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Even though Bob Dylan, Tom Wolf and at least 15 different book titles on Amazon exhort us: "Don't Look Back", let's join the contrarian crowd and digest the year's offerings.

True to our usability roots, we'll provide you this high-level information architecture to our 2010 year-end review: Goals, Strategy, Testing, and Organizational Development.

(Something for everybody smile )

Toyota Prius

Goals: Help end-users feel good about visiting your site

March: Ah, spring time and we learned the value of "flow" for creating the experience that sells. That's a goal worth pursuing when designing your ecommerce site, info foraging site, and even – believe it or not – your intranet site.

Why not have a goal of making your site easy enough so people can figure it out, but rich enough in intrigue, variety, nuance, and surprise that people feel "flow". (Yes, your call to creativity!)

That's "flow" as in "peak experience" or "in the zone". These are feelings associated with a video game that has just the right balance of simplicity with challenge.

But, your web site can do that too.

Remember we showed you how Amazon does it with their shopping system. They let used book vendors duke it out with price and quality competition that makes it fun for you to shop, shop, and shop, and then do the deal!

April: Following up on "flow", Noah Schaffer, PhD, made a guest appearance with expert words on how to use the computer game experience as a paradigm for your design.

To give that feeling of flow, Noah shared details on how to provide your user with clear goals, feedback and room for error.

He provided you this checklist:

  • Does the user have a sense of presence in the interface?
  • Are your goals clear, challenging, and surmountable?
  • Do you provide instant, gratifying feedback?
  • Do you leave room for failure?
  • Are there opportunities to explore and play?
  • Do people feel like they take something away from your interface?
  • Have you given people the opportunity to interact with other people?

November: Research showed your "ace-in-the-hole" back-up is none other than your graphics buddies.

A home page that scores well on visual attractiveness will be perceived as having good usability – even if it has only lackluster usability.

Can't beat that.

Plus, we learned that good usability, even excellent usability, won't reverse the first impression given by sub-standard visual appeal. Darn.

The goal is obvious. Make friends with your graphics team. They can save the day.

Did you send them a Hanukkah card? Christmas card? Depavali card? Dinner, anyone?

Now let's see what you learned about Strategy, Testing and Organizational Development in 2010.

Strategy: "Just right" solutions to tough design problems

July: We learned that the "tame problems" of design melt away when you take a systematic approach to finding the sweet spot of design. "Not too much of this and not too little of that".

We learned that aesthetics of design can fool us and at times be counter-intuitive. For example, when measuring "aesthetic appeal," symmetry in web page designs turned out to be less important than the number of picture elements. Who would have thought that?

Moral: adopt the strategy of the "Goldilocks principle." Remember to test your designs so that it's "just right" for your end-users.

But wait, that's not all. You also learned about the "wicked problems" of design. Those problems mimic the problem Goldilocks had when she was lost and cold in the woods! What did she do?

Well, for starters, she broke the rules and entered unbidden into the Three Bears home! Then she snuck into the refrigerator, foraging for food. And she sought refuge and rested in the private bedroom.

But, as any good designer handling a difficult ("wicked") design problem, she exercised expert judgment using non-linear heuristics and fearless trial and error.

She modeled her decisions with a test-and-iterate strategy. Ah, here, too, the Goldilocks principle of getting it "just right" can illuminate the wicked problems with insight.

September: Do you provide news? What design strategies can support your user needs for information foraging?

Are people willing to scroll when looking for news?

How far from the home page do people seem willing to go?

When given a choice, will people search or browse for their news articles?

And the answers, please: Yes, they scroll; and one link away is about the far as people want to go (they fly back to the home page as often as they can), and people love to browse before they search!

Read more about that study which showed us "Home is where the heart is..."

October: Question: What strategies do you need to support end-user interaction with video on your web pages?

This is especially critical, since:

"Nine-in-ten internet users ages 18-29 use video-sharing sites, up from 72% one year ago... Online adults ages 30-49 also showed big gains over the past year; 67% now use video-sharing sites, up from 57% in 2008."

Answer: "Link management." Research shows that best practice among video news sites has resulted in placement of links next to the video object.

Do your users care what you do?

Well, if you had been designing a "newspaper site" in the past, your links would have been distributed across the various articles.

So, yes, your users care – because they have expectations developed from numerous video sites that have a style quite different from a news-only site.

Testing: Sampling your user interaction the right way

January: If you want to compare your site with other sites, check out the SUS (System Usability Scale).

There are no other free tools that let you get a "grade" on the site you are about to improve. Thanks to a diligent, committed team at AT&T who collected data on 3,500 users over 10 years, we have an idea of what "average" means in terms of a SUS score: the median score is 70 out of 100.

Also, the top 25% scores came in with an average (mean) score of 78.

But, better yet, they show users choosing these adjectives (below) for applications. Those users gave these average SUS ratings at the same time:

Ah, the SUS testing can now let us compare our results with other applications.

Plus, remember the SUS takes so little time (a minute – 10 questions), you can offer it after each major task!

May: We took a tour of usability magi Jeff Sauro's recommendations on how to talk about our test results.

He updated Jakob Nielson's famous "you only need 5 users" chart.

Now we can account for this hidden and little known sizzler question: "what's the rate for finding problems IN YOUR PARTICULAR DESIGN?"

See the chart below. The red line is Nielson's assumption that a single user has a 31% chance of finding a problem. If that's all you want, then 5 test participants makes sense.

But if you want to find problems that have a lesser chance of being found, then you need more participants! (See the blue line for problems that have a 10% chance of being found.)

If you have concerns about finding problems that occur "fewer than 31% of the time" check out your May UI Design Newsletter. Learn exactly how many participants you really need.

August: It was baseball time when we heard about Yogi Berra's homily that "it ain't over 'till it's over."

We learned that testing is only half of your work. The other half is communicating your results to your developer team.

Out of 81 usability recommendations written by various usability teams, only 17% could be called both "Useful" and "Usable" or better.

Even worse, only 42% of the 81 recommendations could be called both "Partly Useful" and "Partly Usable". The remaining 58% of the recommendations scored worse.

Check out the August UI Design Review for tips on writing your usability recommendations.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

Organizational Development: Bringing life (back) to the corporate party

February: We conducted a little "group therapy" in this UI Review while talking about management demands and usability reality.

Recall our reader's letter (himself a recent CUA graduate):

"...It's a hell of a job – especially because I am "dropped in" after 15 years of other people developing and using the product – and they expect me to take my magic wand and fix it."

To set the scene, we took the role of management, and gave this rationale for management's attitude toward the letter-writer: "People havealways bought our software.Changes will scare users away.We must code now."

Indeed, we needed some "deep therapy" here because it was a real-life replay of Alan Cooper's famous usability manifesto: "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity".

Remember our solution? "Loving the Madness of Good Design: "Institutionalize us all."

With help from Eric Schaffer's blog, we gave these recommendations:

1. Show your managers articles (and blogs) that discuss new usability trends such as Eric describes in his blog.

2. Adopt the vocabulary, metaphors, goals, ideas of your management. Talk their talk, not usability talk.

3. Support your manager's quantitative business goals with your own usability metrics. Present and talk about your metrics for user success: faster learning, faster productivity, and greater feelings of success.

4. Nothing speaks better for a successful future than a successful past. Start with projects small enough to guarantee success. Increment. Grow. Only make promises you can keep. Be nice.

June: And for the month with the summer solstice, the longest day, you read the best advice you could ever get for getting usability buy-in. Simply put: "teach them, so they know."

Recall the "Dunning-Kruger effect." These researchers gave us words for what we already knew – people think they know more about your topic than they really do.

They tested this theory with short tests about grammar, logic, and humor. They found that people scoring in the bottom 25% on the tests guessed they were doing as well or better than 55% of other people taking the test.

The solution? To restore a more accurate appraisal of their own knowledge, people needed a little training.

After short 10-minute training in, for example, rules of logic, the bottom 25% now modestly put themselves as doing as good as at least 44% of other people. Not accurate, but at least more modest.

Conclusion: End-of-year performance report

I trust that the Dunning-Kruger affect will not apply to you.

Having read the above abbreviated comments, now you indeed know more than 95% of your management and at least more than 55% of other usability folks. Congratulations on your performance.

Have a great new year and, as Yogi Berra said, "it ain't over 'till it's over."


Friedman, H. H., Herskovitz, P.J., and Pollack, S (1993). The Biasing Effects of Scale-Checking Styles on Response to a Likert Scale. Proceedings of the Survey Research Methods Section, American Statistical Association. pp. 792-794.

Hinkle, Veronica (2009). Using Repertory Grid Interviews to Capture First Impressions of Home Pages. Usability News, 11 (2). (See references in this article for other usability studies using Repertory Grid Technique.)

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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