Blog : User Experience

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.

BBC Online Shares Its Usability and Accessibility Methodologies

Jonathan Hassell of BBC online shared a presentation on the challenges and methodologies of the company’s Usability & Accessibility team. The short presentation describes the challenges, such as a wide range of platforms and audience types, as well as the wide-range of research tools that are used to understand and address them, from card sorting to ethnographic research.

Although, I would have liked more details as to the organizational interactions and long-term research approach, and don’t necessarily agree with the over-simplification that “TV is simple,” the slides do show the breadth of methods used to satisfy the BBC online audience and can be viewed below.

UPDATE: The video of the presentation is also available (requires registration, go to “Web 2.0, Social Networking, Usability, Design & Build Theatre,” then “Wednesday at 13:00”). See comment from Chris Rourke below.

A Survey of Lufthansa’s Touch Screen Entertainment Application

I flew on Lufthansa during a recent trip to Europe. Not only was it one of the nicest flying experiences that I have ever had, but it also turned out to be an opportunity to experience a very well-done interactive experience. Despite some shortcomings, Lufthansa’s touch screen entertainment application was a prime case study in good user experience design. I have seen and used other in-flight applications on other airlines, but they were always clunky, often confusing, and not very enjoyable to use. Lufthansa’s application (pictured below), on the other hand, was elegant, simple, intuitive, and did everything that a typical passenger would likely need without mucking up the experience with useless features.

Home (Welcome) Screen

I witnessed something that was a true testament to the entertainment application’s outstanding design. Even before I had a chance to play with it, I looked over across the aisle where an elderly woman in about her seventies ventured to use the touch screen application. She poked the touch screen with resolute force and very intently examined the screen. From having done a number of usability studies, I guessed that she was a rather novice computer user, and I got excited to witness her use the application. From past usability studies with inexperienced participants, I anticipated that she would quickly get lost, confused, frustrated, and would abandon her task. To my astonishment, she prodigiously navigated through the application, browsed TV programs and movies to watch and ultimately played a movie on the touch screen in front of her. Needless to say, I was completely astounded by how easy to use and intuitive the application was even to a computer novice.

After studying my unaware participant, I quickly took out my camera and examined Lufthansa’s in-flight touch screen entertainment program. Below are my observations. I draw on some particular screens to illustrate certain points, and all of the ones that I photographed can be seen in the gallery at the end of the post.

Read More

Oops Award for Bad Product Design 2009

This year’s batch of nominees for the Oops Award for Bad Product Design are truly exemplary. I highly encourage the reader to feast your eyes on some of the world’s biggest product design disasters. While most of the nominees have earned their spot in these echelons for aesthetic reasons, there are also some that are clearly included for their utter lack of utility—see below.

And how is one to sit in this contraption? (Via )

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.

Google’s User Experience Director Speaks About Design Challenges

BuisinessWeek has a great Q&A with Google’s Director of User Experience, Irene Au. In the article, Irene Au is asked about Google’s approach to design and brand coherence across different Google products. Not surprisingly, Google has a very scientific approach to experience design, heavily rooted in quantitative methods:

[Engineers] and analysts pore over streams of data to assess the impact of experiments with colors, shading, and the position of every element on the page. Even changes at the pixel level can affect revenue….

A lot of our design decisions are really driven by cognitive psychology research that shows that, say, people online read black text against a white background much faster than white against black, or that sans serif fonts are more easily read than serif fonts online.

When asked if “decisions are based on data rather than on subjective opinion of what might look good,” Irene responded:

A lot of designers want to increase the line height or padding in order to make the interface “breathe.” We deliberately don’t do that. We want to squeeze in as much information as possible above the fold. We recognize that information density is part of what makes the experience great and efficient. Our goal is to get users in and out really quickly. All our design decisions are based on that strategy.

I am an unwavering proponent of data-driven design because I have personally witnessed seemingly minuscule design changes make immense impacts. The only way to capitalize on these effects was through data-driven testing to find the optimal solution.

However, I also believe that science can work with art and not against it. Aesthetics have impacts that are very hard to measure. Many of those effects can have long-term consequences for product loyalty or can affect the overall brand value in ways that are not measured in completion times or conversion rates–just take a look at good ‘ol Apple.

Irene Au also speaks about “brand coherence,” which is really a question about the consistency of the user experience across Google’s products. For those in the user experience field, it is an obvious fact that inconsistency and conflicting interaction paradigms cause user error, frustration, and product abandonment. Thus, it was no surprise to me to hear of Google’s conviction to align user experience paradigms across all their products. Irene states, “Inconsistency drives Larry and Sergey crazy.” Well, it drives everyone else crazy too, so kudos to making it a priority.

The Palm Pre User Experience

The iPhone started a paradigm shift in mobile that led to a deluge of touch-screen devices, which differ only slightly in feature sets and overall experience. Marek Pawlowski of MEX writes a very detailed account how Palm went back to its ideological roots and to the blackboard to design a unique mobile device–the Pre. In some aspects, the Pre seems to make improvements on common features such as the ergonomics of the QWERTY keyboard:

The curvature of the handset improves the balance when typing, combating the “top heavy” feeling users complain of with standard QWERTY monoblocs like the Blackberry Bold and Nokia E71.

However, beyond some tweaks to existing models, there are three features that are truly revolutionary. The first is Palm’s dedication to web connectivity as the heart of the device:

Indeed, as the name suggests, webOS has been designed with web connectivity at the very heart of the platform… Users can add contacts from a wide range of sources, either by desktop synchronisation or from web services such as Facebook, and Palm’s webOS will intelligently combine them to ensure duplicate contacts are avoided.

Read More

Digitial Camera User Interfaces

With all the talk of mobile phones and touch screen interfaces, it was nice to come across a fairly complete look at existing camera interfaces, which typically do not get much coverage. Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan, not only gives a great “visual tour” of the top players in camera devices: Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Casio, Olympus and Fujifilm, but also a nice round-up on what the various makers are doing right and wrong.

Read More

Eye-Tracking Studies at Google

Two user experience researchers share on the Google Blog how their team conducted eye-tracking studies on the interface of Universal Search to gain insight into optimal information design. They write in their post:

Our User Experience Research team has found that people evaluate the search results page so quickly that they make most of their decisions unconsciously…. Of course, eye-tracking does not really tell us what they are thinking, but it gives us a good idea of which parts of the page they are thinking about.

Read More