrong features get built, and the project has little traction, and makes little difference in the bottom line. The decision makers loose interest and you move on.This story replays itself over and over for teams without a clear UX strategy.

    The above story is a tale in accumulating UX debt that you have to pay with compounded interest. One way I have found to help bridge the gap between a ton of ideas and something buildable that results in the biggest increase in attaining KPI’s is a technique called “Funnel optimization.” Typically it is a marketing visualization, however in my UX approach whereby the strategist outlines the funnel, assesses the funnel, compares the ideas on the backlog with the effectiveness of the funnel, and prioritizes improvements. It helps take some subjectivity out of backlog grooming in order to make improvements in the areas that your application really needs, versus bolstering areas that are already performing well.

    The funnel metaphor is always good because it is analagous to real life. Each of the funnels have holes in them that leak out water. There may be holes near the top that are really large, which may cut out half of the water getting to the lower levels. Or, the opposite may be true, where you are getting all the water to the last funnel only to lose at the bottom of the funnel. The same is true for any website – especially a commerce/transactional site. The consumer goes through the different stages and all stages need to be optimized. It just may be that the stage you are throwing your resources at is the one that is already the best optimized. Then you are wasting your resources. The trick then is to find the least optimized points in the funnel and then tighten those up first.

    Defining the funnel

    Since the 1960’s, a classic method of defining the sales funnel came from a Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith article called “AIDA.” AIDA stands for

    • Awareness
    • Interest
    • Decision
    • Action

    This model describes how consumers move from step to step, advancing through the purchase funnel getting closer to sale, and ultimately retention. It is the best model I have found in helping visualizing steps in an e-commerce process (thanks Tim Ash!) as this model illustrates a method of assessing the interaction design of the site in a very transferable way,. When you add “Satisfaction” as a last step in the funnel, you ultimately close the loop and can accurately assess the funnel from an experience standpoint.

    The steps are defined as follows:

    “Awareness”

    Attracting the attention of the customer. This is the goal of most advertising and Search campaigns, however, the info plays a key part in defining the experience. The user comes with knowledge and a problem, and the experience designer must understand both thoroughly in order to design an effective solution.

    User Questions:

    • Does a product exist that meets my need or desire?
    • If I know it exists, is my image of it intriguing?

    UI Solutions:

    • Landing pages, and the ability of the user to grasp the Unique selling proposition instantaneously.
    • Banner ad integration, and the role it plays in the acquisition experience.
    • The ability of the creative to grab the consumer, both aesthetically and in messaging.

    “Interest”

    This is the point where the user looks for information on the product. This is the stage where the consumer is doing information gathering. For designers, in order to satisfy this need, we must have a good understanding of what knowledge they have in their head versus what you need to supply them with. The user must know that they have the need and decide to buy.

    User Questions:

    • Does this do what I need it to do?
    • What does it cost?

    UI Solutions:

    • Clear product pages, knowing the user’s needs, and demonstrate a knowledge of the user
    • Great photography and media access
    • Curated products and top level pages
    • Email capture for more information/offers
    • Cross sells

    “Decision”

    This is the point where the user has realized they need the product, and is ready to buy, but needs help deciding on “which one?” This may be between competing companies (Dell and Mac), various models – such as a Macbook Air and a Macbook Pro.

    User Questions:

    • What options are available?
    • What does it really cost?
    • What are the differences between product x and y? The advantages? The disadvantages?
    • Is there anything else I need with this to use it?

    UI Solutions:

    • Comparison features/information/shopping comparison engines
    • Refine/sort/parametric features
    • Mini carts showing Total costs – including extras like shipping and service fees
    • Local/personalized information prior to purchasing, such as deals in your area.
    • Sales Support – live chat, phone/email support, etc
    • Reviews
    • Options
    • A dealer locator to see where I can buy it
    • Upsells

    “Action”

    This is the place you really don’t want to mess up. The consumer is now ready to purchase and all you have to do is take the money. This oftentimes is complicated, due to different types of payment, gift cards, discounts, sales etc. All of which need to be effectively communicated to the user prior to completion of the process:

    User Questions:

    • Where/How can I purchase this?
    • Am I getting the right price? (discounts, sales etc applied)
    • How do I pay for this?
    • Is there anything fishy about this that may cause me to mistrust this transaction? Will anything bad happen as a result of this transaction?

    UI Solutions:

    • Checkout/Registration
    • Invoice/Cart totals
    • Apply discounts/alternate payments
    • Return/Support policies
    • Purchase support – Live chat

    “Satisfaction”

    This is the last step where you either retain or loose the customer. If the customer was satisfied, the chance of a repeat purchase increases.
    User Questions:

    • Did I get what I thought I was buying?
    • Was the quality of the product and product experience up to snuff?
    • Does it actually do what it claims? How well? Was it worth the cost?
    • What was the purchase process like?
    • How do I get support on using this product? Is it adequate?
    • Do I have a need for more products to add with this purchase (additional or refill)?
    • What happens if I have a problem?
    • Was it easy to find more relevant products I aim interested in?

    UI Solutions:

    • Confirmation emails
    • Autoresponders – encouraging further action relative to relevant info
    • Personalized suggestions
    • Thank you emails
    • Additional offers
    • Product Support/Quick start
    • Brand engagement apps like games
    • Upsells/cross sells

    Translating the funnel to UX strategy

    The next step in the process, is to translate all the actions on your site that move a user down the funnel. No doubt there will be primary actions – make a purchase, sign up for email. Find a product, etc – and secondary tasks – find out reviews, ask a question about a product, etc. If you have a rich e-commerce experience, this list can be pretty large —50+ tasks — on a mid range site, you should have about 20-30 that makes sense. Any place you can consolidate and remove functional duplicates do so. For instance, if one of your actions is “Repeat visits demonstrating engagement” and “Monthly repeat visits showing loyalty” – each of those actions might have some crossover in terms of analysis. If you have different user groups or personas, each with unique actions in the funnel, you will need to break each of those tasks per user out.

    After assigning each of the tasks, you will want to rate the effectiveness of the site in helping the user achieve his goal on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best. (I never give 10’s except in very rare instances). This rating scale must be bought into by all stakeholders or the technique does not work, so it is paramount that the ratings are discussed and agreed on prior to moving forward on the strategy

    Here is a guideline for interpreting numbers:

    8-10 User understands most or all of the information necessary, and is able to complete the task with no difficulty. A 9 or 10 indicates a level of intuitiveness, grace and sophistication that is exemplary.
    6-7 A users can accomplish their task with a little difficulty and may or may not be able to understand all information presented in completing the task. The user will definitely have to think here and might stumble and recover to complete.
    4-5 A user completes most or all of his task with difficulty
    2-3 A user completes most his task with significant difficulty, at the same time a large constituency would not be able to complete their task.
    1 Most or all users would not be able to complete their task at all.
    0 Task is unable to be completed because the feature to complete the task does not exist.

     


     

    Sample action list:

    Clickthrough from adult targeted media
    3
    Wishlist email click through/opened
    6
    Visits to a store/product detail page(2)
    7
    Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer
    6
    Share content (2)
    2
    Like it/Want it (2)
    0
    Regular Monthly visits (2)
    4
    Online Purchase
    7
    Registered user signed up to receive promotions
    0
    Purchase at a brick and mortar store(2)
    6
    Repeat purchase
    7
    Repeat visits from Wishlist
    5

    (2) = 2ndary action

    Pulling it together

    So by now, you should have your funnel defined, and your actions defined and rated. Now it’s time to put it all together. The next step is to assign each of the actions to a step in the funnel. Go through each of the actions and assign it to a funnel level like below. Calculate the average score in order to see where the biggest holes are and highlight anything that is a primary task with a score lower than 5.

    Awareness

    Clickthrough from adult targeted media 3
    Visits to a store/product detail page(2) 7
    Average Score 5

     

    Interest

    Wishlist email click through/opened 6
    Clickthrough to a 3rd party retailer 6
    Registered users signed up to receive promotions 0
    Average Score 4.5

     

    Desire

    Share Content (2) 0
    Like It/want it 0
    Average Score 0

     

    Action

    Online Purchase 7
    Purchase at a brick and mortar store using online
    info such as wishlist printout or find a store(2)
    6
    Average Score 6.5

     

    Satisfaction

    Increased Regular Monthly visits(2) 4
    Repeat purchase 7
    Repeat visits from Wishlist 5
    Average Score 5.33

     

    As you can see above, this site is having issues getting users to sign up for promotions, like/want a product and click though from adult targeted media. Once you have this info, you can either brainstorm ideas on how you could help the user do those actions, or see any ideas that best attack those problems. For instance, you can add social media like buttons or add a systemwide like/want system where users can see all their likes in one place. Those would be good use of resources since the business desire is to get users to like content or show an indication of intent or preference. Likewise, for the “click through from targeted media,” this means there is a problem that happens when a user arrives on the site without messaging to answer their question. Maybe a sections for adults or a landing page dedicated to handle this media might best help this portion of the funnel.

    Conversely, the 2 levels of the funnel with the biggest holes are level 2 and 3. This site is doing a good job of helping users purchase, but most don’t get that far. So another approach would be to see how best to improve the average scores of the funnel levels. This can be done by brainstorming functionality that would address that issue or by pulling from the backlog of ideas that need to be worked on.

    Finishing the job

    So you have your priorities and your functions so you can start your next sprint planning with a focus. You still need to get technical timing, but once you have an LOE attached to your prioritized list, you can start to make some decisions and plan. You want to focus on features that improve the funnel and measure against it. It is important to make sure all your actions are measurable and co-ordinate effort with the Business intelligence team/analysts in order to see that measurable improvements are being made. The analytics will give you the results of what is currently happening, so if you did something right, something like Time on Site or conversion should increase for the segment that was served a specialized landing page. Or if your target is to increase regular monthly visitor engagement – look at the number of visitors that return monthly, and see if that is growing.

    The quest to fight the swiss cheese product is a battle we all fight every day. In the trenches, it is our job as UX designers to lead the way for the experience to both satisfy the user needs, and make sure the business is getting results where it wants them, By using this technique, you not only produce a list of build able features, you are also making improvements in the areas you need them in a more objective fashion, thus making the overall experience tighter and more effective.
    Recently, treat I was faced with a bit of a new challenge: establish new research procedures and set up a research department. While I had done projects for companies like this with my agency, cheap what made this unique was the fact that this was not a single, unique project… this was a big hairy problem that required several phases, and a lot of prioritization. The company had very little in terms of analytics, and had done almost no user research, save a few unmoderated usability tests. However, the product team knew that they had to begin to focus on User Centered Design. The product team consisted seasoned veterans who knew the benefit of doing user research, and they needed my help in procedural expertise combined with my experience in doing user research to help them make the transition from Executive centered design to user centered design.

    Add to this the fact that the platform now was on multiple devices, and an undefined experience strategy and you now have a tangled web to untangle. There were so many issues in so many directions to uncover, and the company needed answers at an impossible speed. Every area possible of research needed help: Usability, user strategy, analytics, industry research…. and it needed to be done six months ago. The business was a sort of start up in the fact that it didn’t know exactly who the users were, and more than a startup because they had some very sophisticated people who had created 2 versions of the application…. without much user feedback…. so the design team and the product team desperately wanted some answers. It was very hard for them to effectively design without knowing who they were designing for and what their needs were, so they hired me to help them start; first by setting up an infrastructure, then creating a program for testing.

    Starting a new research program

    While the above situation is but one we encounter, there are many other situations you may find that you need to set up a research program. You may be a UX team of one, where the company just found the need or the funds to hire a UX designer, and you will be expected to validate, as well as design, the products you create. You may have inherited or started working with a team of UX designers that once reported to a creative director, and because there was no UX leadership their was neither the desire or the need to create a UX research program. You may also be working in a creative focused environment, such as an ad agency, that simply focused on creating a great concept first, then the UX designers are expected to do the interaction design with minimal research because the project team didn’t build in the time or the budget for any type of research.

    In all of the above situations, it is a challenge to create truly meaningful products as a UX designer without the benefit of some sort of research. You can just continue to crank out wireframes based on the ideas of the creative team or executives. You can just put your ideas out into the world and not know anything about how effective what you did was. You can just accept the fact that, in some organizations, UX design is just not valued (even organizations that are digital products!)

    You have the choice… but you also have the choice to start to do something about it. If you can start to show the value of the research, prove that the work it yields is valuable and worth the investment, you can get more resources allotted to research, which in turn will improve the process, and yield more meaningful products.

    Even if you do not work on a “digital product,” starting some research into your process on marketing or informational sites will help your team be more effective in making design decisions. It will help you fix easy problems (low hanging fruit), and gain momentum for those projects that you know will impact the overall experience, and thus improve performance of the site. Also, you will discover new areas of exploration that can lead to new products or marketing campaigns. Research can be as much inspiration as it is verification.

    So where do you start?

    If you are starting in a company with no history of research or User-Centered design, you will have a ton of questions, and little concrete confirmed answers. You’ll want to start with the basics – infrastructure, current status, and user definition. This will most likely not be in one study/project, so you will need to break all of this into bite size pieces and assemble once you have the chance, The below list are good places to start your audit when first start to develop your research process. You can do any or some of the below, however you will need to do all of the following to really start to flesh out your strategy.

    1. Audit usability of current applications: You can do an audit of current applications or website(s). I find a heuristic evaluation of the apps can be done relatively quickly and will give you a good sense of where the apps are at. You can make notes of any questions that you have that pertain to the core functionality of the site. I usually mark down each app, and the questionable items.In addition, you can also do a run-through of the core tasks of the site. Collect all the data necessary to create a list of the main tasks on the list, and go through them one by one. Keep notes of the experience, and any issues you encounter during your run through.
    2. Audit of projects in the pipeline. Talk with the product managers and see what is currently going on, and where each of the projects are at. You may find that a product or new piece of functionality may still be early enough to get a quick round of testing in. to get feedback back and incorporated. You may also find a product that is just about to be released that you can do Consumer Acceptance Testing on. Even if you cannot do anything about these current projects due to release timing, see when they are going to be at a point that you can do some kind of testing with them. This will allow you to see if there are any major usability issues and/technical bugs that might need to be addressed in the first revision. You might find some mission critical issues that need fixing, and you can get those on the backlog.
    3. Audit of software, tools and data available. Find out any of the tools the company already has at its disposal. Some of the tools might be usable, some might not, and some you will have to make do with even though they are a less than optimal for providing insight. You should also talk to all departments if possible – especially Business Intelligence and Marketing as they might have tools they are using for surveys and analytics that are already in place. The more you can piggyback your efforts on the heels of the other departments the more complete your data set will be, and the better the insight. You may also want to ask them about any industry data they have available, such as individual reports or any subscriptions the company has to reports by Nielsen or Forrester, etc.
    4. Get a list of login credentials you might need. Once you have a list of the apps, create a document or wiki entry that has a list of all the tools, and their logins. You’ll need this handy when you need to start doing tests. You’ll want to distribute credentials to other UX and product team members if applicable. A few tools to look for are:
      • Survey distribution – such as SurveyMonkey, Foresee, Qualtrics Research suite, etc
      • User recruitment/recruiters – such as ethn.io or Qualtrics Site Intercept. You may want to supplement that by having a local market research recruiter. Some survey or remote usability testing software company will provide users for an additional cost, so keep that in your back pocket as well. I prefer to have a mix of site intercept, recruiter and email list so you don’t exhaust any resource, but you will want to make sure you have at lease one of those three available at a moments notice.
      • A/B or Multivariate Testing – Such as Google Website Optimizer (included in Google Analytics), Omniture Test and Target, or Optimize.ly.
      • Prototype/Flat artwork click testing– such as VerifyApp/SolidifyApp, Usabilla, Silverback, Loop11, or Chalkmark. These will be good for quick prototype and concept testing.
      • Unmoderated remote usability testing – such as UserTesting.com or UserZoom. Some will provide users, and some will require you send users from your own list, or a recruiter.
      • Moderated online usability testing – Online meeting/screen sharing applications for online moderated usability testing, such as join.me, Skype or Google hangouts. Don’t forget, you’ll need a way to record the screen session and audio, so that will need to be part of your plan.
      • Video cameras and recording software —  desktop, mobile and any additional devices you’re going to test such as TV’s, GPS units, etc.-I like to use Morae, or Telestream. For cameras, I like the Logitech C920 and the Elmo Visual presenter for mobile. I have seen the MOD 1000, which I think looks pretty cool as well.
      • Analytics packages – including things like scroll analytics and heat mapping – A few of my favorites (in addition to the old standbys Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics) are KISSMetrics and ClickTale.
      • Online card sorting/Taxonomy testing – such as Treejack
      • Customer feedback – Customer feedback apps are great place to find unsolicited feedback. Apps like Get Satisfaction, Opinion Lab and Kampyle are great for gathering open ended feedback. Some even give metrics and word cloud analysis to better understand the open ended responses.
    5. Review analytics – Results usually speak the loudest in organizations that do not have much UX research… especially business results. Make it your job to become intimately knowledgeable on all engagement metrics (pages per visit, time on site, return visitors, visitors with time on site over 10 min), and conversion metrics (sales, acquisitions, retention and any other funnel metrics). Before making any case for research, start here, and articulate to stakeholders how the data can be interpreted multiple ways, but, without the UX research to back it up, you are just making supposition. For instance, you may see low conversion rates, but a very high Net promoter score, which proves contradictory. That means the people who purchase are happy once they convert, but why are they not converting? Is it a technical issue? Is it a pricing or value issue? Is it a usability issue? The qualitative will help uncover this but the analytics has to lead the conversation.
    6. Rooms available/space for in person usability testing – At some point you’ll need to do some in-person usability testing, Inquire with an office manager or secretary who manages the meeting rooms. Do an inquiry as to what rooms you can block out for a day and keep things set up. Also, find out how far in advance do you need to book those if you were able to run a test.You want to also assess the feasibility of using that room. If it is dark, and cold, and has terrible lighting, you may have a hard time making users comfortable. If the room is less than desirable, figure out what it might need to make it more comfortable. It may be a lamp and a sofa, which will cost all of a few hundred bucks, and its all set up for you to use whenever. Plus, You will need to find a place for viewers. It may be that you broadcast sessions to stakeholder’s cubes and then reconvene in the session room afterwards, but a best case scenario is to broadcast to a room for all to view. The more you can make it a spectacle, the more people will come. The more people who come, the better the company will know the users, and the better decisions the company will make. It will start to become part of the culture. This starts with finding a place for everybody to gather during sessions, and promoting that people sit in and listen.
    7. Interview customer service. The single best source for any user information in a company not currently doing research is customer service. They are the eyes and ears of the company, and are the one who has the best representation of the voice of the user. In the CSR reports is a goldmine of User research. Usability problems? Check? Product Features? Check? Value Prop? Check? All of those can be seen in CSR reports as, well as interviews with CSRs. You may need to create a custom dashboard within the tools used for customer service reporting, or you may need to get your hands on the reports that are issued to the company by the business intelligence team. In any case, you want to look for the classification of tickets, and the details on those tickets, and try to group them into issues to investigate.You will most likely see a lot of technical issues – such as a lot of refunds because a product failed to transact or deliver the merchandise—such as a download. These affect UX metrics, and are all a part of improving the experience. You will also see marketing failures—whereby users did not know what they were getting, ,how the service works or that they thought they were getting something different than they received. You will also see usability issues, such as users calling to complete a transaction because they didn’t know how to do it online.Another thing to do is sit in on several sessions of customer service phone calls. That will help you really hear the voice of the customer, and hear real stories of how the product is not meeting its objectives. It is also great for helping to develop empathy with consumers who are using your product.
    8. Benchmark study: A benchmark study, no matter how small/big, should always be included as a part of the start of any program. You have to know where the product is in order to make effective improvements. Some of your initial research you will need will be collected during the investigation phase (such as customer service reports and analytics). Some will need to be added on – such as a benchmark usability test. A Benchmark can be done in pieces – so you may start by adding a few extra tasks to your remote studies, or add an ethnographic interview to your in person studies. If you start collecting a little bit of data in your other studies, you will find yourself with the data to conduct a benchmark study at the end of a few months. A benchmark should include:
      • Usability assessment of current platforms – heuristic and user testing
      • Customer service and analytics reports
      • Demographic and ethnographic study information
      • Quantitative research on attitudes and behavior
      • User Journey map (optional)
      • Information on industry trends (optional)

    Creating a strategy:

    Once the audit is done, you will start to see gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed in order for Product and leadership teams to make better more informed and less risky decisions. Once you have compiled a list of questions or gaps in knowledge that the company has as a whole, it is time to collect those into a spreadsheet, and categorize them into one of the five areas.

    Five areas of concentration:

    • Improve Current products – How do we make our current products better and easier to use?
    • Assess work in the pipeline – How do we know if the ideas we are currently working on are going to work tactically and if these pieces of functionality are useful to users?
    • Understand the user/business opportunity – Who is our user? How do they behave? What are their needs, and how are we meeting their needs for a profit?
    • Put the right features on the backlog – Once we know who the user is, does the backlog help us to create a complete experience to engage them? Have we put the right stuff on the backlog that will matter to the company bottom line.
    • Look for new ideas and business opportunities– Once we know our user, are there other opportunities just outside of our field of vision that we can create to engage the user?
    • Infrastructure and procedural implementation- Once we have gotten our research established, how do we make it easy for us to continue researching by having the right tools and procedures at our fingertips? How do we evangelize this throughout the company?

    Before we get into the prioritization of the research program, I am first going to assume that you have done research and are familiar with most standard methods of research (usability testing, focus groups, card sorts, ethnographic research, etc). There are many great books on the various methods, so I will assume you have done at least a few of the above, or at least know how to start to do any of the above methods, and which method is best for the information you need.

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    Prioritization party:

    In any sort of predicament where you have way too much stuff to get done in the amount of time you have to get it done, the first thing is to prioritize. We needed to make sure current products were usable, we had to test work in progress and we hadn’t defined exactly who the user was. This created a lot of chaos, so the product team needed to have some sort of information on which to base its decisions. I was working on some interaction design projects in addition to the research and found it difficult to design when the target was not clearly defined. In my experience, in order to hit a target I met first have it defined. You must know who your user is, so that you can make all the micro interactions work, and make the interface intuitive. However, when you have a broad audience it is all to easy to justify any decision because you can come up with a multitude of reasonable use cases that make your solution work. Without a target then, you are just chasing after every shiny object because any shiny object could be a diamond. The product team was also frustrated that they couldn’t get any answers on if their design was getting them closer or further away from who the audience was.

    So, once we identified the questions, and the categories, we held a prioritization party. We got the design team in a room and gave them 3 points per question on the board, and they had to force rank everything on a scale of 1 to 5. That means if you have 10 questions, you have 30 points to distribute. Do this same exercise with the product management and leadership (if you can). Make it a party! Buy some beer and pizza and have a good time with it. Plant a seed with those teams that with a little bit of extra time and money, you can all make more informed decisions, coming to better results in the end.

    Priority strategy:

    Put together a focus plan based on the results of the exercises — i.e. 20% improve current products, 50% Assess products in the pipeline, 20% Understand the user. Once you have this use this as a guide for planning subsequent studies. Remind the leadership that this fulfills the strategy agreed upon by the team and will help the company make better UX decisions. To that effect, start to see if you can incorporate tests to find some of that information on new projects.

    Execution of the plan

    After the audit and prioritization is done, it’s now time to start getting some projects in order to gather your data. The first place to start is with senior management to get the questions that they want answered first. This will make getting research approved easier. It will also get you credibility the fastest. They will also be your allies in distributing information to the other departments in the company. The best way I have found to start the conversation with them is to ask them, “If you could ask a genie to come and tell you anything about your customers, or the website(s) or application(s), what would that be?” Take very careful notes about these questions and try to answer as many as you can explicitly in the first presentation.

    Infrastructure first:

    As you are starting to add tests and research to your work, the first thing you must prioritize is the establishment of key infrastructure items. You will need to have tools in place before you can execute any test, so you will need to make sure to work on that before executing any new tests. Your remote testing tools, survey tools and recruiting are the most important, so get those up first before working on in house usability equipment. It’s a lot easier to get some quick wins remotely before asking for several thousand bucks, and a room blocked out for a week.

    Another item at this point is to start working on getting any tools you might need integrated into to site on the backlog. This may be analytics packages, or recruitment packages. These can take a while to get implemented, so get the info on the software, talk it over with tech/finance, and get it on the log so you have it available when you need it. Interrupter software (like ethn.io) are crucial, as they will be the future lifeblood of the research program, providing the most accurate user, so make sure to get that into the queue as soon as you can.

    You will also need a recruitment email, so start writing copy, gathering a design template, and talking with the email marketing crew about how you can harvest users from that list. Get it ready. You will need it to execute the plan, so do it in advance when you have some down time.

    Execute in small increments

    So first thing when starting out, it is important to put together a list of possible projects that you feel will start to improve the quality of the product. To start, pick the top 2 categories that arose from your prioritization party. and execute one test from each category and efficiently as possible. You may be able to piggyback a few infrastructure items on these first tests, which will be good. The idea is to set up a few things little by little, and after a while you will have an entire infrastructure built. Things will go very slowly at first, so allow extra time for you to create plans, test, integrate and iterate on the internal process. Prepare for your plans to change and you will be derailed on to another task. Put aside a small amount of time per week to work on it. As soon as you have some down time, pick it up again. It can take a long time to get to where you want to be if you have a lot of design work to get done.

    Start with easy wins:

    In order to get some momentum going, you will want to start with the lowest hanging fruit, these can be things like demographics or usability studies, or analytics reviews to see which content is the most viewed, or a flat artwork test on a comp of a current prototype. Since most people believe in quantitative vs qualitative, the first test might be quantitative – such as a survey or flat artwork – recruited by email. While not the best representation of users, most companies can support an email blast to users with a link to a quantitative test. Use the initial quantitative studies to start the conversation, explaining that it is only one side of the equation, and some qualitative will help you better understand your results.

    Another easy quick win can be remote unmoderated user testing – such as user testing – on a new feature to be released. This can help you start to see the value of feedback, and you can start to get some qualitative feedback at the same time. Furthermore, you can use this to see how well your screener behaves and start to fine tune it. If you have a good screener, (and your company is not too specialized in its audience) you will get some good users and some good feedback. Usertesting.com also has really easy exports, so you can add some video to your presentations.

    Next Steps

    Once you have completed a few studies, the below is a list of suggestions for you to implement to make sure the research gets traction, and can make a lasting impact on the business.

    Publicize results as much as possible:

    The research is of little use if it doesn’t make it past the UX team. The place to get buy in is from Product and design leaders in the organization, as they will see the most value, and be able to help you figure out how to publicize the results. Also, it is a great idea to invite the entire product and/or dev team to the review of the results. That way other team members can learn as well, and make better decisions.

    Follow up with product teams :

    After you have finished a round of research, go out and discuses the implications. The is best done casually over a beer or two where you don’t have the stress of the clock, and a conference room reservation that ends in an hour. Discuss the problems users are having, and what the current road map looks like. Are you addressing any major problems? What can you do together to make sure that the bigger UX problems get addressed as soon as possible.

    Find out what else keeps your boss/client up at night

    Take the boss of the product owner out to lunch and listen to what keeps him up at night. All C-level/Directors have burning questions that they want answered before moving confidently in a direction. Most are willing to take calculated risks, but if you can inform them how a user views the product, you might find that issues get fixed faster. I’ve found that if you find out what the biggest question is, and design a study to answer that question, that you can get approval for more research projects (provided you do a good job of proving your conclusions). Also, be aware, that if you are going to take on a project that keeps your bosses up, quantitative will always win over qualitative with C-level, so make sure you have the quantitative tools in place first to initiate those conversations. Also, speed + accuracy = respect, so if you can do these studies in the fastest yet accurate ways possible, you will be better positioned in the future to do more research.

    Discuss some hypotheses

    Once you have a few studies, you can start to create hypotheses on why you are getting the results you are. You hopefully will have some user interviews, some quantitative, industry research, etc, so start to create some hypotheses to explain the data. Unless you have enough data to back it up, this can be something as simple as a Word doc with some notes explaining who the users are, and why they do what they do. Once you have these, bring them up and the next UX/design team meeting to see what others observations are, and see what tests you can do to prove the hypotheses, or collect data to prove or disprove your theories.

    Create straw-man personas, scenarios, etc and then start to refine over time:

    As part of your hypotheses, you should definitely take a stab at the “who” in the UX equation. With some basic research, you can take a stab at some straw man personas (personas that are rough, and maybe lack some detail). Over the next few months, flush those out by adding contextual inquiry to your usability tests, or adding questions to unmoderated tests, etc. Here are a few exercises:

    • Put together a list of questions that you need answered in order to confidently find out “who” is using your product. Then see if some of the other more important questions (especially the ones that keep your bosses up at night) can be combined with your persona questions to create a study. Most C-level people don’t care about personas and UX strategy, so you may need to create these for the UX team at first.
    • Have a persona party with the product team, where you discuss the audience segments, and tasks. Try to develop a UX team view on the personas, and create a straw man for circulation amongst the team.

    A final thought

    Research is key in gathering consensus and collecting information to create truly meaningful design. However it is the first thing to get cut when time and resources are short. A lack of research can lead you to make incorrect assumptions that have minor impact or it can lead you to create products that are entirely wrong, or lead you to chase bad business opportunities. Creation of a research process can help the organization stay in touch with users, and stay on track and focused building meaningful products and websites. It is also the “proof” you need to help guide the product in the right direction, and informing team members and product owners.

    Resources:

    Below is a list of my go-to software for creating a UX research program:

    Survey distribution