Archive for the ‘Interaction 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.

IMDb ratings of all Doctor Who episodes

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Recently I downloaded all of the IMDb’s ratings with a view of creating a visualisation of Doctor Who ratings across the entire 800 episodes (and fifty years) of the show. Being more of an original series fan I was curious how the older episodes rated against the newer ones. The results are quite interesting: check out the interactive visualisation or explore the data in the far-less-exciting tables below.

IMDb ratings of Dr Who visualised


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?

A minor user experience improvement for the Liberal Party of Australia

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

I don’t often find myself visiting the website of the Liberal Party of Australia. Politics aside however, when I did stumble across the site today, a newsletter subscription form pop-up welcomed me:


Sadly, these sorts of annoyingly desperate newsletter pop-ups are fairly ubiquitous online these days. However, can you see how to actually close the window?


If you look above the National Party leader Warren Truss and squint you can just about spot a little white “x”.

Obviously, from a user experience perspective, closing this window (that 99% of users will probably want to do) isn’t an easy task. The simple solution? Of course, make the “x” larger and more prominent.

Perhaps this would work better? Let’s put the X in the most prominent place possible… over the face of Liberal leader Tony Abbott:


Much, much better.

(To be fair, I’m up for putting big crosses over any politician’s face… but with the exception of The Nationals, no other major Australian parties nag their users like this. So Tony will have to do for now!)

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.

Hollow: an interactive documentary

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

If you’ve got a spare ten to fifteen minutes, I really recommend checking out Hollow Documentary. It’s a genuinely interesting look at the rise and fall of small town America (brought to life through Kickstarter).


In amongst the beautiful visuals and mind-boggling amounts of parallax interaction, there’s a particularly interesting design choice: “locked” content that is only available after watching other parts of content. A legitimate piece of gamification at work within a far larger, complex narrative. This might not be that new, but the execution in Hollow’s documentary is really well done: I think because it does present such a strong and compelling story that discovering more is a reward in itself.

The parallax scrolling ties in with however patient you’re feeling: there’s a huge amount of content, and you can either skim through quite quickly enjoying the visuals and the odd sound clip or take your time and soak up every little detail.

My only criticism of the website? A poor choice of target platform: desktop only.

Alas, desktop only...

This type of content experience is where tablets really excel. It’s a shame it wasn’t developed with that in mind — not only are they excluding a large market, they’re also denying them a great experience.

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.

Rethinking human verification: transforming the mundane and frustrating into playful and fun

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

Sometimes it seems like the more technology we use to make our lives easier the more frustrations we are subjected to. Take for instance my own personal pet hate online: the awful CAPTCHA.


Reviled by all, CAPTCHA’s have become an accepted burden online. It feels like these unpleasant snippets of mangled text have become the first line defence in a war against machines and bots — based on the theory that humans are able to decipher these riddles better than machines. For now, at least.

CAPTCHA: Rise of the machines

Many alternatives to CAPTCHA have been proposed. Some of the best defence systems against bots are actually invisible to users — for instance the honeypot technique. The less human users are bothered the better, but there is another alternative approach that works remarkably well: so well, in fact, that it’s actually quite fun doing it.

When Facebook registers unusual activity on an account — for instance logging in from a new computer or overseas — it will often prompt the user to verify their identity.

One option it gives is identifying friends in photos.


This approach well and truly turns user verification into a simple game: you get three photos of five friends you must identify (and two skips — which is useful in case it shows you the photos of some friend’s baby or dog or other randomly tagged photo).

The photos chosen are totally random and the process is quite fun. Not only does it make a serious issue like security verification a positive experience, the entire process is so great because the alternatives — such as CAPTCHAS — are so absolutely awful.

Facebook is different from say a ticket booking website in that is does have the luxury of having a huge amount of personal data to draw on. But surely with some creativity many websites could find a more creative way to filter out bots?

Let’s say, for instance, I’m trying to order some Black Sabbath tickets. Why not ask me to identify Black Sabbath from a group of images (or some music as an accessible alternative)?

Black Sabbath

Beats the hell out of a CAPTCHA — even though it might involve a bit of Justin Bieber.