Chris Khalil's Musings

My thoughts on work and life

Category: UI Musings

My views on Customer Experience Design

Late last year I was approached by Zafer Bilda (of Bienalto Consulting) to be interviewed for a white paper he was writing.  His aim was to approach several experts in the field in both the USA and Australia and uncover their views on best practice.

I was amongst good company that included Indi Young, Elizabeth Churchill (Principal Research Scientist at Yahoo!), Steve Cotterill (UX designer at Apple), Charles Yiu (UX designer at Microsoft) as well as some leading local lights in Stephen Cox (WestPac), Suze Ingram and Elizabeth Pek.

Zafer presented his findings as a presentation and white paper.  Well worth a read.

Digital Future: Creating a Customer-centred Culture

I was pleased to be asked by AIMIA to be involved in a forum on ‘Creature a Customer Centered Culture’ alongside:

  • Rod Farmer, Director – Research & Strategy, Mobile Experience (prev of Hutchison Telecoms)
  • Ian Muir, Chief Experience Officer, Westpac
  • Faruk Avdi, Online Communication Manager, NSW Dept of Education and Training

and hosted by James Breeze (CXO Objective Digital).

It was a great event and I was interesting to hear other Peer’s view on this subject.

You can find a review of it on the Objective Digital Blog (containing the presentations).

Innovation through Design Research

I had the pleasure of participating in the inaugural AIMIA Customer Experience Forum today along with James Breeze (Objective Digital), Stuart Edwards (Profero), Yuri Narciss (Google) and Klaus Kaasgard (Telstra).

As a new group it’s not looking to compete in the same space as the UPA or CHISIG as it’s aimed less at practitioners and more squarely at the broader online business community.

My presentation was on ‘Innovation through Design Research’ which I’ve embeded below.

Are Apples Designs too Simple?

I’ve written a post on whether Apple’s approach to interface design is too simplistic over at the USiT Blog.  It’s a discussion piece around Bruce Tognazzin original post.

Excert:

…Now (confession time) not being an Apple aficionado I can’t really pass comment, however his general points seem quite valid. One of the founding principles of Interaction Design is to create solutions that are eminently understandable by the novice, but grow as the user become more competent then expert.

Read more….

Web 3.0, User Experience and Intelligent User Interfaces

If Web 2.0 was all about fostering social interconnectivity, then the loosely termed Web 3.0, appears to be about the intelligent web. It’s about, amongst other things, contextually aware user interfaces (UI’s), hyperconnectivity, the semantic web and intelligent agents. These are all concepts which have existed for a very long time. Primitive implementations of Intelligent UI’s and Knowledge based Expert Systems have been around for decades. Successive generations have tried, and largely failed, to get these working and so we’ve seen these technologies re-invented in waves. The failure was often due to both the primitive nature of the machine intelligence and the unwillingness of users to accept some measure of control being surrendered to the machine.

The latest wave promises better things, and maybe we are on the cusp of a time where both machine and human are ready to make the leap. The increasing symbiosis between machine and human has see many of the trust issues erode, as users come to accept that their lives could be made easier by allowing machines to take some degree of control. It may, therefore, be that we see an increase in the number of what Alan Kay termed ‘Indirect Management’[1] interfaces augmenting the now omnipresent direct manipulation interfaces, as the amount of information we have to process in our daily lives becomes too much to handle.

Indirect Management

Indirect Management means machines that learn our preferences, using inference, and that leverage the collective unconsciousness/knowledge of the web to help us manage information overload. Typically, software entities termed ‘agents’ would help manage our goals, tasks or activities.

I think the sheer volume, and nature of information, out there and the growing momentum behind the semantic web might give this wave a better chance of success. The idea that we directly manipulate everything places too much cognitive load on users, machines need to take up some of that slack, if we are to make sense of the digital world especially as computing become more ubiquitous (ubicom). This is a real challenge for those of us working in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Example of Indirect Management

So, a typical example of how this might work, and something of a familiar metaphor, would be the process of booking a holiday. In the real world we might visit a Travel Agent and give them our general holiday preferences and budget. They may even know us and have tacitly learnt some of our preferences from the past (that I had a bad experience on a particular airline or already know where we live and so can pick the best airport). We then trust them to use their expertise to look around and come back with options for us to choose from.

Now if we transpose this example to the web, it may be that we have a trusted advisor agent/site/application on the web (an entity of some sort that we turn to). It would have learnt from its past experiences dealing with us, can leverage expertise and knowledge it’s gained from talking to other customers (and other agents) and is an expert in knowing where to find the best deals and sources of travel information.

Interaction Design Implications

So what does this mean to us who work in the User Experience and Usability fields? Well, it’s still early days, but it may mean we need to surrender some degree of control at the interaction design level. We are used to crafting interfaces with well defined behaviours in mind. Indirect Management means we still design the touch points between the user and the machine, but also – perhaps – we need to create the rules and contracts that exist between human and machine below the interface, to in fact, define very primitive (rule based?) levels on intelligence.

Emergent Behaviour may well dictate the overall system intelligence and this is pretty hard to get a handle on. We can already see this sort of behaviour in numerous recommendation systems, such as Amazon, lastfm etc and their early ancestor, firefly. But these are just the beginning, the real challenges and issues lie ahead. These are exciting times.


[1] A. Kay, “User Interface: A Personal View,” in The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, B. Laurel, ed., Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass., 1990, pp. 191-207.

Redesign of news.com.au

This weekend saw the relaunch of the new news.com.au.

This is a project we’ve been working on for quite some time.  I’m really proud of the way it’s turned out, and it introduces a whole raft of new features not seen on any Australian media site before. These include:

  • Personalisation through drag’n’drop
  • Cookie based Personalisation, so no need to register
  • Ability to dynamically open sub-sections within the page (for instance you can now have a ‘Movies & Television’ content area show on the homepage itself)
  • A visual take on the news (click on the News Visualiser tab)
  • Improved page layout
  • Rationalised and simplified Information Architecture
  • Dynamic infotips and help
  • Improved, higher contrast font colours and typography
  • National & World sections which showcase the best news from around the world (we aggregate from other news sites)
  • Faster page load times
  • Improved navigation
  • Story pages which use highly contextualised linking to give you access to related stories
  • Story pages which include new site-wide navigational footers
  • Cleaner visual design
  • Improved Search form placement and optimised search results page

I’d like to hear any feedback you have on what we’ve done (both positive and negative welcome!)

Please, either reply here or on the news.com.au editorial blog.

User Centred Design Vs Activity Centred Design

I’m a self-proclaimed fan of ACD or as Constantine calls it, Usage Centred Design, as opposed to pure User Centred Design.  There are a number of discussions around this subject on our USiT Blog and the IxD list .  The prevailing opinion seems to be that pure UCD is a bit outmoded.

As we look at sites which have fragmented, or ill defined, audience profiles it’s hard to find commonalities in behaviours or attitudes.  However common activities, goals or tasks can be teased out, regardless of archetype.  Designing for these activities or usages gets us closer to a better design solution, perhaps, than attempting to design for several different user archetypes.

Furthermore, there can be little doubt that there are some negative connotations to being seen as purely the ‘User Advocate’ in a real life business environment.  Our job is to design successful, usable and elegant solutions.  Yes, we must fight for the optimal design solution, which by necessity must include the needs of our users, but we must also create designs which achieve business goals, are eminently findable and are technically feasible.  Sometimes these factors oppose each other and it’s our job to achieve a successful balance.

I think this discussion might just run and run, and does seem to be splitting the community.

Customisable UI’s

Generally, most UI’s tend to embody specific characteristics which make the chosen design solution better suited to some users and contexts than others. However, it is often the case that during the design process a range of different designs will have been considered to match the diversity of user populations and contexts-of-use.

The real problem, however, is that users can often vary so greatly in terms of their knowledge, experience, social and cultural background (this is particularly the case in sovereign posture type apps). They often exhibit a wide variety of cognitive characteristics and affective traits. These characteristics are interrelated and shaped by context. Even when such variety is constrained by the nature of the work, and systems can be carefully designed and constructed to meet a well-defined need, the users will continue to learn and develop both through organisational changes and through individual users changing over time. So how can we design a system that is everything to everybody? Well we can’t, all we can do is design a system that works well for the majority of users in the majority of contexts. However, by designing in a degree of customisability and/or personalisation into the system we can offer a decent halfway house solution to some of these problems.

Customisable systems have a built in flexibility that can accommodate many of the different characteristics user may have; they are designed to accommodate a wider range of interactions than systems with a single fixed design. For example, successful interaction between a human and car is facilitated by the ability of the car to be tailored to our needs. We can adjust the height of the seat or the position of the steering wheel. The wealth of options on our computer systems allows us to adapt the systems to better suit our needs, habits, preferences and purposes. I can remove various parts of the functionality of a UI, for example by having ‘short menus’, in order to make it more appropriate to my purpose. I can alter short cuts, command keys to make often used functions easier and quicker to accomplish. By allowing the user to make the UI their own, and customise it to suit their particular needs we can increase their efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction with the system. The alternative is to place some “intelligence” within the UI. This intelligence, can lead to the interface altering its form or presentation to suit the context of the task and the characteristics of the user. Adaptive UI’s haven’t really taken off, as users are not always comfortable sacrificing the locus of control to the machine, and may often be frustrated that the UI has altered it’s form without their consent.

So, for now customisable interfaces seem to offer an improved solution, although really well designed interfaces shouldn’t really alienate any type of user in the first place, regardless of their differences.

Internationalisation

International users of computer software have come to expect their software to “talk” to them in their own language. In many cases language barriers and nationalism preclude end-users from utilising English-language software. This is only part of the problem though, even for those that understand English, a major issue is productivity. Users who understand a product fully will be more skilled in handling it and avoiding mistakes. On a purely financial level, globalised software will lead to greater potential for the introduction of products, both in terms of penetration of new emerging markets, and by allowing greater reach to users in existing areas.

The value of internationalising software and user interfaces for the international market is no longer in question and in my opinion over the next few years, markets will be divided between those players who succeed by understand the importance of fast globalisation i.e. simultaneous localization of their products into all markets in all languages, and those that fail. A successful global product or service is not made only for a single language group, it is made for a global community of users. The price of not understanding this can be pretty high, according to the U.S. State Department, U.S. firms alone lose $50 billion in potential sales each year because of problems with translation and localization.

Internationalisation, though, it is not an easy task It is therefore essential to understand the needs and requirements of the international marketplace as early as possible in the development cycle, and then to build the capability to support these into the product design and development processes. It is important to develop the product in a modular, extendible, and accessible way, so that when the need to localise for a particular market arises, the localisation can be done as easily and cheaply as possible. Few people have an issue with the idea of developing open systems these days. This means products that are developed with an eye to scalability, portability and interoperability. It is my contention that a fourth important dimension of any open system as we move into the global marketplace is localisability.