Information Technology, User Analysis, User Experience, User-centered Design

In the previous post, we discussed useless and useful products. We also saw a few real life examples of these. Before delving into the usable products, let me now give away the answers to the quiz we had last time. Well, most of you who responded were correct about 80%.  Please refer to my previous post for a quick look at the images I am referring to, below.

Images 1A, 1B and 1C

 These are the pictures of a specific Hand Dryer installed in a common rest room ( I would not disclose more details, but I have seen a lot of people banging their hands first and heads on it later). Let us go by the process of elimination to decide which category this belongs to. First, it is not a usable product, as it does not give any greater user experience than what it is intended for, i.e., drying wet hands. You might argue that it has great looks and more presentable, but as I mentioned earlier, great user interface does not make a product usable. If you want to assess the usability of this product using the ‘Ten Heuristics of Jakob Nielsen’, well, it flouts the very first heuristic principle ‘indicate the system status clearly’. Nowhere on the dryer or near it or surrounding it, could you see an indication such as a button, LED or any small pointer that indicates that it is working. So, I think we can safely conclude that this is ‘not usable’.

What about the next category in our hierarchy? Is it useful? Well, to be honest, you need to place your hands everywhere from a few inches to a few feet from this machine, and still no clue of drying the air. There is a lot of uncertainty in using this specific machine and within a few seconds, the user’s emotions change from anticipation to disappointment, and from that to frustration and finally results in irritation and despondency. The core intended function of the machine is to dry hands and it does not do that, so I conclude this is not useful either. So, that leaves with the third option, a potentially ‘useless’ product.

Image 2A

This is the image of a floor map of a building listing the companies according to the floors they are in. Interestingly, everything appears to be in place and we almost tend to put it under the ‘usable’ product category. Please have a look at it and think again. No doubt, it is well laid out, it has neat colours and it is clutter-free. No doubt that it is giving the required information for the user about the floor and the companies in that floor. However, if you look closely, it does not comply with one of the key usability principles – product’s appearance or behaviour should be closer to the conceptual model of user or context. This will ensure that the product is more realistic.

In reality, the layout of a building with multiple floors is typically that the Ground floor is at the bottom, first floor comes next and the floors increase in number as we go up. So, users typically think of a building as something that starts with Ground Floor at the bottom most and the top floor at the top. However, in the image 2A from the example, the floor plan is in reverse order, where the Third floor starts at the bottom and the ground floor is at the top. Steve Crug rightly says in his book, ‘Don’t make me think’, products should be intuitive and easy for users to understand, learn and use. The floor map board makes the users think at least for a short while to map the floor map shown to the actual layout of the floors in the building, just so that they go to the correct floor and company they wish to. So, I think that this product fails to be tagged as ‘usable’. You can certainly classify it as a useful product, though.

 Images 3A, 3B

The pictures shown are from an example which I have read in an eBook on User-centred Design. These are the images of a screen in a popular image-editing software application. Unlike the previous two examples, these two images do not belong to the same category. Image 3A is of a form which asks users to select a few options to set as text properties. As we discussed before, in the elimination process, this product cannot be considered as usable, because user has to spend some time figuring out what this page really is, and what needs to be done on it. I called it ‘figuring out’ to be politically correct, but the equivalent phrases are ‘confusion’, ‘having lost in the woods’ and ‘not knowing what to do’. So, this flouts the basic rules of usability and hence cannot be called as ‘usable’. At the most, it is a ‘useful’ product.

The image 3B is nothing but a slightly touched up image of the same form, but the small changes make a huge benefit for the user. Using simple Gestalt laws of grouping, the same options are presented in a rather ‘clearer’ and ‘logical’ manner.So I would rather treat this as a usable product.  Notice that there are no changes in technology, functionality, colours or fonts used. Using a simple yet powerful principle, we could change the entire user experience of this screen. And that is why I say that like Quality, ‘Usability is free’ too!

 In the next post, we will examine in detail as to what constitutes a usable product and how to bring in usability into a rather normal product.

Information Technology, User Analysis, User Experience

Usability, usable products, user experience…nowadays we come across these terms more often in the software product development area. We have heard of the words such as useless, useful in our early years and these are generally used in our daily life. Haven’t you ever wondered what usable products mean? How can one define a product as usable? What makes a product step up from being useful to usable? Well, I would like to put a product’s progression in the following form:

useless –> useful –> usable and then reusable. This does not however mean that every product needs to start from the first step nor does it need to go in the same order of progress. Often times, we heard people chide others as useless. However, I wish to restrict the scope of this discussion only to products. For ease of association, I wish to use similes from our real life usage to bring forth the differences clearly.

Useless Products

Products which are of no use to anybody can be called useless. In my terms of the 3 factors that contribute to a product (business viability, functional utility and technical feasibility), these products lack any or all of them. If I were to draw a normal distribution of the products in our world today, useless products could be about 10% of the curve. No product owner would like to create useless products. Even those products which were once useful tend to get useless over time, due to various factors. Due to the Marketing myopia, the product owner would have done nothing to keep the product up-to-date and in line with the users’ needs. Let me give a few examples from real life products.

As is where is

I think it was almost a decade ago, beeper was introduced into the market.  This device was intended to send and receive short messages sent from a telephone. You could see the phone number from which the message came from and in a few advanced devices, you could also read text messages. At that time, it was a success considering that it was adopted really fast by users. I remember every sales person used to carry this device and pretty much showed off as a cool gizmo. But over time, it died a slow death. Why am I referring to this as a useless product now? Well, the electronic manufacturers could not take the technology (including hardware and software) ahead and improve the product with the evolving user needs.

Pretty and cool but…

Products also could become useless if they fail to deliver the business benefits. Some products have amazing functionality and great looks. But if they fail to deliver the business value to the owners, they are bound to be failures. A case in point is Supersonic Jet Concorde. Positioned as the most comfortable and fastest mode of communication between two continents, the concorde was a brilliant product with well-thought out design and great technology. I heard that the scientists used Lateral Thinking technique to design the cockpit of this plane. In spite of all these good things, the product was called off air, partly because of the huge maintenance cost from the management and few takers due to its prohibitive cost.

Motorola was once considered as the most creative organisation in the world, what with their six-sigma processes and bleeding-edge technology products. Back in the 1990’s Motorola, together with a few other companies launched ‘Iridium’, the satellite phone. With a tagline that says, “Geography is now history”, Iridium was positioned as the phone that world would need. However, this phone too faced the same problems as the Concorde did. It did not make any sense to the users to invest in a such a hugely expensive phone. I think at that time, it would have been less expensive to travel from India to UK and meet the person, than to use Iridium and have a call with him/her.

Useful Products

These are the products that meet the needs of the users. Simply put, they work and ensure that their users get something out of them. Most of the products today belong to this category. In my normal distribution of the products, I would attribute about 80% to these products. They are better than the useless products in the sense that they cater to all the 3 factors – business, technology and functionality. These products often are generic, run-of-the-mill stuff which are just meant to be non-personal and cold to their users. They fit to what Ford used to refer “any car as long as it is black”. Most of the products that we have out there in the market belong to this category.  They are designed and developed well and they meet the expectations of most of the users.

Why we have many ‘useful’ products around

The problem, in my opinion, with these products is that they tend to stagnate over time and pretend as if they are living in their own world. Over time, they tend to lose their contact and stop evolving with users’ needs. These products do have a shelf-life and could even face a sudden death when they reach their end of life. Even the product owners tend not to improve the products because they their focus drift away from users’ real needs to mere money-making and using advance technologies.

There are tons of examples for this kind of products if only you look outside. Almost all the products except the top-5 leading brands and vendors in every area, industry and walk of life belong to this category. The reason why most useful products do exist today is because users tend to develop habits and love to retain their habits and hate changing them often. Often, these habits are not as good as they were sometime before and would only degrade the performance of users.

So, what do we need to make these products usable? Well, first let us try and understand what usable products are and then check out the options that we have to move up the continuum.

Usable Products

These products bring delight to their users. They are loved, admired and aspired for by users and non-users alike. These products are warm, personalised, adjust to users’ needs and wants and are highly respected for their thought-leadership. The usable products go beyond the product specifications and serve their users’ needs- both explicit and implicit needs.

Usable products are far and few. They are desired for by most product owners. However for want of expertise, experience and guidance, they fall short of the required steps in making their products usable. In the future posts, I will describe this in greater detail as to how a product can be made usable. Just to make this an interactive exercise, I give below a few examples from real life. You can write back to me in the comments which category these products fall into.

Interactive Quiz on Usability

Agile Development, Business Analysis, Business Case, Information Technology, Usability Testing, User Analysis, User Experience, User Stories, User Studies, User-centered Design

Hurrah! It’s a joyous and proud occasion for all of us at the RSC and Rave. If you wonder why, well, RSC Publishing’s new content delivery platform, ‘RSC Publishing beta’ was launched today. Released as beta, which is bound to have further improvements, even as it stands today, this product is undoubtedly one of the finest platforms in the ‘STM publishing’ area. It is the culmination of various factors that resulted in the successful planning, execution, delivery of this platform. This is the combined victory for users, technology, agile methodology, collaborative team work and of course, sustained commitment and support from the RSC.

Refer http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2010/betaplatform.asp for more details on this.

When Taj Mahal was completed after almost a decade since the work was started, everybody who was involved in making it was excited and overjoyed to see it complete. This list included the persons who just carried bricks to the site. So also with the newly launched platform, everybody who has been part of the development project has a reason to smile today. With the beta launch, which can be equated to completing one pillar of the Taj Mahal, I think it is time for us to pause and reckon the project’s history. Being involved with the development of this platform from the beginning, I will try and give you a peep into how it all happened.

First, there was the Vision

The stakeholders at the ‘RSC Publishing’ had a dream, a shared vision of building a content platform that powers the Chemistry community with quick and easy access to the Chemistry content. Not just that, they envisaged that the platform delivers their content using superior technologies with the right user-experience. It all started with understanding their visions and expectations of the product and then we arrived at the unified product vision and roadmap.

Well begun is half done

As we discussed in the last few posts, in the software product development, if we align our processes to the users’ needs and their tasks, that product will be successful. The same happened with the RSC Publishing platform too. Right from the word go, they realised that ‘User’ is the engine that powers the rest of the product development. The team started off to gather intelligence about the users and arranged for some user studies in three different continents. Sound domain knowledge, being in the publishing industry for decades, added to the rich insights and contextual usage related data from the users. The end-result, a clear idea of what needs to go into the product and that exactly helped push the platform to the next stage.

Blueprint for the building

You cannot build a house without an architectural layout and blueprint. Similarly we cannot develop a software product without sound architecture and framework. When I say architecture, it does not mean just technical architecture. Task-flow re-engineering and information architecture also form part of laying the foundation for the product. Studying the existing systems and understanding the non-functional requirements helped build a solid technical framework, while user studies helped get closer to the conceptualisation of the structure of the user interface. Both these formed the foundation on which the entire application was built in the later stages.

Mantra behind the yantra

Can anything great be ever achieved without Technology? Definitely not, in this era of computers, and mobile phones. If Computer is the ‘yantra’ or machine, software is the ‘tantra ‘ that runs it. Here too, the right selection and implementation of technologies played a great role in ‘building’ the product from scratch. Because this platform is a content delivery product, RSC team selected a contemporary technology such as XML to help manage the complexity, volume and structure of content. Also, the selection of the content server technology played a critical role in storing the content effectively and delivering it faster. Also on the front end, superior technologies backed by integrated teams helped in shaping up a nice-looking and simple interface to the platform.

Go back to the user

It was good to have a clear understanding of the user needs and designing the product based on that knowledge. However, we cannot accomplish true user-centred design and development unless we close the loop by getting the product evaluated by users. It was again with the help of the key product owner and marketing team, we could arrange a few user tests and feedback sessions. These helped a great deal in correcting some issues which were not noticed till then.

Two teams – one goal

Hillary and Tensing could not have scaled Mount Everest individually. It is only by coming together and working together that they could achieve the feat. I think the Agile methodology’s paired programming concept would have been applied by them. In the case of the platform development too, collaborative team work has been the mantra for success. With dedicated and smart members working on both sides, RSC and Rave continued to leverage the  benefits of agile development methodologies. Continual interactions, empathy and collaborative working had proved to be the key turning points in this project.

There is only one way

And that is the way forward. With feet firmly on the ground, we are now poised to surge ahead with focus, renewed energy and the continued support from stakeholders and users. Now that the platform is in front of the users, we expect lot of feedback, comments and suggestions to come from the user community. The potential next steps are -addition of new functionality, changes to the existing features, usage of advanced technologies and fine tuning the overall application architecture for better serving the users. This would help us continue our march towards making the product better, quicker, simpler and a joy for the users and also for us, to be associated with the platform.

Here is the final score card, at the end of the play:

Users – 10 points, Technology – 10 points, Business – 10 points, Team work- 10 points! (On a scale of 0 to 10) victory to one and all. The game did not end here and now. It just began.