You don’t know me – Why user interviews matter


At USAGE, one of our favorite things to do, when doing UX evaluations, is to talk to actual users. But it wasn’t so long ago, in a land pretty much where we’re sitting right now, that considered user interviews around website usage inconceivable.

Them: ‘Our website users don’t want to talk to us about how they’re using the website! That’s crazy! Just make the website pop!

Us: “Umm… Ok.

Sigh… how many times have we heard that… Isn’t it great that times have changed and folks now understand the value of talking to your users; in fact a whole industry is growing around the idea. Excellent!

UX is growing and we’re excited to be part of it. Generally, we focus on the user experience of human-computer interaction, but as time goes on our user relationship with all manners of product and service is being scrutinized, evaluated and reconsidered. User interviews are a really great way to get to the core issues of their usage, but, as Jakob Nielsen, the Father of Usability states:

“What users say and what they do are different…”

It’s true that what users say and what they do are different, but it’s still one of the best ways to get into the mind of the user.

Admittedly, user interviews are more art than science and this is one of the reasons that some folks like them, while other folks would prefer to use moderated and unmoderated remote user testing, or some other form of quantitative testing — the classic qualitive (user interviews) vs. quantitive (A/B testing) research dilemma. At USAGE, we prefer both and take a mixed-method approach. The science is nice, but it’s kind of cold, we prefer the warmth of human interaction; this approach creates checks & balances that gives a space for the quantitative information but allows it to be tempered by qualitative information.

If you haven’t done a lot of user interviews they can be tricky to get off the ground, but Charles Liu gives some great pointers in his article Never Ask What they Want – 3 Better Questions to Ask In User Interviews, where he suggests these three questions:

  • What are you trying to get done? (Gather context)
  • How do you currently do this? (Analyze workflow)
  • What could be better about how you do this? (Find opportunities)

These are great questions to get the conversation flowing. You are quickly able to determine what a user’s expectations are around how something works, but also how they’d like it work. As the user talks about their experiences, you get an insight into their world and you’re able to get a feel for what it’s like to walk in their shoes. In our experience this is the best possible way to get to know your users. While a mixed approach is necessary and pros & cons abound, there’s no substitute for getting to know your users and having that one on one relationship with them.

User-centered design hugs you back




(Snazzy graphic courtesy of Daniel Kim)

We’ve talked a bit about user experience, so far, specifically with the 10 promises of user experience design, but at the core of UX is the dedication to the philosophy of User-Centered Design (UCD), and that’s the key ingredient to getting UX off the ground at most organizations.

UCD at a high level is an ongoing, iterative process that requires planning, research, design, adaptation and measurement, basically on an infinite loop throughout the life of a product or service. I won’t even say that an organization needs to be dedicated to it operationally, let alone have an operationally-mature UCD practice in place, but embracing the philosophy is the starting point.

But… wait… Actually, before I go any further, I’m getting ahead of myself and need to step back…

Embracing the philosophy of UCD is important for one specific kind of organization, a type of organization that falls into what Paul Boag called in his excellent book, Digital Adaptation, the “pre-web” organization. The pre-web organization is what we’re most familiar with at USAGE, that’s because “post-web” organizations were born thinking web and mobile-first; UCD is built into the fabric of these organizations, so there’s little we can say about them for this article. Instead, we’ll focus on the pre-web organization, as there are many lifetimes of work to be done there.

These pre-web organizations, very slowly, are getting the joke: A great user experience pays. Disney taught us this, Apple taught us this, Zappos taught us this and so, organically, organizations have learned to adopt this themselves. Adoption is hard, because adoption means a user-centric perspective. Coca Cola didn’t ask people what kinds of ingredients people wanted, they gave them what they were selling, but learned a valuable lesson with New Coke. Henry Ford introduced nearly a dozen models of cars, before the Model T, the others were too expensive for the average person… While they might not have started off being user-centric, their success would depend on this critical pivot.

As I write this, though, I’m reminded of the Nielsen Norman Group article, “UX Without User Research Is Not UX, specifically, the area of the article called “Paying UX Lip Service”. This line really says a lot about current state of UX at most organizations. Folks can talk about it, praise it, even evangelize for it but the actual work of organizational UX is no small undertaking and poses unique challenges. Fortunately, that’s where we at USAGE can help.

The first step for any organization is spreading the idea of a user-centered design approach. At a recent O’Reilly Design Conference, Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer at 3M pointed out an equation that really underscored, in a quite manageable way, what’s required to begin changing an organization: “The square root of employees is the number of ambassadors you need for transformation.” So with math not being one of my strong suits I went to work finding a square root calculator to figure out if his anecdote matched my experience, and sure enough it did, it matched our experience at USAGE exactly. So, for example, a company with a thousand employees would need roughly 32 ambassadors to advocate for transformation.

When we work with any organization we immediately go to work figuring out what the feeling is around the idea of a user-centered design approach or how knowledgeable an organization is about UCD or even just researching their users. Most organizations like the idea, after all what’s not to like about getting to know your users and then giving them what they want. Beyond the heady terminology a user-centered approach is really just taking care of your users. Designing something for your users without their involvement is like hugging somebody who doesn’t want to be hugged, user-centered design hugs you back.

The 10 promises of user experience design


This article began with me referencing a variety of sites and other articles about user experience. I began borrowing ideas that I was going to attribute here, but as I did this, I realized that none of what I found, for me, truly captured the feelings we have at USAGE where user experience is concerned. Much has been written about UX, there’s the oft-referenced Nielsen Norman Group site, and their articles about UX, I also found a great Slideshare presentation that framed Walt Disney as the first UX designer by @josephdickerson a UX Lead at Microsoft, as well as dozens of “commandments” and rules regarding UX, but when I finally put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, as it were, I just didn’t feel like any of those truly captured the promises of UX the way that we view them here at USAGE. So, here goes — The 10 Promises of User Experience design:

1.) Know your users
Knowing your users is rule numero uno for a reason. If you don’t know your users from user interviews, personas, testing, etc… then you’re shooting in the dark. You have to cater the user experience to their usage and their needs.

2.) Focus on your users needs
Focusing on the user needs is the primary thing that one gets out of user and usage research. Understand the user, what they want, how they’re trying to accomplish tasks and what might make their lives a little easier and build that into the design.

3.) Design for the user
Like a series of building blocks, you can’t design for the user if you don’t know your users and their needs. When you know who your users are and what they need, designing for them is a cinch. Also, when you know you’re designing something that will help and serve your users it’s also very satisfying work, but that’s just a sweet little bonus!

4.) Make it seamless
So, you know your users, you know their needs and you’ve got a design that pretty much nails it on all accounts… at least until you’re given some third-party tool that must be integrated, can’t be customized and sticks out like a sore thumb. You have to make the experience as seamless as possible. You’ll note that the title of this bullet isn’t make it absolutely seamless, because that’s impossible, and, anyway, relative… the definition of seamless resides in intention… When you’re working on the user experience, put simply, you do the best you can… and that’s not always perfect.

5.) Set user expectations early on and maintain them consistently
There are many things that you can’t control, but if you set expectations early and do this consistently you can establish a positive user experience. Again, nothing’s perfect, but there are ways that allude to perfection even if you’re not able to achieve it absolutely.

6.) Don’t make users work to figure things out
This one is an allusion to the very first book we here at USAGE read on Usability, Steve Krug’s classic Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. The title of that book pretty much says it all, but I’ve added a bit of specificity to it. If something is designed well then your users won’t have to figure it out and there won’t be much of a learning curve. This could really be part of the next bullet about instructions.

7.) Keep instructions to a minimum
We here at USAGE don’t like designs that require instructions, whether it be a website, a mobile app, or IKEA furniture… Life is short, time is at a premium, we have to do the heavy lifting for users and get the design to a place where they can walk up and do what they need to do. Specifically, as human-computer interaction increases its those products that do this in the first release that will rise to the top.

8.) Measure, Test and Refine
How do you get your product to be highly usable by the first release, well, that’s where measurement, testing and refinements come in. Whether you’re in a pre-launch phase or have a website or app that’s been out there a while, you have to be measuring, testing and refining based on that research. In fact, this brings to mind one of our favorite quotes from W. Edwards Deming, the father of quality management who said: “You can’t manage, what you can’t measure.” Measurement is a key to success and testing is just another form measurement. Take all of this and use it to make refinements.

9.) Know what you’re good at and focus on that
Knowing what you’re good at when considering user experience might seem a little counter-intuitive, because of course, you want to serve your users, but just like McDonald’s doesn’t make cars, and Ford doesn’t make hamburgers, don’t try to be something you’re not. Do what you do well and hire out the rest to folks that do it better.This probably fits somewhere within creating a seamless experience, but we felt it was important enough to stand on its own. Play to your strengths.

10.) UX is iterative – Repeat steps 1-9
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. User experience design is iterative; it doesn’t end. It continues on and on for the life of a product or service. Repeat these steps and you’ll be fulfilling the promises of experience design and you’ll always be doing your best to ensure that you’re creating the best possible experience for your users. After all, perfection may be elusive, but making something better is well within reach.

What the heck is web usability, anyway?

Without Jakob Nielsen’s pioneering work on usability and his undying passion for it, USAGE might not even be around, today. Ok. Probably, we wouldn’t be around at all. So, it makes sense to us that our first blog post on the brand, spankin’ new USAGE website be dedicated to Jakob Nielsen’s thoughts on usability and usability heuristics.

In Jessica Miller’s excellent post, How Jakob Nielsen Changed the Face of Usability from the Usability Lab website she notes, quite aptly, that:

“Chris Kringle is the father of Christmas,
Abner Doubleday is the father of Baseball,
Enzo Ferrari is the father of the Supercar.
Jakob Nielsen is the father of Usability.”

It’s true, and it’s pretty much that simple. Jakob Nielsen graduated with a degree in human-computer interaction in the early 1980s, a time very different from now with regard to said human-computer interaction. Personal computers existed, but really this was the period of the mainframe supercomputers that took up entire floors of massive facilities, a fact that makes Nielsen’s ability to forecast what was to come quite exceptional, even if that vision is overshadowed by so much of his other pioneering work; particularly the work he’s done with his Nielsen Norman Group, where they’ve, almost, single-handedly evangelized and spread the gospel of usability and user experience in the age of personal computing, so it’s with that that we dig into one of our favorite areas, the definition of usability and usability heuristics, or as Jakob Nielsen put it, “broad rules of thumb”… rather than specific usability guidelines…

Jakob Nielsen defines the 5 components of usability, thusly:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

He goes further to talk about those ‘broad rules of thumb,’ or the usability heuristics, as:

Visibility of system status
The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.

Match between system and the real world
The system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.

Consistency and standards
Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing.

Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Recognition rather than recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

Flexibility and efficiency of use
Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.

Aesthetic and minimalist design
Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.

Help and documentation
Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.

These 5 components of usability and these 10 usability heuristics create the bedrock for what we do here at USAGE and how we evaluate the sites that we work on. This is high level, of course, and there are many considerations when considering various platforms and how user-friendly something is, along with many other specific considerations, but at the core of it Jakob Nielsen’s work is a fundamental ingredient in the secret sauce here at USAGE; it’s this knowledge that we’ve used with customer’s around Lansing, Michigan and throughout the world for over 15 years.