Category Archives: Business Ethics

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.

Broken UX^2: Microsoft announces security product OneCare

As some of you might know, I’m not too fond of Microsoft products or their business demeanor. So maybe please excuse my little rant on the Redmond company ? It’s funny how they’ve been getting away with shipping product after product that features bugs, usability glitches, and plain oversights. But well, there’s the old IT saying that nobody gets fired for recommending Microsoft products.

What I don’t like about Microsoft either is their business ethics ? or lack thereof. It’s been a clever move to first not really doing anything against people pirating copies of the Windows installation CDs and to wait until nearly everybody’s computer ran on one or the other flavor of Windows and then start bringing in the crop through their challenge-and-response mechanism. All of a sudden, now that you had all the Windows-compatible infrastructure in place, you were forced to go and buy a lincense for the OS. Basically, it’s like making someone take a drug by giving some away and then, once they’re addicted, to take outrageous prices. (I’m not advocating pricacy here?I’ve got licences for all my software on all my computers, thank you very much?but for lots of people, at least here in Germany, software is something you get from your neighbor and you definitely don’t need to pay for.)
The latest move in this bad game is the introduction of Microsoft OneCare. As c|net reported on May 30,

OneCare combines antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software with backup features and several tune-up tools for Windows PCs. The product went on sale in the U.S. online and in stores Wednesday. Microsoft said it plans to expand to international markets in the coming 12 months.

? snip ?

OneCare will cost $49.95 a year for use on up to three PCs in a home, a competitive price compared with rival products from traditional security vendors including Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro. Many retailers plan to offer rebates and other types of promotions that will discount OneCare, Microsoft said in a statement.

? snip ?

Industry analysts have said that businesses may be hard-pressed to buy security products from Microsoft?maker of the software that needs protection. On the consumer front, however, Microsoft brings a well-established and largely trusted brand into the market, these analysts have added.

? snip ?

OneCare is aimed at consumers. Microsoft is also eyeing the enterprise security market. It is working on a new Client Protection product to defend business desktops, laptops and file servers against malicious code attacks. A public beta of Client Protection is slated for release in the third quarter.

I mean, come on people! This is outrageous! Isn’t Microsoft the company that’s responsible for the need for security protection in the first place? Is it not them who ship a so-called OS that’s one big security problem in itself? Are they not getting paid for an actually defunct product? And now they’re charging customers to protect themselves from problems that wouldn’t have arisen if Microsoft had done their job properly in the first place? This should be a free update ? just a security fix, together with a big apology to all the customers out there in daily fear of data loss and virus infection.

I don’t expect companies to give business ethics the highest priority. But this is about how you treat your customers. This is about respect and credibility. It’s also a history about greed and impertinence on behalf of a company that’s making so much money it can’t actually handle it.

This is such a broken UX, it’s got the special tagline “Broken UX^2”.

On Eye Tracking – an overvalued technique

Recently our Hamburg User Experience Roundtable took place at the offices of the local market research and usability evaluation institute, SirValUse. Our hosts were happy to give an impressive and well-founded talk on one of the techniques they’re using – eye tracking (you can download the slides here – sorry, they are in German). As most of you will know, eye tracking is a technique used to track a subject’s focal point on a given visual stimulus.

It is assumed (and highly probable) that the focal area is also the area of (visual) attention and that properties of the stimulus in the focal areas are perceived, cognitively processed, and more or less consciously interpreted. When the focal areas are plotted over time, so called “heat maps” can be created that give insight on which areas on the stimulus seem to attract the users’ attention and thus are processed best. Now comes the interesting part: It is also assumed that the more attention an area gets, the higher the probability that the user sees, understands and acts upon a given property of the stimulus. So, for a screen design, if a given function is placed in a presumably hot area and that area stays hot during the re-test, everybody is happy.

This is something I don’t understand. For me, there is no direct connection between eye tracking (i.e., visual attention) and user action. Attention in itself is free of value, it is neither positive nor negative. The processing and the interpretation are the important things about stimuli. The fact that users see something doesn’t mean they will click on this thing, perform their tasks faster, or enjoy a better user experience. True, eye tracking can be used to see whether a given ad diverts the users from the content, or whether a certain link is in an area that’s likely to be scanned at all. But on the whole, visual attention just provides the data necessary for a user to decide on further activity. Thus, for me, eye tracking is a technique that can be used to maybe support a usability test or an expert review, but it’s not a usability evaluation method in itself – it’s great for research, and the result should be collected and made available in big books on human perception (just recently, Jakob Nielsen published a new eye tracking-based study in his Alertbox that is basically this kind of fundamental research). My colleague and friend Frank Ollermann, University of Osnabrueck, supports this point:

Basically this is about objectively assessing visual attention. No other technique can assess visual attention in such a timely accurate manner as error-free as eye tracking (provided the research design is sound). That’s what makes eye tracking so valuable for basic research, though less for usability evaluation – as it only provides indirect information on usability. Most information on usability can be assessed with other, less extensive techniques. For example for web design most of the time you’ll just find out whether a given element has been seen or not. (…) The question is whether this information could not have been gotten by easier, e.g. through an interview. In lots of cases the client insist on eye tracking because it’s ‘sexy’ and because you can impress other clients or the organization executing the project. So, I’d say: eye tracking is an indispensable technique, but it’s not, however, indispensable in the area of usability evaluation (personal communication, May 9, 2006).

The funny thing is that lots of researchers and practitioners know this fact. But few people say so. There is big money in eye tracking, and the heat maps are great for senior management presentations. I think that’s the biggest reason eye tracking is the latest hype in the usability field.