Category Archives: UE

Mark Hurst on euroGel: (quasi-)live in Hamburg

This Monday's Hamburg User Experience Roundtable featured a special guest: Mark Hurst, founder of Creative Good (NYC-based[GP:CreativeGood]) and initiator of the Good Experience train of thought, visited us through iChat AV and gave a great and inspiring talk on good experiences, the focus of usability work, and the upcoming euroGel 06 conference (Copenhagen, Denmark[GP:Copenhagen], 1 Sept 06). It was great to finally meet him (if virtually) and to hear his enthusiasm and conviction resounding through the conversation. Even if the group here in Hamburg[GP:Tribal] seemed a bit reluctant to show a great amount of ardor (which might have to do with the North-Germany mentality :-)), he really got people hooked on the Good Experience thing. We went for a beer afterwards and people were really excited and started thinking how to make it possible to attend euroGel. I guess out of the group some three or four participants will come to Copenhagen (me, for example – I just bought a ticket ;-)).

Hamburg User Experience Roundtable â?? at least part of the group
Part of the Hamburg User Experience Roundtable

GEL (Good Experience Live) is a conference that's a bit different from other usability conferences. It's not about teaching people usability methods or exchanging the latest research results. Its approach is: make people have a good, rich, inspiring experience, make them enjoy themselves and get them thinking about what it is that is different from other, less inspiring situation, and let them carry over this feeling of richness, of enjoyment, of the good experience into their daily work. GEL has taken place annually in New York since 2003, and euroGel is the first of its kind on European soil. Mark talked a bit about why he didn't have the same "gurus" on the speaker list who appear at about every conference (Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman, Jared Spool): He said he felt it's disrespectful to bring a group of Americans to Europe to have them show the Europeans how to do good design. Furthermore, he went on saying that usability isn't an end in itself – usability is about creating a good experience which means good business. Funny how much in parallel this is to an impression some of us younger usability professionals here in Germany seem to share – that there is one group of die-hard usability people who don't design stuff but only evaluate it, and there is a second group of UX-inspired ones who see usability is just a factor facilitating a and contributing to a plesurable user experience. Personally, I guess (and hope) that in a couple of years time, the profession of "usabilty engineer" will be extinct and be replaced by a "customer experience" pro with a holistic point of view and powerful standing within the companies. But maybe that's just wishful thinking …

Mark Hurst on the video screen - bigger than live. Doesn't that look oddly familiar?
Mark on the big video screen – doesn't this look oddly familiar? 🙂

Mark's closing appeal to all of us was: collect good experiences, let them enthuse and inspire ourselves, spread the word … and make sure our usability work isn't too narrowed down to optimizing task performance 🙂

Broken UX – hrs.com wap front-end

Whenever I’m booking a hotel for travel within Germany or abroad, one of my first destinations is hrs.com – a hotel reservation website. It gives you real-time info on hotel availibility, sometimes special rates, great photos, contact information, maps and routes. Its web front-end is easy to use, and they’ve got very friendly staff on the phone as well.

Yesterday I wanted to check whether they had a wap-enabled version of their website as well. I’ve got a Palm Treo 650 smart phone (which I’m very fond of), and I entered the URI http://wap.hrs.de into its built-in web browser. I was happy to see the page started to load, but it looked nothing like a wap-optimized page – and it kept loading and loading. Somewhere around 250k, I canceled the download and tried to operate some of the controls on the page. My browser pushed an alert saying not all JavaScript had been downloaded and I should wait for the rest of the page to be there. So I reloaded the page, and another 250k later, the page just stalled.

Maybe I need to add I’m on a 5MB volume plan. Fortunately. Normally, on e.g. a Vodafone plan a 10k WAP/GPRS packet is about 19ct; my 5MB cost 5 Euros a month. If I didn’t have this volume plan, this small exercise alone would have cost me something like 10 Euros (!) – without providing any value.

I don’t give up that fast. Later the day I tried again, even succeeded in initiating a query, but I didn’t get any result (the page stalled twice). That was the point when I, despite all my previous good experiences with hrs.com, decided to try a competitive site, hotel.de. Their (non-wap-optimized page) loaded faster, provided all the necessary information and helped us book a hotel fast.

Today I sat down and wrote an email to hrs.com management, decribing what I had experienced. I’m curious what they will answer. I surely hope they’ll reconsider the whole wap frontend. Looks like a major overhaul might be necessary there.

Interactive prototyping: OpenLaszlo and Dojo Toolkit

Just recently a friend (Lars Grunewaldt) made me aware of the OpenLaszlo environment. It’s an open (and free) XML-to-DHTML / XML-to-Flash environment that comes prepackaged with a tutorial, example apps and a simple IDE. (At least) on the Mac, there’s an installer package that contains everything to be up and running in a minute.

It’s fascinating to see things in the browser coming to life. Life resizing, smooth animation, drag’n’drop, sound effects – you name it. And it’s fairly easy to create new little apps or modify the exisiting ones.

Another very cool thing is the Dojo Toolkit. It’s a set of Javascripts creating all the nice Ajax behaviors. Fascinating. And best of all: it’s all free!

So: Looks like real interactive prototyping has just come one step closer. Still need to evaluate these tools’ utility on a day-by-day basis.

I remember (just one and a half years ago) getting looked at suspiciously in a meeting with front-end developers when I requested drag-and-drop for our front-end technology (I had quite a number of reasonable use cases to strenghten my request). I wouldn’t be laughted at anymore, I guess. Finally things are getting moving.

Broken UX – Quelle.de Shopping Experience

I’m opening a new category here – “Broken UX”. It’s supposed to be similar to Mark Hurst’s great thisisbroken.com website ? describing some opportunities for organizations to just perform better. This first post deals with my (first and ? presumably ? last) shopping experience at Quelle.de.
Two weeks ago, I wanted to get a telephone for my parents. It had to be a special made (because of the perculiarities at their house), and it was not easy to find. I missed two or three auctions on eBay, then decided to go and try the standard way and just buy it.

Using one of the (in Germany) very popular least-price search engines, I was happy to find the model at a reasonable price at quelle.de. Quelle is a huge German catalog shopping with a long history and loads of satisfied customers. I had not thought about buying anything there, but then I thought, well, it won’t be much different from the other online shops I know.

The first thing that irritated me was that the least-price search engine feed obviously was out of date: While the product I wanted to buy was listed as available, on quelle.de it was sold out. So I had to go for the bigger model, higher price and nearly double the money my parents had wanted to spend on a phone. Well, I thought, better this than none. (I must add that I was under a certain time pressure – they were getting DSL, and I had to do the setup the following weekend at their house, so everything had to be there in time. It was Monday evening already.)

I put it into the shopping basked and went through the checkout process. Fairly standard procedure ? enter your name, address, etc. I kept looking for a place to enter the shipping address ? remember, I wanted the thing to be delivered to my parents’ house ? but couldn’t find it. Ok, I thought ? I’ll have to add this later, once the order has been taken.

I submitted the order and instantly got an acknowledgement email, giving me an order number and a customer ID. Interestingly enough, they said (in the email) that they couldn’t give me a final confirmation for my order. But they listed all my customer details, including a delivery address I had not entered (my standard address). So I went back to the website to have a look at the “Meine Quelle” (“my Quelle”) section, expecting to see something like the order status reflected there as well and maybe a possibility to add or change the delivery address. I was astonished to find I had to request a special “Meine Quelle” ID that would be sent to be via snail mail before I could even enter that area. I requested it and (obviously) changed some of my profile data.

I don’t like talking to customer service agents a lot. I mean, most of the time it’s just ok, most of them are rather nice and friendly, but still I prefer doing things like changing my data myself. Anyway, I got on the phone (it was 10:something pm by then) because I really wanted this delivery address to be changed. The lady I talked to was very nice, and she could look into my account, but she couldn’t see my order there. She asked me to please call again the next morning – they would be restarting their computers in an hour, maybe then the order would show up.

On Tuesday I called to learn the order still was not visible in the system. They asked me for my phone number (I seemed to have erased it from my profile) and asked me to call again that evening or the following morning. I then wrote them an email, expressing my surprise at their processes, describing the chain of events so far and asking them to add the delivery address and tell me about the expected delivery date. In case the data still wasn’t in the system, I asked them to tell me so I could maybe set up a second order or something.

The next morning (Wednesday) I called again. (The weekend was approaching rapidly.) The lady again was very nice and first of all asked me what I had ordered ? she couldn’t see anything in the system. Somehow she then said the article would arrive either Friday, Saturday or Sunday. She then proposed I could set up a second order of the same article with express delivery; that would be an extra 10 Euro, but then a delivery on Friday would be assured. I could send back the superfluous (original) article once it arrived, it would only cost me the postage. She added the delivery address for the express delivery, but then realized express delivery was not possible for that article. So I asked her to cancel the additional order again.

The next morning (Thursday) I got an email from Quelle customer service. They said the order was visible now, but they couldn’t give me a delivery date. I responded I had been given Friday to Monday as delivery dates and whether they had different information. They didn’t answer the mail but rather called the next morning, telling me (rather rudely) that they still didn’t have a delivery date but now they had two orders in the system – whether I actually wanted two telephones. That was the point when I decided it wasn’t worth it. I wrote them an email asking them to cancel my order.

They answered they were sorry I wanted to cancel my order but they couldn’t cancel it anymore as it was already being processed. The “My Quelle” order status page told me something like “No information can be given on this specific order ?” (I had been sent the credentials in the meantime). So I thought it couldn’t be helped, and let’s see what came out of it.

On Saturday I went to my parents’ and installed everything, but the telephone didn’t arrive. It did arrive, though, on Tuesday of the following week ? at my place, not my parents’. The accompanying letter was kind, telling me how much they hoped I would be satisfied with my Quelle shopping experience. I sent the parcel back the following day. (Till now, in my “Meine Quelle” payments page, the invoice hasn’t been cancelled – looks like I still owe them.)

To me, this was one of the worst shopping experiences ever. I find it especially hard to understand how a big catalog shopping house like Quelle doesn’t seem to be able to synchronize their systems and give real-time information to their customers. The “Meine Quelle” page features an outrageously bad usability, forcing you to enter article numbers to get an order delivery status and making you make lots of superfluous decisions. And it’s interesting to see they rather send out unwanted (customer-cancelled) parcels and forcing their customers to return those things than adding a final checkpoint to their inhouse delivery chain (how can it be they cannot cancel an order on Thursday when the parcel only arrives on Tuesday?).

I must say I’m extremely dissatisfied with this Quelle experience, and I wonder how they can run a business at all with processes like this. But then, maybe they haven’t made the transition yet from a paper-and-pencil catalog shopping house to an online store. They better did ? soon.

Update: What makes this experience even worse is that Quelle.de seems to just have undertaken a major redesign effort, officially resulting in a much improved user experience.

AOL Usability Newsletter: German UI blog online

I just put the AOL Usability Newsletter online – it’s my German blog for AOL-related usability topics. It’s another usability evangelist instrument I’m using to influence the organization at AOL Germany[GP:AOLDE]. Fortunately, there is a high degree of user- centeredness (or: let’s say, customer- centeredness) already in place at AOL. AOL’s earlier claim – something that could be paraphrased as ‘the Internet for the rest of us’ – is so strongly ingrained in the culture that it sometimes seems to be difficult to create more demanding, more interesting user experiences.

It’s interesting times. We’ve got a number of fascinating products in the pipeline, and internal developments are taking place all over the company. We’ve got a new CEO since last December, and he’ll mold the firm to better suit him. Of course, change is not always welcome. But we’re in a fast-paced environment, and the competition’s not easy either. So we’d better get faster. 🙂

I’m starting my AOL Usability Newsletter with an article on Web2.0 – the ubiquituous buzzword that seems to difficult to define -, and I’m planning on keeping it up and running with up-to-date topics as they come along.

Mensch und Computer 2005 – September 4-7, Linz, Austria

The annual conference “Mensch und Computer” (Man and Computer) is the most important conference for HCI topics in the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). This year’s Mensch und Computer used the tagline “Art and Science – crossing the borders in an interactive way” (“Kunst und Wissenschaft – Grenz?berschreitung der interaktiven ART”). It took place in Linz[GP:Linz] in Upper Austria from 4 to 7 September – quite agreeably in parallel to the Ars Electronica, the most renown festival for contemporary electronic art.

Like its predecessors, the M&C featured a Usability Professionals Association (UPA) track running in parallel to the “scientific” program of the conference. For most participants, this track prove the actual conference program. As for me, I took part exclusively in offerings from the UPA track (except for the invited lectures). Due to my professional move this year, totally new and different subjects were of interest to me: I’ve moved away from the technology-driven SAP[GP:SAP] with its Enterprise Software and its rather special structures to AOL[GP:AOLDE] with its more marketing-driven processes and the consumer software. Subjects such as Knowledge Management or End-User Development lost importance while reports of how to implement user-centered design processes in companies became more important, the question of how to separate work between market research and usability and similar issues. I personally found it interesting to see how much more I took part in discussions this time (compared to the last conferences). Looks like the strengthened illusion of self-efficacy plays a certain role here – the new job seems to have brough this about. The impact of the two strong brands, SAP and AOL, was interesting to see as well: Fascinating how this can influence comments and their reception.

I enjoyed talking with colleagues outside the sessions a lot. I was very happy to meet my SAP ex-colleagues again (Bettina Laugwitz, Udo Arend & Co.), but of course Svenja No? as well. As always, a very fruitful exchange took place between the two of us. And of course there was the usual crowd you meet at the conference every year: Matthias M?ller-Prove, Ralph Hinderberger, Marc Hassenzahl, Matthias Peissner, Franz Koller etc. And there are new people who should be mentioned as well: Henning Brau’s girlfriend Christine Ullmann and Svenja No?’s friend Michele Gauler.

The Ars with its extraordinary exhibits was a sight to see and discover as well. Of course not all of it is accessible to me, and lots I found rather strange, but the atmosphere, the participants’ enthusiasm was fascinating. Truly remarkable works of arts could be seen, e.g. Toshio Iwai’s Tenori-On, a new class of musical instrument belonging to a family of similarly alternative devices. Just as much I was happy to see great numbers of devices with images of a certain fruit on their clamshells. 🙂

On German vs. US Adademic HCI: Differences, Similarities, and Ways Out

Last month I was at the Mensch & Computer 2004 conference in Paderborn[GP:Paderborn]. Fortunately the conference featured a so-called UPA track with lots of good sessions, just like the M&C03 ("UPA" stands for Usability Professionals Associtation; its German Chapter has been hosting the UPA tracks). UPA track sessions target the practitioners and are (normally) held by practitioners, too. Papers are chosen by practical relevance and not by statistical validity and cited literature 🙂 For me, it's the UPA track that makes the conference worth attending.

When I attended the "Software-Ergonomie 99" conference in Walldorf[GP:SAP] (I was still a student then), I got so frustrated after two days that I started pondering whether I'd chosen the right subject of studies (HCI as specialisation within Work and Organizational Psychology). Maybe I should have chosen Industrial Design instead! The conference seemed rather dull, inclined towards theory and not up to design to me. And this contrasted heavily with the practical HCI impressions I had gathered during my studies!

A similar feeling has gotten hold of me whenever I've joined "pure" academia settings ever since. There's not much to see of practical relevance there (with some very nice exceptions such as scientists giving talks on the UPA track ;-)). Nevertheless, I need to lend a bit of a hand to the German HCI academia – the really interesting US research results either don't come from within the universities (but, for example, from Xerox PARC, T.J. Watson Research Center and similar company-owned R&D departments) or they are heavily funded by industry and government / military (MIT and others – a political question coming to my mind is: do I want to work for the military?). Moreover we shouldn't forget the proportion of software that is and has been developed in the US as compared to software being developed in Germany. All the big software companies (SAP being a great and notable exception) have their headquarters and lots of their R&D in the US, so it's no big surprise to find most of the new findings originating in the US. Furthermore it seems to be easier (or at least not as frightening ;-)) for someone in academia to change into industry and get back into university later on (which, if found here at all, is a rare exception – e.g., Prof. Siegfried Greif, Universtity of Osnabrück, left university for two years and went to work for a company as a coach and doing training and consulting – and came back and told us enthusiastically about his experiences).

How could German HCI academia get more relevant for practitioners again? My feeling is that it's lost itself in evaluating and re-evaluating stuff (creating the n-th method for assessing some metric that doesn't really have an impact on any product aspect) and looking at HCI from a wealth of angles, but none of them is design (btw: by "design" I mean: to deliberately and consciously change something, most of the time to improve it, to make it better suit the requirements). Here are a couple of proposals:

  • Co-operate with local software companies. (Nearly) every software product happens to have a user interface, and every software's got a structure that can be fitted to structure of work in real world. Sign contracts of cooperation between the universities and the software companies, let students learn how to do usability engineering and experience the software development life-cycle, let people write their diploma and master's thesis on issues of practical relevance, and teach the findings. It'll spice up your lectures.
  • Get out of the ivory tower. GOMS et al. is important, but it's just one method amongst others. You need to get your hands dirty even in university. Assessment is only half the deal. Get into designing things, gather practical experience.
  • I once met a highly-appreciated colleague who was of the opinion that psychologists are not taught to create stuff – only to analyze it (if a psychologist starts designing, s/he leaves her/his professional ground). While this may be true (and, likewise, be applicable to HCI people with a computer science background), there is no need to live up to this expectation. Don't stick with analysis – later on, the students need to be able to provide designs, too. Designs lead to new ideas, new ideas might lead to great research topics. (Nearly) no-one cares about questionnaires in practical HCI work, but everyone expects an HCI practitioner to be able to come up with a great design. And while you're teaching it, why not change yourself? (CHI2002's motto comes to my mind: "Changing the world, changing ourselves.")

So, in a nutshell: to get more relevant for HCI work, I'd suggest the German academic HCI community to not lose contact with the subject at hand – and that's both designing and evaluating the human-computer interaction. Get involved, make a difference.

(adapted from: OpenBC's forum "Internet und Technologie > Forum 'User Experience' > board 'Discuss Board' > 'German HCI', Sept 13, 2004)

CHI 2004 – April 24-29, Vienna, Austria

This April I – again – attended the world's biggest HCI conference – the CHI 2004 "Connect" conference (Computer-Human Interaction), which took place in Vienna, Austria[GP:Wien]. Two years ago, I was so lucky as to attend my first CHI in Minneapoli, Minnesota in 2002. In 2002 I came back quite disappointed; although there were lots of high-quality contributions, I couldn't really follow the discussions (which were often very much focused on tiny details and did not really have to do with Interaction Design as a craft). Moreover, I found the way people treated each other not too nice, and to me it felt strange that everyone introduced themselves with "Name, Insitution". Back then I was also disappointed by my former personal guru Don Noman – on the panel I attended he did not feel as radiant and thought-provoking as in his books. My overall impression of this year's CHI (as compared to 2002's) was: less academic stuff, more real-life application of research results.

There were fascinating panels (e.g., "Video Visions of the Future: A Critical Review" with Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini and others – Bruce alone was worth attending the panel!), challenging SIGs (special interest groups) such as Karen Holtzblatt's "Techniques for Designing Mobile Applications with Customer Data" (i.e., how to modify traditional Contextual Design methods to be useful in mobile situations), and intriguing demo sessions (e.g., "Visualizing information"). Some of the things demoed at the conference are available for download as well, e.g. MIT's "Haystack" prototype for information (contact, document, e-mail) management. I attended some very intersting stuff on mobile technology, among this an interesting panel with mobile user experience leaders (from Vodafone, Nokia, Ericsson etc.).

CHI 2004 Logo

Of course, there were some weaker points, too – e.g. the SIG on "Evaluating Interactive Information Retrieval Systems" (which was really a SIG for Information Retrieval researchers). These things didn't add up to much disappointment, though – there was so much to see, and somehow it worked out for me to find something interesting and worthwhile in nearly every slot, with hardly any conflicts of schedule. Moreover, I enjoyed meeting old acquaintances and getting to know new experts. Organization was ok, too (although the convention center building did have some issues as far as signage is concerned – you could end up running in circles). The website and the conference proceedings book left something to be desired (e.g., there were no links between abstracts and sessions, so you had to flip through the book a lot), but … the CDs are great, offering all the papers as PDFs (and some of the videos are there, too!).

One personal cause of delight as a User Experience and "Joy of Use" aficionado was: if the number of Apple PowerBooks to be sighted there were in any way predictive of the overall number of Macs in the computing world, the Mac's market share would be somewhere around 30% 🙂

Hierarchies: Categories vs. Vectors

I just updated an older (2001) article of mine on SAP Design Guild, dealing with a topic I care about: the ubiquitous hierarchies used to structure information, and why they tend to fail in lots of cases. Computers have made them so seemingly indispensable (think Windows Explorer, think Mac OS Finder, think about every application you can think of), and yet in most cases that's just because today's development tools make it so much easier for developers to create hierarchies than to implement some different, more innovative, maybe more adequate approach. From the introduction:

Human beings are limited in many ways. Beside others, one limitation lies within the amount of information they can process or hold in working memory for a time given. That’s where Miller’s famous "seven plus/minus two" rule comes from – you can only have up to nine chunks of unrelated information readily accessible in short term memory. (You’ve probably already heard people telling you, "Don’t put more than seven items on a PowerPoint slide", or "Don’t build your menu structures more than seven items wide". While it’s certainly a valid recommendation to restrict yourself and not to overload your slides, Miller’s rule has been misunderstood quite often: Miller states people have great difficulty keeping more than seven or nine unrelated elements in mind. If they try to concentrate on more, access performance decreases rapidly. This doesn’t mean you cannot work with more than nine elements – if you find a way to organize those elements or to find a relation between them, it’s easy to keep lots of items readily accessible. See Don Norman’s excellent books on this subject.)