The tyranny of design. Why you need to focus on objective outcomes in interface design.

In-flight entertainment – a story

Some years ago at British Airways there was a project to design an interface for a new in-flight entertainment system. My then-colleague and friend Mike Lock was project managing. Mike is the real godfather of digital usability at British Airways. Whilst I set up and developed the UX, Design and Research team, I did so off the back of what Mike had already done to sow the seeds of awareness and need. He says I’m too modest, but I call it as I see it.

British Airways’ in-flight entertainment screen

For the design of the IFE interface a small number of companies had been asked to present a concept. At the end of the presentations it was clear to Mike that only company X had grasped the issues around information architecture and navigation, although the visual design was a bit off. He was shocked to hear when going round the table that no-one else favoured company X. All the other (more senior) stakeholders in the room went for a more on-brand visual design. Mike felt overwhelmed – like all the big guns were pointed at him and he only had a cardboard shield to deflect the blows.

‘But’, said Mike, ‘the one you all like does look nice, but no-one will be able to use it. It’s not a design where the usability issues can be fixed – it needs throwing away and starting again.’ Sceptical faces were all he saw, but he kept going. ‘Although the design from company X isn’t quite on brand it is usable, and we can fix the design elements relatively easily.’ The meeting broke up with the stakeholders thinking that Mike didn’t get it, and there was no way they were going with company X. But Mike still wasn’t giving up.

That meeting was on a Friday and the group was going to reconvene on Monday to decide what to do. Mike was desperate to find a way to influence the decision towards the one he knew to be correct. Over the weekend he took the images from the presentations and turned them into clickable prototypes using Powerpoint. It was all that was available in those days. He then videod his mum ‘using’ the two interfaces. This was in the days of camcorders that recorded on tape. She couldn’t use the pretty design but got on pretty well with the from company X.

On Monday Mike played the video to the group. Ultimately he won the argument, company X got the contract and re-worked the design, and it was implemented on many aircraft. It left a bad taste in Mike’s mouth though. He had to work too hard to prove a simple point and taken a load of senior shit for it.

The lessons

Something similar to that scenario has played out again and again over time. There are lessons to be learned.

Firstly you can’t assume that your stakeholders get what it takes for an interface to be usable. It’s one of those contradictions in life – we’ll all swear at an interface that frustrates us, but (some of us) would still build an interface for our own companies that incorporate the same frustrations. It’s human nature – we’re often not aware of the causes of our emotions, and most people don’t analyse exactly what it is that they don’t like about a website or an app. They just ‘know’ that it doesn’t work for them.

Secondly, if you have business people who are (relatively) sane and rational it should be possible to influence their perception of effective design. They do actually want it to work. There are different ways of doing this, and sometimes it depends on the person as to what the best way is. Some people like to review a spreadsheet of analytics following a multivariate test, but usually the best way of snagging a stakeholder is for them to see a real customer being unable to use an interface that that stakeholder thought was ok. It hits at an emotional level that has impact. Get them to watch live research in person – but if you can’t, then show the video.  If you can, involve them in the setup of the research so they can’t quibble with the methodology afterwards.

Thirdly, agencies vary in their expertise. Some are better at UI, some excel in IA, some at ecommerce. It’s critical when engaging an agency to make sure they have the expertise to do what the client wants, and to be clear about what success looks like. I wrote another post on why agency/client engagements often don’t work.

The landscape today

Designing for mobile forces the designer to ruthlessly prioritise content and produce a compact design. Users focus more because there’s less to look at, and identify more issues with confusing and irrelevant copy which they would just ignore on a desktop screen. More people are using phones more of the time, but desktop isn’t dead yet. I don’t know if it’s a reaction to compact phone design, but desktop design seems to have gone the other way.

A short while ago I was talking to a senior business manager about her company’s desktop site. It had been designed by an agency and she had complained that there was too much scrolling. The agency had ‘explained’ that it was ‘modern design’. The business manager was right, there was too much scrolling.

It seems to be the vogue to have enormous images, lots of white space, and huge font sizes. If you have an ‘artistic’ site or a particular brand image all of this might be appropriate. However, for most ecommerce or informational sites it isn’t appropriate. Customers want to get in, do their stuff, and get out. They want the experience to be a perfect combination of ease, pleasure, succinctness, entertainment, effectiveness etc. And yes, that does include a site that’s pleasant to look at. But if they have to repeatedly scroll just to find out what’s on offer, or to find the information relevant to them, then it’s not achieving their goals and it’s not helping the company to win their business. There are some sites where I’ll go to read an article and I almost feel like I’ve been punched in the face by the huge font that’s difficult and unpleasant to read.

My perception is that many, if not most agency sites are culprits of implementing a triumph of design over communication. If they built their clients’ sites like they built their own then their clients would go out of business.

The bottom line

I’ve had excruciating debates with got-religion UI designers who can’t bear to see the excellence of their design debased and compromised in pursuit of mere money. They don’t disagree that the design impacts usability – they just think making the design right is more important. I’ve told them I’m not prepared to explain to the CEO that we chose to make lower profits so that we could adhere to the designer’s idea of a nice-looking interface.

I want to be clear that I’m not at all putting down UI. It’s absolutely essential. It’s just not the reason why we do all this work.

The reason for the existence of UX, UI, research, interaction design, information architecture etc etc is to be effective in the mission of the organisation paying for the work to be done, which is usually to make money and/or to communicate. We need to focus on the goals and objectives for the interface, where ‘on brand’ is a primary goal and ‘nice looking’ is a secondary goal.

It all needs to come together. Figuring out what works needs to be based on research, on facts – if anyone can stomach facts in a post-fact world.

 

My dog applied for a job

With apologies to many hard-working responsive and ethical recruiters and companies.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I wish to apply for the role of xxxx on behalf of my dog Lexi. I attach her cv and photograph. I know that you don’t normally ask for photos and that to discriminate on looks is probably illegal, but she is very cute. I would expect you to be entirely professional about this, but if you do get to meet her I can provide treats for you to give her and she will be your friend and lick you.

You may be a little surprised that my dog is applying but I am assuming that she has as much chance as I have of getting an interview. When I applied for the role my cv matched your job description exactly and I have all the personal qualities listed. I can only imagine that your response to me must have been lost when my email server went down (although I wasn’t aware that it had). Your website describes your company values and I couldn’t imagine that you wouldn’t at least reply. In fact there have been some companies that I had an interview with who didn’t reply even after I had met them. Maybe if I’d taken my dog with me I would have been more memorable and had a response.

Given that you have been advertising the role for some time and continue to do so I can only imagine that you are finding it hard to recruit the right person, so Lexi could be a good solution.

Anyway, Lexi is very collaborative which is one of the skills that you are looking for. She is very open to anyone throwing her ball for her and will often bring it back, so she’s very easy to work with. I have found that introduced to a group of people she will often lift the mood and so will be a great asset in the office.

Her stakeholder management skills are second to none as she usually is very persuasive. She achieves this by staring at people with big eyes, a bit like the cat in Shrek. By the way if you’re more of a cat person we did have cats but sadly the last one disappeared recently otherwise I could have applied for her as well.

There is no question that Lexi is better behaved than many people. She has never thrown up due to drunkeness, is good to children, and doesn’t smash up city centres after football matches. She is clean and tidy – much more so than people, given the evidence of my local park or any beach after a sunny day. I have a good supply of poo bags for the only deposits she is likely to leave behind.

I believe that if Lexi is required to fill in a personality profile (I hope it will be ok for me to press the buttons on her behalf) she will sail through. She is assertive, ambitious, collaborative (as I’ve said), attentive, kind (she lets children stroke her), all positive attributes in a busy office.

Her cognitive abilities are also outstanding. She has great verbal reasoning skills, responding to words such as ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘stay’ (for a while) etc as she reasons that she will earn a treat as a result, which is sometimes true. Lexi has good numerical skills. If there is one treat to her left and two treats to her right, she will turn to the right.

You don’t need to worry if the psychometric tests aren’t especially relevant to the job as that seems to be normal, although they are quite useful at reducing the annoyingly large number of applicants by applying an arbitrary pass mark that has been determined by highly qualified experts who have never done the job being applied for. You may find it simpler to spin a coin. If you do save a lot of money by taking this approach please send me a cut.

I hope it will be possible to make some reasonable accommodations to the office space for Lexi. A small grass mat in the toilets (or suitable location) would be required, and an open space where ball throwing is permitted would be desirable. The canteen may need to review the menu. I would assume that sleeping on the job is not an issue as you offer flexible working arrangements.

I note that your office is located on a flood plain. Should it be required Lexi is a good swimmer, and could potentially perform a first aid role by towing non-swimmers to safety. Provision would have to be made for a supply of small sticks to encourage her to go in the right direction. I attach a further photo by way of illustration.

Lexi swimming (sort of)

With regard to salary Lexi’s demands are quite modest, and she would be ok with the same shamefully low amount that you would have paid me had I not missed your reply.

If you do decide to invite Lexi for an interview the best question to ask her is ‘How are you feeling?’ because then she can say ‘Ruff’. It may be best for the rest of the interview to be skills based, as she can sometimes lose interest in having a conversation. Mind you, if she gets too excited she can shout quite a lot, which could be useful if burglars are in the vicinity.

The one possible drawback is that Lexi has little concept of your brand or what you company does. To be frank the same applies to me, despite the fact that I said in my application that yours was the only company I’d ever wanted to work for (I’m not sure if you got that far in the letter). I’d copied that bit from a website to which I’d paid several hundred pounds that guaranteed to get me any job I wanted. That clearly didn’t work and I will have to consult my learned friends about a remedy. Nevertheless I hope that Lexi’s honesty will count in her favour if you read as far as this.

Please do not attempt to reply to this application by email as it appears to be unreliable. Even the postal service isn’t what it used to be. I suggest that you leave the interview invitation with your receptionist (not sooner than one week please), and the next time I’m going past when taking Lexi for a walk I’ll drop in and pick it up. Please also ensure that there is a bowl of water and an appropriate treat. Mine’s a pint.

Yours

Nick Gassman (on behalf of Lexi)

UX, Design and Research are critical core functions for fintech

Fintech is buzzing

Financial services in general have been undergoing significant change for some time driven by digital technologies. The ongoing closure of high street bank branches has been a matter of much public comment. The application of new technologies to financial services has generated the term ‘fintech’, and there’s a lot going on. It’s fascinating There are some companies offering the same services as have existed for a long time – such as insurance or lending – and using tech to drive down the costs for the end customer. There are others using tech to offer something a bit different.

Whatever the business though, it’s not enough to have a good idea or even a good execution Whereas in previous times transactions were always mediated by people – over the counter or the phone – who could provide a buffer to clunky systems and terminology, with digital the user interface has to be good enough, and can be a competitive advantage in its own right. If customers can’t navigate your system, you’re out of business.

Digital coin exchanges

Here’s an example from digital coin exchanges.

This is an extract of Bitrex homepage. Erm…. maybe they are just targeting expert traders who know them and know what they do. They aren’t going to suck in many mainstream investors. ‘Explore markets’??? What markets? Sign up for what?

Bittrex section of homepage

Their homepage blurb is this.

Lloyds mortgage page

There’s an obvious difference in apparent complexity between these designs. The aim should be to make it easy for any individual to find their path. The first two designs would seem to achieve that aim. With Lloyds, should I go to ‘Find out more’ or one of the other choices? Is this the right place to tell prospective customers that their homes may be repossessed?What’s all that legal-looking text at the top about? And what’s a ‘Club Lloyds current account customer’ that gets a discount? How can I be one? There’s no information here.

Lloyds are talking to Club Lloyds customers at this point, but what about everyone else? At British Airways there are benefits for members of The Executive Club – the airline’s frequent flyer scheme (despite its name anyone can join for free and earn miles). Around the site there would be, for example, a description of how to choose a seat, with a rider of ‘and Executive Club members can do x’. It was aimed at Executive Club members who (mostly) knew that they were a member. However, many non-members didn’t know if they were members or not – or how to become one. It’s important when presenting messages to think not only of the people who it’s for, but also the people who it’s not for, and to provide supporting information where needed. In Lloyds case it would help if there was some in-context information available (such as a mouseover) that could inform the curious customer as to what a ‘Club Lloyds current account customer’ is.

Borderless banking

There are a growing number of digital nomads working remotely and moving around the globe, and so more borderless bank accounts are appearing, along with other methods of cheaply moving money across borders.

ipagoo have a multi country account, and TransferWise has recently added a ‘borderless account’ to their list of services.

The ipagoo website needs work. The contrast of the text to background is poor making it hard to read and key information doesn’t stand out. Also, one of the obvious questions that digital nomads will ask is ‘what countries does this account work in?’. Where can I get paid? It’s not obvious how to get that information on the ipagoo site. Here’s part of their homepage.

ipagoo home

There are no obvious navigation options to tell me which countries I can get paid in. I spent some time looking around but ultimately I had to contact the company to find out. You have to ‘apply now’, which is counter-intuitive. I don’t want to apply yet, I want more information.

Here’s what you get on the apply now page.

ipagoo apply now

Even more oddly, you now have to click the link to find out if you are eligible for an account. This is structured the way the company thinks about it – not the way that customers think. From ipagoo’s point of view, if you aren’t in one of the listed countries, you’re not eligible. But it doesn’t help customers to structure the information that way.

Here’s what you get if you click the link.

ipgoo eligibility page

At last, here’s the list, but I would never have found it and I would never have opened an account.

By contrast TransferWise present the information in a more customer-friendly way.

TransferWise information

There’s a summary right there as to which countries are covered.

HSBC do offer an account that does something similar, but there is a list of eligibility criteria that will exclude many of the new generation of international workers, some of whom will end up rich but sticking with the new players. Maybe HSBC have their eye on this but history is littered with the remains of businesses that didn’t move early enough to deal with challengers.

UX, Design, and Research are critical functions for fintech

Fintech startups and established businesses, like all digital businesses, need to treat the customer experience as a core business competency. That means doing the research to understand the customer perspective – what information does the customer need along the way? Can they find it easily? Can the customer transact easily? Does the design reflect brand values and support the usability?

That means recruiting and keeping specialists who know how to do this stuff. Good UX/UI and research people will be able to apply their skills across business domains.

A founder or CEO who thinks they know what a user interface should look like, or how it should work, and thinks they don’t need design expertise is unlikely to be the success they think they should be.

Why should I care who is tracking me online?

Why should I care if companies and organisations can collect information about me across the Internet? Let’s be clear, I’m not for a moment advocating a lack of control or transparency. I do think that it should be compulsory for anyone collecting my data to let me know what they are collecting and how they are going to use it. I think I should have control over what can be collected and how it is used and that there should be significant penalties for anyone who abuses the rules. It is also incumbent on data collectors to hold the information securely. If someone has my data and only uses it in a way that I have (explicitly) agreed to then all is good. If that someone is careless and lets someone else get hold of that data, then that someone else could use it for purposes that I wouldn’t like – such as identity theft.

The reason that I ask the question as to why I should care is that I’ve seen very little quality reasoned argument about the actual risks and issues. Most of what I’ve read simply points out what’s being collected and leaves it to an implicit assumption that this is bad. If anyone does take it a step further it’s usually to do with the fact that adverts follow me across websites and that some people find this spooky and unnerving. Get over it. Some people found tv spooky and unnerving when it was introduced. Same for radio and the telephone. I can’t speak for cave paintings, but I would be surprised to know that someone didn’t like it.

Many of you will be familiar with the quote from Arthur C Clarke, visionary and science fiction author… ‘Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic’. Most people don’t have much of a grasp of the technology used to track them online and so it borders on magic. Assumptions are made that because I see the same ad on two websites, that The Man therefore knows every detail of my life. More than once I’ve heard of people who are absolutely convinced that Facebook is listening to their conversations. They have been having a conversation about person x, then they look at their Facebook feed and there’s a recommendation to link up with person x. I have no inside track on Facebook, but I don’t think they are listening to conversations. They just have really sophisticated tracking and algorithms and sometimes there’s a coincidence that a recommendation happens just when you’ve been talking about someone. I think there are some serious ethical questions that Facebook have not addressed about how they have collected data, used it and shared it, and their lack of transparency, but I don’t think they are listening to us.

It’s a fact of life that some of what we take for granted as ‘free’ services online are paid for by advertising and by knowing who the users are of online services. That requires tracking data over time. Bear in mind that just because an ad follows you across websites doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily knows who you are – just that a system knows that user number ABC1234 has done certain things. In some circumstances it’s possible to tie that information to an actual person – such as when someone has registered on a site – but that linkage should also be subject to disclosure.

An example of the lack of intelligent informed debate came (sadly) in a recent episode of BBC TVs ‘Click’ which carried a segment on the information that browsers collect. It was entirely factually correct but made no mention at all of why any of it should be an issue with anyone, although that was the implication. I love it when my browser fills in forms for me. It makes my life a lot easier. If I found that the browser developer was using that information to sell to advertisers so I would see different ads, then I’d complain if they hadn’t told me but I’d otherwise shrug my shoulders. It makes my life easier and if I’m going to see ads, then I might as well see ads that are relevant to me.

We’ve heard a lot about Cambridge Analytica and how they and other organisations have used data for nefarious purposes, in particular influencing the Brexit vote and the Trump election. The degree to which these efforts were successful is not entirely apparent, but both votes were close and a small effect could have a big impact. Yet the practice of targeting political messages at select groups is nothing new – it was invented with politics, with people. You vary the message depending on who you’re talking to. The main problem with such efforts today is the lack of transparency of why I’m seeing a message, and the fact that many such messages are half-truths and lies. Again, not a new thing in politics. The Internet and Big Data are amplifying what was already there. Yes it’s a worry, and we could start with holding politicians to the same level of truthful accountability as advertising.

I worry about the bubble that’s being created around me. Google shows me results that it thinks I want to see. Spotify tells me about music that’s ‘like’ other music I listen to, or that other people ‘like me’ listen to. I worry that I’m going to be closed off from new experiences, from serendipitous discovery.

The collection of data per-se is not the problem. So please, let’s have a more informed debate and fewer alarmist articles about what browsers know about me. The important questions are whether there is consent, and how the information is being used. Usually there’s something in it for me. I’m happy to see ads for technology, but I’m not happy about political messages that are false – even if they accord with my prejudices. We have to care about the truth.

Here are my own rules for data collection and use. I’m referring here to ‘data’ about me.

  • Data should only be collected and retained subject to informed consent
  • The uses to which that data is put should be subject to informed consent
  • Data should be held securely
  • Data should only be shared subject to informed consent
  • Data policies should be easy to read and transparent. The key points should be summarised
  • Only authorised people should have access to data
  • Data should only be made available to government authorities based on a court order or similar legal footing
  • In the event of my unfortunate demise, my next of kin should have control of my data and access to it based on more rules I haven’t worked out yet

Predictive text or dropdown. Which is better?

Which is best, predictive text (aka type-ahead), or a pre-populated dropdown? As ever the answer is ‘it depends’. However, I do sense that predictive text has become the default, even when it might not be the right thing to do. Which approach to take on the British Airways booking panel was the single longest running argument I had with colleagues at BA.

British Airways old booking panel

To choose where you wanted to fly from there was one dropdown for country and one for city which was populated according to the selected country. However, to choose where you wanted to fly to, it was predictive text. When the user started typing matches would show up for city, airport, or country names.

The funny thing was that time after time colleagues at BA asked why we didn’t change the dropdowns to predictive text. My boss, my team, colleagues in the business would all argue passionately for predictive text in the ‘From’ field. The reason that was odd was that on a number of occasions in usability labs customers would ask why we didn’t change the predictive text to dropdowns in the ‘To’ field. Not one customer ever asked for what my colleagues wanted. Yet when I explained this internally people found it very difficult to accept as it was so counter-intuitive to them.

So why was the panel designed that way? Good question. I’m not sure I can clearly articulate the original thinking, but here’s the post-rationalisation. If you are flying from somewhere the likelihood is that you know where you want to go from – or at least which country. It’s also likely that many customer don’t know which airports BA flies from, but by selecting the country they get a definitive list. It also means that you don’t have to be able to spell the name of an airport or city to get a hit, and if your favoured city isn’t in the list then you know for sure BA don’t go there. Those factors aren’t catered for in predictive text.

If you are flying to somewhere there’s more of chance that you’re not so familiar with the destination. If you know you want to go to Sofia you may not know which country it’s in. You might not even know what continent it’s on. So the predictive text is less constraining where a search might be more diverse.

In the usability labs customers liked the fact that didn’t have to think – so long as they knew their departure country.

By contrast, let’s take a look at what Ryanair do.

Ryanair booking panel

Both the ‘from’ and ‘to’ fields have a consistent design which in principle is good. You can pick the country, and then you pick the airport. But you can also just type something in. If you didn’t know which country Dusseldorf was in, and typed ‘Dus’, then Dusseldorf would show up. The customer gets the choice of which method to use.

I do recall a time when Ryanair had all destinations in a single dropdown which covered the entire page of a desktop screen. It was a bit much.

There is a sense in which pre-population merges into a hierarchical navigation. Amazon couldn’t have a single dropdown with all their products in it, but you can drill down through the product listings to get a relevant (more or less) set of results. It’s the same principle as the BA and Ryanair menus, just presented in a different context.

A simple rule of thumb is that if there is a ‘small’ set of possible choices, then use a pre-populated dropdown. If you use predictive text then a key issue is how you handle errors. You could disable progress unless a valid choice is made from the options displayed. This eliminates the possibility of the user getting an error from the search, but doesn’t help if they don’t know what the choices are or what the spelling is.

If you don’t force a valid choice then if the user enters an invalid search term it’s typical to see ‘did you mean’, as exemplified here by Amazon. I searched for ‘beetles red album’, and the system guessed that I wanted the ‘Beatles’ red album, but still allowed me to insist on ‘beetles’ if I really wanted to. This is useful.

Amazon response to search for ‘beetles red album’

It can also be useful, even if the user enters a valid search term, to show alternatives.

There is a Sydney in Australia and also one in Canada. There have been occasional stories in the press of travellers flying to the wrong one. Perhaps if their search engines had been clearer that there were other ‘Sydney’s the error might have been avoided.

There is a Grenada in the Caribbean and a Granada in Spain. Just because someone types in, or selects, a valid search term doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the one they want.

The booking panel on ba.com now has predictive text

BA predictive text

This approach doesn’t wait until the user has hit the ‘enter’ button to let them know their search term isn’t recognised, and it makes helpful suggestions.

Summary

As is often the case with design there are some useful patterns out there, but which one you choose will depend on context.

If you have a limited number of defined choices use a dropdown. There’s no hard rule on how many is too many. That again can depend on context and how users react. Once you get to too many then you need to start categorising into a menu structure.

If you use predictive text consider whether you want to force a valid choice. Let the user know that their text is not recognised (where appropriate), and offer alternatives. You still often see a simple ‘no results’ as a consequence of a simple spelling error. Consider whether it’s better to alert the user to the issue before or after the search button is pressed.

The two approaches aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, as the Ryanair example shows.

A little thought and consideration of the issues could make a significant difference to experience on many sites.

Here’s a comment from an ex-colleague, Allan Dade.

Predictive text can pip drop downs to the post if they are built correctly for screen readers. Drop-downs are a tad easier to build to standards as long as the number of ‘results’ are announced so that the visually impaired customer doesn’t have to. Longer dropdowns can cause display issues on mobile, while assistive choice can be disrupted by the way a user uses their device.