Archives For user experience

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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

After bashing Apple a little on its lack of innovative breakthroughs in iOS following WWDC, I am going to praise them a little here.  Cult of Mac published this post about how the iOS7 design is a masterpiece.  While I don’t think the interface design itself brings distinctly unique elements that we haven’t seen in Android and Windows, there is some truth to the iOS design being amazing.  Notice I didn’t say iOS7 – because the brilliance is applicable to all iOS designs from day one.  In spirit, this goes to one of Steve Jobs’ quotes about design – “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”. 

If you had a flawless interface design implemented with stutter, that automatically means it is not a brilliant overall design.  While design elements are certainly getting amazing on Android, the feel of the interfaces are still short of flawless.  This is the real place where iOS continues to shine.  The touch interface must be psychologically satisfying and stimulating to the user.  When you touch an icon, the interface must react like it was touched.  The animation of going from a small icon to filling the screen and back to dispersing and collapsing into the icon’s spot without any glitch whatsoever provides the user with such visual pleasure that we want to keep coming back to the experience!

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Consider this simple case of touching to copy text.  I’ve been attracted to the iOS text selection for a while. A long touch usually selects the right section of text that might be of interest to the user.  As in the screenshot above, it will select the relevant paragraph in such a case.  In another case, it might select a link or text in a bullet, etc. It is a small detail – but the attention to detail is superb!  

Psychological satisfaction should be the goal of every design.  Every action should be designed and implemented with the goal of providing the user an incentive to come back to perform the action.  And this is almost always about elements in design, software and hardware all coming together to produce that brilliant experience.  Even if one of those elements is less than ideal in the way it functions, the experience is going to be less than ideal.  This is why integrating multiple disciplines of engineering and design and iterating over the experience until perfection is accomplished is paramount.  

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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!

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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!

All products are about the users.  Knowing the average user is critical to understanding how to build a product.  Even after having a successful product, continuing to know the user and following the evolutions users go through is critical to be able to innovate.  Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about user experience on applications, particularly mobile apps and have been realizing that some of the most successful applications have pockets of bad user experience and in some cases, even below average overall experiences.  Here are some examples that really make me wonder how the usability of these apps get impacted, if at all, by these less than ideal experiences.

Annoying popups

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Granted Facebook wants users to really try graph search and explore it – but a popup that is in your face all the time, even as you scroll down the page?  And that too, to a user that has actually tried graph search and hasn’t found it compelling to come back often yet?  Not too long ago, they tried a popup on the mobile that forced you to find friends from contacts or dismiss it every single time you opened the app!  If Facebook didn’t have the kind of user base it does already, would users tolerate this?

Forcing a tie between functionalities when not required

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I used to pretty regularly email myself articles from Pulse, but I have not done it a single time since they started forcing me to highlight the article in order to share it.  In fact, I consume more of my news via Flipboard, as I find the highlight icon overlay on the screen all the time quite annoying.  Seen the reviews on the latest Pulse update yet?  It is clearly not in the direction of enhancing user experience.

Clutter on the main screen or dashboard

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Microsoft products (Powerpoint is shown here, but Word and Excel are no exception) pack all kinds of actions on the main dashboard, while Apple is picky about what is contained in it. I’m a power user and use the Inspector in Keynote quite a bit to have access to other functions – but, I much prefer the cleaner dashboard!

Buried and/or complex functionality

Sometimes, you truly want certain functions to be hidden and hard to get to. Facebook’s privacy settings have been notorious for that.  Studies have shown that links placed on websites in areas that typically contain banner ads are not widely visited.

Here is an example of a complex topic (privacy) made easy to read and understand (a product of the CMU CUPS lab).

Inconsistencies

The human brain tends to remember meta elements such as the portion of a screen where a particular functionality typically resides or a typical action that occurs upon clicking a type of element.  Inconsistencies in this can cause confusions!


Facebook has several such inconsistencies, especially on the mobile app!

Poor handling of connectivity challenges

Sure, everyone wants the connectivity issues to be fixed and the applications to not have to worry about it.  But, we live in an imperfectly connected world.  Some applications particularly handle it poorly.

Here is a case where an upload to Facebook failed due to a momentary disruption in my wireless connectivity.  It not only does not resume when the connectivity is back, the only way to clean up my notifications screen after this happens is to reboot my phone!


Ongoing slow experience on mobile

Not to pick on Facebook here, but the performance of the mobile app, even in conditions of good connectivity, is sometimes abysmal.  Flipboard is another one that I sometimes have issues with in terms of speed and handling pockets of bad connectivity.  Some apps, however, have really nailed the caching and rendering strategies and while may have an initial delay, work flawlessly once launched.

It’s challenging to perfect this on all fronts, but paying some careful attention to detail can go a long way in designing an app well.

Pinterest’s latest update boasts a PinIt button on the main screen, overlayed on top of each image.  This action was one click away in its older versions.

ImageWhen images don’t have enough of a clean white space, this overlay of the button clutters the image and obstructs the view, making it less attractive of a home screen.

ImageThe older view was a lot cleaner, which meant the users that wanted to take action needed to get to the next screen of viewing the detailed image before pinning it.

Does this mean that data indicated not enough users were re-pinning from the mobile devices?  Or, is it Pinterest experimenting to see if a lot more users will re-pin as a result of this?  To me, personally, this takes away the eye-candy experience that the main screen was delivering.

But, what really is the right tradeoff here? Do people pin because it is easy to pin or do people pin because they really like what they see.  If it is the latter, you would think that cluttering what they see at first is not the solution…