The Insighter

August 2006

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Neo Insight's e-newsletter on Usability topics and techniques.
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Our next workshop

September 21, 2006
Designing usable Web-based applications – One day Workshop.
Save $100 if you act now – Register by Sept. 8th.
November 30, 2006 Usability challenges of new Web technologies – One day Workshop.
Save $100 if you register by November 17th.

Upcoming events

October 2-4 AJAXWorld Conference and Expo, Santa Clara, California.
October 9-12, 2006 UIE User Interface 11 conference in Cambridge, Mass.
November 14, 2006 World Usability Day. Come see us at the RA Centre. Participate in the e-Government Showcase in the morning or the Usability Showcase and Trade Show in the afternoon. More details to follow next month. Also, see how to get involved at "Make Yourself Useful".

User experience – Fourth generation of product/service differentiation

Although there appears to be no end to the rapid developments in technology – with the appearance of more complex computers, applications and services – human capabilities have remained relatively unchanged in terms of perception, memory, and cognitive processing. The trend has to be away from people adapting to technology and towards adapting technology to the needs of the people using it.

As technology matures, products or services based on that technology pass through four generations of product and software differentiation.

  1. Early adopters : At first, lead users just "have to have" the new technology and are willing to pay almost any price and put up with difficult to use software and systems.
  2. Price wars: As the technology becomes more pervasive and competition exists, price becomes the next major differentiator.
  3. Feature fest : Once the cost of development or production has been optimized and competitive pricing has equalized, businesses start to differentiate their products and services by the number of features they can boast – remember the stereo systems of the 70s and 80s with literally hundreds of buttons? Or, what about Microsoft Word 2003 with 19 toolbars and 127 menu items?
  4. User experience: Feature wars can only take you so far though before people start to realize that there is very little value in having hundreds of features if they can only figure out how to use a very small percentage of them. At this stage, usability and the user experience become the new differentiator.

With the Web, it's no longer business as usual

The Web has served to make product and service differentiation based on user experience even more important. In the good old days, you only knew about products carried by your local stores. You could comparison shop, but you had to drive all over town and you couldn't really try out many products until you paid for them and got them home. Once you had made the decision to purchase, you typically persevered and learned how to use the product or software as best you could. Returns were usually only made for defective products – being unusable was not considered to be a defect.

The Web and e-commerce has changed everything. Now people can easily compare Web sites, products, and services from around the world. Products and services are also being marketed differently. Most companies now offer 30-day free trials. In addition, AJAX has accelerated the number of applications and services that can be delivered via the Web and provides new opportunities for improved ease of use, if implemented properly (See last month's newsletter article on AJAX). These developments change the game across the board.

When people start their buying task, they start by searching and browsing sites to find out what's available. If your Web site is difficult to find, navigate, or to use, then there are many alternatives. Most users do not have a lot of patience. One US study found that most people using a search engine expect to find what they are looking for on the first page of results.

During the research stage, if people get frustrated trying to find answers to their questions (e.g. pricing) or trying to do comparison shopping they may quickly leave, even before you are aware of a lost visitor or sale.

Before they buy, many companies invite users to "test drive" their products. And, as all of us know, most people expect to be able to complete this "test drive" without training or reading documentation. If not, they rapidly move on.

To simplify the decision process, more and more people are relying on other people's experiences to help them find the product or software best suited to them. Note the word "experiences". A perusal of online user feedback, referrals, blogs, etc. quickly shows that more and more of people's evaluations are based around ease of use, as opposed to features.

User experience design

Delivering competitive products and services as the Web matures and as people's behaviour becomes more sophisticated requires a design process which directs the focus away from features and functions to the user experience.

User experience design changes the focus from features and functionality to the user experience:

  • What do people need?
  • What are their goals and expectations?
  • What do they know?
  • What is the context and environment in which they will be using the product or service?

All these and many more questions are taken into account in designing the user experience. If you look at recent success stories, such as Amazon, NetFlix, or Apple's iPod, the overwhelming differentiation is the overall user experience, not leading edge technology, prices or features.

In all cases, innovation has come from gaining an understanding of the shortcomings of the current user experience, creating a vision of what the ideal experience could be (we refer to this as the reference experience), and then taking steps to realize that vision and address the unmet and latent needs.

Amazon has revolutionized online book selling by providing recommendations from people who have bought similar books to you, wish lists, rating systems, notifications of new books of interest, one-click purchasing, etc.

NetFlix has grown to be valued at over $1.6 billion in 5 years by providing an innovative way of renting movies. Users create an online list of DVDs they are interested in viewing, DVDs are delivered to your house the next day free of charge, people can view them whenever is convenient (there are no late fees), and returns are made using prepaid envelopes.

Apple's iPod experience combines the player hardware with iTunes software (available for both Mac and PC) and the iTunes Music Store to create an integrated environment for selecting individual songs, purchasing them, and having them transferred to the player in one seamless operation.

From features to task flows

Many of the innovations we have been involved with over the years have emerged from observing what people do, and why they do what they do, rather than listening to what they say they would do. This distinction is important because it focuses on people's goals, motivations, and behaviours as opposed to market and public opinion research that puts emphasis on demographics and stated preferences.

Behaviour is not a series of unrelated actions but typically a stream of purposeful activities culminating in some ultimate goal. By focusing on reducing effort and speeding up goal completion we often uncover new insights.

Some work we did with the federal government provides an example. When people were exploring different career options, they often had to visit 3 or more different government Web sites to get answers to questions like: How much does a dentist make? How many jobs are available in that discipline in the Ottawa area? What is the future outlook for employment in this career? Where would I get training?

By linking this information across sites using a standardized code, the National Occupation Code, we were able to provide contextual links to the other relevant information so people did not have to figure out which other Web sites they had to visit, nor navigate through each one to the desired information. The Career Navigator provides these direct, "deep links" to the related information, helping people accomplish their goals much faster.

The Web is exposing more people to more options and also to the difference between usable and non-useable products. Expectations are changing and usable products are clearly the more desirable products. Ease of use is the primary differentiator in the highly competitive market of Web sites and technology products and services. Designing for usability, effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction brings with it the added value of repeat business, increased revenues, and best of all free advertising as people share their positive experiences with others.

Usability catastrophe of the month
by Gord Hopkins

We've started a new section in our newsletter to focus on usability catastrophes that have been experienced during the month.

This month we focus on Rogers and the trials and tribulations of trying to use one of their "Order Now" buttons. We also uncover a number of other violations of usability guidelines.

The scenario started out innocently enough. I just wanted to find out a bit more about their Personal Video Recorder (PVR) and look at their pricing options. The first hurdle wasn't too difficult – three clicks and I was reading a description of what having a PVR could do for me. "Great! So how much does it cost?" No sign of additional information, just a button to "Order Now". Being a seasoned Web surfer, I know that many poor designs make you go part way through the buying process (e.g. put things in your shopping cart) just to find out the price. So I started down that path.

First hurdle, they required me to either sign in OR if I were not a current customer to register with Rogers which required mandatory entry of personal information like my address. "Hey! I'm just looking around. Do I have to give away personal information to shop around for prices in a store?"

Oh well, I was already registered with Rogers so I looked up my name and password and signed in only to find a somewhat disconcerting message stating that I had more than one account with Rogers. "Interesting! I was not aware of that. Was I being charged more than I should?" The funny thing was that when they tried to present me with my multiple accounts and to choose between them, there was only one. "OK, Rogers what kind of mind games are you playing here?" I clicked "Continue".

Before getting to what I thought would be the much anticipated screen with the pricing information for their PVR, I was first greeted by a Security Alert saying that I was going to be redirected to a connection that is not secure. "Hmmm, if I've clicked on the Order Now button, I think I would like the transaction to be secure!"

Oh well, I'd come this far and I wasn't planning on really ordering, especially not now. Let's see where this takes me. To my disappointment, I was then taken through a series of screens that permitted me to change my package, channels, and theme packs and gave some hint that there may be other service type things that I might be able to change later. "Is that where I might find the PVR pricing?". I did see some prices so I must admit I thought I might still be able to get there from here.

A few more clicks and multiple scrolls, however, and I ran into a dead end. It said I had not made any changes to my services. No sign of PVRs anywhere. If I clicked Add to Cart at this point, it said I don't have anything in my cart. Fifteen minutes into the session and I'd come up empty handed.

Supporting all phases of buying behaviour from awareness, to research, to action, to after-sales service and repeat business is critical to success in the Web environment. This Rogers user experience failed on a number of counts!

We'd love to hear about and publish your usability catastrophes.

What screen resolution should we design for?

We are often asked this question and recently revisited the trends in the industry and our guidelines.

Based on today's usage statistics, we recommend optimizing for a screen resolution of 1024x768 but ensure that your page layouts work well on screen resolutions from 800x600 to 1280x1024. This range covers over 93% of the popular screen resolutions used today for browsing the web. However, this is always a moving target.


This does not mean that you should ignore the 6 or 7 percent of users with smaller or larger display resolutions. Cascading style sheets can now be used to build elastic designs which will adjust to fit different screen resolutions and also window sizes (remember, not everyone has their windows maximized). Some good examples of elastic page design and code snippets are available at:

Save $100 on our September workshop!
The deadline for early registration in our Designing usable Web-based applications workshop is September 8th. Early registrants save $100. There are even more savings for group bookings. Come join us. The workshop takes place on Thursday, September 21st.

TechSmith "UserVue" remote usability testing service now available in Beta

TechSmith's experimental remote usability testing service, Project Astoria, is now officially part of the TechSmith product family. So it now has a new name – UserVue – as well as boasting some impressive new features:

Integrated telephone calling: Simply put in your phone number and the participant's phone number, and UserVue will automatically call you and then call the participant over the phone. The phone audio is automatically recorded as part of the video recording, and observers will hear the audio through their computer speakers.

Improved participant user interface: The main toolbar appears at the top of the screen as a small bar so it doesn't take up much screen real estate. The chat option can be hidden.

Video scaling: Facilitators and observers can scale the screen video of the participant to get a better view.

Event capture: If you record an .rdg (native recording file format) from a UserVue session, it will now include all of the event data such as mouse clicks, keystrokes, Web page changes, chat log, and more. When you import the .rdg into Morae Manager version 1.3, you can search for the events in a UserVue session just like you can with Morae Recorder sessions. Plus, you can view what the observers were chatting about synchronized with the video recording of the session.

Neo Insight is the Canadian distributor for Morae and we are excited about this added capability for remote user testing. The beta product is available now for anyone to try free of charge.

Already signed up for Project Astoria? Log in now to UserVue

Ready to try UserVue? Register for beta

Learn more about UserVue

Quote of the month

From a recent poll of 300 software buyers, carried out by Red Gate Software, when people were asked why they would recommend Red Gate software products, the results were:

"... with an expectation that the majority would choose one of the first three options: time-saving, speed, or accuracy. Instead a conclusive 65% chose the fourth option – ease of use."

Usability News, 25 August 2006

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