Thursday, March 19, 2009

MITX User Experience Series: Notes from How it’s Changed and Why it’s Important

Made it to the MITX User Experience event - MITX User Experience event
this morning. Panelists included Kerry Bodine, Hill Holiday
, Adamaya Ashk, Usability at Staples
, Toby Bottorf, WGBH Interactive
, Alex Jenkins, Microsoft Start-up Labs, Fred Leichter, Fidelity Investments, and Chauncey Wilson, Autodesk
. You can find the Twitter event feed here

The discussion started around defining what good user experience is and how it is mastered at the companies the panelists represented. Even though there was general agreement that there are many ways to describe it, the general consensus was that a good user experience should exceed expectations. Chauncey had a way of describing user experience as a triangle – at the bottom of it is useful design, followed by comfortable experiences and at the top – user delight and pleasure. One way to measure how good your design is is to think of it as a continuum – rangng from extreme frustration on one end to extreme delight on the other.

It was refreshing to hear that good user design is much more than web design – since now we all are in the relationship business, designing with the user in mind means we need to look at all touch points – offline and online, and exceed expectations at the points where the customers derive the most value of what we offer them.

Then the panel talked about the evolution of delight and the fluidity of the concept – what is delighting today usually becomes the must-have feature of tomorrow.

Good user design is not with its challenges – Adamaya described home page designs in particular as a political exercise. Alex mentioned Ray Ozzie’s cookie licking analogy – business units claiming ownership over certain concepts or product ideas stalling work on these until they are ready. You got it, if you licked the cookie, nobody else would want it – this is why Microsoft launched the Microsoft Start-up Labs
as a way to force rapid innovation, with the end user in mind.

I particularly loved the way Alex and his team at the Microsoft Start-ups Labs approach new product development – they seem to religiously test with real-world humans at every step of the way – starting with simple white-board sketches. Interesting enough, involving customers at Microsoft does not mean letting them design your product – customers get engaged for product and feature validation, but the concept and its eventual design still remain in the hands of those who know how to do the job.

It was also stimulating to hear about what has changed in user experience since it first hit the ground running. A lot of things have changed, it seems, but the four big buckets that were shared were a) customer expectations, b) customers’ tendency to multi-task in proportions never seen before, and the growing challenge in keeping customer attention focused, c) more advanced technology (which doesn’t mean that it has gotten easier), and d) companies now being (or need to be) more transparent and honest in their interactions with their customers. Fidelity had a good case in point – they recently redesigned their web site
to make it more of a news portal rather than simply a channel for Findelity’s marketing messaging (it turns out Fidelity’s chairman is not a huge fans of marketing, but stands behind the ease of use of their web site). One of the impetuses behind their site redesign came from their UI team’s constant monitoring of how customers interact with their products (they even offer free lunches to customers so they can observe how their users interact with their product on a daily basis) – what the Fidelity UI’s team discovered was that their customers needed unbiased industry news – and how they were meeting that need before the Fidelity’s site redesign was by having Yahoo Finance and Fidelity on two screens next to each all the time.

If you are wondering if you are designing with your customer in mind, all you have to do is ask yourself this simple question (as Toby advised us): When was the last tine you’ve watched your customers using your product?

If the answer is – well, we do it all the time, because we have domain experts who we run everything by, then you are wrong. All panelists agreed that domain experts run their course pretty fast – they become so ingrained in the product, they no longer provide valid feedback for its real-world usage and experience. I cannot agree with this more – we all often fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as domain experts – just so we are proven wrong. Even though there are folks, like Malcolm Galdwell, who say you need to rely on your instincts (check out his book Blink
, they also agree that you need to know when to discount your intuition because you are plain wrong. We are not as rational and objective as we want to be – I wrote about the concept of predictive irrationality by Dan Ariely in this blog post
. Rather than guess, just test. With actual users.

How do you know you are on the right path? You have to know why you are doing something – Fred says that in most cases, in his over 12 years of leading UI at Fidelity, people usually can’t answer why they want to do something. Unless you know where you are going, you will never know if you missed your arrival point. It may sound trite to state that every UI initiative should have business goals attached to it, but let’s face it – more often than not, we deal with leaders who viscerally know this or that course of action is the right one. Again, it is encouraging to see that big business now gets it and empowers their UI folks to accomplish their mandate.

At the end, the old adage still applies: “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Create a baseline – track yourself relative to yourself and your competitors – which is precisely what Fidelity is doing. And I would add – measure not only satisfaction, but the organic growth of your business. If you get increased number of referrals, if more people buy more from you, you are on the right track. If these growth indicators are flat, you are measuring/focusing on the wrong thing.

How to you “socialize” UI within a business? The panelists were unanimous that people don’t read - some detailed product specs is not the way to go. Try to present new ideas and features in a visual format - social media design patterns
is a good starting point.

Then Kerry (who did a great job getting the right insights from the presenters, so kudos to her) asked each panel participant to share top books and blogs they recommend to the group. I am sure I missed a few, but here’s what I got:
1. Don’t Make Me Think

2. Groundswell

3. Everything Is Miscellaneous

4. Paradox of Choice

5. The Tipping Point
(read my blog
on Duncan Watts too – he is someone to watch!)
6. Visual Explanations

7. Timeless Way of Building

8. The User Is Always Right

9. Neuro Web Design

1. A list apart

2. Joel On Software

3. TechCrunch (my favorite too)

4. Mashable

5. Boxes and Arrows

6. UX Matters

Now you are faced with a few options: a) take a sabbatical and read, read, read, b) focus on the blogs, c) share the kernels from each book/blog you read with the rest of us – via twitter, blogging, Facebook, (name your own social here☺)



  1. Couldn't find an email address, so I'll just leave a comment to say thank you for the very nice tweet :)

    - Noah

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