Google, Apple and their mobile user experience: Twitter review

An interesting peek at Google Usability Labs in NYC

The patent system is broken and Apple stays in the way of the future:

Best April’s fool ever: Google Translate for Animals!

iPhone is getting a big brother… actually twins! (via @intomobile)

Every time you make a Powerpoint Tufte kills a kitten

Follow me at @gventuri

User research

A remote change for user research?

What happens when we can carry out user research and testing remotely? Do we need to change the way we work?

The answer to this question is: “No“.

I recently had a chance of carrying out a research and usability testing consulting for a keyword research service based here in London. This experience led me to many interesting insights that I decided to share with the user experience community at the European conference of the Usability Professional Association in Turin (coming soon next week, 6-8 December).

This talk is about remote user research and testing; my feeling is that this practice is still seen as a ‘poor cousin’ of other user centred design techniques.

Well, remote user research is probably going to be a big change in the user experience. In my view, we still have just started seeing this change happen.

The problem is well know: the difficulty in selecting representative users for user research or testing. This is especially true for those B2B applications that have a very specialised, small but high value target audiences. In this case, it is of very little value of doing research or testing with anybody else. For example, where are you going to find stock market traders or – as in my case – Search Engine Marketing (SEM) specialists?

You won’t find these people on the street, waiting for you to come out and ask them questions. You have to rely on your’s and your client’s network to find them.

Even when you find them, it won’t be easy to convince them coming to your office for a one-hour usability test. This would probably take them half-a-day, and they won’t have that luxury. Even when they have, you are still constrained to users in your area, unless you have time and money to travel to other regions, countries, continents. To circumvent this problem, some usability consultancies, have established solid networks to carry out international usability studies. These help where also differences in language and culture play a big part in the user experience.


  1. What if in your case differences in language and culture don’t play a big part?
  2. What if you want to carry out this kind of study or test on a budget?

The case study

In my case, the firm I was consulting for had a strong customer base in US, more than 50%, about 30% in UK and the remainder in other EU countries. Language and culture in this case was not much of a barrier. Budget and distance were.

What we did was using a desktop sharing and conferencing tool facility to carry out remote user research.

Remote user research methods

Remote user research and testing’ is where the user and the facilitator are in different places. Remote user research can fall into two categories, ‘synchronous’ and ‘asynchronous’.

  • In synchronous protocols, a facilitator interacts with a participant who is remote and leads the research activities in real time.
  • In asynchronous protocols, observers do not have access to the participants in real time, and there is no facilitator interacting with them during data collection.

Synchronous methods are enabled by online conferencing tools. Online conferencing tools allow two or more users to share their desktop, open an audio channel, record the video of the sharing session, send files or links via a chat, and much more. Usability practitioners now have a wide choice of online conferencing tools. The most famous are Web-Ex, GoToMeeting and Yugma, but there are many tools offering similar features on the market.

The work plan

Our work plan was split in two stages:

  1. Remote user research.
    In the first stage we carried out semi-structured interviews and user observations.  The goal was to inform their design activities by (a) selecting a panel of existing and new customers and (b) discover in which way they currently performed Search Engine Marketing (SEM).
  2. Remote user evaluation .
    In the second stage, we carried out the user experience evaluation. The goal was to gather qualitative feedback and inform the design activities.

Agile development was carried out between step 1 and 2.

1. Remote user research

The first stage required setting up the protocol for the semi-structured user interviews and user observations. For remote testing, it is important to introduce the user observation with a semi-structured interview to build a sense of trust and confidence in the participant.
It took some time to define the interview prompts because SEM is a highly-specialised business with its own domain knowledge and language. We tested the interview prompts a few times to allow the facilitator to become confident in these topics.
The semi-structured interview protocol included:

  • Standard demographic questions (age, job, work experience)
  • Prompts to discover the keyword research work practices beyond the mere usage of the online tool (How important is keyword research to your business? How would you describe the phases to carry it out? And so on)
  • Prompts to identify the keyword research tools employed and their frequency of use.

The user observation protocol prompts the participant to use the online tool as normal, talking out loud about their journey into the tool. When required, we prompted the user to verbalise why they took some actions, explain in their own words the results obtained and the technical jargon displayed on the screen. We concluded the observation with a few questions about the perceived quality of user experience and how they would improve the current tool.

2. Remote user evaluation

The user experience evaluation took place 4 weeks after the presentation of the user research findings. The team developed a static mock-up of the revised, personalised homepage and a high-fidelity prototype of the keyword research tool.
The evaluation protocol fulfils two different goals:

(a) gather perceptions and expectations from the homepage

(b) prompt the user to explore the high-fidelity prototype as if they had to carry out an actual keyword research.

Based on the results of the first stage, the aim of the new interface was to be flexible enough to satisfy the needs of the most sophisticated and naïve users (e.g. the SEM professionals vs. the small and independent online retailers).
As planned, the second stage took a total of two weeks. The evaluation findings were presented to the team, who subsequently carried out one additional design iteration.

Be prepared for remote synchronous research

Besides the definition of the protocol, there are other important preparatory activities.

  1. Invitation to participate.
    Writing the invitation to participate and identifying the incentives is important. The invitation email must clearly state the goals of the Customer Experience Program, its benefits and the incentives to participate; customers must be able to choose between a free-subscription to the service and an Amazon online voucher.
  2. Scheduling the session .
    After the participant agreed to participate, we scheduled a time slot and forwarded to the participant a confirmation email with the exact timing (in their time zone) and a link to join the session. We found it very useful to include a link to a special ‘troubleshooting’ page on the online conferencing vendor website that allows the user to check in advance if the system configuration (broadband, computer speed, operative system and browser) is adequate for the session.
  3. Troubleshooting .
    As expected, we discovered that making the user share the desktop with the facilitator was not always so immediate. While, in most of the cases, setting up the desktop-sharing session generally required just clicking a unique session link in the invitation (and a minute wait for the machine to configure the program), in some cases technical trouble-shooting was required. In some cases it took up 15 minutes to address the technical issues. It was really useful to test the tool with a few people in advance to identify the most common issues and preparing a list of questions about things that could go wrong. For example, we had issues with the security settings at the user side. In most cases, it was sufficient to restart the browser, but in one case we had to abort the session. Carrying out remote user research involves planning at least an additional 10-20% sessions than the desired target figure to make sure there is enough data to obtain representative results.
  4. Test your workstation.
    If the research requires audio and video recording, it is important to check if the facilitator’s machine can handle all the tasks at the same time. It is worthwhile to simulate one or two user sessions to avoid losing precious data with the actual users.
  5. Remote observers: pros and cons  .
    An additional challenge is presented by allowing remote observers. In the same way that a typical usability laboratory setting allows stakeholders to watch from behind the one-way-mirror, online conferencing tools can allow one or more observers. However, it is important to agree with the stakeholders that they will not be allowed to intervene during the session. If they strongly want to participate, you can advise them to use an Internet Chat to send the questions to the facilitator, who can decide how and when to ask the question. Research participants can also see when there are other people attending the online conference, and it is therefore important to introduce them and explain that they will not intervene in the session.


Benefits and drawbacks of remote synchronous research

Remote synchronous research protocols will never substitute contextual inquiry and usability testing in-situ. There is a wealth of information that it is not accessible to the remote observer, such as non-verbal and environmental cues. In addition to that, it is not always easy to manage the interpersonal dynamics of the evaluation situation that must be managed across cultural and linguistic barriers and may require different approaches in different countries [6].
However, in our view, remote user research also presents unique opportunities:

  1. It doesn’t require a research facility. Remote user research can be carried out with a PC and a broadband connection.
  2. It decreases travel costs and times, both for the users and the investigators.
  3. It can be carried out in the actual context of use: users do not have to travel to a research facility and they can use their own computer, browser and plug-ins instead.
  4. It can involve highly specific, time-poor audience segments that can hardly afford to participate to user research otherwise.
  5. It allows international user research on a budget.  Where no language and cultural barriers come into play, remote user research effectively allows user research across time zones.
  6. It also complements the agile iterative development processes that require a quick turnaround of research findings into design input.

To a large extent, the methodologies used in remote user research do not differ from traditional ones. This is a big advantage for user experience professionals that can leverage on their previous experience.

Read further

Remote, synchronous user research for international usability: a case study. UPAEurope2008. Turin, Italy. 6-8 December


Invitation and confirmation templates

Information visualisation

User Centred at a Glance

Beautiful Word Clouds

Tag clouds have never been particularly useful… they give ‘at a glance’ view of the content of a website, but they have very little potential for wayfinding… try even finding the link to your own bookmarks in a tag cloud – presenting categories and subcategories is more effective.

According to a recent research study by Razorfish, 65% of the people never use tag clouds, and 23% use them ‘once in a while’.

Digital Consumer Behavior Study

Wordle tries to create more useful word clouds… it’s a pity you can’t actually embed it into your website.

User research

Why doing user research first is right

I have found an interesting column from Donald Norman

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about how the role of user research in the software/web development process, though I have to say that I disagree with the premise of his article

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“How many times have you had to fight hard for the ability to do field studies and other observations at the very start of the project? How many times have you patiently explained that taking time now would be rewarded by faster time to market overall? And how many times were you successful? The HCI community has long complained about product processes that do not allow time to start with good observations.

The more I examine this issue, the more I think that it is we, the HCI community, who are wrong. This includes me, for I have long championed the “study first, design second” approach. Well, I now suggest that for many projects the order is design, then study.

Let’s face it: Once a project is announced, it is too late to study what it should be – that’s what the announcement was about. If you want to do creative study, you have to do it before the project’s launch. You have to be on the team that decides what projects to do in the first place – which means you have to be part of the management team…

In my view, Donald Norman is only half right … I agree with him when he says that lengthy, time-consuming field work must take place before the project started, but even with the ball running and in a limited time frame it is possible to know a lot about the users Sunshine Cleaning dvd .

It’s just a matter of stop wearing the hat of the “scientist” and rather embracing a more pragmatic approach Yûgiô Duel Monsters: Hikari no pyramid trailer

, where a bit of user research is better than no research at all. This becomes true especially when product development doesn’t start “out of the blue” and when a previous version of the product is available, and/or other competitors have already launched similar products!

I just want to tell you a recent case where this happened in a real product development process.

We had to come with a User Experience proposal for the pitch to an important kitchen brand in UK. We wanted to know how people decide to buy a particular kitchen brand; what are the key factors that make them decide to buy one particular kitchen?

We started interviewing some people who recently bought a kitchen in the agency, but then we realised we had more questions than answers. In a few hours, we decided to post an online questionnaire on a couple of related mailing list – we mostly employed open ended questions because we wanted to gather as much data as possible.
We ended up with a lot of useful insights

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A first pattern of self-directed people who like to be in control of the buying process – where they choose all the details of their kitchen, they calculate how much it would cost, etc.

The second pattern was instead of those who prefer to be guided by an expert (an interior designer) in choosing the right model and accessories.

My point is that in a few days we ended up knowing much more about our users and we could design the user experience driven by these insights. And all of this happened in the lapse of three days!

In conclusion, I think that we – user experience and user centred design practitioners – should be much more positive of our impact in the product development process.


Why Forrester got it wrong on User Experience?

I found a very good post on Laurie Gray’s blog on Catalyze

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.I also got some Forrester Research reports on Customer Experience and the beginning I was very curious about how they were approaching User Experience in their reports. And – I have to say – I was very disappointed by their slapdash take on the subject.

For example, their report How Rich Interfaces Fix Task Flow Problems, says :

“Multiple minor problems can add up to major user experience headaches on Web sites. But one of the most common Web design problems – inefficient task flow – can be rectified by enhancements such as page overlays that put content and function in context […] Firms can improve user task flow with rich interface features like: Two for the Money psp

In principle, nothing wrong. But – features and patterns should never be the primary focus of a User-centred Experience Design process. We should rather research on user most frequent tasks before jumping into designing RIAs (Rich-Internet Applications). In a nutshell, before looking at your patterns library, get to know users and tasks!

UCD in a nutshell

As Laurie effectively says:

On the surface, this all looks ok. However, without careful thinking from skilled UX designers, this runs the risk of not delivering what is expected […] This article would be a lot more valuable if it went about this discussion differently and said something to the effect of “you can employ rich interface conventions to fix task flow problems, and here is how:

  1. study the problems your users are really having
  2. analyze those problems for similarities and differences across users download Club Dread movie download Clash of the Titans movie Children of Dune hd
  3. create patterns or consistent approaches to solve these problems across all interfaces, including the use of overlays, guided interfaces, and inline input validation. If this is beyond your skill set or doesn’t interest you, hire a skilled professional who can all make it come together for you.”

Well said!

Further reading:

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UX Trends in the 2007 UPA Salary

I just found a fresh UPA 2007 salary survey out in my mailbox… there are a couple of interesting thoughts that I would like to share with you.

  1. First of all, the survey has a quite a large sample: 1523 people answered to the survey, with the vast majority in US (999) and then the other countries: Spain (86), Canada (75), the United Kingdom (74), India (66), and Australia (51).The figure of Usability professional in Spain is quite striking, I didn’t know that User Experience has such a strong foothold over there. Are there any Spanish UX people out there? I would like to have your view on this data.
  2. The job title that most people use is “User Experience” practitioner (240), while “Usability” practitioner is only 4th in the ranking (124). This fact is quite surprising to me, considering that the sample of this survey is clearly skewed towards Usability Professional Association members (about 70% of the total). Let’s have a look at the ranking:

The Rookie
Job Titles

3. The last interesting thoughts is about the techniques mostly used by the respondents: the most frequently used were heuristic/expert review (I would recommend to have these two as different options next time, as heuristic review is a specific type of expert review), Informal usability testing, Interviews/surveys, Interaction design and prototyping.

This results positively match the findings of a research I carried out between 2004 and 2005, that showed a significant increase of the usage of hi-fi and lo-fi prototyping techniques. Based on these results and on my knowledge of the usability industry trends from the early ’90s (where usability and user experience were still carried out in R&D departments) onwards, my feeling is that the increasing use of prototyping should be regarded as one of the main credibility factors for our profession in the industry. Are Information architecture and Interaction Design going to shadow more “traditional” qualifications?

It makes sense to me. We have increasingly sophisticated tools, that allow quicker, cheaper, more hi-fidelity prototyping. We have remote usability testing. Do we still need usability labs? I don’t think so.

UCD Techniques

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Case studies

Case study: the Heathrow Airport Redesign

Oh, yeah! After months of work on this project (me, Jonathan, Igor and all the DLKW team) finally the Heathrow website is online! Most of the IA work we carried out on the Shop & Eating section is already visible, while all the other work will be visible in a few months only, with Release 2.

While I think the most striking feature of this site is its elegant and balanced visual design , I think the way we approached to the IA and User Experience is worth some discussion too.

By the way, the BAA Heathrow case study was presented by me and Jonathan Culling of DLKW at the last Euro IA in Barcellona in September. We had a very good time and I hope we will manage to land another paper at the next Euro IA!!!

Surfacing of key information and functionality

Since the majority of users currently come to the Heathrow site to perform a handful of very specific tasks, we looked for ways of surfacing those elements on the Heathrow home Steel Dawn divx

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The content and functionality surfaced on these pages reflects the most commonly performed tasks – activities such as booking car parking, viewing flight information and the ability to display urgent security messages.

Site hierarchy

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On the Heathrow Airport site, roughly half of the content is terminal specific – information such as where to check in depends on the terminal that the user is flying from. All other content is generic and useful to any passenger, irrespective of terminal. This implies that the user experience must incorporate a degree of segmentation.

The current site handles this segmentation rather inelegantly, with all terminals included in the section navigation, expanding to reveal the terminal specific content. Our approach was to create 6 parallel sites, one generic and 5 terminal specific. Users can either go straight to the desired terminal home page and begin their journey from there, or drill down through the navigation until they arrive at a page which says: “to view the information you require, you must first choose a terminal”.

Terminal selector

The approach shown here has an additional benefit for search engine users. Because there are no direct links to the terminal specific pages, those pages will not be indexed by search engine spiders – so users will never be taken from a search results page (such as Google) to a terminal specific page until they have specified their terminal on the Heathrow site.

Selecting their terminal from a drop-down (if they know it) or from the which terminal module (if they don’t) takes users to the equivalent page in the terminal site. They remain there until actively resetting their terminal, which means that from that point onwards we can serve them with content that is more directly relevant to their forthcoming trip.

Shopping and eating

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BAA’s drive to get passengers to spend more time (and money) at the airport implied an expansion of the shopping and eating section of the website. Other attractions such as wellbeing centres and terminal events were included in the section that was renamed as shop, eat, relax and enjoy

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Rather than interrupt the user journey while users were in information-seeking mode, DLKW chose to promote shopping and eating most heavily on pages that represent the end of a user journey, otherwise known as the ‘point of seduction’. In this way, users were in the most responsive frame of mind, since they had just completed a task and were pondering their next move.

Category-driven meta navigation is used to cross-sell shops and restaurants, and it is hoped that in release 2 the interactive maps can be used to cross-sell by physical proximity, allowing the user to browse the space virtually in a similar way to how they would browse in real life.

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Other features should come in Release 2 of the website, such as an improved search user experience and a personalised section of the site (“My Journey”).

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London branch, not far from the cool Convent Garden ‘piazza’. My interest in the user experience of search and information retrieval services is constantly increasing.
In 2006 I started doing a review of groupware and knowledge management software leveraging on community based approaches. Search, filtering and sharing of electronic resources in small and large communities of practice (a`la Wenger

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) could be heavily influenced by the appearance of folksonomies, corporate blogs, wikis and other shared repositories.


Windows and cash machines

Today I had the exciting experience of seeing a windows installation on a Barclays cash machine… maybe funny for some, but from a user experience point of view it is not exactly what I would like a don’t-make-me-wait customer to see..

Windows on a cash machine


New Year, new life

After the end of my research contract in October, I realised that there were plenty of opportunities around me (I live in London) and I decided to turn back to User Centred Design (UCD) consultancy.

I am not a newcomer in UCD and I have a clear view of how the field of web usability (and web in general) has changed in three years. When I somehow left the field in 2003 to work in Thales on Decision Support Systems and Command & Control Systems (C3) I wanted to expand my horizons to see how user centred design could be applied to other kind of systems.

It has been almost two years of research and I have discovered how deep and how rich is the body of Knowledge in field. Kudos to D. Norman for using this phrase first time in 1986 (‘User Centred System Design’), but to be definitively fascinated by UCD you must look into Human Factors field(s) and what has been done in aerospace since WWII.

Human factors is an umbrella term for several areas of research that include human performance, technology, design, and human-computer interaction. It is a profession that focuses on how people interact with products, tools, procedures, and any processes likely to be encountered in the modern world”. (Wikipedia.
In fact, Human Factors is a quite wide area, it’s like saying you are in the field of “engineering”. In fact, What I was trying to do was “Macroergonomics”: defining a UCD process tailored to the company I was working with. It has been a challenging task, which mainly involved several internal reviews and iterative process modelling with a number of stakeholders to find a process suitable for the concept definition and iterative, user-centred development of C3 systems.

Another task was to define the “reason why” UCD had to be employed. While in UCD for the web the reason lies primarily in competitive advantage (e.g. e-commerce: competitors are oneclick away!) and increased productivity (web applications in general), C3 systems are mission-, safety-critical systems where one error could cost hundreds of lifes.

Want to read more? More meat is here .