Be Intimately Familiar with How Research Results Will Be Used

Just a short post today about what Usability guru Jakob Neilsen calls meta-usability, or the usability of usability reports. Says he,

Usability findings have to be usable themselves: we need meta-usability.”

Nielsen goes on to list 5 tips for practitioners:

  1. Be Specific
  2. Don’t Blame the User
  3. Look for the Bigger Picture
  4. Help Identify Solutions
  5. Organize & Rank Findings

These tips can be used to help practitioners, as well as those who receive reports (whether from in-house people or external consultancies). I applaud this kind of move because I’ve seen some user study reports which were a nightmare of numbers and graphics which left me wondering what the point was.


Be Specific, unlike this strangely packaged product

I have a few tips of my own to add and welcome any comments of others who have their own strategies and tricks.

Be Specific by using screen capture
I’ve found that using screen captures of the subject of a problem or recommendation does wonders. Show it instead of just talking about it. Annotate images with arrows and text superimposed over the capture as needed. This allows people to capture more of your finding(s) by looking at the (sometimes-not-so) pretty pictures.

Blaming Users is Part of the Problem
I know that I’ve sometimes written or said when presenting a report “four users could not do ____” as if it’s their fault. This facilitates the kind of thinking that leads to bad user experience in the first place by placing the burden for the experience entirely on the user and when something doesn’t work it’s a User Error (with lots of degrading ideas like PEBKAC ”Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”). If we, who champion UX and Usability, continue to couch our reports in this kind of language we only perpetuate the problems we’re hired to solve. Perhaps good for the unscrupulous consultant who talks out of both sides of her mouth on the issue, but ultimately not good for anyone.

Be Strategic & Tactical
Just as Nielsen wants us to look for the bigger picture by not trying to “add many band-aids to a design that’s really suffering from a broken leg” we need to work on a strategic level as well as the detail-oriented tactical level. This goes with hand in hand with my next tip.

Help Identify Alternatives & Strategies
Often those who must use and implement user studies aren’t totally aware of the alternative design options or strategies to achieve their goals. I often couch recommendations in language like “if you want to pursue a strategy that focuses on social I would recommend x or y approach which would include c or d tactics. If you want to pursue a sponsored traffic approach I would recommend…” This kind of text in a report could be the launching point for a workshop together with the design & engineering team in order to decide which way to instantiate a given strategy.

Be Intimately Familiar with how Results Will be Used

Lastly to add to Nielsen’s list , we need to be intimately familiar with how the product of research will/can be used. In my PhD Thesis I talk about organizational routines being a key component of communicating across organizational boundaries. This is one way to understand exactly the kinds of ways in which research results can or will be used. This may be as straight-forward as timing (when is the next sprint starting?) or as a complex political situation about UX that existed before you arrived on the scene. If our attitude is of throwing it over the fence or handing it off (a kind of Transfer) then we’ve essentially blamed the other party as user for any problems with implementation. We wouldn’t stand up for that with users, don’t do it to your colleagues/clients. Instead see how your recommendations must fit into the existing environment like a Tetris player carefully rotating and placing their pieces into the places that will result in the kinds of desired actions (a kind of Fit, which is why the main title of my thesis is “Fit Not Transfer”). This is what meta-usability is all about.


Image courtesy of Flikr/Adam Flecter under CC license.

Thoughtful, Meaningful, and Empathic

In another post I talked about UX Designers and UX Researchers. All of this talk about the spectrum that exists between research and design, but what makes a good researcher? What makes a good design?

What, for me, sets good UX design apart as an experience or sets a good UXer apart from their peers?

Being thoughtful, meaningful, and empathic seem to be the key ingredients.


Thoughtful design is like when the towel bar is easily within reach of when you step out of the shower. Someone considered what would be going on or being used and then designed it accordingly. There’s a good book on Thoughtful Interaction Design co-authored by my favorite design theorist (and friend) Erik Stolterman.

I also think that thoughtful has to do with the willingness to consider a situation before jumping to action, to consider that perhaps this time your favorite research method actually doesn’t  make sense for this particular project. This is in response to some of the discussion in my last post where it is clear that some UXers seem to just do the method without a lot of thougtfulness.

Being thoughtful is something that is easy for me as I like to think about things first and then act. That is my default approach to things. How, though can one increase how thoughtful they are and how thoughtfully they design? And of course I need to avoid the obvious problem of too much thinking and not enough and analysis paralysis. These are topics I’ll consider moving forward, but wonder what my readers think of this.


Meaning is wrapped up in semantics and as I’ve mentioned before asking “why?” or knowing the ‘why’ of the project/product leads to, or gets back to meaning. I’ve sat in design and other meetings and it becomes clear that no one in the room really knows the purpose of the project beyond some vague notion that it’s important to do. Making that clear and memorializing it for the team in the form of an artefact is important.

the semantic turn

Another shout out Klaus Krippendorf (a very nice guy btw) and his book that is all about semantics/meaning in design.

Meaning has impact int he world, it matters to someone. The best people and the best work makes a difference to the people who come into contact with them.

Another way I work with meaning in my work is building up common meaning with the people I work with. By having a common language and common meaning we can work together better, we ‘get’ each other. This is important to communication (as in boundary communication).


Empathy is perhaps the basis for all good UX work. Empathy is related to the ability to take the perspective of another person. Empathic design is a particular kind user centered design and as you can guess it’s based on empathy. There’s a good Harvard Business Review article (pdf) on it, as well as a few more academic articles (one by some friends of mine and one from my lab at TUDelft).

Perspective taking is, according to some, what makes us able to function in society, and is an important part of my PhD thesis. Empathy is, for typical people, wired into us (read Wired to Care).

A good friend of mine, Matt Snyder (who is, incidentally in the middle of the spectrum, a good researcher but has pixel perfect design skills thanks to his graphic arts background) wrote a good post about empathy recently. He has three things he and his team learned after a design day out of the office: 1, there is always a person on the other side of your work; 2, solving real problems means getting your hands dirty; 3, love what you do.

Empathy is a key part of what I do. Wanting to know what it’s like for someone to do something as mundane as get to work and log into their computer and how they feel about it is the kind of thing that drives me. I want to know how all those little pieces fit together in someone’s life.

I think one can increase empathy by considering others as themselves (golden rule anyone?) and of course User Centered Design is just one form of applied empathy.

Keep users fresh, keep interaction costs low

As my friends and readers will know I’m job hunting for my next adventure. Recently I said this on twitter:

There are some good examples, like Jobvite, and certainly I’ve noticed some employers use LinkedIn as a way to directly apply for jobs.  Some places allow you to import your details from your LinkedIn profile, but then go on and on with 5-10 more pages of information or it imports the information rather imperfectly and I end up spending 30 minutes to complete and correct it all. Other places like Indeed allow you to build up a resume (here’s mine) and then you can use that to directly apply to jobs of the employers who use their service directly.

This goes to the idea of interaction cost. Certainly not a new idea, though Jakob Nielsen recently wrote about it again with a detailed example of a mobile app. The basic idea is that each bit of action or thinking that a user has to do has a cost and they are cumulative. As I go through a job application if it’s a large company they use one of several older systems that go through all kinds of questions that include gender and race if it’s a US company. One even wanted me to include my social security number. Not only do they ask all kinds of information that they don’t need (YET) it’s tiresome. Let them ask for that information once they think they want to hire someone. If you want to run a background check and pull my credit history, by all means do so, but you don’t need all that information until a much later stage in the process.

I’ve been on projects where various stakeholders want to add little things to various pages, especially a home page or primary landing page within a site. I, and other UX people, almost always urge them to do away with such extra steps, distractions, and such because they don’t serve users. When we think about interaction costs it gives a clear, cogent way of talking about such situations. Sure that little feature, that little distraction, that splash screen don’t take all that much time or mental effort, but it all adds up. It can add up to abandonment and fewer conversions, especially if the task or interaction is long or detailed.

So keep users fresh by keeping the interaction cost low.
As I’ve said before, RESIST temptations to add unneeded complication to others’ lives, whether it is to users, job applicants, or fellow employees.


Update: I spoke with another friend and he said that “Jobvite is awful from the other side” which is a terrible shame given its excellent UX on the applicant side.

Why you need to know about activity bias and keep on doing qualitative studies

After my last post about why design for experience I read one of Jakob Nielsen‘s most recent alertbox articles on activity bias. Any UX or CX professional reading this who has not yet read that article should go RIGHT now. Nielsen goes so far as to say that activity bias as important to user experience as information foraging and information scent theory, which is a pretty big deal. So go read it, but the summary he gives of the article is this:

Summary: Dramatic differences in how much people use the web on different days can distort simplistic interpretations of site analytics.

In other words if people use the web a lot one day that may have much more of an influence on if they visit and how long they stay on your site than any other factor in your design, usability, or marketing.

numbers blur

Our predilection for numbers can blur how we see things.

This has a number of far-reaching implications, but the first is evidence once again that we, as designers and UX or CX professionals don’t have nearly so much control as we sometimes think we do. We think we understand the clickthrough and conversion yields on our online ad campaigns, but the studies Nielsen discusses show that branded search ads may seem effective but, by and large they are not, especially for those who have visited or bought from a site before.

This is a call for the continuation of qualitative studies to understand more about ‘the why’ of people’s behavior. YES we need analytics and behavioral data, this is a required ingredient in good user-centered design, but it will not tell us everything and often lead to unneeded risks. If you’ve ever heard of Simon Sinek or seen his Tedx talk, you know he’s the the “Start with Why“ guy. Starting with why means that we start working from a semantic perspective, that of meaning.

We can make the experiences we design meaningful if we know why we are doing them and base all our decisions on that reason, that ‘why.’ Analytics can and will guide us to some extent, but we need to know our own ‘why’ as an organization, for that project, and of course for our users. It’s all about balancing those reasons, those things that are meaningful for each party.

So get out there and make sure you continue to keep regular ongoing qualitative studies going that get down to why people are doing what they are doing.


Image courtesy of flikr/davebleasedale generously shared under CC license. 




Why Design For Experience?

Some years ago I wrote about experience design versus designing for experience. Since this is the title of my site it’s worth revisiting this subject.

UX design or experience design is something we talk a lot about these days, though of course the buzzwords will certainly change.

In all the rush to hire UX designers it’s easy to think that we can design a user experience, in one stroke granting the designer god-like powers making people experience something we’ve designed. Hello technological determinism, it’s been a while.

All kinds of control here :) Courtesy flikr/cliff1066

All kinds of control here :) Courtesy flikr/cliff1066

We must realize as designers, as companies, and as individuals we cannot totally control the experience of another, no matter how excellent our skills at our craft. Control is located inside each person for their own experience. In other words the locus of control is with the user. We can design for or architect an experience. The living, the experiencing of it is up to the user themselves. Each person brings their own set of memories and present cares and concerns to the experience. Recognizing the inherent human dignity, the respect for other’s will is important in our work.

Hence something as moving as one of my favorite movies, Gattaca, which is excellently crafted and designed can produce any number of difference experiences. Just as that banking mobile app saying you just made $15,000 in you portfolio that is both beautiful and easy to use may not produce a good experience for every user. Most users may be delighted and esteem the brand that made the app even more than before, while others may have a terrible experience because that $15,000 is the life insurance payment for a recently deceased loved one. We as UX professionals cannot control the universe, despite our best efforts sometimes ;) .

We can however design FOR experiences. This is one part understanding the user, one part technical savvy, one part business acumen, all flavored importantly with what one could call faith or hope. Yes designing for an experience is a hopeful thing, it is not control, but the hope based on good solid science and engineering to bring about something that is useful and aesthetic and possibly even delightful. It may even be meaningful.