Sunday, August 30, 2009

Patterns and Experience

Enjoyed giving my two presentations last week at SpeechTEK in New York. Both seem well received, especially the patterns talk. It's gotten 150+ views on Slideshare since, which is very gratifying!

See them both for yourself:

Sorry for the formatting issues in the second one. They appeared after the upload. Not sure what's going on.

Later this week, I'll offer thoughts on SpeechTEK, and some talking points I covered in the presentations.

Good to see lots of folks!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A few thoughts on Consistency

While going through the Apple human interface guidelines, the section on consistency of the interface spurred some thoughts. This has been an discussion-provoking topic within interaction and interface design for some time and most especially for voice interaction.

Many times I've altered a recently seen screen heading, a repeated phrase of instruction, a past sequence of events, or a previously-used command for context and have been accused of "being inconsistent". Most of the time, I've been able to effectively point out how the context allows or even demands the change. Other times I've simply had to say "let's see what data we get." Other, other times I've had to accede to uneducated demands. And I'm sure I will have those arguments again, but, for the record and perhaps the education of a few, here are reasons to be consistent and times where consistency is bad.

Consistency is important for:

- Meeting user expectations and allowing predictability. A thing that looks like a button should be press-able or click-able. If a task seems like it could be done more than once, users should be able to, easily. Be consistent with the good and useful things users know and expect that they learned elsewhere.

- Promoting understanding and predictability of meaning. Users want to get what is happening and will happen. In speech, this is why using good synonyms is so important. We wouldn't (I hope!) dream of telling the user, "Say the same thing you did last time." We'll allow "checking", "checking account", and "debit account" all to mean the same thing. Because they do. Consistency here is the continuity of meaning, not the continued use of identical words.

- Infrequently given instructions and commands/actions. If a user needs to remember something, it should be predictable between tasks and especially sessions.

Consistency is bad when:

- It becomes distractingly repetitive. Hearing or seeing a menu for a third time in a task sequence shouldn't be like the first instance. Repeated instructions and events are easily ignored or glossed over. Items offered in context are more easily absorbed.

- It makes the user wonder if they are in a loop or a previous action was ignored. Let the interaction adapt and implicitly let the user know that the UI is "aware" of the evolving engagement that is occurring.

- It mimics behaviors we would consider highly unusual in people. I.e., "You can choose either your savings account or your checking account. So, just say 'savings account' or 'checking account'." A person being that consistent with the word 'account' would be looked at sideways. Implicature works for machines, too. Better: "You can choose either your savings or your checking account. So, just say 'savings' or 'checking'." Even better: "You can choose either your savings or checking account. So, which one?"

The moral here is, like other design principles, consistency is a fantastic and powerful concept to employ in the right places and ways. Used thoughtlessly, it can cause confusion and discomfort. If you're unsure, study it, ask questions, and most of all, bounce your design ideas off others and listen to feedback. Consistency is not a hammer to use to pound on a design you simply disagree with. In fact, doing so usually is a sign of ignorance of proper design practices. And no one likes to seem ignorant.

Design well.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Update: Take back the beep!

David Pogue reports some success in his crusade to have the 4 major mobile providers change the way their voice-mail interacts with callers.

If you haven't yet, send an email to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint and let them know what you think.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

With better tools you can build more crap faster

Last week I attended a lecture given by a software development company offering a new development tool for mobile developers. They are tapping into the moves by Google and Palm toward the mobile web app framework versus the native app focus of Apple. While that is an interesting business battle to watch, the central point of the lecture focused on something more disturbing and worth our time actually engaging in as designers.

They started by pointing out stats that most of us know or expected: the apps in Apple's store are mostly failures. Many never capture a significant number of users and many that do show an initial spurt of purchases, then fall dramatically. The number of apps that have significant purchase and use over time is very small. To make things worse, the lecturers indicated that iPhone and other mobile apps typically require fairly large amounts of time and effort, meaning that the ROI for the vast majority of apps is very negative.

As a designer, my response was of course that the failing apps do not meet the criteria that any software must for successful adoption: usability, usefulness, and engagement. Meaning that most developers are really wasting their time in addition to the consumers and even Apple's. This company's response was far different from mine, though. They essentially are resigned to the current state that the widespread development of crappy apps is a permanent condition. Their solution to the problem as they see it is to greatly shorten the time and effort needed to develop. So, if we can build apps faster, then we can build more apps. And if we can build more apps faster, we increase our chances of getting lucky that one of them won't be crap.

While I can understand this logic, and it has a fine product marketing tradition backing it up, it is very flawed. Let's look at a few reasons:
- Consumers are rejecting these apps. Putting them up faster will not change that. Statistically, it will actually worsen the percentages.
- Building more apps will vastly increase the clutter that consumers have to deal with, leading to the probability that good apps will get lost in the madness.
- Failures lead to zero or negative ROI. Getting there faster is not a bad thing, but it is not a good driving goal for software tools.
- We are in the beginning (I continue to hope) of a design revolution. Aims such as this company's waste precious talent and time that could be used to make progress toward good design.

To be fair, the product looked interesting and useful. Perhaps it could be used to build better apps faster. And I certainly agree that experimentation and failure are part of the marketplace. However, creating better products for consumers is accomplished in large part by aiming to build better products, not simply more of the status quo, faster.

Share your thoughts about this below.

Good design in 2009.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Take back the beep!

Mobile phone company pre-recorded intros have bugged me for more 6 or 7 years. So I got fairly excited when I saw David Pogue's "Take Back the Beep" campaign start this week. Evidently he's had enough, too, of the 15-second blather that callers hear when they reach someone's mobile phone voicemail. You all know them. Those silly instructions about things you have no desire to do that stand in the way of what you want to do: leave a message.

So, Pogue has started a campaign to make those instructions optional and off by default. They waste time and money. I couldn't agree more! I'll enjoy watching, and helping, this develop for several reasons:

1) I hate this underhanded way of sucking more money out of customers. When will companies finally get that we will pay for good service? We hate paying for crap like this.

2) Much of the publicity for this is happening on Twitter. As with Facebook's TOU debacles, it is very interesting to see how the potential power of online social networks can make a difference.

3) I just love a good ol' public call on the carpet.

4) It's just the right thing to do.

So, see Pogue's articles above and here. You can take part, too. Write a quick note using the links and guidelines in the second article. Help bring a smidge more sanity to our increasingly mobile lives.