Archive for the ‘Experience design’ Category

Google and the end of SMS: by design flaw or design strategy?

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

I’ve been using Android 4.4 KitKat for a few weeks now and the only part of it I don’t particularly like is how Hangouts tries to combine SMS with what was previously Google Talk. There’s also several functional parts of the UI that really frustrate me.

The “swipe” gesture to archive a Hangout is fine… but more than once I’ve accidentally archived Hangouts trying to swipe to the list of recent hangouts. This is a hit area problem: if you don’t swipe accurately enough, you start deleting, er, “archiving” Hangouts. And if you don’t hit undo immediately, they then seem gone forever.

Hangouts on Android

But the real problem with Hangouts is the seemingly inconsistent searching of contacts between the phone app and Hangouts. Yesterday I watched my wife almost go crazy trying to send an SMS to her sister in law. When she searched for her name in the phone app, it was there no problem: but nothing came up when she searched in Hangout except for Google+ people. And tapping on any contact in the phone app simply calls them. There is no long hold interaction which seems very strange. After both of us fiddling around with the Nexus 5 we finally worked out if you tap on the contact photo and NOT the contact name, you then get more detail and the option of sending an SMS to that number.

Again, why there isn’t a long hold here really baffles me: surely that’s a very natural interaction for getting more details within an contact context?

Of course when I tried to replicate this contact issue with the same person on my Nexus, our sister in law came up no problem on my Hangouts (with phone number). But I found the identical problem with another contact:

Hangouts in Android 4.4

The same contact appears in both the phone and Hangouts app, but Hangouts doesn’t give me an option to send an SMS — only a Hangout chat.

The inconsistency here really interests me. Is this genuinely a design flaw, or are Google doing their utmost to try and push Hangout chats over traditional SMS? It would make sense for Google to be pushing Hangouts over SMS, and as an end user with a data plan I then wouldn’t have to worry about SMS costs (especially when it comes to messaging people abroad). And with the news today of Facebook buying WhatsApp, Google trying to catch up with Hangouts would obviously be strategic.

So the question still remains: is this confusing and inconsistent contact searching on Android 4.4 on purpose or is it just bad UI design? Knowing Google, I suspect it’s probably the latter.

Using elements of gamification to help create engaging infographics and data visualisations

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Since the start of this year I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how gamification and game mechanics can create more engaging user experiences.

Many of these gaming concepts work also wonderfully for data visualisation and interactive infographics (and what other else you want to call them depending on your specific vernacular).

Consider your users as players

All great games have story lines. The same is true for data visualisations: if you’re not telling a story, then what exactly are you visualising? Just as players explore a game and its narrative, think about the users of your data visualisations in the same context.

The most powerful way to do this is by making the data relevant to the user (or player!). Make the data relevant to them. Take for instance The Guardian’s recent NSA Files interactive.

Guardian NSA

The Guardian uses the size of your social network on Facebook to demonstrate how vast the NSA surveillance net is and illustrates these numbers with familiar concepts: the size of a train, capacity of famous landmarks and populations of actual countries.

The BBC’s How Big Really? is another great example of this: simply enter your location anywhere in the world and it will overlay significant geographic data over your local area to give you a great insight into the size of certain events.

BBC How Big Really?

Cascading information theory

Games reveal chunks of plot to a player slowly — much like any narrative (books, films etc.). Often this is done after completing tasks in the game: kill that bad guy, find a clue or drive to a specific location. Tell your story in parts for maximum impact.

Last year for the Olympics I was designing a data visualisation for the BBC allowing users to see how they compared to Olympians in regard to height and weight. I spent a lot of time working on the actual visualisation of the data and realised after user testing that I’d really neglected the introduction to the data. Putting a scattergraph in front of users (especially those not into data or numbers) can be really off-putting.

I took a step back and thought about the story I was trying to tell: that Olympians come in all shapes and sizes. So I took the tallest and lightest Olympians and placed them on the introduction. It was a great way to begin telling this particular story. While users could enter their height and weight and be plotted on the scattergraph amongst the Olympians, they could also just click on either the tallest or shortest athlete and be taken into the dataset that way.

BBC Olympics

Here Is Today also does a wonderful (and far better) job at cascading information to the user as they explore the visualisation.

Here Is Today

Feedback loops and interaction design

Arguably the core of all games (and pretty much anything interactive) are built upon feedback loops. You hit fire on a controller and a rocket will launch on screen along with an audible “whoooooosh” sound effect. This cause-and-effect cycle is key to both gaming and interaction design in general. It’s one of many reasons why Candy Crush is so addictive: it’s a constant series of feedback loops accompanied by stimulating colour and sounds.

All the examples listed above feature a lot of polished interaction design (and feedback loops). The web abounds with amazing interaction design, but for a fantastic example of great interaction design/feedback loops on data visualisations, have a look at Periscopic’s Inequality Is (which is also a great example of all the elements discussed here).

Inequality Is

In conclusion, gamification and game mechanics can definitely help create wonderful and engaging data visualisations. But the more well-known elements of gamification such as badges and level ups don’t really work here: we need to look at what elements of gaming can help us tell the story that lies at the heart of the data.

The terrible design of Sainsbury’s self-checkout

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

“Mate, your fiver is down there” I say to the stranger in front of me using the self-checkout machine at Sainsbury’s.

I was waiting to buy my lunch while the man in front of me was confounded by the self-checkout machine he had just fed £10 into. His change was somewhere — but where? The machine beeped at him and the screen and the spooky automated voice of a detached actress both prompted him to collect his change.

Part of my job is observing people trying to use systems and interfaces. I was sliding into this “observation mode” when I realised this wasn’t a test at all, it was a real life situation where someone was confused by the system at hand. So that’s when I spoke up and showed him the money (literally).

Yesterday I assisted someone in a similar situation in the same Sainsbury’s: they had actually walked away from the self-check with £10 still in the change dispenser. When I realised he’d forgotten it I rushed over to him and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing to his money saying “Excuse me, I think you’ve left your change”. He gratefully retrieved his money and thanked me.

But even that wasn’t the first time in the exact same Sainbury’s this had happened: A few weeks back I inherited a £5 from exactly the same machine where someone had forgotten their change and had long gone. Good for me, bad for them.

Self-checkouts have been much-maligned, but as someone who pays almost exclusively with card, I find them quite good. But if you’re paying cash it soon becomes apparently they are a truly awful system.

Consider this photo of the Sainsbury’s self-checkout:

Sainsbury's self-checkout
Says it all really. Was this ever actually tested with real users?

13 Hilariously Funny and Amusing Bitstrips Cartoons You Must See

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine you’ve seen an influx of Bitstrips lately.

Based on my experience of using Bitstrip, here’s thirteen Bitstrips you must see (eat your heart out, Buzzfeed).


Who said what: when a game isn’t a game

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Over the years a trend in content has emerged where users are invited to compare two controversial yet radically different people and their quotes in the form of a simple quiz or game. A particularly good example of this from a few years ago was Charlie Sheen v Muammar Gaddafi: whose line is it anyway? from The Guardian.

It’s straightforward, and while not the slickest experience, it’s genuinely interesting to compare the rants of Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi.

Jeremy Clarkson. Ick.

A similar concept was recently launched by The Times comparing Caitlin Moran to Jeremy Clarkson. Visually and experience-wise it’s far more engaging than The Guardian’s earlier efforts — and indeed the product team might’ve taken some inspiration from some of the Us Vs Th3m interactive “toys”.

But there’s a major flaw with the Caitlin v Clarkson “quiz”. As soon as you get a question wrong, that’s it: the game is over. This is a terrible quiz; it’s not an X/10 score, it’s just a single number that honestly has a 50% chance of being zero from the start of the quiz.

The biggest problem here is that as soon as you get one question wrong, you have to start over. That’s actually the beauty of these quizzes: the actual chances of you getting 10/10 are very slim. The fun part is exploring these daft and controversial quotes. Thinking “Did they really say that?

By kicking a user out as soon as they’re wrong The Times has basically removed a huge element of fun. They’ve created a game without game: it’s unforgiving and quite un-fun solely because of the scoring approach. And trying again with repeat questions? That’s a chore.

In these situations let people guess away. It’s not a real test: it’s just a more exciting way of exploring two contrasting personalities.

Prescribed: A personalized tour of Obamacare

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

The Wall Street Journal published a great interactive piece today entitlted “Prescribed: A personalized tour of Obamacare“.


I was particularly excited by the tagline:

Explore how America’s health-care overhaul will affect you on this first-person adventure.

Personalized and adventure? This sounds like it has an element of gamification or game narrative.

I don’t want to detract from Prescribed for a second as I genuinely believe it’s an excellent interactive guide but after my initial exploration it felt it lacked slightly on the ‘adventure’ and ‘personalization’. The first person perspective is great, but the only input into the narrative I have as a user is the ability to explore facts as the story progresses.

I wonder if a simple change to the narrative might help improve this sense of adventure and personalization. For instance, in the “Is My Employer Affected” section, Prescribed explains the differences between employers with 50 or more employees and ones with fewer. Instead of just talking through this, why not throw the question straight to the user?

Prescribed 2

Now regardless of what the user inputs, the voice over could continue to explain the differences: but the big difference is as a user I really do feel more like this is personalized to my situation by simply adding in some very simply game dynamics.

There’s an even better opportunity for this when a surly manager approaches the camera and tells the user “we need to talk about your hours”.

Prescribed 3

A side link offers to take the user to an explanation of what’s considered “full time”:

Prescribed 4

However, by asking the user how many hours a week they work it makes the journey into this explanatory video feel far more personalised and relevant. The video content probably wouldn’t need to change — but by simply getting the user to interact with their own situation the feeling of personalisation and relevance is surely far greater.

Prescribed is still a great new format — and I hope the Wall Street Journal continue with it — and that other media outlets can steal be influenced by it.

UX Scotland Round-up

Monday, July 1st, 2013

It’s been almost a week now since the inaugural UX Scotland up in sunny Edinburgh. Here’s my round-up of what I saw and what themes came up during the two days of talks and discussions.

Overall I think the most interesting theme I took from the conference was that of context. A lot of this started on day one after a goldfish discussion on the future of broadcasting and was cemented by Giles Colborne’s keynote on day two which looked exactly at context and what it means for user experience.

Context is a great challenge for user experience designers: getting the context right for a user is a wonderful experience. But getting context wrong and it the experience is awful. Getting context right is the real challenge.

UX Scotland

Day one

After a quick intro from the organisers (Software Acumen) Jeff Gothelf kicked off the talks with the first keynote: “Better Product Definition with Lean UX & Design Thinking“. This was a great reminder of how products can (and will) fail if you simply make assumptions about your users. The demise of Plancast is a stark reminder of how not really considering your users can lead to disaster.

I was lucky enough to be talking next: my debut presentation of Play & Engage: Practical Ways to Gamify Your Content. (There’s also a fairly comprehensive blog post of my key points available too). Unfortunately on at the same time was Graham Odds talking about data visualisation, which I really wanted to see — you should check out his slides if only to admire some masterful and beautiful CSS3.

Next up: Martin Belam took a look at “Designing ‘The Bottom Half of the Internet“. He took us through the love-it-or-hate-it world of comments and demonstrated some truly staggering douchebaggery in the form of comments left on Holly Brockwell’s blog after her open letter to Hyundai regarding their awful ‘suicide ad’. A key lesson for anyone involved in moderation: comment often. It seems most commenters are not unlike five year old children (are you really surprised?) and some grown up presence seems to help them behave.

Then I sat in for a double-feature of internationalisation and user experience: Chui-Chui Tan gave us some great insight into how different cultures use technology with Your Mobile Experience Is Not Theirs. Chris Rourke followed this up with Cross Cultural UX Research – Best Practices for International Insights that gave some valuable insight into working internationally (and user testing remotely to boot).

After this was a real highlight: the goldfish discussion on broadcasting in a multi-device world. Rhys Nealon from STV kicked off the discussion with several industry figures — and it soon went from being a panel discussion into a general group discussion which was fantastic. Pretty much everyone attending contributed: it’s amazing how everyone has an opinion on consuming television content.

But the overriding challenge in this multidevice world soon emerged as context. How can Netflix (or any other product) differentiate between me watching Games of Thrones and then my children watching Sesame Street — without a myriad of different logins? How can we balance discovery with curation? Not many answers from this discussion but some very exciting questions.

To end the day Sam Nixon from RBS took us through a look at the future of money and specifically digital money services. How can we make online banking more useful? He provided some great insights into how useless breaking down your ‘monthly’ spend is and instead proposed easier and smarter payment systems (such as Barclay’s Pingit) will be the real future of digital money (along with a few mentions of — of course — Bitcoin).

That’s was the end of day one: time to head over to the Voodoo Rooms for some hard earned drinks (and some very fine curry).

Day Two

As I’ve already touched on, Giles Colborne added nicely to the context theme with his in-depth talk looking at all facets of context and how it affects user experience.

Following this was an immensely fun and very useful look at “How to Make Your First UX Comic or Storyboard” with Bonny Colville-Hyde. I’ve been sketching here and there for my whole life but this certainly gave me some inspiration to take it much further.

UX Comic
Look! I made a comic!

After another wonderful lunch over looking the Salisbury Crags, Ian Fenn took us through his experience in “Getting UX Done” which had a nice element of humour in amongst practical advice on dealing with all manner of challenges. Immediately after Mike Atherton took a look at “Brand-Driven Design“. A glass of whiskey and some cigar smoke would’ve nicely rounded off his look at advertising from the 60s and how brand is a fundamental part of any experience.

The final presentation of the day came from Cathy Wang. In “The Future in Designing for the Sex(es)” she explored what future implications the blurring of gender might have for experience design.

And thus concluded two days of diverse and very interesting look into UX. Fantastic talks, great venue and awesome people really made it worth the trip up (not that I ever need much of an excuse to go to Edinburgh). It’ll be great to see what UX Scotland 2014 has to offer next year.

Potluck: social networks as an endless game

Friday, June 28th, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “endless games” and how they apply to content. From SCVNGR’s game dynamics playdeck:

Endless games: Games that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual games that can refresh their content or games where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

This same mechanic is at work within almost all social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even Quora. It’s a simple concept: every time you return to any of these social networks, there’s something new for you. Something to read, something to discuss, a funny animated GIF, a link to explore — and on and on. The fact you’re getting something new and unknown whenever you return to a social network is one reason they have become such a powerful part of digital life.

And that’s why I was quite excited about Potluck — a social network dedicated to sharing links. As a link junky this sounded like a wonderful proposition. From their homepage:

Discover new things your friends think are cool (that you wouldn’t find otherwise!).

Sounded pretty good. I signed up and even sent it to work colleagues and tweeted it out. I connected to around a dozen people on the first day. Found some nice new links. A good start. But since yesterday afternoon?

Zip. Nothing is happening. Just tumbleweeds rolling by.

What motivation do I have to return to Potluck?

Zero. There’s nothing new there.

Critically, because it’s only very new and I only have a few connections, of course there’s likely to be little there. Where are the link suggestions? Trending links? Popular links? There is literlaly no reason for me to bother ever signing in again. Am I missing some part of the site? Or is it really just meant to be like this?

Potluck has failed at creating a sense of an endless game, and for me that means it’s failed entirely as a social network concept.

It’s incredible that a product with such an impressive team behind it (Evan Williams and Biz Stone to name just two) could be launched like this. This isn’t even beta.

Potluck describes itself as The best house party you’ve ever been to. On the internet.

Alas, this seems more accurate…

Forever alone

Play & engage: practical ways to gamify your content

Thursday, June 13th, 2013
This is a preview of a talk I’m giving at UX Scotland on June 20, 2013. If you’re heading up to Edinburgh, please come and listen to me speak!

While I’ve worked under various job titles over the years, much of my work has consisted of creating and maintaining the best possible experiences related to content-rich websites across a broad-range of areas — including arts, news, sport and even transport.

A lot of this experience design has to do with navigation and information architecture. But beyond this, what happens to a user once they’ve found their content? A good experience shouldn’t end there. But even if your content is superbly written, edited and laid-out, sometimes there’s a limit to the impact you can have just with the written word. Sometimes we can do more with far less – and this is where we can look to the world of gaming for assistance.

Yes, I’m suggesting we can gamify content for the better. But perhaps not in the way you’re thinking (and possibly dreading).


The Webby Awards and what Government sites really need to be?

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

Earlier this year, the new UK Government portal GOV.UK won “Design of the Year” from the Design Museum. But this wasn’t just in the web or digital category — it was THE design of the year. The site was valued higher than the architecture and construction of The Shard and even the Olympic Cauldron from London 2012. An amazing precedent for digital work that rightly illustrates what a tremendous and ground-breaking project GOV.UK is and continues to be.

Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, sums up GOV.UK nicely:

all the things that we would like to take for granted from the Government but, in a sea of red tape and jargon, usually can’t

When the 2013 Webby Awards were announced at the end of April, I made a casual assumption that GOV.UK would make the list of awards. However, it didn’t. But what I find interesting is perhaps not so much GOV.UK’s omission, but more what the actual winner of the 2013 Webby Awards for Government website was.

Hold on folks, strap your bullet-proof vest on and cock your pistol: this shit is about to GET REAL. Ladies and gentlemen, take cover as you visit MILWAUKEE POLICE NEWS.COM. (If you’ve got motion sickness pills, take them now: the parallax is like a stormy sea).


Wow. They say the Webbys are “The Oscars” of the web — and in this case Michael Bay and Vin Diesel have just won. The site is missing one thing: Bad Boys by Inner Circle playing in the background. The site is seriously like an episode of cops… but in some strange futuristic world or perhaps a different dimension.

I’ve not been to Milwaukee, but I was always under the impression it was a quite nice place. However, after visiting this site I’m concerned that Milwaukee is a cross between Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and a city in some Latin American narco-state. (The most wanted section is particularly indicative of this).

I’ve actually got no idea who this site is for. I can’t even see any way to contact Milwaukee Police on this site. There’s not even a single mention of 911 on the page. There is a link to how you can pay parking tickets, but it’s about 10,000 pixels down the page just above the sexy photo of a SWAT van.

So, GOV.UK clearly has a lot to learn from MILWAUKEE POLICE NEWS.COM and their Webby triumph. As a proud British resident (and almost citizen), I’ve decided to help out the nice folks at GOV.UK and redesign their homepage to make it more better and stuff.

Check it out: the new and improved GOV.UK.