The Insighter

January 2007

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

February 22, 2007 Usability challenges of new Web technologies – One day Workshop.
Save $100 if you register before February 9.
March 8 , 2007
Designing usable Web-based applications – One day Workshop.
Save $100 if you register before February 23.

Upcoming events

April 13, 2007

CapCHI one day workshop: "Web 2.0" The Human Web" with Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path, Maggie Fox, Derek Featherstone, and our own Mike Atyeo. See more details below.

April 28 - May 3, 2007 CHI2007 "Reach Beyond", San Jose, California.
July 18-20, 2007
Pittsburgh, PA
2007 Symposium On Usable Privacy and Security (SOUPS), including a Neo Insight Usability Evaluation workshop.

Connecting the "layers" of the geomatics customer experience

We apply our model of customer experience to describe and to predict many things. Working top-down, it explains how a management vision connects to - and drives - technical development. Working bottom-up, it explains why functionality and characteristics need to be in place.

Neo Insight's layered model of customer interaction.

In a recent usability review of a geomatics web interface, we were reminded of the intimate connection between the layers of our model, and the impact of low-level design details on the ultimate success or failure of an application. Let's look at what we found, and illustrate how just a few of the details of the organization and interaction conspired to feed up the layers and damage the overall experience and the long-term relationship with customers.

In our experience, every website has the goal of developing a long-term customer relationship. This might take the form of, for example, repeat sales; or perhaps annual upgrades to software; or repeat visits which allow the site to sell more advertising; or simply where the primary value to the user only comes from long-term use. For a government geomatics application, a long-term relationship is necessary to meet a performance-oriented goal such as "improved land-use decision-making". That's the kind of practical, measurable outcome we like to get our teeth into, as it has direct implications for usability and the customer experience.

Geomatics applications can be highly interactive and tightly integrated. They often need to support well-defined user goals and tasks. In the mapping interface we tested, users have to learn a few key concepts. They have to learn what layers are, what they contain, how their contents are represented and how they can be grouped into contexts. Users also have to learn how to make layers visible on a map, and what it means for a layer to be visible and active, and how these two concepts relate.

Just one usability test was enough to show how usability issues at the detailed design level feed up through the layers to impact conceptual understanding and the decisions made with the mapping data - the business goal of the application.

Illustration of 'map loading' gif and legend with identical colours for two layers.

During the course of that particular test, the user did what everyone does - he built a partial mental model of what was going on. People don't develop full models; they only need enough to 1) explain their experiences so far (what they remember of them anyway), and 2) help them predict what will happen if they carry out certain actions (the main purpose of the model).

Illustration of interaction problems of mapping interface.Problems we saw included:

  • Visual separation of functional areas such as the 'contexts' and 'layers' prevented the user from developing a clear understanding of how they relate to each other.
  • Unpredictable presentation of map updates made it difficult to model when actions and selections were being taken into account.
  • Unpredictable presentation of layers made it difficult to understand when any particular layer was visible.
  • Identical representation of the content of different layers (see illustration above) made it difficult to understand what 'active' and 'visible' mean.
  • A key interaction component - the 'update map' button - was hidden at the bottom of a scrollable region.

In this test, the user arrived at two erroneous conclusions before (and only with encouragement) he achieved his goal. In a real-life situation, most users would believe they had already achieved their goal - albeit with some difficulty - and would have drawn the wrong conclusions: they would have made worse land-use decisions.

Three morals of this story

  1. The devil is in the design details. This is especially true with a tightly-integrated application such as a mapping interface. The host of detailed design decisions in such an application must be driven by a clear understanding of user goals and behaviour, and must be designed explicitly to support the conceptual understanding necessary for a successful application.
  2. Sometimes just one user is enough. Sometimes, with just one user, you see enough to know that further usability testing should be put on hold until some major issues are resolved! But you can't plan for that one user; that's why we recommend planning for one day's-worth of testing (around 6 - 8 users), with sufficient time to make those obvious, head-slapping (duh!) changes before the next round.
  3. Usability testing always adds value to heuristic evaluation. A usability expert who examines an application or website will identify many usability issues. It's always worthwhile doing this before doing usability testing. But don't make the mistake of considering heuristic evaluation as a replacement for usability testing. It is important to observe the unique interaction journeys that users take. These journeys highlight generic usability issues, and integrate all the individual usability issues into a complete experience that helps you understand the big issues - those which directly support or damage your lasting customer relationship.

Our experience with hundreds of usability tests and heuristic evaluations like this one allows us to extract the insights, to separate the systemic architectural issues from the individual details of interaction, and to design solutions that support your customers' experience and develop your long-term relationship with customers and users. Call us to evaluate or design your Customer Experience - 613 271-3001.

We'd love to hear your comments!.

Save $100 on our next two workshops!
February 9th is the deadline for early registration in our one-day workshop Usability challenges of new Web technologies. We will review many live Web 2.0 examples and explore how to adapt traditional usability techniques to design and evaluate the new generation of web user interfaces. Early registrants save $100. Save even more for group bookings. Come join us. The workshop takes place on Thursday, February 22nd.

For our Thursday March 8th workshop Designing usable web-based applications, sign up before February 23rd for the early registration discount of $100. Web applications are becoming as powerful as the ones on our desktop. Join this workshop to explore the challenges of designing web applications, and come away with tips, techniques and current best practices for providing high-value services that enable your users to fulfill their goals effectively and efficiently.

We'll also run either workshop at your location for 5 or more people: call us: (613) 271-3001.

2007 - The year the world goes mobile?

A new year is a time to reflect, to step back and look at the big picture. A couple of statistics in The Economist that caught our eye recently illustrate how mobility is transforming the world:

  • India adds 6.6 million new subscribers every month. The Indian government aims to reach 500 million by 2010.
  • China already has 449 million wireless subscribers.
  • Mobile telecoms is a $25 billion industry in Africa and the Middle East, although less than 15% of Africans own a mobile phone.

Compare with Canada:

The markets close to home are less about adding capability and raw subscribers, they're more about adding service value. Much of the growth in North American mobile revenues is coming from email, web access, and other value-added services. Margaret Reardon at CNET reports that:

  • Mobile carriers in the U.S. could generate more than $15 billion in data revenue for all of 2006; almost a 75% jump from the 2005 figure of $8.6 billion.

Just a reminder of the big things going on around us! 2007 could be the year the world goes mobile. And this scale of mobility will have a big impact on design. Going mobile brings a host of new customer experiences, device-specific design constraints, and new business models. Call on us (on our mobile devices!) to help put your mobile customer experience differentiators in place now! Happy 2007!

Sources: The Economist December 2006: "Talk is cheap: India's Telecoms boom" and "Out of Africa: Mobile Telecoms", CNET 29 Aug 2006: "The mobile Internet: Are we there yet?"

Can Apple's iPhone break through the Smartphone usability barrier? Apple's new iPhone.

So, there we were, perusing the usability woes of the latest generation of Smartphones when Apple announces its long-awaited foray into the market - the iPhone. Steve Jobs' announcement of the iPhone at MacWorld 2007 focused on the multi-touch interaction ("it works like magic" - shouldn't there be a ™ there?), the "Software breakthrough", and aspects of the industrial design. But let's take a look at the challenges - and the opportunities - for Apple with regard to usability of the iPhone.

First, a little scene-setting. Computers are so cheap that they are being incorporated into every device we can imagine. This has some implications, especially for the user experience. Alan Cooper, in his excellent book "The inmates are running the asylum" puts forward some "riddles for the information age". These take the form "What do you get when you cross a computer with an airplane?", "What do you get when you cross a computer with a camera?", etc. The answer is always "a computer". Devices like alarm clocks and toasters that once were simple suddenly become too complex for many people to use properly.

The way we buy products - often feature-based - and the way product developers justify their existence by adding features, leads us all down the path of "creeping featurism". It takes a strong product manager or organization to prevent feature-creep, to produce a product or service with real value, charisma and simplicity. As a design-led company, Apple have shown that they can do this again and again, from the very first Graphical User Interface (well, the second - they took most of the ideas from Xerox Parc) to the iPod.

So what do you get when you cross a telephone with a computer? Some recent statistics from the UK reported in Mobile Marketing Magazine for December 27, 2006 don't paint a pretty picture of the new generation of smartphones:

  • 1 in 7 mobile phones are returned as faulty within the first year of purchase
  • 63% of the devices being returned turn out to "have no fault" - 13% higher than the average for consumer products in the UK

Given that the cost of dealing with these problems is approximately US$70 per device, the "No Fault Found" cost to the UK industry must be around US$105M per annum, with perhaps a staggering US$4.5 Billion annual cost to the global industry! But what are the root causes behind these astonishing figures?

Usability is a key issue. A further UK study by WDSGlobal uncovered a number of reasons for these returns, relating to usability and the customer experience of Smartphones generally.

  • For 24% of the returns, users had abandoned products "after a lengthy and frustrating battle with the usability of functions or applications".
  • For a further 8%, users were returning devices which did not fulfil their needs.
  • 31% of users had problems with configuration or settings on the device. In fact, 47% of helpline calls analyzed were related to device configuration.

Doug Overton of WDSGLobal gives more details on the UK "no fault found" statistics in a 7m30sec video interview. We would summarize by saying: these problems were caused by complexity. To take our lead from Alan Cooper:


Users can't understand Smartphone capabilities before they buy them. Retail staff cannot keep up with understanding every new product that they have to sell. Smartphones are not ready-configured for the end user. And users cannot find the functions they need amongst the many functions they don't need. But users are becoming less willing to put up with this situation. Their experiences with trial products, free downloads and Beta versions on the Internet is leading them to expect things to work right out of the box - what we call "instant usability". Smartphones fail this test, and users are returning them in large numbers. As WDSGlobal conclude: "the manufacturers are not learning lessons."

So this is the challenge - and the opportunity - for Apple. Making a complex device simple again, delightful, "magic", even.

Unfortunately, Steve Jobs' speech didn't give us a warm feeling. It was about "3 devices in one"; it was about having the full Mac operating system on a small device; it was about the coolness of the physical design. The Multi-Touch interface would only seem to tackle the surface (literally and metaphorically) of the user interface complexity problem. We designed proximity detectors in Nortel telephones 8 years back. A full operating system makes a lot of OS management demands on the user. The applications that Steve talked about are inherently complex. Better icons won't help. Something more radical is needed.

But we know Apple has great designers (we know some of them). We hope they show the world how it can be done. We shall see.

Usability professionals - Neo Insight needs you!

We specialize in the Customer Experience. We like working with good people to augment and to complement our skills. Contact us if you feel you would like to work with us on Discovering, Designing and Delivering great Customer Experiences. We would offer one-off contracts, leading to longer-term contracts and maybe becoming a permanent part of our team. We are especially interested in people who can:

  • Plan, design and carry out usability tests
  • Design user interface architectures as well as the details of user interface design
  • Evaluate and design cross-channel, cross-organizational Customer Experiences
  • Prototype web sites and applications

Advantages you might have would include bilingualism, graphic design, or implementation skills.

If you're interested in joining us, email us with your résumé.

Web 2.0 - The Human Web (a CapCHI workshop, 13 April 2007)

The collection of new technologies and techniques referred to as "Web 2.0" is changing people's expectations and behaviour on the Web. Web 2.0 is impacting all areas of our interaction from the details of using AJAX widgets, to collective decision-making and organization, privacy and especially social networking.

This one-day, interactive workshop, organized by CapCHI, is geared towards a broad audience including government employees, product managers, business strategists, CTOs, CIOs, communication experts, technology experts and human-computer interaction specialists of any ilk, but especially those who are web designers.

In the first half of the day Peter Merholz and Maggie Fox address the topic of Web 2.0 as a social media. They will cover the business rational for Web 2.0 development and provide motivation for development in this area. Many cases studies will be reviewed.

In the second half of the day Neo Insight's Mike Atyeo will address more detailed issues of designing and testing Web 2.0 applications, particularly highly interactive AJAX applications. The important issue of accessibility will be addressed by Derek Featherstone, an expert in this particular field.

See details of the Web 2.0 workshop on the CapCHI website, plus further information, and links to podcast interviews with some of the speakers in the HotLab's January 2007 Hot Topics newsletter. Or go directly to Jeff Park's podcast interview with Mike Atyeo on AJAX and Usability :-)

Quote of the monthDoug Englebart's racing tricycle.
The reason we are Customer Experience specialists and not just Usability specialists can be summed up in this quote from waaay back in 1968:

"If ease of use was the only valid criterion, people would stick to tricycles and never try bicycles "
Douglas Englebart
See more of Doug's history, pioneering, ideas and images at the Bootstrap Institute.

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