Marketing Strategy and Innovation Blog

The Economist Speaks About Its Web Site Redesign

In this past week’s issue of The Economist (May 17-23), the newspaper brilliantly provides an explanation of its homepage redesign. Not only is it fascinating to read the rationalizations behind the changes, but communication is a critical step often missed in major redesigns, and this also serves as a great example of how to effectively communicate with the users.

The Economist Homepage

They simply and clearly state their goals for the redesign:

We wanted to do three main things: make the page simpler, deeper and more enjoyable for the reader.

Having a high-level strategy such as this allows the organization to stay on course and not get caught up in minutia. In fact, this can and should serve as a litmus test for the smaller details. At each turn, this allows the user experience designers to ask: “Does this make our homepage simpler, deeper, and more enjoyable for the reader?”

They go on to explain in greater detail how they accomplished these three broad user experience goals:

First, simplicity: ‘We have cut clutter (always something The Economist likes to do). There are fewer advertisements. The page is cleaner, with images that stand out more clearly to flag featured content.’

The navigation that runs down the left-hand side of the page, and throughout the site, is now completely visible right away, with no need to scroll ‘below the fold.’

A second aim was to make more content readily accessible-strange as it may sound, to combine greater simplicity with greater depth.

A new feature brings to the fore the articles that have proved most popular with readers. You can choose between three different measures of this: the articles that have attracted the most comments, the ones that readers have recommended the most (by clicking on the ‘recommend’ button next to the text) and those that have been most read. So you get to influence what appears on the home-page.

That is part of our third aim: to make the page a more enjoyable experience. It shows not just what we select, but what readers are finding most interesting. The page will be ‘alive’ in other ways, too, changing throughout the day, so it will be worth returning to more often.

Though all of the above insight is interesting, two things in particular jump out at me. The first thing is how they set out to accomplish a seemingly paradoxical goal of combining “greater simplicity with greater depth.” They do this by employing interactive elements such as a rotating feature and a ‘hottest’ module to “Bring to the fore the articles that have proved most popular with readers.”

In addition, to make the homepage more enjoyable for users while compelling them to visit regularly, The Economist constantly features new content, mostly through reader participation.

Perhaps the most refreshing part of the article was The Economist‘s humility. It is very clear that the web team at The Economist spent a great amount of time and energy to get the redesign right, but despite this they realize that no design is perfect, and they welcome ideas to make it better.

Indeed, we hope you find the new home-page as a whole a big improvement. But change is not always welcome-as some of the comments made on our site have already made clear-and we won’t have got everything right in one go. So we’d welcome your views, negative as well as positive.

Kudos to The Economist for a great redesign and for sharing with its readers and everyone else their goals and how they got there, as well as for inviting us to help make the user experience even better.

News Round-Up for May 13th, 2008

Interview with UX Book Publisher Rosenfeld Media

Last week, UX Matters interviewed Lou Rosenfeld, founder, and Liz Danico, Sr. Development Editor of Rosenfeld Media. The interview covers how the small publishing house hopes to confront the publishing industry, and reflects on the experience of bringing user experience design to publishing books–including show-and-tell sessions, testing readers with print “prototypes” of books, and optimizing digital versions.

Sharing MySpace Content across the Web

MySpace announced that it will begin allowing users to share content from their profiles across Yahoo, Twitter, eBay and Photobucket. An article from the BBC quotes MySpace COO saying, “This is an unprecedented move to further socialize the web and empower users to control their online content and data.” This “data availability” project encourages users to host their content on MySpace by giving them the ability to update information across multiple sites at one time, making the information they post to the web ever more dynamic. Or, as CEO Chris DeWolfe puts it, in grand perspective, “This is a pioneering new way for the global online community to integrate their social experiences web-wide.”

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday.

UX News Round-Up for May 7th, 2008

“Simplicity isn’t a bad design goal; complexity isn’t a good one”

Joshua Porter from UIE responds to Don Norman’s article, “Simplicity is Overrated.” Citing the work of Barry Schwartz, who writes on consumer behavior and trade-offs in “The Paradox of Choice,” Porter observes that users tend to choose more complex products not because they prefer complexity, but because “they can’t predict what functionality they will need in the future.”

Though Norman’s article suggests that “simplicity does not sell,” and that design teams should strive for complex, feature-laden interfaces, Porter suggests that design teams look instead towards helping users understand or discover what they need before making a purchase. In doing so, designers leverage the insight that users want “simple decisions as much as simple products,” helping users avoid “the trap of assuming that complexity equals capability.”

Luke Wroblewski on Web Forms

Rosenfeld Media’s anticipated second offering is now available. “Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks,” by Luke Wroblewski, provides actionable insight and information to “designing effective and engaging web forms.” All 218 images from the book have been made available on Flickr. Wroblewski is Senior Principle of Product Ideation and Design at Yahoo! Inc. and has also held positions at eBay and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “Web Form Design” follows up “Mental Models,” by Indi Young, in Rosenfeld Media’s line-up of books on information and its use, management and design.

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday.

Avoiding the Problems of Design by Committee

We all know the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth,” yet it is common during the design process for too many stakeholders to become design decision-makers. When reviews go beyond discussing issues in the user experience and gathering new information and ideas, stakeholders with varying points can sometimes begin to dictate the direction of the design. This leads to a once cohesive set of interactions diverging on many different paths. Slowly, the experience that was begins to slip away, and the product definition dilapidates. So, what can be done to avoid this situation?

1. Define the Problem and Articulate the Goals

Before one can tackle any redesign, whether feature enhancement or new development, it is critical to know ‘what issues need to be solved?’ Oftentimes assumptions are made without proper investigation, and wrong solutions are derived.

For instance, one may note that there is a high customer attrition for one’s product while the competition increases its market share. Without analysis, one could assume that this problem is due to a feature of the competition’s product. However, it could be that the issue really stems from a less apparent problem such as misinformation during the customer engagement process. By narrowing the problem down to its source(s), one can define a specific and appropriate strategy. By speaking in broad terms and ultimate goals (such as ‘out-do the competition’), teams can become divided in ways to tackle the issues.

From the outset, you should deconstruct the problem and state the ultimate and intermediary success criteria for the undertaking. This provides a solid foundation to guide the design phase and keep focus throughout the entire process.

2. Identify Stakeholders and Roles

In keeping with the mission to maintain focus, it is crucial to also synthesize the voices for design conception and refinement. This is one of the more delicate balancing acts one has to perform. As a designer, you want to be sure that you have enough feedback at each step so there isn’t a surprise overhaul at the end, but you also need to preserve productivity toward a unified goal.

The user experience design should be a collaborative effort, and to be successful it should include input from representatives from various touch points in the company. These representatives should not only provide input from their own perspectives, but also bring vetted feedback from members in the company with whom they interact. This allows for more voices to be heard in a more unified way. Once these stakeholders have been identified, it is important to communicate their roles as a liaison and representative. It is also important to set expectations for collaboration and to highlight the importance of putting the user first in each decision. Furthermore, each stakeholder should be familiar with (and played a part in defining) the goals which were set forth at the beginning.

Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path talks about this complex issue of breaking through the organizational barriers to produce a successful user experience. An important thing to not forget in discussions is that everyone should feel that their ideas are being heard. You must bring closure at each step by explaining how concerns have either been addressed or sidelined for the benefit of the experience.

Beyond the voices within the company, another voice that cannot be ignored is that of the user.

3. Test Early and Test Often

Iterative testing is a great principle to follow, particularly in groups where a central authority makes hasty decisions. It is also essential for contentious groups that tend to incorporate everything into the design without discrimination because they are unable to reach a general consensus. User testing at crucial junctures can often bring harmony to a group by validating certain design choices and reminding everyone of the user’s perspective. Remember, that testing does not necessarily mean having expensive usability testing sessions, particularly at this level. Informal testing and sanity checks are more important to ensure that the business goals and conflicting internal interests are not overshadowing the needs of the users.

This iterative approach allows the design team to have the freedom to try many different approaches, particularly in the beginning, and in so doing, ensure that the various concerns and ideas are not being lost. Frequently, it becomes important to try even the “crazy ideas” to bring the team together and provide something which helps visualize ideas and facilitate conversation.

Escaping Design by Committee

These three components can be very effective in keeping the design focused while addressing the concerns and needs of the various stakeholders. Despite this, there is clearly no error-proof approach, so in case you do find yourself caught in the mire of design by committee you should rely on reason. The business, and indeed your team, will want to have a rewarding experience and fully developed product in a timely manner. By explaining that the constant redirections and lack of focus are deteriorating the experience and hurting the schedule, one can reintroduce both urgency and rationale. Taking a step back to revisit the original goals and testing against them can help to restore purpose. It may also be that the original goals are no longer applicable and should be updated to unify the team once more.

At these time, the iterative testing will come in handy as it will be easier to identify where you had digressed and what you may leverage in the re-focusing effort.

In conclusion, avoiding unfocused design is a core element of preventing design by committee. In order to keep focus, you must identify roles explicitly, facilitate open and effective discussion, test frequently, and maintain clear goals.

Note: There will be no UX News Round-Up today. Check back next week when this weekly series will resume.

UX News Round-Up for April 22, 2008

Design + Management: Want Respect? Smash the Table!

Dan Saffer quotes a fall 2007 Design Observer article in his blog post about designers and their relationship with management. Although there may be a persistent desire on the part of designers to get a place at the management table “where the big decisions are made,” Saffer reminds his readers that perhaps the place of the designer is not there:

At The Table, it is easy to have other concerns instead of just creating the best products possible: political concerns of gaining and retaining power, or financial concerns of running the company, or resource concerns about personnel, or the million other details it takes to run a business – many of which fight against putting out great products.

With the perspective and clarity of vision that often attends it, perhaps the designer is rightly, and best, an outsider. Saffer suggests that when the design job is done well, “the table will change.” “The best products change companies, markets, and, yes, possibly even the world. And when that happens, attention will be paid, respect given. You will be thanked for smashing The Table and giving them a new one.” What would serve a designer best, then, is not being counted within circle of power themselves, but having allies in it.

Usability: Don Norman, 25 Years In Usability

Don Norman takes stock of Usability and how the field has changed since he joined 25 years ago. He estimates the field has grown from 1,000 practitioners primarily in acadamia to over 50,000 individuals, with an additional half-million with part-time responsibilities.

Though perhaps the basics of Usability methodology have not changed, interfaces have undergone significant transformation– command line to GUI, one-button to two-button mice, and the birth of the web-based application. Norman suggests that having worked with these different interfaces over the years allows usability professionals to “generalize the underlying issues in interaction design” and “avoid being swayed by the surface appearance of the latest gizmo.”

Lastly, Norman reflects upon his own satisfaction as a Usability professional, doing work that allows him to ‘help humanity’ by strengthening business, and empower people to “control their destiny and their technology rather than be[ing] subjugated by computers.’ Norman concludes, Usability probably makes an even better profession now than it did 25 years ago, noting “we have job security as long as there’s stupid design in the world, and that’s forever: every new technology that comes along will be abused.”

User Research: Three kinds of search

Earlier this month, researchers from Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and Queensland University of Technology reported findings from a study done to classify web searches. The study revealed that most queries can be categorized into one of three types: Informational, Navigational or Transactional. The study was the first published of its kind done using actual search data, analyzing 1.5 million searches from hundreds of thousands of users across various search engines. The paper will appear in “Information Processing and Management,” May 2008.

Interface Design: “Designing Software that Works for Everyone”

This is the tagline for the Fluid Project, a collaborative effort at creating an open-source “living library” of user interface components with special emphasis on accessibility and academic software. The project recently received new funding in the form of $2.5 million from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation for one of its main collaborators, The Adaptive Technology Center at the University of Toronto. The project is backed by now more than $8 million in funding, and other institutions involved include the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Cambridge among others. Corporate partners include IBM, Sun, and Yahoo.

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday.

UX News Round-Up for April 15, 2008

Don’t Block YouTube

In an interview with F@st Company, Gartner researcher Tom Austin suggests that companies think twice about blocking access to sites like YouTube and MySpace. Instead, Austin suggests companies leverage the social networking media of Web 2.0 to “enhance collaboration and productivity.” Business remains fundamentally about human interactions, and the Internet has skyrocketed the number and speed at which people make connections, and blown-out the distance from which people can work together. Austin predicts that a new breed of Information Technologist will emerge from this change–from “the primordial ooze of Web 2.0”–a breed of Information Technologist more interested in human behavior than in software code.

User Behavior Researchers in the Global Market

According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000. And figures from the International Telecommunications Union show that by the end of 2006, 68 percent of the world’s mobile subscriptions were in developing countries.

Using human-centered design to crack into the global marketplace, companies have been sending researchers into the field to report back to the company with information to inform product design. This New York Times Magazine article follows Jan Chipchase, a human behavior researcher for Nokia, as he observes how cellphones can give developing economies a boost from the ground up.

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts on Tuesdays.

UX News Round-Up

Making Money on the Internet

“The internet is a copy machine.” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, notes on his blog that if the “super-distribution” system of the Internet and its endless free copying of information has undercut the structure of wealth built upon selling precious copies, “how does one make money?”

Kelly defines eight categories of “generative values”, which are “better than free,” because they cannot be copied, only “generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured.” Among these eight are: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability. And these values, which will imbue the Internet with new worth and provide a viable foundation for advertisement, will also demand a new skill-set:

“…An understanding of how abundance breeds a sharing mindset, how generosity is a business model, how vital it has become to cultivate and nurture qualities that can’t be replicated with a click of the mouse.”

MS Project and the Design Process

Uday Gajendar at Ghost in the Pixel posted on the failures of MS Project to facilitate the design process. Relating a conversation Gajendar had with a friend, he writes, “My friend said it just right: ‘MS Project is meant for deterministic projects, where you already know the result.'” The shortcomings of MS Project are not what make Gajendar’s post interesting, however. Rather, it is his observation on the structure of the design process itself:

“Design is fundamentally indeterminate! Meaning, there is no pre-determined outcome, there’s instead innovation, and ideation and hypothesizing, and fast-failing and iteration, and, of course, exploration of the boundaries and scopes/limit.”

From this, Gajendar concludes, ” MS Project was built for number-crunchers, not designers.”

Facebook and ConnectU Settlement, pre-IPO

The New York Times reports that Facebook will be settling with ConnectU over a suit filed in 2004 alleging that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for his hugely successful site from the creators of ConnectU. All motions in a countersuit filed by Facebook accusing ConnectU of “unfair business practices” have been halted. The settlement is believed to precede an IPO from Facebook.

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts on Tuesdays.

UX News Round-Up

Web of Flow

On Sunday, Lo?Øc Le Meur wrote on the centralization provided by services mybloglog, friendfeed, and socialthing. However, Le Meur would prefer it if the centralization occurred on his blog, rather than with a third party service.

Monday, Stowe Boyd responded to Le Meur’s lamentation to say, “conversation is moving from a very static and slow form of conversation — the comments thread on blog posts — to a more dynamic and fast form of conversation: into the flow in Twitter, Friendfeed, and others.” Boyd points out that Twitter and other similar applications are built upon “the web of flow,” in which information comes to people through their relationships, instead of through a series of clicks, scrolls and urls. Boyd suggests that this is an important new way to think about social media.

3-D Social Networking

An article in the New York Times Technology section reports on Vivaty’s concept for three-dimensional online social networking. Where Facebook and MySpace have static profiles that only allow users to post messages back and forth, Vivaty belongs to a ” new wave of Silicon Valley companies [that] is bringing live socializing back into a medium that has‚Ķgrown overly asynchronous.” The venture is backed by Kleiner Perkins and will begin a private test period on Facebook this week.

Outlook + Gmail through MailShadow

Last week, Cemaphore Systems announced a new product that synchronizes e-mail, calendar and address books between Outlook and Gmail. MailShadow is intended as a backup to Outlook, but provides an interesting opportunity for IT in switching out a Microsoft Exchange back-end for Google, while retaining the Outlook interface. MailShadow also allows users to access their Gmail mail, calendar and contacts through Outlook. Though Gmail also allows Outlook users to read Gmail through Outlook, and provides a calendar synchronization, MailShadow is the first product that “automatically brings together synchronization for mail, calendars and address books between the two systems.”

Montparnas’ News Round-Up posts on Tuesdays.

UX News Round-Up

Is That A Kiosk In Your Pocket? Electronic Airline Ticketing

The next step in electronic ticketing has arrived. While those print-your-own boarding pass kiosks have been around since 1995, and half a dozen airlines in the U.S. now allow passengers to check-in using mobile devices, Continental Airlines has begun testing an electronic boarding pass. The boarding pass displays a two-dimensional ‘bar code’ that looks like snow on a television, but on a mobile device, allowing airlines to scan the screen like it would a paper boarding pass. The New York Times reports that the TSA is expected to embrace the technology because the two-dimensional barcode contains more information and is harder to reproduce than traditional one-dimensional barcodes. Mark Bergsrud, Senior VP of Marketing Programs at Continental said, ‚ÄúWe kind of like the idea long term of having a kiosk in your pocket.” The International Air Transport Association announced standards for two-dimensional barcodes last September and expects all of its 240 members to use them exclusively by 2010. Foreign airlines that use electronic passes currently include Japan Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines and Spanair.

Usability Challenges in Web Applications

Early in March, the folks at UIE posted on three usability challenges of Web Applications. These were: 1) Finding the application, 2) setting the proper expectations, 3) and matching the user’s flow. Last week, UIE posted again on two more challenges: 4) Handle contingencies and exceptions. The specific example: If a user is cutting-and-pasting an account number, make sure the input field can accept the format the account number is displayed in. If the account page displays it with hyphens, make sure the input field can recognize those hyphens. 5) Live inside the browser. UIE highlights important features of sites that take user information, like ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons distinct from the browser ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons that can prevent data loss.

Problems for a Hyper-Connected World: Disconnect Anxiety and Internet Addiction

Solutions Research Group reports that “27 percent of the population suffers increased levels of anxiety when separated from their cell phones or the Internet, and that a further 41 percent suffer occasional anxiety due to communications blackout.” This is called “Disconnect Anxiety.” Last week, Ars Technica reported that the anxiety is age-related, and offers a brief list of questions at self-diagnosis. This week, Ars Technia points us to an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry that argues Internet and Gaming addiction should be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

UX News Round-Up

“Sexy Money:” Kleiner Perkins’ $100 million pledge for iPhone Apps

Last week, Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins pledged $100 million to fund iPhone software development. Though developers have been writing browser-based iPhone apps since the beginning, and more than that since the SDK release in June, Wired Magazine reports development may move to the mainstream because of the prospective pay-off this fund offers. In comparative terms, the size of the Kleiner Perkins fund is ten times that of the amount set aside by Bay Partners for Facebook apps, after Facebook had been established as a platform–the iPhone and the iPod Touch as yet “hold only promise.” Wired Magazine says the size of the fund is evidence that Kleiner Perkins thinks the iPhone and the iPod Touch may launch a movement like the PC did in the 90’s, in which software developers took on the new platform, creating some of today’s largest companies.

Adobe AIR

In an article in the SEO/SEM Journal, Tim Negris predicts that the unique capabilities of Adobe AIR position it to overtake Apple and Microsoft the same way both those companies overtook Xerox Parc. Negris quotes Kevin Lynch, the man responsible for Adobe AIR, as having said, “‘it represents the beginning of a new medium as the best of the web and the best of the desktop come together.'” Adobe AIR can produce Rich Internet Applications that can run off-line on a desktop, with its own runtime, independent of a browser, thus freeing RIAs from the disjointed and diluted user experience of the browser, and from the strictures and disparate user experiences of device-based platforms–Mac or PC (or smartphone). In doing so, Negris contends, Adobe AIR will deliver unified user experiences against which no other development’s efforts can compare–not those of Google Gears, Prism, JavaFX or Microsoft’s Silverlight–and presents a “push towards a massive context shift where device choice doesn’t matter.”

Web 3.0? Expert Generated Content

An article in Newsweek Online last week traced the trend towards a new “Web 3.0,” characterized by a resurgence of “experts” on the Internet. The article quotes consumer strategist Charlotte Beale saying, “People are beginning to recognize that the world is too dangerous a place for faulty information.” Additionally, “choice fatigue and fear of bad advice are creating a ‘perfect storm of demand for expert information.'” Events indicating this shift include the testing of Google’s Knol in December, a site like Wikipedia but limited to content vetted by expert sources, the recent release of the final test version of Mahalo–a people-powered search engine, and the startling 80% jump in traffic to expert advice site About.com over the past several years. The business benefit to all this is the “potential for premium audiences and advertising revenue…’Nobody wants to advertise next to crap,'” says Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur.” Despite this apparent shift, “Web 2.0 Populism” may never go away entirely. Quoting Glenn Reynolds, author of “An Army of Davids,” the Newsweek article admits, “there’s always a Big New Thing, but the old Big New Thing doesn’t really go away…It just becomes another layer–like we’re building an onion from the inside out.”

Montparnas’ weekly news installment posts every Tuesday at lunchtime.