Category Archives: Usability

Usability related topics.

Design and Business – The skills you’ll need in the future

I recently ran across the fantastic short film “Design the New Business” which you can watch online. It talks about the trials and tribulations designers and business people go through when they work together in new ways to solve challenging problems facing businesses today (sounds familiar?). In particular, I really appreciate the fact that it covers business and designers outside the US: The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, UK, which in my opinion gives a much broader perspective on the state of design nowadays.

Few key points that stroke a chord with me:

1) Fail to Learn

Days of designing in the vacuum are gone. We need to experiment – see what works and what doesn’t work as early as possible so we can switch and adapt. We as designers have to change and find new ways to do things. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to create value for people, and for our partners and customers. Also, we need to realize that design isn’t linear (which becomes pretty obvious in multi-modal projects), meaning solutions nowadays have to consider different users, with various needs and lifestyles, as well as external systems we all need to interact with.

2) Skills for the Future

What skills will we need in this new world? How do we stay relevant and demonstrate the value of design to businesses? Fact is aesthetics are no longer enough. Any company that just worries about redesigns, improvements and optimizations is not going to survive for very long. Aesthetics are but just one outcome of the design process. Pure observations without interpretation are useless. And because it is as much about numbers as it is about users, social insights and understanding should be feeding the design so that it concentrates on creating something new, that satisfies the needs and desires of users, that yields an engaging experience that fulfill their expectations, while at the same time making sure they have a positive impact on our customer’s business bottom-lines.

3) The Era of Service Design and Innovation

Prices and Products are easily imitated, so I guess the key form of differentiation for us [Virgin] moving forward will be experience innovation.

Applying proven solutions from the past to new problems doesn’t work anymore because problems are now different (please read as – “VUI design solutions we’ve implemented in the past might not work anymore!!!). The solution that allows you to think differently is Design. One interesting way of thinking mentioned in the book is that during design, we should start by exploring multiple solutions and problems, and that the last thing we should define is the problem we’re trying to solve, to make sure we identify the right one to pursue. On this point, I feel that we very often rush to identify the problem with the [fill in the blank – requirement, prompt, grammar, text, code, etc.] instead of taking a step back and exploring the universe of solutions and problems.

And of course, design cannot happen in isolation anymore; designers now have to work with cross-functional teams, that take into account lots of variables, until the design reaches a good level of maturity and is ready to go out into the world.

Finally, here are some links for further reading based on some of the things discussed throughout the movie:

Enjoy, and would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, your experiences, etc.

Design with Intent to Avoid Errors

Interesting how the world around us can teach us many design lessons. In particular, I spent some time with my family in the California area, where I had a chance to experience design without intent.

This happened at a sea-themed park where after watching some shows and enjoying some rides I started noticing the overwhelming amount of “Do not” messages all around me — “do not put the hands inside the tank”, “do not let the children sit in the fountains”, “this is not a bench”, etc. — which really made me think about whether the original designers considered how their creations would be used in the real world, or if they simply had to craft “error recovery” strategies afterwards once they saw how people were using (and abusing) their original creations.

And not only that, but I also ran across an interesting design choice which even my 5 year old couldn’t completely understand. We were on a ride that allows you to move up and down using a simple lever. Here’s a snapshot of it:

The interesting part is that before the ride started, the prerecorded announcement instructed users that in order to go up, you needed to pull the lever down, and that if you wanted to go down, you simply needed to release the lever. My son, after looking at the shape and freedom of the joystick (8 directions), went for the obvious choice and attempted to pull it up to go up, and push it down to go down, unfortunately that had the exact opposite effect — pulling it up didn’t trigger the switch so the ride would go down (same behavior as releasing it), and pushing it down triggered it so the ride would go up.

I can understand how sometimes technical limitations force you into making certain choices, but I think this is a great example of how form should follow function — if the lever goes up and down, each position should perform an action, and if you can only support one action, then why not changing the lever for something that would look more like an on/off switch? Maybe a big button you can push? On the other hand, I’m amazed by how nobody has suggested the “crazy” idea of simply rotating the lever! Pulling it up would trigger the action (go up) and pushing it down will not trigger any action which is the same thing as releasing it (go down)

Not surprisingly, this same park had all sort of issues in other places where the shapes, colors, materials, sizes, etc. used in their design triggered all sorts of undesirable results: confusion, premature wear, graffiti, and an overwhelmingly amount of “do not” messages (both visual and audible) in a sad attempt to revert those behaviors.

SpeechTEK – Multimodal Interaction Design Slides

I just realized that for some reason the digital handout for my presentation isn’t available on SpeechTEK’s site.
While I sort that out, I though about proactively posting the deck for anyone wanting to download a copy.

The session is entitled “Lessons in Multimodal Interaction Design”, and particularly, the topic I’m going to cover is “The Coexistence of IVRs and Small Screens”. If you’re attending SpeechTEK, I would love to have you join us tomorrow, August 3rd, at session D203 from 1:45 pm – 2:30 pm.

See you there!

The importance of irrelevant choices

I was recently watching a presentation from Dan Ariely regarding the nature of human decision making and how we all are “predictably irrational”. The example I found most interesting and relevant was a little experiment he ran based on an ad for the Economist magazine and the various subscription choices it offered.

Here’s the setup; suppose you’re offered three options:

1) Digital edition: $59
2) Print edition: $125
3) Print AND Digital edition: $125

Which would you pick?





Well, he found that 84% of respondents chose option number 3 (combo), 16% preferred option number 1 (digital only), and no one selected option 2 (print only). Which did you choose?

Now, considering those numbers, option 2 is irrelevant to users, hence can be removed, right?






(by now you probably know this is a tricky question). He did exactly that and repeated the experiment with the two remaining choices. It just so happens that after doing that, 68% of respondents chose option 1! Even though we could all argue that it was the obvious (less expensive) choice, the interesting part is that the previous option 2 – the one that no one chose – made a huge difference on people’s choice.

This really made me think in terms of UI design. We often find ourselves trying to define which elements belong in a menu, how to order them, and which items to remove/replace with others more “relevant”.

Should we blindly assume that choices with no or very little usage have no impact on the remaining choices? Is there a way we can improve the performance of all “relevant” choices by adding irrelevant ones as part of the set? Could it be that our brains are better tuned to compare choices in pairs so that when two out of three options are easy to compare we tend to make that comparison and chose one of those options, even if by doing that we end up ignoring a third choice even if it aligns closer to our goals and priorities?

Very interesting stuff. Here’s the full session for your viewing pleasure:

Seductive Design and Humor

Sense of HumorI was recently asked about the presence of humor in IVR applications. To be honest with you, I haven’t ran across too many of those, other than the one implemented at Travelocity. One of their menu choices is to hear a gnome joke. On top of it, they allowed user participation by inviting people to submit jokes. You can hear it by dialing 888.Travelocity, say ”No on the first prompt, and then say gnome joke of the day.

Aside from the entertainment aspect of this type of design, I realized that the same question seems to be popping around in other aspects of User Interface Design. It seems many designers are transitioning from a notion of “self service or “automation to one of “user experience and “engagement.

In particular, I’ve seen a special type of emphasis on designers trying to marry appeal with usability. Some studies have shown that first impressions have a longer lasting effect than initially thought, and that it not only affects someone’s willingness to try the system but also to push through usability barriers, ending up in a more satisfying experience.

Interestingly enough, in the case of websites, researchers found that users rate high appeal as more interesting, easier to use, easier to navigate, more accurate, more trustworthy, and overall more satisfying than a low appealing counterpart (even if their usability is superior). Hence designers are arguing that aspects of psychology and human behavior such as persuasion should be (and are being) added to all designs (digital and physical).

Think about some of the things you know about people: they like to interact, they like to be entertained, they are curious, etc.

So, how can you leverage that? For example, if we focus on the notion of being funny and playful, they’ve found that humor and surprises can be addictive and exciting, increasing the desire of a user to use a system and to be more forgiving towards unexpected situations (I recently talked about the use of humor in error messages).

Who hasn’t seen twitter’s fail whale?

Or what about or flickr’s “error page” which you could color and send back to enter a contest for a Pro account?

I’ll argue that there’s definitively value in humor, but that humor for humor sake should not the intent. We should rather focus on how to improve the experience and make the interactions more “sticky” by carefully planning how to infuse our designs with elements like humor. Some designers like Andy Budd are calling this “Seductive Design”.

Below you’ll find the video and slides of one of his recent presentations which I found extremely fascinating. Enjoy!

Objectified food for thought – Part 1

As you know, I enjoy looking at other fields that might have design elements that could be leveraged in a speech and multimodal world.

My latest discovery was the film “Objectified” by Gary Hustwit. Even though the documentary is centered around the topic of Industrial Design and the process by which well known products are designed, created and injected into the marketplace, there are some great quotes by various designers that I couldn’t help but feel compelled to share with you and analyze in an attempt to find a way to apply them to our field. With so many quotes, I though this might be better off divided in parts so people can add comments and share their own insights and experiences. Let’s get started:

“What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes – the weakest, with arthritis, the athlete, the strongest, the fastest – because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” — Dan Formosa, Design and Research, Smart Design

Wow, what a way to start this topic! After readings this one, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about perpetuating the common design approach of the 80-20 rule. We try to capture what 20% of the population which will use 80% of the features might do, add support for a few other common “corner cases”, and ignore the really obscure and unlikely scenarios altogether. This point definitively made me wonder what if… what if we were to do it backwards, design by looking at those extremes - the distracted caller, the multitasking mom, the user that requires extra time to process the information or respond - and letting the middle take care of itself.



Case in point, the creation of the Oxo kitchenware, a peeler originally designed for people with arthritis that turned out to be more comfortable and easier to use for everyone!


“What we’re really always looking for whenever we design are ways we can improve the way people do things or improve their daily life… without them really even knowing, ever thinking about it.” — Davin Stowell, CEO & Founder, Smart Design

Another quote from Smart Design, but this time addressing the reasons behind our designs. How often are we really looking for ways in which we can improve how people do things or improve their lives? How often can we articulate this need and help evaluate it in the context of other seemingly more important needs such as completion rates, retention and automation? Can we really tell we designed something that not only solved someone’s issue or allowed them to complete their task but that in fact had a positive impact on them without them even knowing? Quite a challenge (and intrinsic motivator for me)!

“Good design should be innovative. Good design should make a product useful. Good design is aesthetic design. Good design will make a product understandable. Good design is honest. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is long-lived. Good design is consistent in every detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.” — Dieter Rams, Former Design Director, Braun

I think Mr. Rams said it perfectly. Seeing what goes on inside the minds of product creators behind brands like Braun and their philosophy definitively makes me appreciate the responsibility of a designer.

That’s it for part 1. Stay tuned for more quotes and nuggets of wisdom. And if you get a chance, watch the movie, you won’t regret it (and your users will appreciate it)!

Where did my option go

During any Requirement’s Gathering process, one of the hardest yet most critical steps involves finding out the features that will be offered to the users. Figuring out the final set normally involves talking to agents, listening to the different business units, looking at statistics, etc.

Furthermore, if the customer is migrating from an existing system to a new one, part of the process also involves reevaluating the set of features currently being offered to determine which ones should be migrated and which ones should be eliminated for good (which very often becomes a challenge by itself since customers tend to feel that by doing so, they are “loosing” functionality)

Some of the tools available to us include performing a Usability test on an existing system, doing a benchmark analysis to compare features offered by competitors, looking at usage data to determine the frequency of usage of each existing feature, or setting up focus groups or customer surveys to explore the likely usage of new features.

So yes, there are way to figure out how often they might use a certain feature or what they might think about it, but how do you gauge how deeply your users care about those features?

Well, while watching a recent Burger King stunt (an interesting mix of market research and marketing) in which they made one of their US branches a “Whooper Free Zone”, and recorded via hidden cameras the reactions of their customers upon being told that they were no longer serving Whooper sandwiches (see video below).

This stunt made me think about a tool that designers don’t use very often: Subtraction.

By that I mean that very often we run complex studies and champion-challenger scenarios (aka A-B designs) to figure out what the best combination of items might be, or what the impact of adding one more choice will have on a user base. But how often do you test the impact of removing a choice both from a performance as well as from an emotional perspective? (and no, I’m not talking about those bad designs where options are so buried down or words are so poorly chosen that it’s almost impossible for users to find what they need or realize what they need is in front of their eyes (or ears).

So, next time you’re thinking about your users and the options they need, consider subtraction as one more tool in your ever-growing UI toolkit. And if you’ve used before, I’d be very interested in knowing what your results were.

See you at SpeechTEK 2009

Oh yeah, it’s that time of the year again. If you’re planning to attend this year’s SpeechTEK in New York, please stop by and say hi.

Also, you can now look at the final version of the program. In particular, I would like to invite you to the following sessions:

  1. Introduction to Voice User Interface Design (STKU-2)

    Sunday August 23rd, from 1:30 PM to 5:00 PM. This workshop is designed to quickly get those new to VUI design up-to-speed so they can make the most of the Principles of VUI Design track at the conference

  2. Efficient Design (B102)

    Monday August 24rd, from 11:15 AM to 12:00 PM. Here we’ll talk about “Truths and Myths About Reusable Designs”. How can you design for reuse? Can user requirements be captured the standard way?

  3. Bilingual Spanish/English Design (B301)

    Wednesday August 26th, from 10:45 AM to 11:30 AM. Here we’ll talk about “How to Present Names of
    Geographical Locations in Spanish Systems”. Yes, listening for and capturing names of places seems like a trivial task, but what factors should be considered when making translation/pronunciation decision? What do those decisions say about you and your company?

Safe travels, and see you there.

Speech and Mobile Usability

A very interesting report from Nielsen was recently published highlighting some of the challenges mobile users face when accessing web information.

Aside from the sad news about average success rates being around 59%, it was interesting to me to see how most of the Mobile Problems outlined in the report can be actually seen as opportunities to seriously consider the use of Speech Recognition.

I know most companies suggest Speech Recognition as the killer app for mobile devices, but I would argue that it should be seen instead as the ideal complementary mode of interaction when navigating the internet and retrieving information on mobile devices, not as the silver bullet that would solve all mobility hurdles.

For example, thinking about speech in the context of those problems raised in the report:

  • Small screens: Yes, small size is a natural result of being portable. Yet, having a limited number of options at any given time and relying on short-term memory are the bread and butter of most Speech Recognition Systems. Therefore, adding an audible element and allowing users to express themselves in more natural ways helps compensate those visual limitations. Furthermore, multislot interactions and natural language understanding help alleviate the challenge of multiple windows and advanced behaviors present in purely visual interactions.
  • Awkward input (especially for typing): Once again, Speech Recognition shines here since it’s the facto way of interaction amongst humans. Words can easily trump visual counterparts such as menus, buttons, and links not only because of how natural interactions are but also because it avoids the inherent limitations of tiny keypads, trackballs and mini-keyboards.
  • Download delays: Even though Speech cannot solve the problem of being able to download screens faster, it can help in those instances where information can be delivered in an audible form since users can continue to interact with the system and move along their intended goal since prompts and logic can be embedded in a device without requiring network connectivity or optimized and compressed for faster delivery.

On brevity and menu choice length

An interesting discussion came up this week where there was a debate about the length of menu choices and how short/long options should be to help users move along in both an efficient and successful way through a system.

Interestingly enough, around the same time I ran across an article from Nielsen talking about taking about links and how well can users predict what will be contained within each link.  I’ve mentioned in the past that I feel there are many similarities between the web world and the voice world, so thinking along the same lines, I feel web links are the siblings of menu choices in speech, so I felt the part where he talked about the results of only showing the first 11 characters of a link was relevant for that discussion:

The two winning links (“Gift Cards” and “New Custome”) also showcase principles for effective Web content.  Both links:

  • Use plain language
  • Use specific terminology
  • Follow conventions for naming common features
  • Front-load user- and action-oriented terms

The point being that the importance is not really on the length of the word but on its meaning.  For example he found the worse links were the ones that only showed “Introducing” and “Working whi” that had the same length as the winning ones but were bad because of:

  • Bland, generic words
  • Made-up words or terms
  • Starting with blah-blah and deferring the information-carrying text to the end

What this means in practice is that using single word commands on a menu (e.g. “Emergency”, “Billing”, “Status”) does not necessarily make menu choices easier to understand, more intuitive for users, or faster to navigate.  On the contrary, they may limit the user’s ability to infer what can be found underneath them, creating the exact opposite effect.

JTLYK   :)