Category Archives: mobile

Harnessing your digital breadcrumbs

This story in the Wall Street Journal discusses the wide-ranging research implications of collecting millions of data points from cell phone users. Most people carry smartphones. In addition to holding your contacts, your emails, and text messages, even the cheapest of todays smartphones are equipped with advanced sensor technology like accelerometers, GPS, magnetometers, etc.  It knows where you are even before your friends do.

Researchers are collecting this digital detritus/information and:

After analyzing more than 16 million records of call date, time and position, the researchers determined that, taken together, people’s movements appeared to follow a mathematical pattern. The scientists said that, with enough information about past movements, they could forecast someone’s future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy.

Here is one way the collected data can aid in your everyday decision-making:

We can measure their daily exposure to political opinions,” said project scientist Anmol Madan at MIT’s Media Lab. “Maybe one day, you would be able to download a phone app to measure how much Republican or Democratic exposure you are getting and, depending on what side you’re on, give you a warning.

While everyone profiled in the article had altruistic goals (e.g., studying the spread of disease), it never hurts to be too careful about how much information you broadcast.  That said, here are some tips to protect your privacy.

(photo from flickr user umpcportal)

(Thanks Julian!)

Does this color make me look fat?

Funny post from Consumer Reports showing that perceptions are altered by color:

Wearing black is the time-honored technique for appearing thinner without shedding an pound. Apparently it works for the iPhone 4, as well. Recently an avalanche of news and tech sites reported that the white iPhone 4 was thicker than the black iPhone, even showing side-by-side photos claiming it was 2mm thicker than the black version.

Consumer reports tested the claim. Head on over to see the results.
Remember, trust your instruments, not your perceptions. 😉

More reading:
Nakano, M., Tanabe, S., Mori, Y., Ikegami, B., & Fujita, I. (2005). Expansive and contractive size perception with color patches. Journal of Vision, 5(8).

Photo credit Mujitra at Flickr.

When poor usability costs you your job?

You may have heard that an employee who managed “social media” for Chrysler accidentally posted on Chrysler’s twitter account about *ahem* poor driving in Chrysler’s home city of Detroit. Click here for the original story.

The guy who sent the tweet blames the program he used for multiple twitter accounts. The article calls it a “glitch,” which would not necessarily be usability, but it seems more likely to be a problem with understanding what account a tweet will come from when multiple accounts are accessible.

From the article on WXYZ:

Scott is convinced a software glitch on a program called Tweetdeck led to the tweet being sent out on the wrong account. He says he deleted the Chrysler account from the program, but somehow it still went out.

His attorney, Michael Dezsi, says Scott has a case.

“A simple web search shows a number of other users have encountered the same issues,” Dezsi said.

Action News made contact with a Tweetdeck spokesman via email about the claim.

“We are not familiar with the error you describe–tweets sent from a deleted account–but we normally would try to replicate it to make sure there is no problem on our end (although it sounds very unlikely that this is a TweetDeck issue). If you know the type of hardware, platform and TweetDeck version we could check further,” said Sam Mandel, Tweetdeck executive vice president of business operations.

People like Tweetdeck, though they admit the interface is complex.

This looks like another case where people feel more justified when the problem is a software bug or engineering glitch than when a usability problem caused the error.

Apple, UCD, and Innovation – A Guest Post by Travis Bowles

This guest post is in response to the article User-Led Innovation Can’t Create Breakthroughs: Just ask Apple and IKEA at fastcodesign.com

From the article:

One evening, well into the night, we asked some of our friends on the Apple design team about their view of user-centric design. Their answer? “It’s all bullshit and hot air created to sell consulting projects and to give insecure managers a false sense of security. At Apple, we don’t waste our time asking users, we build our brand through creating great products we believe people will love.”

I’d argue that someone at Apple noticed how Microsoft had been building tablets since 2002 and hadn’t quite gained traction. Apple tends to step in and refine the work of others, often picking the perfect moment in time when the capabilities of a technology and users’ willingness to accept a technology intersect. The question of how they choose those moments is hotly debated – if it was more apparent to the world, their competition wouldn’t always be following them into the market, often AFTER pioneering the first generation of the market Apple dominates (see Microsoft with tablets, Creative Labs with the iPod, Xerox with GUIs).

I believe there is a common misunderstanding that User Centered Design(UCD) is asking users what they need and building it. If that were UCD, then we’d just let marketing and sales departments design products with the feature lists provided by customers and, in many cases, that would be a sufficient source of information to drive an evolutionary product design process. However, I would argue that proper full-spectrum user centered design *leads* to revolutionary product designs. The problem lies in the assumption that user centered design is building what the user thinks he/she wants.

Jonathan Ive is fond of a quote from Henry Ford that I use in explaining the differences between customer feedback and user experience research – “If I had asked people what they needed, they would have said faster horses.” I think this sums up the Apple philosophy that they are creating things so new and cool that the future users wouldn’t even know what technologies were available, let alone be able to assemble them into new category of device. The mistake here is believing that the only tool available to the UCD practitioner is asking users “what should we build for you?”

1910 Model T Ford, Salt Lake City, Utah

What Ive ignores is that, although Henry Ford didn’t rely on potential customers to define his product, he did learn about their needs and try to accommodate them. The original Model Ts were designed to run on ethanol for the benefit of farmers who could make their own fuel from the land (as they did for their horses), and they were designed for the simple servicing by owners in the field (as they did their other farm equipment), in contrast to some more expensive competitors. He didn’t ask his users to design his product but he informed his designs by learning about their environment, goals, and needs.

On a smaller scale, I’ve seen failures of this sort during user testing, when some participants will offer direct design advice, proposing that you place this button here, add this feature there. A lot of researchers get frustrated and dismiss this sort of input, correctly asserting that the participant is not here to redesign the UI. I do, however, find follow-up questions on these design suggestions often produce interesting data points concerning user expectations, needs and even mental models of the system. I wonder sometimes if some designers and researchers overreact because they feel their value is undermined when they acknowledge any value in the ideas of potential users.

One last thought I have is that the new crop of development-centric, massively networked products presents new challenges to the value of UCD. Startups have always moved quickly, and they’ve always run the risk of losing a race to release a product if they spend too much time “polishing” their product before an initial release. As a result, user experiences and feature depth were usually poor to start with and improved over time as the user base increased. The major changes in user experience were made while the number of users forced to adjust was still small, and by the time wide scale adoption was realized, changes generally settled into enhancements and logical upgrades (largely speaking software here, but Consumer Electronics also fits).

However, recently, to be successful a product needs to become ubiquitous almost upon release. Between social networks and newly established cycles of technology obsolescence,* there is little time to build up a base of users to try the early versions of your product before widespread acceptance. One might assume this would motivate companies to work harder to use UCD to create good designs before that initial release, but this has not been the strategy applied by the biggest winners. Instead, I believe successful companies are setting out to provide one or a handful of killer features, often wrapped in a barely serviceable user experience, to as many people as quickly as possible. Rather than risk missing out on a key moment, they skip the needs gathering and early stage user research and take their best shot instead. If they are successful and widely adopted, the reasoning goes, they can go back and improve the experience later with direct user feedback.

Of course, this approach runs into a lot of practical issues. For instance, there is an installed user base who may rebel when confronted with change (although if you provide an irreplaceable device/service, people will complain but still be your customer). Additionally, once the company is successful, it has the dual role of providing an improved future experience and maintaining the current experience, splitting resources and attention. For this reason, companies often find it hard to actually follow through on step 2 of the plan where step one is “get customers” and step two is “make product better for customers.” In this phase, iterative refinements of the product design get bogged down in new features, and there is no time for conducting full-spectrum user research.

Based on these factors, I do wonder, outside of giant corporations or products with decade-spanning development (such as aircraft, medical technologies or anything the government watches over), are we likely to see a rapid decline in user research in innovative product designs, and in early product development for most products? My intuition is that we will see an increase in demand for practitioners capable of research, design and implementation, but with less specialized training in user research and user centered design. The only “concrete” evidence I can back it up with is my anecdotal observation that the majority of interesting opportunities for user research I’ve found have been specifically requesting a developer/engineer with the ability to conduct research or complete designs in addition to implementing them.

* Products such as netbooks, iPads, iPods and smartphones are as expensive as appliances we used to expect 10+ years of service from. The average washing machine is less than an iPad, but you can expect the iPad to be out of date in ~ 2 years. People would be up in arms if their washing machines (or even microwaves, at 1/4 the price) stopped performing after 2 years.

Travis Bowles, M.S., is a usability consultant in San Francisco specializing in enterprise software, novel consumer electronics, and web interfaces.

(post photo credit: flickr user raneko)

Usability vs. Providing an Experience

Some humor for 2011: a “Things people have never said about a restaurant” website.

My favorite excerpts:

“I really like the way their cheesy elevator jazz interacts with the music I was listening to in iTunes.”

“I hope the phone number and address are actually images so I can’t copy and paste them!”

“I go to restaurant websites for the ambiance.”

“Who needs the phone number of a restaurant when you could be enjoying stock photos of food?”

A quick search turned up a few more rants about restaurant sites. Looks like an epidemic!

  • Restaurant websites: the great and the terrible
  • “A couple of days ago, a friend was asking me for a restaurant recommendation. Easy task, I thought. I had some restaurants in mind and just needed to check and see if they were open and send her the websites. What should have been a 5-minute email turned into a half-hour nightmare as I slogged through websites that are more intent on impressing me with movies, music, and other annoyances than on giving me direct information.”
  • Why ARE restaurant sites so bad?
  • “Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why do they so often rely on Flash, which doesn’t really add anything to the experience, when half the time people are looking up the site on mobile devices to get basic information? Why this bizarre preference for menus in PDF format?”
  • Restaurant websites: casting the net
  • “… has a notoriously ludicrous website which – granted – may well appeal to the sort of ‘zany’ people who eat there. As for everyone else, it will probably just make you want to smash your fist through your monitor.”

Perhaps I’m still unhappy about spending an hour looking for a place to eat in Little Rock last weekend. Flash websites and PDF menus on a 2007 Sprint Treo is not for the faint of heart.

HF Potpourri

Almost Here: Designing Displays for Older Adults

After a long process and over a year of work, Anne’s and my book on user interface design for older adults is almost available!  The cover of our book has been finalized (shown below).  The book will be released September 21st, 2010 and will be available where fine books are sold or directly from our publisher CRC Press.

Price: $69.95, Cat. #: K10089, ISBN: 9781439801390, ISBN 10: 1439801398, Publication Date: September 21, 2010, Number of Pages: 232

We’ll give away a few copies of our book and in a future post provide an excerpt when we get permission.  Unfortunately, the book is not scheduled to be available in electronic format but we hope that will change. An ebook will also be available (thanks Peg!).

Here is our description of the book:

Features

  • Contains state-of-the-art aging research written in an accessible format
  • Includes four chapters of worked examples that put design suggestions into practice
  • Focuses on designing for the aging population
  • Explores the “hows” and “whys” of designing for an aging population

Summary

A distillation of decades of published research, this book is a primer on age-related changes in cognition, perception, and behavior organized into meaningful principles that improve understanding. It explores the complex set of mental and physical changes that occur during aging and that can affect technology acceptance, adoption, interaction, safety, and satisfaction. The authors apply these theories in real design exercises and include specific guidelines for display examples to bridge theory and practice. It opens the way for designing with an understanding of these changes that results in better products and systems for users in all life stages.

Usability Potpourri

HF/Usability Potpourri returns with two recent items.

iPhone Reception Display

Reports from some sites suggest that at least some of the cellular reception issues of the new iPhone 4 are due to improper display of signal strength.  This is a neat HF issue because it involves user’s trust in automation (the display of reception bars is actually a computed value, not a raw meter of actual signal strength), the design of information displays, and properly informing the user so they can set expectations.  Apple is planning to tweak the way in which those bars get calculated (presumably to be less optimistic) to bring user expectations in-line with reality.

From an Apple press release:

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars.

Mozilla Browser Visualization

Next, Mozilla, creators of Firefox, present some interesting visualizations of what users are clicking in Firefox.  As expected, the back button is one of the most frequently clicked items (93% of all users).

Interestingly, the RSS icon in the location bar (the orange square icon used to subscribe to blogs) showed some operating system differences.  Five percent of PC/Windows users clicked it, 11% of Mac users, and about 14% of Linux users.  Indicative of experiential differences?  PC users less aware of blogs/blog readers?

Our own analytics show that the vast majority of our readers visit from PC-based Firefox installations.  As a service to our readers, here is the subscribe link to our blog 🙂