Archives For User Experience

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Whatsapp has successfully capitalized on the messaging market by changing some old habits around SMS and chat applications.  Slack now is attempting to do the same with email.  In a way, we could look at Facebook and say it is just one giant mailing list after all!  And yet, when we talk to the users, they find their experiences with Facebook or Whatsapp to be “different”.  One of my friends the other day argued that sending something on Whatsapp is a lot easier than sending something over SMS.  When we parse this step for step, it only saves steps when the messages are to a group, since Whatsapp has a persistent notion of groups. When pushed to explain, my friend was unable to really say why.  I’m sure all of us have found that sharing a photo to Facebook is a lot easier than sharing it over email.  Once again, quantifying this is hard.

I have recently become a Slack user and I find it significantly easier than email threads.  It’s still early days to draw conclusions on this, but so far, it seems to be simplifying my collaborations.  One could argue that conceptually, it is not really all that different from discussion boards or forums or even email threads at the core of it.

So, why are these new world apps doing so fantastically well on age old problems?  It is really important to understand the difference between creating products that have “differences” from existing products and creating those that are just…, well, “different“! In fact, you need the perception of being different!

In his book, “Hooked”, Nir Eyal states that one way of creating successful products and changing people’s old habits is by taking a problem, creating a solution and then taking away steps from it until you are left with just the bare minimum steps to solve the problem.  Let’s take the case of sharing a status over Facebook, for example.  You are able to write something and post it – there is no need to select a mailing list or a group to share stuff with, let alone handle the creation and management of such aspects.  A select few will whine about how they don’t want the entire world (which seems to be roughly equivalent to the set of friends we have on Facebook these days) to know about their status.  In reality though, algorithms and the users have been getting smarter at this – algorithms figure out how to bring you the key updates of relevance to you and the users are getting better at tuning out what they don’t really want to see.  It is really the same thing that Whatsapp has done with messaging.

The lesson here is very simple and yet hard to do – revolutionary products do not always need green field problems.  Revolution in products can simply be about taking an existing problem and approaching it from a user centric perspective.  Building products with incremental differences, especially in a field where some habits have been established, is not going to be useful.  However, showing that your product is different (in a simpler way!), even if it were only in a single (but important) dimension, could make all the difference!

Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!

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Do I belong to a minority in that I often find myself in situations where I cannot quite watch a video, but am looking to catch up on something?  With content increasingly migrating to video online, this is proving to be a hindrance to me.  There are many situations – I’m on public transport or trying to put my kids to bed – when I have the time to catch up on something, but cannot quite watch a video.  Are we always expected to have access to headphones and be ready to consume video/audio?

Surely, interactive content can be more engaging.  But, if you are anything like me, you have no special “catching up” or “recreational” time.  This is time that comes out of multi tasking – when I’m doing something else as my primary task and decide to catch up on news or other content as a secondary activity.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never catch up.  But, this also means that more often than not, I’m looking for written content.  Something I can switch tasks with more easily.  Something that is unobtrusive to my environments, whatever I may be doing.

I must also admit that I find some videos excruciatingly slow in terms of “getting to the point”.  Print allows me to scan and find the most relevant things at my own pace, which I cannot do with video – I am stuck to the pace of the speaker or the content progression, which I usually find slows me down.

There are obviously exceptions to this, where a video on a topic may in fact be the quickest way to consume the content.  Of course, the preference of video vs print is also likely to vary across individuals and I’m sure there are many people who prefer consuming video.

But, my rule of thumb is this – if you need to take more than 30 seconds of my time, give me the text version and let me do it at my pace.

I wonder if automatic transcription of video/audio into text is the next thing that must happen at scale to handle this.  Know the user’s situation and render content in the right medium!

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I’m a fan of LinkedIn.  I have watched that business grow and what they’ve accomplished is nothing short of amazing.  When they first came out, you thought “hmmm.. online resumes, cool!”.  Now it is the place for anything remotely related to professional activities.  It is where employers go to find potential candidates, entrepreneurs connect with each other, people increasingly go to get anything about their professional lives – from news about other professionals to general water-cooler-discussion-worthy news.

I often use LinkedIn as an example for how to successfully introduce the user to simple functionality and add functionality in bite sizes.  Once users get used to what they have, they’ve slowly and steadily added other things and educated the user on how to use new functionality.  It has worked rather well – okay, they’ve had to roll back on some stuff and double down on some other stuff.  They’ve had their own series of features they’ve phased out (the answer forum or publisher pages come to mind from recent days).  But, let’s talk about what appears to have worked out.

First you put your resume on LinkedIn.  Next, you connected with people you know.  Then you got introduced to people you want to know.  LinkedIn introduced jobs and subscriptions and got stronger ties between recruiters and possible candidates.  You got your next job because someone on LinkedIn saw your profile and contacted you.  LinkedIn pushed the privacy limits with public profiles and got you more visibility.  You got to see who’s interested in your profiles and it got addictive.  Recommendations were introduced to fuel professional introductions.  Fast forward to the current state and we now have endorsements, where we can proactively certify someone to be knowledgeable in something.  Here is an interesting visual history of LinkedIn.  This is all great – 225 million users in 200 countries is worth talking about!

LinkedIn has made it into my frequently visited sites and it is almost the only network, where I choose to receive updates on my primary email address.  By comparison, my Facebook, Twitter and other network emails go to an address I almost never check – I don’t get those emails on my phone and I rarely ever login to those accounts even on a laptop.  I go to them when I feel like it – at a pace that I feel is sufficient to keep up.

Lately, LinkedIn has been pushing its luck a bit too far.  First, the number of emails I get from LinkedIn has exploded.  I started having filters, but thanks to GMail’s new “social” classification, my Inbox is back to being sane!

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But, more importantly, I’m bothered by the amount of real estate that LinkedIn thinks I should get on my screen for something I’m explicitly looking for.  The screenshot above probably explains itself.  I think LinkedIn endorsements is a great idea.  It is not mature right now and in order for this feature to bring value to employers, it has ways to go.  But, it is definitely in the right direction.  That said though, does it have to be in my face every time I try to look up someone’s profile?

That screenshot is the profile page of someone I pulled up – when it comes up, the actual information I sought has the least real estate on that screen!  Seriously?  Between endorsements, ads and other recommendations that LinkedIn wants to throw at me, the profile I actively sought out gets a fourth or less of the available real estate! Thankfully, it doesn’t do that on the phone yet – but, where is this going?

I find this extremely annoying and if this continues, pretty soon, I’ll be looking up less people on their site.  I’m very curious to know if data points to this strategy being useful in terms of user experience as well as user actions (do more users provide endorsements because it’s in the face like this?).

This is the age of continuous experimentation.  But, I wonder, just how much it is okay to push the users?  I think there is a point in user acquisition where the barrier to entry for a new comer as well as the cost of quitting for the user are both rather high.  And for the most part, this is what brings complacence to LinkedIn or Facebook or anyone else in that state.

But, I’d have to imagine that user experience is still the top priority for these companies.  So, I have to believe that either data points to these abominations still producing good user experiences or that the metrics by which user experience is measured are all messed up.  But, more on that later.  For now, I’m not really sure how long I will still visit LinkedIn “frequently”.  My use of Pulse (now part of LinkedIn) rapidly declined after they shoved the Highlight feature on me, forcing me to highlight every time I wanted to share something.  My tolerance for such unwanted stuff is low – especially when the service isn’t indispensable to me… So, I guess we’ll see if I do really feel LinkedIn is indispensable!

Design By Experimentation

September 3, 2013 — 3 Comments

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If you are remotely interested in design or building products in general, I’d recommend reading Dan McKinley’s slides or listening to his talk.  He discusses Etsy’s experimentation on the infinite scroll and search re-design features and the results are insightful.  “Bite off design changes in small chunks” is probably not an epiphany for many people, but, the slides walk through the pitfalls of blindly using ourselves as representative users or the perils of a massive redesign without checkpoints.

On Infinite Scroll

I wrote about how infinite scroll is not for everything before.  Turns out Etsy discovered exactly this.  Adding infinite scrolling to search results is like telling the user you will never be done with this task.  A task is only appealing if there is the possibility that in reasonable time, the user can make a dent on it.  Infinite scrolling leaves us feeling exhausted.  Another thing that infinite scrolling on search results tell you is that we gave you everything as we couldn’t figure out what’s best for your query.  It really does not build confidence in the technology.

Dan and this article more or less state the reason for infinite scroll not working in this scenario as unknown.  But, the basic human nature of taking on tasks we can complete seems to be the most fundamental explanation to me.

So, why did Pinterest succeed where Etsy didn’t on this feature?  The goals are somewhat different in each case.  Pinterest is primarily interested in engaging the user with interesting content that will keep the user on the site or app.  Or, simply put, it is a leisure activity.  One that can be addictive and turn into something more time consuming – nevertheless, it is still aimed at being a leisure activity (until other goals are apparent, this is true to the observer).  Here, the user is sitting back browsing through no one particular thing, just catching up with one of their many “social” activities.  Etsy surely also wants to serve the user lots of engaging content – but, they want the users to engage in particular ways that result in more sales at the end of the day.  Especially when the user is actively searching, navigating a never ending set of items is exhausting!

I wrote about Pulse’s change to infinite loading in my earlier article – knowing that I’m never done catching up with news is overwhelming (at the risk of considering myself a representative user).  Search results with an intent to purchase are similar – we want to feel like we are buying the best we can find – and we can never feel that we found the best when served an unending series of products (how would I know without looking at everything?)!

I realize that the savvy ones can set filters and sort by various parameters in a nested fashion to find the things they want.  But the average user doesn’t do that. So, serving the best content and personalizing that for the user is much more of a value add than just adding more items.

The Etsy experiment, while showing interesting data, also appears to be not so well grounded in early analysis to me.  Strictly based on the material I saw, it appears that there was not much of an effort to understand the purpose and advantages of the infinite scrolling feature.  If there was, then potentially there wasn’t a good attempt at matching it to their own needs.  Perhaps there was analysis prior to the experimentation – such hypotheses are exactly what A/B testing is for!  But, in this specific case, the misfit is somewhat obvious in my books at least.

So, I’d revise the design by experimentation just a little:

  • Understand the typical use of the feature you are attempting to add (and its general effect on your type of users)
  • Understand your needs (and write them down)
  • If there is a match, design, develop, measure and iterate in incremental chunks towards a bigger vision

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I wrote about the undesirable shifting UIs earlier. Here is an alternate perspective on such UIs. There are times when a shifting UI has a purpose.  When it does, it takes away the attention of the user to a new menu or a popup for a reason.  The user was meant to be looking at the changed UI and it may even be relevant to the user.

News sites often do this type of animation.  As the reader reaches the end of an article, they would show a peek into the next article.  That is a highly relevant distraction – one that is worthy of the user’s attention.

So, there is a place for these transient UI elements.  It is not all bad or all good – the key is, as long as the UI matches the intent of the user or an action that is a natural step for the user, even popups can be good.  Random shifts that distract the user from what they want to look at are not cool!

As I’ve admitted before, my design skills are self-taught and often acquired by just looking carefully at the design elements of some of the best apps that are out there.  One thing that has been bothering me lately is the intuition behind shifting UI elements – or the fact that I don’t get it.  Take the new G+ layout, for instance.  Here is a view of the G+ layout while scrolling down:

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The first one is the default view upon visiting the G+ site and the second is the view upon scrolling down a bit.  I’ve been thinking about what bugs me there and realized it is the shift in UI elements that occur.  A couple of things happen there – the home icon gets replaced by the G+ symbol (but they both do exactly the same thing!); and the notifications indicator moves from the top area to the bar below.  Both these need not actually shift at all – for e.g., the default look of that bar can be that of the second image above.  When this kind of a shift happens while scrolling, it gives the illusion that something has changed and draws attention to the shifting element.  When the user realizes that nothing has changed, it is quite annoying.  It just shifted my attention to an element for no apparent reason, causing me to lose my focus on whatever I was looking at earlier!

I take the example of the web interface here, but the same is true on the mobile.  In fact, it is more pronounced there.  Some apps bring up certain UI elements only while scrolling up or down and it is quite distracting.  Scrolling up on the G+ Android app brings up a bottom bar:

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What is it about scrolling up that suggests a user intent of wanting to do any of those four actions in the bottom bar?

I’m not trying to pick on G+ here – there are other apps that do this as well.  Pulse did this for a while where scrolling up would bring up options to share a post.

When such appearances of UI elements are tied to specific actions (such as scrolling in a particular direction) that are not necessarily indicative of associated user intents, it is confusing and distracting.

UI elements, down to every last detail, must be carefully thought out.  Especially on the mobile screen, where such shifts have a high impact on user attention, it is crucial that we debate the details of the design to every last bit.

It is possible I don’t get the idea behind these shifting UI elements and I’m missing the point.  As a user though, I have found them pretty distracting and annoying.  And putting on my self-taught designer hat, I cannot seem to be able to justify the shifts.  I’d be much more forgiving of a shift that is intuitive – where it ties to something that in fact, is channeling a user intent.  However, in the cases I’ve seen so far, it appears to be promoting the important elements of the app, using scroll direction as an excuse to do so!

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I’m not new to iOS itself – I was an early iPad user, just like many millions of people.  But, I’ve always had an Android phone.  Eventually, primarily due to getting used to SwiftKey on Android, I could no longer really use the iPad and so, gave it to my mom.  Of course, it is still an amazing device – but, I type too much to be content with the iOS keyboard!

But, lately, I’ve been itching to really understand the iOS vs Android experience and figured that I need to do it on the smaller screen.  After debating if I really need another phone, I decided to compromise and just get the iPod Touch instead.  WiFi connectivity is all that I need and it seemed to suffice for what I was looking to do with it.

It’s been a few days and I’ve been doing several side-by-side tests of the ‘i’ device and my ‘A’ device, which happens to be the Galaxy Nexus.  I don’t particularly want to write about everything – there are numerous iOS-vs-Android studies out there that go to excruciating detail about each platform and I don’t need to repeat that.  However, I did want to write about a few things near and dear to the user experience aspects I consider important.

Some apps that I did side-by-side tests on both the devices are Flipboard, Pinterest, Google+, GMail, Etsy, Pulse, Facebook, Instagram and Chrome.

First about what iOS gets right.  When you use the device, you realize that everything in it on the hardware and software front has been designed towards a common goal – a slick user experience.  The radios, the processors, the graphics, the memory and how the operating system interacts with each one of these components – it has all been polished and optimized for that single goal of enhanced user experience.  This results in amazingly smooth animations, a flawless touch interface and a generally pleasurable experience.

Granted that it is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, but I have to say that in every single one of those apps, the iOS experience was better, evaluated on smoothness of scrolling, animations and speed.  With WiFi state already active on both devices, a side-by-side test of Flipboard showed it loading and updating its content in <5s on the iOS and sometimes as much as 30s under the exact same WiFi at exactly the same time on the Android device.  In fact, I could never get the Android Flipboard loads to happen in <15s in several tries, while the iOS was consistently <5s.  The Facebook experience, putting aside the fact that the design elements still need work, was far smoother than my typical Android experience – on Android, the experience is extremely stuttery, photos take forever to load and it is overall, just frustrating!  I found those elements were far smoother on the iOS – no stutter on scroll, loads quickly and the back stack operations are consistent. Most other apps had similar experiences – sadly, I thought that the G+ app on the iOS was smoother than that on Android!  Pinterest is the one that comes closest on both platforms.  It has no stutter on either platform and the load times are not so dramatically different – the Android side is still a few seconds slower – but it is not a factor of 4x different.  It is more like 3-4s on iOS vs 6-7s on Android.

I want to be clear that several disclaimers are applicable for this A/B testing I did.  My Galaxy Nexus has a cellular radio, for one and has a lot more going on than my iPod Touch has.  Further, my Android is constantly running a brand new beta version of the OS and several beta apps.  But, on the flip side, the iPod has an 800MHz processor, while the Nexus has a dual core 1.2GHz processor!

To talk about a few more things, the battery management on the iOS is done very well – even with heavy use, I couldn’t manage to drain the battery all that much.  The battery on my Nexus is abysmal and I have to charge it multiple times a day.  Although the cellular modem does drain a lot more, the iPod has a much smaller battery to its credit!

The sharpness of the display, the beautiful photos and the sleek aluminum frame are among the other things I really like about the iOS side.  My Nexus, despite the fact that it has the same number of megapixels (5MP) as the iPod, takes rather inferior pictures.

Okay, now, before you write me off in the converted-to-ios-camp, let me talk about a few things I actually did not like about iOS.  I can’t stop talking about the keyboard.  In this world of predictive, gesture keyboards that I can use to type almost as fast as I can on a real keyboard, the iOS keyboard is excruciating!  I’ve written about this before and I won’t say any more – but, it is a deal breaker.  I would have to imagine that Apple is doing something about it very soon.

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Next, there is one thing that Android got right – and it is the software architecture around intents.  It is powerful and really allows applications to seamlessly share data.  I often found myself in a corner when I wanted to share something from an app to someone over GMail or for that matter any other app.  I am not a native iOS mail client user and hence, the share to email option in iOS is useless to me!  The other options are equally useless – I was sometimes able to copy text and paste it in another app, but come on, that is painful!  After a few times of trying to share an image from my gallery directly, I finally got the hang of having to go to GMail and clicking on attachments instead – but, that is not a good experience.

Of course, it never ceases to annoy me how content on YouTube (or other places) that is available on Android is just not available on the iOS.  I have not figured out if this has to do with the different video/audio codec needs or something else, but, the exact same searches on YouTube will produce different results on iOS vs Android.  And the latter is always richer, just to be clear!

There are a couple of other minor things – such as the lack of a back button on the phone and the apps losing state when I come back to the home screen and go back to them.  But, I think this is just about getting used to one style vs another.

It is really hard to say conclusively why so many apps (almost all of them) fare so much better on the iOS.  It may be because they are investing more on iOS than they are on Android – clearly, the extent of the gaps in the performance of the same apps is demonstrative of that.  Pinterest, for one, has obviously narrowed the performance gap on the two platforms quite a bit.  But, unfortunately, if it requires more effort to make that happen, that itself is a problem too!  Aside from this aspect, I believe it also has something to do with the fundamental integrated hardware/software optimizations that Apple has done, the ease of programming using the iOS APIs and the simplicity-vs-options tradeoff that the platform has made, leaning more towards the simplicity part of it!

In a nutshell, the one thing that bugs me the most about iOS has more to do with Apple’s business decisions – such as not allowing third party keyboards or other content. The software architecture constraints that lead to sharing state across apps far more challenging is also a problem.  These are definitely deal breaking issues for me that I will not be switching over to an iPhone any time soon!  But, I definitely have to admit that integrated hardware/software approach that Apple takes comes with a distinct advantage when it comes to user experience.  I long for the day when my Android will have as smooth an experience as the iOS – but, it is admittedly a lot harder to accomplish in an open and split ecosystem.  Such is the tradeoff that naturally comes with accelerating innovation from the ecosystem at large.  And I’d rather stay on that side – Android is definitely getting better and better at the experience and the gap is not that wide to regret it.

And as Android becomes more and more dominant, developers will take the efforts to create good experiences on it.  I’m sticking to my Android – although I may dump my Nexus for the HTC One at some point!

I like my Android device the way it is.  I did try out Facebook Home to get a feel for it, but I won’t be going back to it anytime soon!  You can read my full review on Quora here.  In brief, it introduces a delay in all the important things I’d use my phone for.  If you need to make an emergency call, forget it – you can like and comment on Facebook news feeds while your phone is locked, but getting to the dialer for an emergency call will take a few steps! A number of the normal Facebook frustrations on the mobile are now available on all our apps!

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All in all, I uninstalled after giving it a good shot and trying out various operations.  I’m all for a contextual future – but, my contextual envelope happens to be beyond Facebook!

ImageI blogged on Quora about how I don’t expect to be dazzled by the Facebook phone!  I won’t get it to it all here again, but, the essence of it is that Facebook just hasn’t demonstrated that it gets mobile.  But, one thing the upcoming Facebook Phone is doing is endorsing Android as the platform of choice.  “iOS first” is fast becoming a mantra of the past.  The shift is not only in the developer community, but also among the users that are starting to discover the benefits of cool customizations!