The Insighter

September 2006

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

November 30, 2006
Usability challenges of new Web technologies – One day Workshop. Save $100 if you register by November 17.
December 7, 2006 Designing usable Web-based applications – One day Workshop.
Save $100 if you register by November 24.

Upcoming events

October 2006

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society calls October National Ergonomics month. They suggest we introduce 3% of the planet to human factors and ergonomics by 2010. We can do it if each of us reaches a couple dozen people per year. Looking for ways to start? Send them to our day in the life of usability video. Or send them to this human factors primer for teachers (PDF).

October 9-12, 2006

UIE User Interface 11 conference in Cambridge, Mass.

October 19, 2006 "AJAX and Usability" presentation at local CapCHI meeting. Our own Mike Atyeo is presenter.
November 14, 2006 World Usability Day Ottawa activities will be at the RA Centre. Attend the e-Government Showcase in the morning or stop by our booth at the Usability Exhibition in the afternoon. View details of the Ottawa activities or become an exhibitor or sponsor.

Value proposition: Three questions to ask

At this time of year, many of our clients have to plan out the next year or two. They have an overwhelming amount of information to wade through. At these times, we ask ourselves a few key questions. Perhaps they will help you too, if you are planning a road map or justifying a new product or service idea. Of course these are not simple to answer, but these three questions are a good start to building a case for your own idea:

1.      How would I describe a user who needs it?

This first question is about analyzing user requirements and behaviour. It is a question we ask ourselves in many ways, not just in the up-front strategy. It is generally a bad sign when we hear someone say “we just have to convince people they need it!” Nice idea, but few organizations can afford to educate their clients much these days. The value has to be profoundly obvious.

2.      How are competitors trying to meet that need?

The second question is about analyzing feasibility, comparative offerings, emerging practices, and business processes. It is generally a bad sign when someone tells us “we have no competitors”. It is nice sales talk, but it either means that users or vendors are not ready for it. We don’t get hung up on the word “competitors” – by this we mean examples from comparative services or alternative offerings. They provide a perspective on what is feasible or realistic.

3.      How is the user experience effective and efficient at meeting the user need and the competition?

Our third question is about usability, and analyzing whether the user experience is effective and efficient at delivering the underlying value. Answer this question iteratively, not just at the tail end of development. It is generally a bad sign when someone tells us “All we have left to develop is a GUI”. Efficiency and effectiveness in the user experience take work. While the first two questions can be answered as a snapshot up-front, and be updated, bring up this question with every new iteration of design.

Let’s try an example. Dan Bricklin was co-inventor in 1979 of VisiCalc, the first accounting tool for personal computers. VisiCalc met a fundamental need for a basic replacement for the spreadsheet paper familiar to accountants. VisiCalc offered a PC-based alternative to common spreadsheet paper, and for only $34.95 per user it was an easy choice. Now Dan Bricklin has invented a web spreadsheet. It meets the user needs of being able to share, store, edit, and save changes to web spreadsheets. It is different than Excel in that it puts a spreadsheet on a wiki, or vice versa, allowing new capabilities like a real time update of a stock price from Yahoo’s web service. It has competitors in Google spreadsheet  and Num Sum. Who will succeed? Our three questions regarding the user experience will be part of the answer.

Try our three questions on your own strategy or idea. It's a way to summarize your value proposition. If you get stuck, we can help.

Web accessibility – more than a good idea – it is a legal precedent

A federal district court judge ruled this month that a company may be sued if its website does not meet accessibility guidelines for the blind. The National Federation of the Blind, charged that Target's website is inaccessible to the blind, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. The key points from an article by Disability Rights Advocates were that the Web site (

  • Did not meet the minimum standard of web accessibility.
  • Lacked compliant alt-text, for screen readers to vocalize a description of the image to a blind computer user.
  • Contains inaccessible image maps and other graphical features, preventing blind users from navigating and making use of all of the functions of the website.
  • Requires the use of a mouse to complete a transaction, so blind Target customers are unable to make purchases on independently.
Target asked the court to dismiss the action by arguing that no law requires Target to make its website accessible. The Court denied Target's motion to dismiss and held that the federal and state civil rights laws do apply to a website such as NFB President Dr. Maurer says "this case puts companies on notice that the blind cannot be treated like second class citizens on the Internet." If you want your Web site to be more accessible, talk to us.

Save $100 on our November 30 workshop!
November 17th is the deadline for early registration in our workshop Usability challenges of new Web technologies. Early registrants save $100, and save even more for group bookings. Come join us. The workshop takes place on Thursday, November 30th.

UserVue does more than remote usability testing

Testing usability from a distance is getting easier with the launch of UserVue. Remote usability testing is what UserVue does best. It extends the great features of Morae by TechSmith. But UserVue can also be a tool for gathering informal observations or getting feedback on a user interface concept. 

You can see what the remote user is experiencing, gather their verbal reactions, and share the results immediately with a high resolution video file (WMV). Or, invite up to ten people as observers, and gather their reactions to the user’s experience, moment by moment. The built-in chat tool can capture observers’ ideas without interrupting the user. The recording file lets you analyze the results later in Morae Manager. Take a tour of UserVue to learn more, or call us to see it for yourself.

Ready to try UserVue? Register for a trial.

User experience will decide Microsoft vs iPod

User experience is a key factor as Microsoft goes head-to-head with Apple. Microsoft unveiled its Zune digital video and music player to compete directly with Apple for the Christmas market.

Apple's iPod has claimed a 77% share of the digital music player market. Microsoft wants a piece of it.

This is only the latest chapter in a long story in which the user experience plays a central role. In August 2005, a key Apple iPod patent was rejected at the US Patent Office because of a Microsoft patent. Apple has claimed that Microsoft’s patent on the iPod interface was filed after the iPod was released. Last month, more of Apple’s patents for the iPod user interface were rejected, citing that Microsoft had filed related patents already.

Apple continues to patent iPod user experience aspects, such overlaying the roller wheel on a touch screen display. Microsoft openly states that their policy is to allow others to license and use their patents, and have a good working relationship with Apple. Matt Rossoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft suggests that the user experience is central to Zune’s fate: “If it works like i-Tunes, great. If it's broken, buggy, or has a bad user interface, forget about it”. Microsoft's slogan agrees – it says Zune "Plays for Sure".

The enterprise user experience needs "SLATES"

(Note: "SLATES" = search, links, authoring, tags, extensions, signals)

A wave of new web technologies is making an impact on the corporate world. Their capabilities are collectively becoming informal systems for knowledge management, best practices, and collaboration. A Harvard professor, Andrew MacAfee, calls the current wave “Enterprise 2.0”, referring to blogs, wikis, group messaging software, etc. MacAfee coined the term “SLATES” as a checklist of important interaction mechanisms. He uses it to check whether a new offering is ready for the corporate world. Thus, he recommends applications offer search, links, authoring, tagging, extensions, and signals. Authoring refers to how it helps publish, like a blog or a wiki. Signals are ways to be alerted if something of interest has occurred in a person’s online universe. We like the fact that user experience is central to the concept as well as the practicalities. Here is MacAfee’s definition of the overall category:

"Enterprise 2.0 is the use of social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers. Social software enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities.”

Visit Andrew McAfee's blog for more about Enterprise 2.0. Or ask us for how to apply these interaction mechanisms to your corporate world.

Just what does "heuristic" mean again?

Do people know what you mean when you say "we need a heuristic analysis"? Or are they nodding that they understand, and secretly looking it up on Google? A significant number of people appear to be. The search term "definition" is added to the following searches on Google:

  • 36% of search results for “heuristic” include the term “definition
  • 35% of search results for “heuristic evaluation” include the term “definition
  • 30% of search results for “heuristic analysis” include the term “definition

Some observations we draw from this:

  • Many Web pages that use “heuristic evaluation” offer a definition.
  • Possibly they exist because many people look for a definition for that terminology.
  • Keep some quick definitions handy! Don't just ask Google. Ask us Here are a few:
Expert heuristic usability evaluation identifies priority usability problems early in the design process. It is used to identify major flaws and predict where people may have difficulties. A human factors or usability design expert evaluates the functionality, information architectures, navigation, task flow, and other interaction details of a design. The evaluator prioritizes any problem areas to focus development resources on the critical and major issues. Recommendations are based on known principles and extensive professional experience – many years of observing and understanding human behaviour. A heuristic evaluation often takes place before an application or web site design reaches alpha- or beta-trial customers but is also valuable when restructuring a web site or redesigning an application or service.

We'd love to hear your feedback.

Google is now a verb - but use with caution

You may now use the term “google” as a verb. It is official. The Oxford English Dictionary in June, and Merriam-Webster in August, now recognize the word as a verb. To “google” means “to perform a Web search”. But Google is not entirely pleased – their trademark is drifting into the public domain. Companies like Xerox or FedEx resist the use of their trademark passing into common use. So Google issued a press statement about appropriate use of their trademark, suggesting an appropriate statement might be "I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party". They suggest an inappropriate might be: "I googled that hottie."

Make text options short and sweet

The CIO of the New Canadian Government has some advice – use shorter sentences when offering choices on a web page. “It is recommended that questions be formulated so the options can be as short as possible.” Rather than using radio buttons, the CIO recommends the select element, and says “options with a large amount of text won't easily fit in a single row of a select element ... and will not wrap”. It could also result in accessibility issues, especially when screen readers present the wordy options to a blind user. Another case where accessibility guidelines help design a better experience for all of us.

Focus groups turn sixty

The term "focus group" was coined sixty years ago this year. It is credited to Robert King Merton, first introduced in an article The Focused Interview”; American Journal of Sociology (1946). It was later used in a book of the same name. Merton modified group interview techniques to craft a group evaluation method. He sought to make people feel safe, comfortable, and open to discussing their attitudes and reactions.

The method relies on forming hypotheses to prove or disprove; it relies on a stimulus situation in which to evoke responses, and it relies on a skilled moderator to ask the right questions. The focus group has varied over the years, but hypotheses, a stimulus experience, and a skilled moderator remain as fundamentals for many of Neo Insight's qualitative methods.

Even a recent type of focused interview, usability testing, builds on Merton's techniques. It corrects for common problems that occur when focus groups lack a skilled moderator, or lack a stimulus experience, or ask a participant to imagine something totally foreign to their experience.

Merton received the National Medal of Science in 2002 for his contributions in areas such as "self-fulfilling prophecy" and the sociology of science. He also coined the term "role model". Thanks Dr. Merton for being one, and for sixty years of helping us focus.

Quote of the month

“There is no substitute for getting engineering and product teams in there [observing user studies], watching real people interact with their product, and seeing what is breaking.

Presentation by Jen Fitzpatrick, Engineering Director, User Experience, Google

Focus on the user and all else will follow”


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