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In: Interviews

By Nick Finck

Published on September 24, 2001

[Editor's Note: This month's Interview was originally slated to be done with The Chopping Block, but the disruptions caused by the terrorist attacks on September 11th have forced everyone, including us, to change plans. We were able to get word shortly after the attack that everyone at The Chopping Block is well and accounted for. Given the difficulty of holding "a moment of silence" on the Web, we will be taking some time at the end of the interview to address the effect of the attacks on the Web, the Web "community," and all of us individually. I would also like to thank Christina, Gabe, and Noel for agreeing to do the interview on such short notice. Speaking for ourselves, everyone at Digital Web has those hurt by the attacks at the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. -BMH]

User experience, usability, and information architecture are just the sorts of things that are sure to make a designer's eyes glaze over. When we look at the process of building a web site, it is clear that the designer's strong suit is in building an overall theme, choosing colors, creating a layout to fit the theme, and attending to all of the minutiae that make the visitor say, "Wow!" It's the work of the designer that typically makes the first impression.

The user experience specialist has a job that is no less challenging, and no less important. It comes down to this: while the first impression created by the designer brings the visitor into the site, the overall user experience keeps them coming back... and what good is a site that never gets repeat visits?

This month I am conducting my first interview for Digital Web Magazine. The folks under the spotlight this time around are the people behind Carbon IQ, a team of three people best known as the first user experience consultancy in the Bay Area. They are Christina Wodtke, Gabe Zentall, and Noel Franus. One of their recent projects was the merging of atomfilms.com into shockwave.com, which launched in August of this year.

Digital Web:

As you know, the majority of Digital Web's audience is composed of people who focus on visual and communication design. It can be said fairly that user experience as a formal discipline is not something that gets a lot of focus from our audience, if only because it's impossible to be an expert at everything. For the benefit of our non-expert readers, can you define the objectives of your work that would not be obvious to the "typical" designer?

Christina Wodtke:

I think you hit it on the head when you said "communication design." A lot of our work is focused on discovering to whom the design is communicating, and the most effective way to reach that set of individuals. Nathan Shedroff recently said in his book Experience Design, "Though most designers make choices based on what they prefer or what 'looks nice' … the best designers choose each element of visual design based on how they want to communicate the goals and message to the intended audience." Good looking book, btw…

 

Noel Franus:

I'll pull from Tibor Kalman, who didn't really consider himself a great designer whatsoever; his job, he figured, was to communicate. Effective communication is a calculated effort, and when you whittle it down to the core that's really what user-centered design is -- a calculated effort to build an experience that will engage, excite, enlighten, and so on.

 

Digital Web:

Certainly you can throw a spontaneous design on the wall and see if it sticks, and sometimes the result can certainly be a thing of beauty. But we're usually working on tools for use; whether that's a navigation system for a top-10 website or the wayfinding and signage system for a major airport, we can't take chances throwing ideas onto the wall and going with them willy-nilly. We have to design products that are useful, usable and enjoyable, and the only way to get that done is by understanding how people perceive and interact with them.

CW:

So to answer your original question: the objective of our work is to understand who the user is and what their needs are by going out into the world and observing them, bringing that info back to the development team, designing the site's blueprints – the site map, the interaction design, the organization of the information—and then testing what we've built as well. Understand, architect, test. Lather, rinse, repeat!

 

Digital Web:

When Carbon IQ first opened its doors in 1999 you were the first business of your kind, at least in the Bay Area. Can you tell us about the early stages of the business, how you were received by clients and by other web shops in your market?

NF:

I can't say we were the first in the Bay Area, but we certainly were the first in San Francisco to focus on UE for the web. Studios like Cooper Interaction Design in the South Bay had been around for a while, and then if you step outside of the web world, there are product-design companies with strong user-research components as part of their process and even advertising agencies with reputable planning departments. They incorporate user insight into their products and campaigns in a way that's outside of the realm of traditional market research, and certainly they should be credited for that.

As for our getting started, the timing was right; "information architecture" was just entering into its heyday here in San Francisco, and incorporating Carbon IQ was the natural thing to do, considering the growing demand. I was consulting with Circumstance (which became Rare Medium later on) back then, and another Circumstance consultant, Kevin Farnham, was starting up Method at the same time. We chatted about our similar goals: "How can you not start a studio at a time like this," he asked, jokingly. That's exactly how it felt. There was enough work to go around, fed mainly by larger interactive firms, and we had the luxury of working with companies who "understood" what we do. Boy, have times changed. (Smiles ruefully)

 

Digital Web:

Now that things have "settled down" a little bit, how has that changed your approach to client education?

NF:

It may sound strange, but a number of our clients just have a feeling that they need us. They can't put a finger on why, but we'll work at uncovering their problems and work with them to come up with practical solutions that meet their needs. I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't a lot of demystification required; much of the UE-speak has been caught up in its own lexicon, and that's hurt us. "Heuristics," "ethnographics" and "personas" are not benefit-indicative terms, and can alienate folks who aren't familiar with the tools of the trade. That's not very useful when you're speaking to an audience of key stakeholders in a company. We should be starting the conversations in terms of ROIs, streamlined processes, and user needs, then break it down into the tool level. As any sales book will tell you, people don't want to buy your product…they want to buy a solution. We have to explain benefits first, then talk shop once the goal is in sight.

 

CW:

Noel's got it there — this is a time of fear. Companies feel they have no room for failure. We offer them a way to hedge their bets, a way to know if their product will work before they spend thousands writing code, creating packaging, and shipping… they come to us because we can help them understand their users and reduce their risk. We're a net in the tightrope biz. So clients are a lot more open to learning what their customers need.

By the way when you talk about client education, you have to realize it works both ways. We also spend a lot of time learning from our clients. We can educate clients about their customers, but they educate us about their business. I think a lot of user-centered designers tend to start screaming about the user to the point they forget that most clients are not charitable intuitions—they are there to make a profit. Heck, a few businesses forgot that too… (Grins)

 

Digital Web:

From your perspective, what are the greatest challenges of client education?

CW:

Getting folks to slow down. Or if they won't slow down, realize they can still be user centered but they'll have to get beyond Jakob 101. Usable products start with usability at the beginning of a project. A lot of folks just want to get a website live, forgetting what my mom always said: "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Google is a good example of how successful you can be if you take the time to do it right. They came late into a crowded field with just one goal: Make it easy to get good results. Look at them now. It's an effort to get clients to stop thinking about being a first-mover and concentrate on being a best-mover. But it's worth it.

 

Gabe Zentall:

A lot of our effort goes into listening. If we don't first listen to our clients, we have no idea how to solve their problems or where to educate. We don't force-feed our process to our clients, we first understand what they are looking for and then determine where else we can provide value without derailing their own process. After we have listened we work with them to craft a suitable approach. Involving clients when devising a plan is important because they are then able to make the connection – why your proposal meets their needs. It's no longer an arbitrary series of steps to them.

 

Digital Web:

You've all spent a lot of time working with designers; one of you even came to user experience from visual design. What brought you into user experience as a specialty?

NF:

I'm a (former?) writer, and in one of my prior lives I was scripting corporate-training CD-ROMs that presented real-world scenarios, in video form, to trainees. I found that most users of these CDs spent more time dealing with the computer before them as an input device (hit enter? Control-plus-4? Escape-tilde?) rather than responding to the supposedly real-world scenarios presented to them. So the clerk from Boston Chicken, who was using this program, was stuck trying to figure out how to use the computer rather than the angry "customer" who was yelling at them through Quicktime on the screen. I knew there was something wrong, and that's what started it for me.

 

CW:

I was doing client-side coding: once you've tried to make a bit of JavaScript work on all the browsers you get that your audience is very varied with a wide range of needs.

 

GZ:

I began battling with the subjectivity of my visual designs from the beginning. Since I hadn't received a formal graphic design education, I did not have the rudimentary skills required to develop a mature design style. It was difficult to talk about and defend my designs because I lacked the vocabulary. Without these fundamental skills I was unaware of what makes design successful let alone how to communicate it. I began looking for something a little more analytical and logical because that was my strength and I was comfortable in that environment. As the projects I encountered became more complex, I developed skills that were less visually oriented and more functionally or structurally oriented. At the same time the project manager in me was aching to be free – oh, how I yearned to organize and define and articulate! Turns out I found it all as an information architect. We formed an official User Experience department at my previous employer, Phoenix Pop, shortly thereafter.

 

Digital Web:

How did the three of you get started on the web? To what extent does your formal training play a role in the work you're doing today?

CW:

I was a waiter with an art school degree and a friend asked me if I wanted a job reviewing websites. I jumped at the chance to get off my feet. I was reviewing 175 websites a week for c|net's fledgling web directory Snap! I saw a lot of bad sites—and very few good. After awhile I naively decided I could do better, and taught myself html. The web is an industry that rewards the self-taught. I was able to continue teaching myself— learning about information architecture and usability, then turning to cognitive psychology and ethnography for ways to better my craft. But I was always trying to figure out the same question I had in the beginning: why are websites so bad? Most of they time the answer is simple: whoever is building it doesn't know why they are building it or who is it for. Good sites know the answer to those two questions.

 

GZ:

Like most in this industry, I was led here by my ambitions more than my education. While exploring alternative photographic processes in college I became very interested in graphic design. I picked up Photoshop and Illustrator in the process and in '94 I taught a Photoshop and Web design class at Purdue University. Having spent a little too long in academia, I was primarily excited about the educational potential of the new medium. I guess everybody else was looking at the vast potential for electronic commerce (doh!).

At about the same time, I did some freelance work for the university's libraries porting their command line database onto the Web for the first time. This, I suppose, was my first encounter with designing a dynamic website…Okay, getting to the point, I came to San Francisco to teach because I was fairly sure that's what I wanted to do. Instead I ended up finding a full-time job at a Phoenix Pop, which, at the time, was only two people. That was '96. And when I left in 2000 I had grown to over 100 people and million-dollar projects. I guess those were the "glory days."

 

NF:

I was a journalist and copywriter in Chicago, and I was dying for a creative outlet that didn't involve coffeehouses. I had a number of goofy articles written with the goal of starting my own magazine, then the web came along. So I published them online in early 1996 and within the week the Philadelphia Enquirer gave it a good review. Now all that lives at gap-toothed.com. This, of course, bears little relevance to what I do today, with the exception that publishing online, alone and on a weekly basis, was a great boot-camp for learning the ropes of the medium.

 

Digital Web:

While you discuss the Atom-Shockwave project on your site, it's obvious that the overview there is meant more for consumption by clients. When it came to working with the designers and producers, what were some of the ideas that were exchanged between Carbon IQ and the designers on the project, that led to a better product?

GZ:

Our "dirty little secret" on the Shockwave project was that we were pretty much isolated from the visual designers who came in afterwards. We worked primarily with one producer and occasionally used other people as information resources. There was a lot of collaboration, but no product team to speak of. There were two aspects of our collaboration, however, that I would say were of significant value to this client.

The first was the exercise we organized to define and compare user types between Atom Films and Shockwave. We were able to derive a common understanding of how the user groups were similar and, more importantly, different. This brand model and the findings from the user research eventually drove our decision to keep the two brands separate instead of merging them.

We were also able to teach this client how to utilize a user-centered design process for future development. We made sure our primary contact was present during our test sessions and that he would be able to take over after we're gone. It sounds funny, but we're always working ourselves out of a job by training our clients to take the reins when we leave.

 

Digital Web:

Given the audience and nature of Digital Web, you've got a soapbox. Is there anything - a plea, a manifesto, a prayer - that you'd like to broadcast to the visual designers of the web world?

CW:

You want to express yourself? Good. Go make art. You want to design? Remember it's a partnership between you, your client and your audience. It's not about your vision; it's about communication.

 

NF:

Watch people. Watch them carefully. Watch them use a toothbrush, watch them interact with an electronic kiosk, watch them watching tv. Watch them experience the things you design -- it may be painful, but it's worth it.

 

GZ:

The problem I had as a visual designer and I think many designers have was justifying my own design. Designing by instinct and without purpose leads to subjective reactions – "I'm not sure why, but I don't like that." Once we are able to understand and articulate the purpose of our design and how it relates to the needs of what ultimately is being designed, it is demystified. I mean, how do we know if it succeeds if we are all defining "success" differently?

 

Digital Web:

Flash is understood to be wonderful tool that poses a pile of usability challenges, to the extent that usability experts howl over the high-profile Flash-only sites on the web. With your experience, have you come up with any guidelines or "tricks" that aren't already discussed in detail elsewhere?

NF:

My response to the last question applies here, too: watch people interact with the things you design. Give them alternative options for if and when they get stuck.

 

CW:

Part of the reason flash sites are often unusable is because there are no interface standards. When a user opens a windows application, or a mac application, they understand more or less what to expect when they click on "file" or highlight and hit ctrl-c. ctrl-c is the same in Microsoft word as it is in adobe illustrator. You go on the web and suddenly you lose a lot of standards. Users rely heavily on their back button; they need the cursor to turn into a hand so they know what's a link. In flash the very few standards the web has are taken away.

A good book for any flash designers is the very easy read, "the Design of Everyday Things." Don Norman introduces this concept called "affordances" which is basically the idea that things are pushable should look pushable, things that look pullable should look pullable. A fork looks like it can be used for stabbing or scooping: it has good affordances. If you make your links look clickable, your scrollbars look like they can be scrolled, your dropdowns look like they will drop down your site will probably be usable. Although – as Noel recommends – you should still test your assumptions with real users. Humans are surprising creatures!

 

Digital Web:

You've got a defined "toolbox" of ideas and processes that can be used by a broad range of web professionals? Tell us more!

CW:

When I left Hot Studio, the big thing in agencies was methodologies. Everyone had one: investigate, discovery, architect, design, build, test…. But this was one-size-fits all mentality and web project vary so much: a three page brochure to a five thousand page catalog to a pageless application. How could one methodology produce good results for everyone? So Noel, Gabe and I put our heads together and we came up with our toolbox: a grab-bag of techniques we can customize for any project.

Let's say we have a local magazine that wants a new website. Well we might say: okay let's do a card-sort to understand how your users group content, and we'll do a taxonomy so your directories jibe with your search, and finish with user-testing to make sure we got it right. Another client walks through the door about to build an online calendaring system. Well, let's say we do a contextual inquiry: we watch users at work to find out how they use their current calendars, palms and daytimes and understand what their needs are. Next maybe we do a few scenarios to discover what a perfect product would do. Then we make some user-flows so engineering knows what happens at decision branches. Finally we might do a series of prototype testing: making paper versions of the product to test with users, before the engineers spend a bunch of nights staying up to four a.m. coding the wrong thing.

This toolbox gives us a lot of flexibility: let's say the calendaring client comes to us and says "budget and timeline's been cut in half" We can say, "okay we do a best-practices and prototyping, and throw out the contextual inquiry."

It's all about understanding the nature of the product and the business's needs. We make custom solutions to create better products.

 

Digital Web:

So many tools on the web, from vector graphics to WYSIWYG apps to server tools, still have a long way to go in terms of maturity... but the expectations of clients have definitely changed over the past eighteen months. How would you describe this change, both in general and in terms of its effect on Carbon IQ's business and process?

GZ:

We've seen some of the less mature product companies suffer from potentially damaging reactive decisions based on uncertain market conditions. Many times a company will design a product without involving user input, call us up as they get ready to launch, and ask us to put our stamp of approval on it to ease their fears of it not being "usable." While we don't mind helping out where we can, we rarely give them the report that they were expecting – most times the news is not good.

I don't necessarily think that this pattern is all that specific to the past 18 months. I do, however, think that the fear is increasing, and 9 times out of 10 fear is what leads to poor decision-making.

In response, we've had to teach these clients user-centered design practices so that they both learn from this experience and have the tools to correct themselves. As a company, we have had to be much more careful when working with reactive clients. We illustrate best practices for actively dealing with changes or risks during a project so that we don't get sucked in as well.

 

Digital Web:

What is your take on the flurry of usability and IA books that have been published over the past two years?

CW:

We're all book geeks and Amazon junkies. I'm happy to say most of the books on usability coming out are really good, and better ones are coming out all the time. They speak to a range of audiences, are full of good information, and—thank heavens—the trend is moving from rules books to technique books. So instead of a book that says "Users don't scroll. Don't make pages longer than 600 pixels," you'll see great books like Contextual Design or Handbook of Usability Testing that teach you how to do your own testing. It's much easier to teach yourself now than when I was struggling five years ago with PhD dissertations I'd find online.

Information Architecture is another story. Most general web design books skimp on the important planning stage, and there is still only one great book on the art of IA: the polar bear. I'm talking to some folks about writing a book on it, but I have to ask myself if I want to lose a year of my life. Writing a book is hard! Heck, this interview is hard! (laughs)

 

Digital Web:

Despite efforts on the part of many people, designers still pooh-pooh the efforts of usability experts. Jakob Nielsen in particular is seen in many quarters as something of a... blowhard. However, I've yet to cross paths with a UX specialist who doesn't care passionately about their work. Can you recommend designer-friendly exercises or experiments that might illustrate the value of positive collaboration between UX and visual design specialists?

NF:

Three of the most obvious, concrete examples I can think of:

  1. Involve designers in the beginning of the project. They may not be the ones defining the strategy, but if they're going to have a role in building the brand (and who doesn't), which they will, then they should be involved in the dream stage just as the lead strategist and key stakeholders would be. If they're going to visually reflect the essence of the company, then bring them in early on the conversation.
  2. If you're going to test your product iteratively (certainly there are ways to do this quickly and cheaply), let the designers help build the prototype -- and make sure they see the actual testing that takes place.
  3. If your design team uses wireframes, sitemaps, etc., let the visual designer play a role in that, so that no one feels their creativity has been squashed. Often designers seen a near-fully designed schematic and (rightfully so) feel that their job has been taken away from them by the information architect who designed it. That's not useful -- working together, the IA and the designer can develop a visual language and set boundaries that works for everyone and utilizes the team's best collective efforts.

 

CW:

I think in many ways Jakob did us all a great disservice when he alienated designers. He forgot his own principles: speak to your audience in their own language. His site is so ugly most designers just throw their hands in the air and run away. I can't blame them.

In any case, Noel is dead-on about involving designers in the IA process, and vice-versa. IA's fear their work will be ruined in design, designers often feel their work has already been done for them. If an IA asks the designer's advice frequently throughout the architecture process, the designer will often return the favor during design and a better product will result. I had the great pleasure of doing this when I worked with Mike Monteiro of biggerhand, and I think I did some of my best work collaborating with him—he made me work harder and he made my architecture much smarter.

 

Digital Web:

What sites and resources in particular (excepting eleganthack.com) can you recommend that serve as good user experience resources for non-specialists?

CW:

But eleganthack is god! The be-all and end-all of the IA universe! Okay, okay… there are a bunch of other sites providing great information. Usableweb.com is a search engine for all matters usability. Great if you have a specific problem. Iaslash.org is the best of the many ia-directories that have sprung up lately. George Olsen's interaction by design is a wonderful location for thoughts on IA, and the author of the polar bear book, Lou Rosenfeld has his own bloug. If you want a "how to" on IA try Information Architecture Tutorial by John Shiple or Subha Subramanian's An Introduction to Information Architecture [editor's note: original resource no longer exists].

 

NF:

The book "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug codifies a lot of what all this UE/UX stuff is all about. I bought it for a client, who wound up demanding a lot more from us than we had expected, and I'm glad he was able to push us. Now his own team has something to build from.

Other than that, I'd skim the tertiary and look at other disciplines and see how they approach similar problems -- we didn't invent these approaches, just refined them. Starting points:

Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design by Paul Mijksenaar

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Any of the three books by Edward Tufte (or visit edwardtufte.com)

Why We By, or the Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

 

Digital Web:

Over the past year especially, there has been a lot of emphasis on information architecture and taxonomies as applied to the Web. First of all, can you define what a taxonomy is, and how a visual designer can use it to his or her advantage?

GZ:

Well, Webster's Dictionary defines "taxonomy" as…just kidding…a taxonomy is simply a classification system. You look at Yahoo and they have organized all their content into a natural structure that Yahoo users can easily understand – this is a taxonomy that was well designed.

Traditionally, these are concepts that primarily biologists and library scientists concerned themselves with. With the emergence the Web, the needs to classify and retrieve information is ever expanding and so is the need to understand methods to design and leverage these taxonomies in order to create rich experiences.

Taxonomies can have explicit structure like the aisles in a store or sections of a newspaper, or implicit structures such as recommendation engines, also known as collaborative filtering. It's when these structures are interwoven that they are able to reach their full potential and provide the most benefit to the end user. Do you wonder how Amazon is able to guess the kind of things you might like? It's because they are getting a lot of use out of their taxonomies – explicit and implicit.

 

Digital Web:

That said, can you suggest from your own perspective where this new emphasis on information architecture is perhaps wasting energy best used elsewhere... and where that energy might be better spent?

GZ:

What? Wasting energy? I think you're mistaken, sir. Would you begin building a house without a blueprint or even an idea of what you are about to build? I suppose we could just buy some 2x4s and a couple gallons of paint and whip something up, right?

But seriously, I think that a common misconception is that an information architect is the person who just "makes those maps and stuff." In reality, we are in often charge of providing clarity to the marketing message or testing the business model or even reconciling the product vision with the product requirements. We are often the voice of reason in a sea of visionaries and naysayers. Am I over-glamorizing it? Well, maybe.

Often information architects are misused and I feel that it breeds resentment as a result. "Don't step on my toes! I'm the designer…I know where that button should go!" Absolutely right; less task-heavy products like mar-comm or promotional websites don't necessarily need someone called "information architect" or "experience designer" because there's generally less complexity. If information architects are used for the right reasons and project roles are defined clearly they can be invaluable to a project team.

 

Digital Web:

That reminds me... Christina has mentioned to Nick and myself that when it comes to architecture, digital-web.com could use some work. Since we do have a redesign on the back burner, can the three of you give suggestions as to what we might do to improve the structure and navigability of the site?

CW:

Ooof—well to avoid boring your poor readers by exploring your labeling system or taxonomy --though renaming "sitemap" to "archives" might alleviate some confusion-- I'll give you an example of Information Architect thinking:

  1. Who are your users? You probably have three key sets of users: web designers, general web developers and curious onlookers.
  2. What do they want from your site: They want to learn more about design online.
  3. What do you want them to do: view as many pages as possible.

So let's look at your site: While the front page engages and allures, once a user has chosen an article, and has read it they haven't got anywhere to go. They want to read more, you want them to read more….scroll down to the end of Derek's interview. You've just finished reading this interesting article about community, and you are hungry for more. We call this time "the susceptible moment." The user can be guided if you take advantage of the susceptible moment you've created.

So what is the current page doing with the susceptible moment? It's offering you a chance to go to Derek's site, or read more about Nick, the interviewer. While I'm sure Nick is charming and intriguing man, the links doesn't exactly scream "community." The odds are the reader would probably rather read the other articles in this issues: Matt's tutorial on community building perhaps.

You could put a set of links the bottom of the page taking the user to the articles in the issue. You could also offer past articles that relate to this subject, or other articles written by Derek on your site.

If you were a commercial site, this would also be a great moment to link to Derek's new book on community and maybe make a few bucks from Amazon or whomever. There is a magical intersection between a user's needs and desires and a business's that an IA can help you take advantage of. It's not a dirty thing when you make everyone happy.

 

Digital Web:

On a different subject, explain what is meant by the idea that "there is no such thing as a typical user."

NF:

Murphy's Law -- anything that can go wrong will -- covers it well. People experience the entire spectrum of situations when they encounter your product. If there are a hundred ways to break it, they will, and if there are an infinite number of ways to enjoy it, then presumably that'll happen as well. But just as no two fingerprints are the same, no two people will uncover the exact same problems or enjoy the exact same aspects of your product. So in a testing situation, you look for patterns that develop and try to fix problems that are mission-critical and pop up the most often.

The same principle applies to designing websites; chances are your website has more than one audience. So how do you meet the needs of your many audiences and users? Clump those categories of users together and prioritize your audiences, because you'll never please absolutely everyone. However, you can please most of Audience 1, most of Audience 2, and some of Audience 3.

 

GZ:

If I may; the only time you can make generalizations about a "typical user" is if you are talking about highly targeted products. Example: commercial aircraft controls, scientific measurement equipment, or perhaps even institutional administrative software. A general rule is that if you can gather your entire user population in a room, you can make some generalizations about them pretty easily.

 

Digital Web:

What about focus groups? Marketing specialists think that they're great, but I think they're bunk. Where's the middle ground, the best of both worlds on that issue?

NF:

Focus groups are most useful in a concept-testing situation; you have a small, contained social setting in which people are asked what they like and don't like about an idea, product, service, etc. It can be good for early-stage research, and it only takes an hour to get inside the mind of 10 or so individuals. The danger in this is that, as in any social setting, there are leaders and there are followers. You may not be able to acquire raw feedback from everyone because people want to do what the rest of the group wants to do, and suddenly you have fuzzier feedback than you'd prefer.

Other methods: there's a lot to be learned from simple observation or contextual interviews. Observation is just what it sounds like: you watch how people behave in their natural environments and you draw conclusions about them (just make sure you're quiet and out of the way or you'll taint the results). Contextual interviews are also useful because you can interview folks in their regular workspaces or homes and have them show you their typical interactions. Of course, the main point to remember here is that users lie (again, we all want to impress), which is why a good researcher understands the difference between a true need and a stated need.

The downside of all this is that each interview can take an hour, so this can be a time-consuming effort. Of course (plug) at Carbon IQ, we have plenty of other guerilla-style methods of acquiring user information without taking up too much time or resources.

 

Digital Web:

Can you give us a before-and-after illustration of what happens to a site's user experience after testing?

CW:

Sure, though I'll have to slightly fictionalize to protect the client: we did an evaluation of a fun little promotion: you got a code at the grocery store, went to the site and entered it in to see if you won. We discovered users could not figure out where to enter the code or how to redeem it. We made some recommendation and they were implemented and the user could get their prizes. You can imagine the difference that made. What you might not notice was the difference it made for the business; customer service calls were reduced 50 percent. That's huge savings for a company.

We also did three testing of iteration of a research site for another company. The site was supposed to e a vast repository of useful material for the visitors. In the first prototype not only could users not find anything on the site; they didn't even understand why they wanted to use the site. In the second iteration—after implementing recommendations form the first round of testing—the users knew it was useful and were able to find some of the information they needed. On the third rev, they found a ton of useful information and said it would become a daily tool. Big difference.

What's funny is that the "design" of the page didn't change. The layout, typefaces and color palette experienced very little evolution. The biggest change we made was changing the labels of the links from cute marketing words to ordinary ones, and adding descriptions of the links. Sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

 

Digital Web:

Most understand what is meant by things like metrics and heuristics, but any good site is going to need a solid personal touch to really be a "hit." Once you take that into consideration, where does creativity enter the picture for a user experience specialist?

GZ:

Damn, you make user experience sound like a wet blanket. We are not the aesthetics Gestapo. We strive for simplicity and elegance gratuitous design tends to interfere with its use or clarity of its message, then our products risk failure. Again, all aspects of design should be based on criteria for a product's success, and I am only assuming that clarity and usability are two very important criteria for any task-based product. If the goal is to provide a sense of mystery or chaos, then the design should also be fit accordingly.

 

NF:

If you get the chance, visit Francis Ford Coppola's winery-slash-marketing-experience in Napa Valley. Lush drapery, fancy Italian ornamentation, richly-dressed wine everywhere—it's a completely designed experience, and yet it evokes a sense of creative beauty, one that's easily translatable to commerce. The same can be said for much of the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas—it's beautiful, but you can bet (heh) that a lot of anthropology work went into the design. The key is to understand your audience and come up with creative and beautiful solutions that work. And it obviously can be done.

 

Digital Web:

Is there any room on a usable Web site for something that is truly closer to art? If so, where and how?

GZ:

That's a leading question, but I understand what you're asking. Let me be a little diplomatic…

Just as the Web is a valuable tool for communication and data presentation, it's also a medium for artistic expression. Considering the project objectives and then make sure that they drive all of the decisions, including the creative ones. If you are designing a task-based tool to be utilized, chances are that its ability to be used is a critical criterion for the product's success. If you are taking your viewer on an expressive journey, then let that drive your decisions. Just be conscious of why you make these decisions.

People assume that "art" is diametrically opposed to "usability." And while this doesn't have to be the case, many times on the Web they do conflict.

 

CW:

Exactly: you can't use the same rules for jodi.org that you use for Wells Fargo's online banking system. That said, I'd say iht.com comes very close to a perfect example of usable and beautiful site… the lovely delicate grayscale design enriched with tools for font-size adjustment and column arrangement. Sigh. Did you know it was made by one guy? Dang!

 

Digital Web:

How would the three of you define creativity and beauty in a general web context?

NF:

Sorry to be so pedestrian, but creativity is innovation, and beauty is where you find it. In a general web context, though, we have to understand which sites are there for creativity, and which are there for use. Then the key is to build something of beauty that can also be usable. IDEO is one of those companies that's done that well with product design.

 

CW:

Eames said "Design depends largely on constraints." It is important to understand the web as a medium and revel in the constraints. The most beautiful and creative sites are those I can't imagine in any other medium— Again, iht.com, despite its origins in newspaperland, is a unique and beautiful product of the web.

 

GZ:

Beauty is elegance and simplicity. I am a fan of the "less is more" concept. Oh, and cleverly designed info graphics will win me over every time.

 

Digital Web:

What are some of your favorite and most-visited sites?

NF:

My toolbar list for the past month or so consists of:

InfoDesign -- clearinghouse for UE & information design links

IA / -- good source for ia inspiration on a daily basis

International Herald Tribune -- useful, usable, and thorough in its content.

McSweeney's -- fresh, creative writing on a daily basis.

Jeff at the House -- they used to provide two minutes of fresh video every single day. That's hard stuff. No one else had done that, and I'm guessing it will be a long time before anyone does.

WWOZ -- streaming audio from New Orleans.

Google -- searchy

 

CW:

Metafilter, though kee-rist, it's more addictive than crack. You can lose days arguing on that site. I also surf the blogs endlessly; I trust them to do a lot of my new-site seeking for me. Antenna, little green footballs, biggerhand, iaslash, frontend.com's infocenter, xblog -- the list goes on and on. (dare I say iht.com again??)

 

GZ:

Besides porn, of course, I like to check out Steve Koepke's list for local music events. Oh, and then policescanner.com/: there's nothing like some high drama to begin the day! I admit to not frequenting many sites. I guess I am more inspired and entertained by the world around me.

 

Digital Web:

Speaking as users instead of user experience specialists, how does that list change?

NF:

It's just like old clothing; if I haven't used it in a while, I might as well get rid of it and find something new.

 

CW:

I spend a lot of time on personal sites: most people get tired of maintaining a daily site, they stop putting up content and I move on. Or my interests change. The reason I usually give up on professional sites is they redesign and I can't find anything anymore. Too annoying.

 

GZ:

Amazon is the best consumer site out there by far. Noel and Christina mentioned the International Herald Tribune – definitely the best news only site. Yahoo earns highest marks for most stuff – some of it is even useful!

 

Digital Web:

About 9/11

I think it's stating the obvious to point out that we're all deeply shocked by what happened last Tuesday. I would like to hear your stories of that morning, and what's been crossing your mind since.

NF:

Fortunately I have few personal connections to New York or Washington, so I haven't been hit in any direct sense of loss. But I am a bit concerned about how we react; we're chasing a ghost, not an obvious enemy. We have to understand the ghost before we try firing a million bombs at it, and I don't think most of our larger media outlets are very interested in understanding our enemy. Video clips of the disaster sites make for better product.

 

CW:

I lost it. I was driving my husband to the train station when we heard about it on the radio; we turned around and drove home and spent the next few days watching TV. We cried, and held each other a lot. Everyone we knew called us, even though obviously we were in no danger just to say hello. Philippe's mother called and told the story of a plane carrying dangerous chemicals that was hijacked and crashed into Amsterdam ten years ago: everyone in those neighborhoods who lived got horribly sick. It could have been worse, and it still could be. What is crossing my mind is technology was made to help humans. What can I do to make life in this increasingly confusing and dangerous world better for the humans who live in it?

 

GZ:

After the enormity of the events had a chance to soak in, I began to imagine scenarios of how our lives could be changed forever. I imagined retaliations escalating out of control and ending up governed by fear in a situation not unlike Israel's. One army general said in an interview that Americans are soft because they have not faced conflicts in so long and so close to home.

If this is what it takes to be "hard," I wanna stay soft, goddammit! I like living high on Maslow's hierarchy of needs!

 

Digital Web:

One of the things I noticed on Tuesday is that most popular news sites were completely swamped. (Duh.) Most of the major sites responded by trimming down to essentials. This brings contingency planning to mind. Has Carbon IQ had a role in any projects in which disaster planning was a concern? Regardless, what is the best way to handle the "Slashdot effect" as part of a site's design instead of yanking everything when the tsunami comes crashing down, as so many sites did on the day of the disaster?

NF:

I used to be the editor and webmaster at America's Second Harvest (secondharvest.org), the nation's largest hunger-relief organization. When hurricanes or floods would take over a town, Second Harvest's disaster-relief network (of food banks and planned transportation logistics) was already in place to provide the backbone for most of the Red Cross's relief efforts. The website had to adjust on a similar scale; the home page was adjusted for breaking news, the donation page was front-and-center, and templates for news from the front line were ready to go. It was a fairly easy effort, much like flicking the switch, but I don't think anything compares to what happened on September 11, and can't imagine planning for it.

 

CW:

A lot of sites stripped away their graphics to improve load times. This was a smart move. Metafilter, which auto-refreshes every time it changes, went to a static page to reduce server load. But overall the web was invaluable. I couldn't get in touch with a dear friend and I was terrified she was dead. It was the loss of cellphones and the overwhelmed landlines that failed us: I found out she was okay by email. I found out other friends were okay because they said so on their blogs. I think TV and radio are still the best medium for breaking news; the web is better for commentary and personal stories.

 

GZ:

Funny, I was just discussing this same issue today. We recently finished work for Knight Ridder who runs a series of dead tree and online newspapers across the country. We discussed the scenario for breaking news at a national level before a story had been written. We could place a headline in a box and give it prominence above all other content, but the question we raised is that how would the juxtaposition of that potentially devastating news with sports scores and restaurant reviews be taken by users? Bandwidth is not the only reason to strip the site down.

I can't tell you how we resolved the problem for Knight Ridder because the product has yet to launch, but I believe CNN solved the same problem by taking down all its content once it received a story off the wire – it was essentially an empty site besides the critical stories related to the attack.

Contingency planning is one of those things that often gets overlooked because the scenarios are so remote. To some businesses it's critical. To others, it's less important.

 

Digital Web:

Do you think that this past week has been a rite of passage for the web, as well as the United States as a nation? If so, how? If not, just briefly share your thoughts in this regard.

NF:

The personally-edited sites I visit had a lot less content, and appropriately so. The corporate-news sites seemed to struggle for any news and then publish it. I can't say it felt much like a rite of passage for the web because such a rite usually involves learning something from the experience. I haven't any idea if most sites know what they would do differently if this were to happen again.

 

CW:

The web is finding its strength as a medium for communication. There were a million private personal stories of the tragedy, and reading these made one feel less alone. Sadly there were also dozens of scams that launched as well. I still think the web is an immature medium. But that's what makes it so interesting also.

 

Digital Web:

Since the attacks there has been talk of changes to U.S. encryption and privacy laws. If such laws are passed, how do you think the typical "web user experience" will change, particularly in regard to e-commerce?

NF:

We (us and our data) will be watched more often, certainly, but I don't think it will provide any major roadblock to ecommerce. So much of our personal data is already for sale, and so few cries have really been heard from the general public about this (sad but true) that a lack of privacy has, by and large, been one of those rights we've given up on without even knowing much about it. Personally, I'm very concerned that our encryption laws will change, but I think as a society the average person won't notice that much of a difference.

 

CW:

Barcodes tattooed on your ass, smartchips imbedded in your hand, all devices go internet ready and we'll all be tracked everywhere. My fridge will be asking me if I consort with communists.

Seriously, the web is much more secure than most ordinary exchanges: when people ask me if shopping on the net is safe, I ask, "Ever give your credit card to a waiter? It's safer than that." I think the changes we'll see will mostly be in the dirt-world. I can't say I'm looking forward to them.

 

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Related Topics: Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Guru

 

 

Christina Wodtke is a partner at Carbon IQ, a user-experience agency, where she designs IA and conducts user research in the quest to create more usable, effective, and profitable products. She is the author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web and the founder of Boxes and Arrows, an online magazine devoted to information architecture and interaction design. To learn more, visit her personal site Elegant Hack.

 

Nick Finck is a 13-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. Nick founded his first web consultancy in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, and has since created web experiences for various Fortune 50 and 500 companies including Adobe, Boeing, Blue Cross / Blue Shield, Cisco, CitiGroup, FDIC, HP, IBM, Microsoft, PBS, Peet’s Coffee, and others. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington and is a co-founder of Blue Flavor, a web strategy company that focuses on people-centric solutions. More information about Nick can be found on his web site, NickFinck.com.

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