Saturday, May 26, 2012

The power of the physical

In my user experience (UX) work, I often need to explore people's reaction to design propositions, and to ascertain whether people can understand and use the proposed product.

In the old days (the 90's and early 00's) it was fairly common to use paper prototypes of online or desktop applications. Producing full-scale interactive versions was relatively time-consuming.

However, prototyping tools arrived, existing tools matured, and UX practitioners learned how to produce more realistic and interactive representations of the products they wanted to test. To some extent, then, the use of paper prototypes diminished. At least, that was the case with my practice.
In developing mobile applications, there's something of a reprise of this trend; prototypes that run on mobile devices may take a little more time and effort to develop, and paper versions are again more common in my repertory.

(At this point, I should nod my head to my Frank Vetere at Melbourne University, who invited me to lecture recently on paper prototypes, and made me take take a slightly more critical look at this topic.)

In general, paper prototypes work well. Participants (the "test subjects") are willing to suspend their disbelief and pretend that a sheet of paper showing a screen, keypad, or whatever, is not just a representation, but the real thing. (Ceci est une pipe, if you like.)

I enjoy this type of prototyping, and it extends beyond the use of paper to represent screens. For example, when testing an interactive voice response and voice recognition system, we used a series of recorded announcements, and played them over a telephone connection at appropriate times to test an online banking application. Participants knew the system wasn't "real", but they behaved as though it was. (This is known as the "Wizard of Oz" technique.)

Recently, I've had reason to run tests with paper prototypes for iPad and iPhone applications. The purely paper form has limitations. In particular, it's not possible for users to explore interactive elements, and the facilitator has to expend significant energy in trying to explore how participants might activate various user interface components. It's difficult to tell whether touchable, draggable or swipe-able elements are recognised as such.

More recently, I was designing an application to run on an Android tablet, and created a very simple physical prototype as a proxy for the device. By cutting a piece of foam board to approximate a tablet device, and covering it with an acetate  "screen", a reasonable facsimile of a tablet device is obtained. Screens can be swapped in and out as participants navigate through the application.

This is not by any means a new technique, but what struck me again was the sense of satisfaction expressed by participants in handling the "device". There was at times almost a delight in the physicality of the prototype. Participants were able to rotate it, play with it, and consider how it would fit in with other tools or devices, and the overall context of use.

At the same time, it was apparent that this was simply a work in progress. It was not invested with any of the permanence or authoritativeness that might be associated with a more polished version. People felt relatively free to make critical comments (all-important during early design).

The few minutes it took to convert a 2-dimensional paper prototype to a 3-dimensional model was well worth the effort in terms of the increased level of engagement it engendered.

If this simple technique piques your interest, I recommend you check out the book Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook, which contains a range of simple exercises you can use to develop your skills in this area.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Just say No! to conflation

Survey writers are sometimes guilty of conflation - polluting a potential answer by including two statements when the respondent may only agree with one.

The first example is from Village Cinemas, who want to know how likely the respondent is to return to their establishment. A reasonable selection of answers might be:

- a scale from Very Likely to Very Unlikely
- A binary Likely/Unlikely.

(In either case, of course, a "Don't know" option should be available.)

However, two of the available answers are conflated. The first is the less problematic - the inclusion of the exclamation mark after "Every time I go to the movies" implying a degree of enthusiasm that the respondent might not share.

The second is "Very occasionally, it's a special treat". The inclusion of the second clause specifically excludes the ability to answer the question for those who might more accurately answer:

- Very occasionally, because I hate your cinema
- Very occasionally, because sometimes you're the only cinema showing the movie I want to see
- Very occasionally, because it's the only cinema within walking distance
- Very occasionally, because I don't live in Australia or Greece

... and a large number of other possible reasons for choosing "Very occasionally".

What answer will those respondents give? I have no idea. But in any case, by specifically denying people the ability to choose an unambiguous answer, the data derived from this question is suspect.

A better approach would be to have a clear set of answers untarnished by conflation, with a possible additional question asking for elaboration.

The second example is from the Dominion Post in New Zealand, which asks whether bicycle helmets should be mandatory. The set of answers is odd for a few reasons, but to stay on topic we'll just look at conflation. The two "Yes" answers and the one "No" answer both have additional value statements or clauses that render them problematic.

To focus on only the "No" answer, the available option is "No - it is a personal choice," which specifically excludes answers such as:

- No, because the societal disbenefits outweigh the individual safety gains
- No, because they look ugly
- No, because cyclists deserve to be killed

... and a large number of other possible reasons for choosing "No".

When writing survey questions, you need to provide the ability for all respondents to answer honestly.

Conflation - just say No!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

It's not about You X

The field of User Experience is an exciting one. The idea that we can and should design products that do useful things, and do them simply and well, may be an obvious one, but it has taken many years to emerge.

We've wrested technology from the cognoscenti and put it in the hands of everyone. This is no minor achievement. In a small few years, our so-called "information technology" has changed from something technical and frightening (think DOS or SAP) to a trusted, friendly, easy-to-use product in our purse or shirt pocket (think iAnything).

However, there's a risk that a new techno-elite emerges to take the place of the cognoscenti. And because designers, almost by definition, belong to the new elite, it's necessary to have methods, paths, and philosophies for them to remain focused on and dedicated to the needs of that most ordinary person, the "user".

There are two elements to UX. The "X" is "experience", and the "U" is "user". The way - the only way - to understand users is to spend time with them, to observe them, to focus consistently and unremittingly on them. There are no short-cuts. Designers who presume to know the attitudes, preferences, behaviours or concerns of their users are not doing UX, they are doing "You X".