Designing and influencing user performance

When designing the user experience of software, UX- and Development teams often focus on how the user interface supports user performance, because that’s within their locus of control. Once the product is in the wild, environmental factors may reduce user performance despite the team’s best product-design efforts. But I believe it’s possible for a UX team to also influence the environment in which their products get used. Consider two of these:

  • The user’s display size.
  • The soundscape.
Large displays < one salary

The environment affects user performanceUsers of all ages and genders are more effective at performing search tasks and comparison tasks (Tao Ni et al, 2006), and more effective at spatial tasks, when they use large displays. Mary Czerwinski et al, reported a 12% significant performance benefit (2003). However, when given a choice, people don’t want very large displays on their office desks; they opt for medium-sized displays instead. One study showed that older users least prefer large displays but stand to gain the most performance benefit. (This study was done before multi-monitor arrangements became common.)

A 12% improvement in performance suggests that 7 people with large displays could theoretically do the job of 8 people with medium displays. How many large displays could your office buy for one person’s salary every year? For business-to-business sales and especially for enterprise-wide software implementations, there’s a place for sales teams and proposal writers to mention the business case for larger displays.

Call it what you want—innovation, thinking outside the box, providing solutions—your UX-Design team can work with the Sales and Service/Implementation teams to ensure customers get solutions that include better hardware choices.

Speak less clearly, please

A half-decade of research by Dr Sabine Schlittmeier has expanded on what common sense told us: it’s harder to concentrate when others are chatting in the background. Schlittmeier found that when background speech is louder and more intelligible, it negatively affects verbal short-term memory, sustained attention, and verbal-logical reasoning. When I asked her what techniques have been shown successful, Schlittmeier told me that a masking sound, such as music or talk radio, is not objectively effective because the higher level of background sound has detrimental cognitive effects, but subjectively people feel this is effective. She added that there’s a measurable benefit to:

  • Shifting high-concentration work to times when fewer people are around.
  • Doing high-concentration work in single offices.

I suppose working remotely—from a quiet home—is a variation of these solutions.

I also asked, “What one thing, if handled differently, would most improve the way people experience noise at work?” Schlittmeier said it’s not about one thing. She recommended attacking problem sound from all dimensions at once: loudness, frequency characteristics, sound production, transmission, and so on.

The way I read the research results, reducing background speech to a soft, unintelligible noise could result in a 10% to 25% decrease in memory errors and logic errors, and an 18% increase in attention span. What Schlittmeier hasn’t provided is data about overall productivity improvement, without which it’s harder to make a business case for spending on office-noise abatement.

But there are other ways to mitigate the background office noise that affects your users, and you may be able to influence how your customers approach that problem.

A box that promotes wide screeens or headsetsAgain: call it what you want—innovation, thinking outside the box, providing solutions—your UX-Design team can work with the Marketing team to influence the environment through traditional marketing. Imagine a business-to-consumer product that is designed to work even better with a (noise-cancelling) headset—and which is depicted in use with headsets in the marketing messages and on the packaging.

Fat finger fone oops backspace

How tiny does the keyboard on a handset or smartphone need to be?

Data-entry trouble for fat fingers

If you ask me, I’d say: “Not anywhere near as tiny as they are.”

I’d also say: “If you make an app for iTouch or iPhone, ensure that the keyboard flips into a larger, wider version when users rotate the device on its side.”

Photos help user personas succeed

If your user persona includes an image, which type of image helps the team produce designs that are more usable?


The illustration on the left?  Or the photo on the right?

According to Frank Long’s research paper, Real or Imaginary: The effectiveness of using personas in product designphotos are better than illustrations. Teams whose user personas include a photograph of the persona produce designs that rate higher when assessed with Nielsen’s heuristics for UI design.

Frank Long compared the design output of three groups, drawn from his students at National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Ireland, in a specific design project. Over the five-week project, two groups used user personas of different formats. One group was the control group, so they worked without user personas. The experiment looked for differences in the heuristic assessments of their designs.

Photos—versus illustrations—are one of the ways I’ve engaged project teams with the user personas that I researched and wrote for them. Here’s a teaser:

Software UX/GUI design in education

I was wondering whether the “design” of web sites and software is anything more than “intermediation” (inserting a layer between the user and the raw data), whether “intermediation” is just a synonym for “information architecture,” and whether “design” must therefore be something greater—something that includes the emotional impact of the experience. Or is that last phrase merely another way to say “user-experience design”?

Apparently, it was a day for wondering, because, next, I thought about the many excellent software developers I’ve worked with, and wondered how they would respond to my apparently pointless musings. Then I wondered: would the opinions of my software-development colleagues be informed by their formal education or their work experience, attendance at conferences, or professional development reading? [For me, as a usability practitioner and CUA, it’s all of the above.]

What core competencies are taught?After this, I wondered how much software developers are formally taught about user-experience design and user-interface design, in school.

A quick online search led me to the course lists, summarised in the table, below, for the different program types offered where I live. I’ve highlighted the two courses that specifically mention  interface design. There’s no mention of  usability, or of the all-encompassing  user experience. There is one program at Capilano College that includes user-experience design, and my own course, Fundamentals of user-interface design, is only offered every two years through one of SFU’s continuing studies programs. Also, I’ve noticed an increase in the proportion of software-development students at monthly Vancouver User-Experience events. So change is in the wind.

What’s the situation in your community of practice?

It seems to me there’s a hole in the bucket, but we can mend it. The answer simple. Go back to your school and ask to sit as an industry representative on the academic-advisory committee. The local chapter of your professional association can help open doors. Once appointed to the committee, participate in a curriculum review. This is a slow, formal, and somewhat political process—but it works. It’s a great way for experienced software developers and interaction designers to improve our communities of practice. And it looks good on a resume.

Bachelor degree, Computer science, Simon Fraser University Certificate, Software systems development, BC Institute of Technology Certificate, Software engineering, University of British Columbia
CMPT310 Artificial Intelligence Survey.
CMPT411 Knowledge Representation.
CMPT412 Computational Vision.
CMPT413 Computational Linguistics.
CMPT414 Model-Based Computer Vision.
CMPT417 Intelligent Systems.
CMPT418 Computational Cognitive Architecture.
CMPT419 Special Topics in Artificial IntelligenceComputer Graphics and Multimedia.
CMPT361 Introduction to Computer Graphics.
CMPT363 User Interface Design.
CMPT365 Multimedia Systems.
CMPT368 Introduction to Computer Music Theory and Sound Synthesis.
CMPT461 Image Synthesis.
CMPT464 Geometric Modeling in Computer Graphics.
CMPT466 Animation.
CMPT467 Visualization.
CMPT469 Special Topics in Computer GraphicsComputing Systems.
CMPT300 Operating Systems I.
CMPT305 Computer Simulation and Modeling.
CMPT371 Data Communications and Networking.
CMPT379 Principles of Compiler Design.
CMPT401 Operating Systems II.
CMPT431 Distributed Systems.
CMPT432 Real-time Systems.
CMPT433 Embedded Systems.
CMPT471 Networking II.
CMPT479 Special Topics in Computing Systems.
CMPT499 Special Topics in Computer Hardware.
CMPT301 Information Systems Management.
CMPT354 Database Systems I.
CMPT370 Information System Design.
CMPT454 Database Systems II.
CMPT456 Information Retrieval and Web Search.
CMPT459 Special Topics in Database Systems.
CMPT470 Web-based Information Systems.
CMPT474 Web Systems Architecture.
CMPT373 Software Development Methods.
CMPT383 Comparative Programming Languages.
CMPT384 Symbolic Computing.
CMPT473 Software Quality Assurance.
CMPT475 Software Engineering II.
CMPT477 Introduction to Formal Verification.
CMPT480 Foundations of Programming Languages.
CMPT481 Functional Programming.
CMPT489 Special Topics in Programming Languages.
CMPT307 Data Structures and Algorithms.
CMPT308 Computability and Complexity.
CMPT404 Cryptography and Cryptographic Protocols.
CMPT405 Design and Analysis of Computing Algorithms.
CMPT406 Computational Geometry.
CMPT407 Computational Complexity.
CMPT408 Theory of Computer Networks/Communications.
CMPT409 Special Topics in Theoretical Computing Science.
MACM300 Introduction to Formal Languages and Automata with Applications.
SSDP1501 Systems Foundations 1. Application development, OOP, C#, Java, fundamentals of programming and program design.
SSDP2501 Systems Foundations 2. Web-based applications, architecture, web design, principles, HTML, XHTML, CSS.
SSDP3501 Systems Foundations 3. Medium and large-scale applications, dynamic web technologies, project management, relational databases, security issues of web applications.
SSDP4001 Specialty Topics. Enterprise-scale applications,, advanced Java.
SSDP5001 Projects. Practical experience with an internal and external software-development project.
IE535 Software Teamwork: Taking Ownership for Success.
IE520 Introduction to Practical Test Automation.
IE523 Agile Development Methodologies.
IE527 Applied Practical Test Automation.
IE507 Object-Oriented Methods: Object-Oriented Modelling and Development with UML.
IE526 Principles and Components of Successful Test Team Management.
IE503 Requirements Analysis and Specification: A Practical Approach.
IE505 Software and System Testing: Real-World Perspective.
IE504 Software Architecture and Iterative Development Process: Managing Risk through Better Architecturd.
IE510 Software Configuration Management: Controlling Evolution.
IE502 The Software Engineering Process.
IE506 Software Project Management.
IE509 Software Quality Assurance: More Than Just Testing.
IE511 Software Team Project.
IE525 Strategic Test Analysis and Effective Test Case Design.
IE528 Testing for the Global Market.
IE508 User Interface Design: Designing an Effective Software Interface.

Unusable sinks on Boeing planes

Usability isn’t just about web pages, as you’ll know if you’ve tried to dial a phone number on someone else’s cell phone. Or if you’ve tried to wash your hands on most Boeing airplanes built in the past 30 years:

Taps with awkward levers

The water only flows while you press the lever—one lever for cold water and one lever for warm water. It takes one hand continuously pressing to make the water flow. Rinsing one hand without the help of the other hand is difficult. Rinsing soap off is much easier when two hands do it together.

Some of the newer Boeing aircraft—like the 787 Dreamliner—may have better taps, but I’ve never been on one. An aircraft lasts decades, so passengers will be using those old sinks and taps for years to come, on Boeing planes. Airbus planes, on the other hand, have had ergonomic taps for years: one press starts the water flow, leaving both hands free for soaping and rinsing. After a fixed duration, the water stops flowing, but you can always press again to restart the water.

While I’m pointing out usability problems in the airline industry, Airbus doesn’t have clean hands. On the Airbus web site,  type a word in the Search box—the word bathroom, for example—and then press ENTER. Nothing happens. The ENTER key doesn’t start the search, but a mouse click does.

Click OK to start searching

It’s ironic. A design that requires me to move a hand from the keyboard to the mouse is a lot like design that requires me to move a hand from the sink basin to the lever.

This sugar packet is a movie

Whether it’s ethnographic research, usability research, or marketing research, I’ve learned that the best insights aren’t always gleaned from scheduled research.

Here’s a photo of impromptu research, conducted by Betsy Weber, TechSmith’s product evangelist. I was her research subject. Betsy recorded me pushing sugar packets around a table as I explained how I’d like Camtasia to behave.

Jerome demos an idea to Betsy. Photo by Mastermaq

Betsy takes information like this from the field back to the Camtasia team. There’s no guarantee that my idea will influence future product development, but what this photo shows is that TechSmith listens to its users and customers.

The ongoing stream of research and information that Betsy provides ensures better design of products that will be relevant and satisfying for TechSmith customers down the line.

Cognitive psych in poll design

The WordPress community recently ran a poll. Users were asked to choose one of 11 visual designs. The leading design got only 18% of the vote, which gives rise to such questions as:

  • Is this a meaningful win? The leader only barely beat the next three designs, and 82% voted for other designs.

WordPress pollI don’t know about the 18% versus 82%. I do wonder whether some of the entries triggered a cognitive process in voters that caused them to pay less attention to the other designs, which may bring the leading design’s razor-thin lead into question. This cognitive process—known as the “ugly option”—is used successfully by designers as they deliberately apply cognitive psychology to entice users to act. I’ll explain why, below, but I first want to explain my motivation for this blog post.

I’m using this WordPress poll as a jumping-off point to discuss the difficulty of survey design. I’m not commenting on the merit of the designs. (I never saw the designs up close.) And I’m certainly not claiming that people involved in the poll used cognitive psych to affect the poll’s outcome. Instead, in this blog, I’m discussing what I know about cognitive psychology as it applies to the design of surveys such as this recent poll.

Survey design affects user responses

If you’ve heard of the controversial Florida butterfly ballot in the USA’s presidential election in 2000, then you know ballot design—survey design—can affect the outcome. I live outside the USA, but as a certified usability analyst I regularly come across this topic in industry publications; since that infamous election, usability analysts in the USA have been promoting more research and usability testing to ensure good ballot design. I imagine that the Florida butterfly ballot would have tested poorly in a formative usability study.

The recent WordPress poll, however, would likely have tested well in a usability study to determine whether WordPress users could successfully vote for their choice. The question I have is whether the entries themselves caused a cognitive bias in favour of some entries at the expense of others.

It seems that one entry was entered multiple times, as dark, medium, and light variations. This seems like a good idea: “Let’s ask voters which one is better.” Interestingly, the visual repetition—the similar images—may have an unintended effect if you add other designs into the mix. Cognitive science tells us people are more likely to select one of the similar ones. Consider this illustration:

More people choose the leftmost image. The brain’s tendency to look for patterns keeps it more interested in the two similar images. The brain’s tendency to avoid the “ugly option” means it’ll prefer the more beautiful one of the two. Research shows that symmetry correlates with beauty across cultures, so I manipulated the centre image in Photoshop to make it asymmetrical, or “uglier”.

The ugly-option rule applies to a choice between different bundles of goods (like magazine subscriptions with different perks), different prices (like the bottles on a restaurant wine list), and different appearances (like the photos, above). It may have applied to the design images in the WordPress poll. The poll results published by lists the intentional variations in the table of results:

  • DR1: Fluency style, dark
  • DR2: Fluency style, medium
  • DR3: Fluency style, light

The variants scored 1st, 4th, and 6thIn addition to these three, which placed 1st, 4th, and 6th overall, it’s possible there were other sets of variations, because other entries may have resembled each other, too.

As a usability analyst and user researcher, I find this fascinating. Does the ugly-option rule hold true when there are 11 options? Was the dark-medium-light variation sufficient to qualify one of the three as ugly? Did the leading design win because it was part of a set that included an ugly option? And, among the 11 entries, how many sets were there?

There are ways to test this.

Test whether the poll results differ in teh absence of an ugly-option set. A|B testing is useful for this. It involves giving half the users poll A with only one of the dark-medium-light variants, and the other half poll B with all three variants included. You can then can compare the two result sets. If there is a significant difference, then some further combinations can be tested to see if other possible explanations can be ruled out.

For more about the ugly option and other ways to make your designs persuasive, I recommend watching Kath Straub and Spencer Gerrol in the HFI webcast, The Science of Persuasive Design: Convincing is converting, with video and slides. There’s also an audio-only podcast and an accompanying white paper.

Eyetracking: “I’m typical”

If you’ve ever wondered where exactly on your web site or software your readers or users are looking, eye tracking will tell you that. The eye-tracking equipment emits a specific wavelength of light (invisible to humans) that helps the eye tracker to follow your eyes. As the light bounces off your retinas and back to the eye-tracker’s camera, its software calculates where you were looking, and for how long.

There are different ways to display the results. You can see the data as a “video” that shows a sequence of dots, everywhere you looked. Larger dots are longer fixations. You can also see the data as a cumulative heat map, similar to this:


Here’s something interesting I learned about myself. When I participate in an eye-tracking study that studies a photograph—such as a full-page magazine ad—I look at all the same places for about the same duration as other participants in the study. I know this because the composite heat map, which combines the eye-tracking data of all the participants into one heat map, looks indistinguishable from my individual heat map. It turns out I’m normal, after all.

Eye tracking has helped researchers answer questions such as these:

If you’re interested in eye tracking and usability and want to read more, try Eye Tracking as Silver Bullet for Usability Evaluations?  by Markus Weber.

Usability of a potential design

Three-quarters of the way through a Five Sketches™ session, to help iterate and reduce the number of possible design solutions, the team turns to analysis. This includes a usability analysis.


After Œ informing and defining the problem  without judgement  and  generating and sketching lots of ideas  without judgment , it’s often a relief for the team to start Ž  analysing and judging  the potential solutions by taking into account the project’s business goals, development goals, and usability goals).

But what are the usability goals? How can a team quickly assess whether potential designs meet those usability goals? One easy answer is to provide the team with an project-appropriate checklist.

Make your own checklist. You can make your own or find one on the Internet. To make your own, start with a textbook that you’ve found helpful and inspiring. For me, that’s About Face by Alan Cooper. To this, I add things that my experience tells me will help the team—my “favourites” or my pet peeves. In this last category I might consult the Ribbon section of the Vista UX Guide, the User Interface section of the  iPhone human-interface guidelines, and so on.

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Imagine users asking “Help me”

When you’re tempted to cut corners off your product, what do you cut?

Is it the usability?

Image derived from a photo by © Kacie KazerToday, I watched a video of people helping a motorised cardboard construction or “robot” to navigate. The so-called tweenbot has a flag on it that says “Help me,” and that asks people to send it on its way to its outdoor destination.

And people help it, time and again, get to where it “needs” to go.

On your next project, when you’re looking for corners to cut, I’d like you to imagine your future users wearing a sign that says “Help me.” Will that encourage you to help them?

The tweenbot pictured above is from Kacie Kinzer’s Tweenbots site, which creates a narrative about “our relationship to space and our willingness to interact with what we find in it.”