Blog : Design Tips

Flawless Product Design with a Large Team

A user experience that is designed by a group should be as seamless and coherent as though it was designed by an individual. When experiences are created by a team of designers inconsistencies are often introduced, making the end product awkward and, in some cases, introducing usability errors. In my own experience, I have found that there are three ingredients to ensuring effective design by a team.

Designate a Design Lead

It is tempting to think that a flat organizational structure in the design team will breed creativity and collaboration, and it may, in deed, do so. However, I have never been on a design team that will police itself perfectly when everyone is left to their devices. The reality is that there are time pressures, demanding clients, and imperfect information, which ultimately inhibit the team’s ability to self-police its designs. It is rare for one designer to shift through everyone else’s designs and make sure that design patterns align and inconsistencies are fixed. Instead, designers often do their best with the time and information that they have. For this reason, it is important to designate a design lead, whose main function is to review everyone’s output and ensure consistency and accuracy.

It is expected that the design lead will dedicate the majority of her time to overseeing work. She will both keep an eye on process to make sure that the team members are not deviating too wildly from each other as well as on the deliverables. In looking at the design artifacts, the lead is tasked with ensuring that designers are following established design patterns. Not only that, the lead must make sure that all the pieces will fit perfectly together and that the design is extensible. It is difficult for each team member to have both a detailed view of their part as well as a global one. Finally, the lead must manage deviations from standards or gaps in the overall user experience. When the lead does her job effectively, she acts as a conductor, making sure that the entire orchestra is in tune.

Vet and Document Patters

Because each designer is focused on their part of the project, it is difficult to keep track of all the design patterns that are employed in the design as a whole. At the same time, adhering to patterns is necessary in ensuring consistency and thus reducing confusion and improving learnability. Not only that, as new designers are brought onto the team, having a central repository of patterns greatly diminishes on-boarding time. Patterns should be identified by the entire team to give everyone an opportunity vet and challenge them. When new patterns are identified, they should be cataloged. When designs deviate from patterns, the team should ensure that they are warranted and possibly if patterns should be updated. Documenting such patterns varied by group and is driven by available technology, skill sets, and organizational constraints. There is not ideal, and it is important to rember that any patterns document is better than none.

Frequent Team Reviews

In order to achieve harmonious user experience, the entire team must collaborate and have a voice in the design. The key is to have consistent, frequent meetings where all members present their work and garner feedback from their colleagues. These review meetings are important for a variety of reasons. First, no one will be able to provide you with feedback than your team members, who are working on the same product and are intimately familiar with it on a number of dimensions. Second, each designer is super familiar with their part and the patterns that they use. Thus, they will quickly be able to identify when a design is not adhering to standards or is inconsistent in other ways. Finally, each designer will be able to immediately see how another members’ will work or not work with their own. This also allows them to plan for extensibility. Although the design lead is responsible for reviewing everyone’s work, a design review that involves the entire team is second to none.

I stress “frequent” and “consistent” because that I have found that if such reviews are scheduled ad hoc they often do not get scheduled at all. It my mind, I find it better to have weekly, even bi-weekly review meetings.

A Finely-Tuned Machine

When a team is not working in unison on a user experience design, the end product becomes confusing, inconsistent, and awkward. That is why it is critical for the team to work together. At the heart of every successful collaboration is communication and transparency. In my experience, I have found that the above practices go the furthest toward reaching that ideal.

Avoiding Agile Disaster

Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of  product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed featuresA blob of garbled parts.

A Blob of Garbled Parts

One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.

Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.

This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.

How to Spot the Blob

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.

  • Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
  • Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
  • Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
  • If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.

How to Fix Your Blob

This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:

  • Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
  • Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
  • Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
  • Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
  • Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
  • If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
  • Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.

How to Avoid the Blob

An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.

  • State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
  • With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
  • Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
  • Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.

The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral

We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?

  • Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
  • Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
  • You are often undoing previous work.

If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.

The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?

A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.

How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot

As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.

  • Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
  • Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
  • If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.

Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.

Stay True to Your Product Vision

In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.

Fueling the Organic Growth Cycle for Web Products

Growing a vast customer base for an online product is a complex process that encompasses marketing, product development, and luck. However, it is possible to stack the odds in your favor and to make the best of your marketing dollars by creating a product experience that fosters the organic growth cycle.

The Organic Growth Cycle

For all products, new customers are generated through a combination of paid and word-of-mouth marketing. In some cases, the majority of a product’s new customers come from organic, word-of-mouth marketing. While traditional marketing such as online advertising requires a constant input of resources, word-of-mouth marketing can essentially become a self-sustaining system, requiring little or no support—a sort of marketing Turing machine. Such a well-tuned organic growth cycle can help to grow a large customer base for any web product.

Traditional and organic marketing generating new prospective customers.
Traditional and organic marketing generating new prospective customers.

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Ratings by Communities Are Skewed—Now What?

Many online and mobile applications rely on ratings and reviews from their communities to provide wisdom for their remaining users. Services such as Yelp, Amazon, Digg, and even the Apple App Store use input from their users to evaluate some intrinsic value of a set of items—be they books or iPhone applications.  However, new research recently published in the MIT Technology Review suggests that the wisdom of crowds can be inaccurate and misleading. Does this cast doubt on the utility of community-driven rating systems?

Vassilis Kostakos, an adjunct assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and his team confirmed that the rating systems commonly used can “easily be swayed by a small group of highly active users.” The Technology Review article goes on to write that “rating systems can tap into the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ to offer useful insights, but they can also paint a distorted picture of a product if a small number of users do most of the voting.”

Although Professor Kostakos’ research validates a suspicion that many have had, it does not necessarily mean that community-based review systems are useless. The article states:

Jahna Otterbacher, an assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology who studies online rating systems, says that previous research has hinted that rating systems can be skewed by factors such as the age of a review. But she notes that some sites, including Amazon, already incorporate mechanisms designed to control the quality of ratings–for example, allowing users to vote on the helpfulness of other users’ reviews.

Kostakos proposes further ways to make recommendations more reliable. He suggests making it easier to vote, in order to encourage more users to join in.

What this means for the design of interactive products with such rating features is that steps should be taken to ensure a more representative outcome of user-driven reviews. The following factors can be considered to that end:

  • Count only one vote per user.
  • Provide a mechanism for users to vote on the usefulness of written reviews, and factor that into the total score.
  • Make it easier for all users to vote to capture a broader cohort.
  • Factor in the network patterns of user voting. For example, if a group of users consistently votes together on items, perhaps compensate in the algorithm for that behavior as it tends to skew results.

Designing the Mobile Home Screen According to Nokia

Extending the conversation around its “blood, sweat and tears” process, Nokia’s design team tells the story of the making of its upcoming N97 homescreen. Discovering at the outset that, “of the total time you spend using your mobile phone, on average 85 per cent of that time is spent on your homescreen,” the team went through a robust three step process that consisted of:

  1. Observation and data gathering on a global scale on perspectives of personalization.
  2. Exploration of concepts and prototypes, including free-form design from customers.
  3. Validation and testing of the proposed homescreen.

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Designing and Evaluating Gestural Interfaces

Touch continues to be a big topic in user experience and product development. I recently came across two articles that add great points to the continuing dialog:

Design Considerations for Touch UI

This article enumerates five major pointers for designing effective touch interfaces, namely:

  1. Design for immediate access
  2. Keep gestures smart and simple
  3. Leverage clear mental models
  4. Design for real hand sizes
  5. Touch feedback is key

See the full article or summary video.

Evaluating Gesture Usability

Kevin Arthur, whose site is dedicated to touch interface usability, shares a rough draft for evaluating gestures. He advocates for the need to have “reliable and repeatable evaluation techniques for gestures,” applicable to all forms of touch: touchpad, touchscreens, and free-form. The draft outlines some distinctions of gestures:

  • Gestures are inter-related.
  • Gesture interfaces typically don’t have affordances.
  • Gestures don’t just need to work — they need to not work when they’re not supposed to.
  • For touch gestures things like finger size and fingernails can make a very big difference so it’s important that the test participants are representative.

I agree that there are greater considerations in testing gestures, particularly around learnability, feedback, consistency, and accuracy.

Follow the developing article.

Don Norman on User Experience Design

I encourage everyone in product development and service industries to watch the talk which Don Norman gave at UX Week last year (video below). I finally had a chance to watch the video that was released earlier this year, and heard many gems. It’s great to hear the father of User Experience design advocate for the fundamental elements of good design, while also challenging the scope of the field to aid in its evolution.

Norman mentions:

  • “Know your users” – it’s still the most fundamental principle of design
  • The importance of terminology. He prefers the term people not users.
  • The essence of experience design is people’s memory. Every interaction contains good and bad, but it’s the final impression that matters.
  • There is a huge need for UX professionals to consider their audience: not the user, but clients and businesses. He advocates that we should “learn to speak the language of business,” including using numbers to sell our ideas.

Don Norman | UX Week 2008 | Adaptive Path from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

Dimensions of Compelling Mobile Experiences

Dave Zuverink, a Senior User Research Specialist on Adobe XD’s Mobile and Devices team, wrote a compelling article on the five dimensions of successful mobile application experiences. He lists:

Compelling Mobile Experiences Dimensions
Mobile Experiences Dimensions
  1. Core: the fundamentals which support the principle “form follows function”
  2. Social: taking advantage of the platform’s intrinsic communication focus
  3. Contextual: being aware of physical location (also, based on comments in the article, other applications)
  4. Cloud: back-up and optimization
  5. Multi-screen: functioning across multiple devices

Thinking of the user’s experience in these dimensions can bring a much more cohesive and useful experience, which I agree will be much more compelling. Of course, each of these elements can be broken down even further, and I think the contextual piece is extremely important.

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A Great Example of Lazy (Soft) Registration

Imagine you go to a store to buy some new jeans. As you are checking out, the cashier tells you that you must provide your name, email, and passcode to purchase the items you’ve selected. You’d probably exclaim some choice words and storm out of the store, vowing never to return. Well, many websites continue to insist that their users register before completing a crucial action like paying for things you want to buy.

User information is valuable, but insisting that they provide it is pretty crazy and tyrannical. One way to mitigate this dichotomy is the idea of lazy registration. This poorly-named interaction paradigm essentially pseudo-registers users with some basic unique identifier – usually their email address – and then asks (not insists) that they complete their registration in the future by providing a password and other basic information.

90 Percent of Everything has a great video demonstration of lazy registration and its correct implementation.

Engaging Users with News Feeds

ReadWriteWeb wrote on Thursday that the news feed is the “dominant information paradigm of our time.” I don’t know that I would go quite that far, but it has spread like wildfire throughout the web despite causing a ruckus when its originator, Facebook, first launched it just two years ago. Today, most respectable social websites have some form of a news feed.

Why has something that was once so hated, suddenly become indispensable? Well, it was hated because it gave others visibility into one’s actions. Why did we eventually fall in love with it? We fell in love it because our voyeuristic tendencies eclipsed our privacy concerns, and those services offering news feeds improved the paradigm by giving users greater control over what is broadcast and to whom.

Vimeoland - Community News Feeds 3.0

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