Category Archives: UE

SwissCHI event Apr 30, 09: “Prototyping of Rich Internet Applications”

Last Thursday I attended the monthly SwissCHI meeting. That evening's topic was "Prototyping of Rich Internet Applications" – Andreas Binggeli, Marc Blume and Yuan-Yuan Sun presented their Master's thesis (from their MASHCID studies). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, paper prototypes compared really well to more elaborate prototypes done in Axure RP Pro or realized using Ajax-y technology, and users didn't really pay much attention to the paper prototypes lower fidelity. (I wrote up a piece on which prototyping tool to use in which case earlier.)

After a brief introduction into what RIAs are (or rather, aren't: "RIA ≠ Ajax ≠ Web2.0"), Andreas, Marc and Yuan-Yuan presented their study. The following hypothesis were to be tested:

  • Between different forms of prototypes, there would only be differences in speed and visual appearance
  • There wouldn't be differences in user hesitation, difficulties, slowing-down, quality of interaction etc.

They'd be asking subjects to form an overall assessment of visual appearance, behavior, and speed.

The four prototype variants they were testing were:

  • hand-drawn paper prototype
  • Powerpoint-created paper prototype
  • Pseudo-HTML prototype created in Axure RP pro
  • Ajax prototype

These were their findings:

  • Both the hand-drawn and the PowerPoint-created paper prototypes were experienced as (too) slow; a lot of preparation on the researcher's side and high concentration were needed
  • Axure-powered prototypes used interaction elements that looked alright but didn't live up to their expectations
  • The Ajax-based prototype was quite slow in some parts, which lead to some immediate reactions not being perceived by the subjects, whereas some elements' affordance wasn't perceived properly
  • Interestingly, subjects didn't really see differences in the visual appearances of the prototypes
  • All methods can be used to prototype RIAs, but all have their very specific weaknesses
  • Interaction quality is compromised most severely by unexpected behavior, not so much by visual appearance or speed
  • The appropriate method should be chosen based on the phase the project is in, the Ajax pattern to be simulated, and the desired longevity of the prototype

In the end, if you take the effort into consideration, paper prototypes might still be the most appropriate method in most cases. This finding really doesn't come as a big surprise…

World Usability Day 2007: Making It Easy!

World Usability Day 2007 logo
November 8 saw this year's worldwide No. 1 usability event – the World Usability Day, conceived by the international Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and carried out in 23 countries by local UPA chapters or other interested parties. I took part in the event in Hamburg, Germany, which attracted over 300 people from industry, administration, and academia. My invited talk on Google User Experience was the final element of this great and well organized event and was very well-received by the approximately 150 people in the audience. Exciting!

Steve Wozniak: How I invented the Personal Computer … and more

Today, I watched the video of Steve Wozniak, the hardware engineer of the Apple I and II and one of the founders of Apple (Computers) Inc., giving a speech at Google HQ in Mountain View. It was an eye-opening experience – the enthusiasm, fascination, and dedication "Woz" brought across. But see for yourself …

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BTW: Woz will be in Zürich at this year's Tweakfest – he'll speak on Thursday (May 24).

A Country-Wide Exercise in Marketing

Switzerland is very beautiful. You've got the tremendous landscape – the distant Alps, the blue lakes, green meadows. And Switzerland is very prosperous. I've stopped counting the number of extremely expensive cars I've seen these last weeks (Aston-Martins, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, Lamborghinis). Zürich especially "breathes" money and stability. The quality of service is impressive – people are very conscientious, and especially the civil servants so far have struck me as very friendly. Plus, the quality of the edibles and ingredients you can buy even in the supermarkets is so far from everything we were used to in Germany that we regularly end up buying much too much because we want to sample everything. This, together with Switzerland's well-known neutrality, is expressed best through one symbol: the famous white-on-red Swiss Cross ("Schweizerkreuz"). The Swiss are (rightfully) proud of their country, and they show their pride everywhere. You cannot walk through the city without seeing at least a dozen Swiss Crosses.

There are some stores (like the "Schweizer Heimatwerk" on Bahnhofstrasse) that seem to offer only those articles that show the Swiss Cross. And there's quite a bit of them. Likewise, you seem to be able to get about every article where at least one brand has chosen to use the Swiss Cross as part of their design and packaging. The omnipresence of the symbol and its re-affirmation through all the high-quality experiences strikes me as one of the best-concerted exercises in marketing I've come across so far. The Swiss Cross symbolizes outstanding quality. Those employing it profit from it, but it also feels as if everyone using it it has subscribed to a certain voluntary self-commitment as well.

Designing the (AOL Phone) Box

AOL Phone Box (small image)In August 2006, AOL Germany launched the AOL Phone Box, an AOL-branded ADSL 2+ modem / router with integrated 4-port Ethernet switch and VoIP telephony functionality. When we started working on the AOL Phone Box project more than a year ago, the AOL Germany world looked quite a bit different: AOL was one of Germany's biggest ISPs, providing a huge number of customers with fast DSL Internet access (and a big number with slower narrow-band dial-up access); the web-based products like the portal, e-mail, instant messenger offered functionality on top. Now, the access business has been sold to Telecom Italia, and AOL is turning itself into a portal player, offering free e-mail, news, and other web-based services and content. Time flies …

The project had a number of goals, apart from just creating the Box:

  • Create an Internet Access Device that is simple and straightforward to set up – in order to reduce the number of support calls (setting up the access device is a major call driver).
  • Create a compelling, appealing user experience make people want to possess the box.
  • Build up in-house expertise on how to create hardware products for future projects.

After quite a bit of research, the project team decided on working with a German manufacturer, Bautzen-based Sphairon Access Systems. Sphairon had a hardware and software platform that looked very promising, and they had lots of experience working with various telecoms – they build DSL splitters, Internet Access Devices, ISDN NTBAs and other devices needed for telephony and Internet access. We started out from an existing product, but had it completely revamped to fit our ideas of what an AOL-branded device should look like. Nuremberg-based industrial design firm B/F Design supported us here – they created innovative rough designs, did fantastic renderings and great prototypes.

The Interactive Design sub-project had a couple of tasks:

  • Revamp the existing user interface to make it fit into AOL Germany's visual design language.
  • Check and improve the user flow to achieve a higher level of usability.
  • Control and manage external development and design efforts.
  • Innovate on new features and parts of the offering.

Where we were coming from

The closest relatives to our AOL Phone Box are the members of Sphairon's line of Turbolink devices. They feature quite a versatile, extendable hardware platform, but come in a rather plain, matter-of-fact shell. The IAD shown below was presented by Sphairon at the 2005 CeBIT.

Sphairon Turbolink

Likewise, the design of the configuration web interface was a bit plain, and we felt it could be improved a bit – it had to be adapted to our visual standards anyway. We therefore adopted a visual style that mirrored our AOL Germany portal design.

How we got there

First, a new shell was developed by B/F Design. It needed to reflect AOL's brand values – Human Individuality, Top Quality, Elegant Simplicity, and Inspiring Enjoyment – and look high-class. I think they did a tremendous job.

AOL Phone Box

Reversed-engineered Information Architecture for Web FrontendIn parallel, we reversed-engineered the existing browser-based configuration front-end – we created a site map containing all the places and functionality. We then compared this site map to our list of desired features and started moving functionality around, restructuring the configuration tool's organization. After deciding which functionality should be experts-only and which should be available to all users, the IA for the web configuration was finalized and wire frames for a number of screens were created to illustrate the arrangement of elements on the UI. To get the web configuration tool to sport our visual style, we developed a visual design style guide especially for this product and delivered all the necessary assets to Sphairon, together with a couple example screens. We then moved on to defining two new parts of the AOL Phone Box experience: the "Einrichtungsassistent" (setup assistant) and the "CD-Intro" (CD-based introduction to the product). The customers should use the CD-based introduction to get the cabling right; once everything had been connected properly, the setup assistant (resident on the hardware) should take over and lead the user through the basic configuration of the product. To the user, this two-platforms approach should feel like one seamless process. During the interaction design process, we especially focused on possible error conditions: We analyzed them and either tried to circumvent them, or we used them to help users identify what might have been the cause of their issues and to help them out (again, a way to reduce Call Center volume and thus cost).Extremely close collaboration in the team and with our development partner Sphairon helped us make great progress, and we took great pride in seeing our ideas get realized and the designs getting closer and closer to what we had envisioned.

Design and Usability Evaluation

After some time of working on a project, you lose the ability to actually assess a solution's quality. So, at two points in the development cycle, we conducted usability evaluation measures with our partner HCiconsult. Early on (with a rough version of the UI in place), a heuristic evaluation was done. Later, when the development was 2/3 complete, we had a usability test conducted with seven test participants. Both measures showed we were on the right track, but of course there was still room for improvement. The findings were discussed and incorporated into the design iterations.

When we started to think about packaging and printed material, we realized that it would be highly desirable to provide a consistent wording throughout all materials – be them on the configuration UI of the box, on the CD, on the packaging or on leaflets. So we provided the necessary wording and operated as wording QA for the electronic manual. While this was quite an extra work package, it nicely followed the philosophy of an end-to-end design responsibility.

AOL Phone Box packaging

A challenging and rewarding project

In the end, the Interactive Design team had contributed in the following domains: For Interaction Design, we had contributed Information Architecture, user flows, and screen layouts. As for Graphics Design, we had created Visual design standards and provided the graphics assets for the development partner. Wording of all customer-facing texts including Web Interface, packaging, and manual had been provided by us. We had had our say in the design of the packaging, and of course there had been the final sign-off of all materials by the Director Interactive Design.

The AOL Phone Box has proved to be quite a success. The expected benefits were realized, the customers love it, and we have not only delivered a fantastic product, but also learned a lot – and had quite a bit of fun.

The iPhone is here

You'll all have heard about it – Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. (no more "Apple Computers Inc.") has demonstrated the upcoming iPhone, to be released in June 07 in the US (in Q4 in Europe, in Asia probably 2008). The iPhone features just one button ("Home"), a giant touch-sensitive screen with "Multi touch" abilities and runs a (probably stripped-down) version of Mac OS X (although Apple's marketing pages refer to it just as "OS X").

I've been using Handspring's (and later palmOne's) Treos for nearly four years now. I've been very happy with them: they allowed me to reduce the number of devices from two to one (from a mobile phone and a PDA to just one smartphone). Nevertheless, Palm OS seems to have got stuck in development somewhere – no multitasking, slow, syncing actually only works properly with Windows … and I won't go for a Windows Mobile device. Moreover, although Handspring (and later Palm) have done a tremendous job of integrating phone functionality into an OS that had not been designed with this intent in mind, the Treo still feels like a PDA with add-on phone functionality. And I'd love to have my iTunes music with me as well (which cannot be played from the Treo; and even playing non-DRMed music from the Treo isn't much fun).

So again I'm stuck with two devices – the Treo and an 80 GB 5th generation iPod. Moreover, I recently began to heavily use the mobile Internet on my Treo's Blazer browser. It works, kind of … but it's not exactly fun. This is why I will definitely have to get one of Apple's new gizmos. Not only because I've got that Early Adopter virus(TM), because I'm an Apple aficionado and fascinated by all new technology, but because this thing appears to have been designed to serve the following purposes perfectly:

  • making calls
  • listening to music
  • browsing the web
  • reading and writing e-mails

… and I believe that at some points you just have to start from scratch again, drop bloated approaches covered with "scar tissue" (Alan Cooper) and held together with band-aids, and go out and try new ideas based on what people actually need and want to do. (The mobile phone industry appears rather help- and clueless as to what to offer their customers as most people don't seem to be willing to use all the cool features in their phones.)

Oh, and another thing: In "The Invisible Computer", Don Norman argues that the future will provide us with lots and lots of specialized devices – one for each purpose. I guess he was wrong Smile I'm very much looking forward to actually test-driving one of these things, to see whether Apple's new product can live up to the promise. Have they really re-invented the phone? At least they've got a lot of attention and shaken up the industry quite a bit (again).

Update: Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini has put together a very nice and detailed analysis of the iPhone's strenghts and weaknesses (as far as can be seen from the available material). Definitely worth a read!

Great UX: Setting up the MOTU 828mkII

Just a quick note on a user experience that was just the way it should be: Last week I bought a musical device, a Fireware audio interface. A MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) 828mkII. Actually, it’s not much of an instrument but rather a computer extension. It is used to connect external audio sources like synthesizers, microphones, and guitars to the computer so that the input signal ? the sound ? can be recorded on and played back from an audio application. Why do I say it was a great user experience? Not only did the package arrive very fast, the 828 also was a pleasure to set up. In the process you realize that the people creating the device and defining its UI are musicians themselves. Everything was self-explanatory, and after connecting everything and installing the drivers, I fired up my Logic Pro audio application, and there the Motu was, waiting to be used. 🙂 Ah yes, and I could get rid of three other devices as well: a mixer, an older Emagic USB audio interface, and a patchbay.

What can we learn from this? Two things, I guess: a) To create a great, compelling user experience, you need to know and deeply understand the target audience. b) It’s always easier to create something great for people who are like yourself.

Motu 828mkII Firewire audio interface in my setup

Next-gen Desktop object manipulation metaphors

Just stumbled across a phantastic prototype video (the BumpTop 3D Desktop Prototype) by the Digital Graphics Project at the University of Toronto that’s illustrating some cool new interaction techniques for desktop object manipulation. It’s building on the idea of Piles (that’s an older concept Apple still holds the patent on) and using gestures to manipulate files (or their representations as icons, resp.) on a high-fidelity desktop environment. Object behavior like momentum, acceleration etc. is simulated through a physics engine much like the engines built into newer Ego Shooter games.

BumpTop Desktop Prototype

What I’d love to see in addition is the Wear and Tear concept – objects that have not been touched for some time start showing signs of age, get wrinkled etc.While I quite enjoy the great graphics and the cool ideas behind the demo, I think it doesn’t solve the problems inherent in the Desktop metaphor – like: limiting our approach to object manipulation by what we assume is possible on desktops with real objects etc. The other drawback I see is that manipulating objects in this environment might be so much fun that actually working with the objects becomes a boring chore :-)What’s cool as well about this is using YouTube to distribute your ideas. What a great medium to use! The traditional approach would have been to present this at some conference where it would have been seen by a small number of experts … now it’s out in the field!

User Experience, shareholder value, and sustainability: How to do Good Business

Amongst the few convictions I hold, this is a pretty central one:

You can respect your customers, treat them well ? and still do good business.

I strongly believe that the way for a business to succeed in the long term is to focus on establishing and keeping alive solid, sound, healthy relationships to customers, be it the so-called “end users” or business clients. To respect their needs and wishes, to understand their goals and latent desires, and to always and unfailingly put them first. This means: To operate with a customer focus.
Of course this is difficult at times. It requires some time, some thought, and some courage. The goals set by the pursuit of shareholder value more often than not are not supportive of long-term thinking or sustainability. For example, for a hardware manufacturer, using cheaper components and not really ensuring a device is going to last more than two years is (presumably) better short-term business than investing into products that will last decades. And anyway, getting anything repaired has gotten nearly impossible: “Ending is better than mending.” Are we there yet?
The idea of short-term maximizing “shareholder value” won’t get us far. Companies are ruining their customer relationships, not investing into R&D, optimizing everything for short-term revenue, and forcing their employees to yield better and even better results. And on the way, the ones who suffer are the enterprise’s employees ? and the customers. We all are customers ? actually, come to think of it, most of the time. Working in product definition and development, we only need to look at ourselves to see where we’re crossing the line, where we’re overdoing it, where we’re not focusing on the customers’ interests. This, I feel, is the point to sit back and rethink things.

What’s all this rant got to do with user experience and design? A lot. Industrial design in Europe in the late 19th century started out as a way to allow for mass production of high-quality goods, to provide the poor masses with products of a quality so far had been reserved to higher-income people ? a fundamentally socialist idea. People hoped the customers would have have a good, rich, pleasurable customer experience. The designers and the manufacturers thought the consumers would prefer their products to others that weren’t as carefully designed, as beautiful to behold ? and right they were: Great design lead to a good customer experience, and this created good business.

Now, a hundred years later, good industrial design isn’t a USP anymore. It’s become a given. But still there are huge differences between products even if the design, the outward appearance seems to be of a comparable quality. Companies need to spend enough time to perform vital product development activities; otherwise their products get shallow and unattractive. Customers withdraw their trust and leave, and the business caves in.

This is because consumers can feel it, can sense it when someone in product development has invested some time to thoroughly think things through, taking ? sometimes difficult ? decisions, looking at a product or a problem from their perspective, struggling to comprehend the customers’ way of thinking and working. It is highly appreciated and economically rewarded if a product or service solves a customers’ problem even before they knew it existed. If the customer feels respected and understood. And if using a product or service results in or is accompanied by a good, rich, rewarding user experience.

It is my appeal to all of us to listen to the customers and to ourselves and to understand what actually enriches their lives and creates a benefit for them. If we create products that tap into these insights, that help make people’s lives easier, richer, more enjoyable, we will create good business on the way. It might be the long-term perspective. It doesn’t come cheap. It won’t give high short-term growth rates. But it will result in customer trust and loyalty, resulting in sound, sustainable, stable business.