Possibly Useful Skills

I’m responding to a podcast again this week – in their April 4, 2017 show, the What’s Wrong with UX folks touched on “4 Possibly Useful Skills for Designers.” https://www.usersknow.com/podcast/2017/3/19/4-possibly-useful-skills-for-designers

The discussion interests me because, as I’ve said before, I serve kind of a jack-of-all-trades role around here. My primary skill is writing, but I serve more as a project manager and general website administrator. Along the way, I’ve learned to troubleshoot HTML and CSS and just enough JavaScript to be dangerous.

The hosts – Laura Klein and Kate Rutter – seem to come at it from more of a design / product management background. Naturally, the largest part of the conversation is about coding. They agree it’s nice to know code, but generally there’ll be someone who is a better coder.

Klein says the main benefit of coding knowledge is that you know what’s possible. It allows you to keep the engineers honest when they tell you what can or can’t be done. And you can make an intelligent contribution when you’re talking about (in her example) whether you use LinkedIn’s login system or build your own password manager.

“You have to know enough about tech in general to even ask that question,” says Laura.

“I’m not talking that you would to know the specifics of integration, but you learn how to think about it, and what questions to ask, and how to go to the Googles and ask, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” agrees Rutter.

That’s kind of where I’m at with coding. I’m never going to be a coder myself, but I know enough to have an intelligent conversation with one.

And that’s why I’m studying UX – UX is the “possibly useful skill” I’m learning alongside my other skills. After being a generalist for so long, I would like to be genuinely good at something specific.

Burned at the Stake

I used this as one of my “pins,” but I wanted to say a bit more about this.

A few weeks ago, I read Jakob Nielsen’s essay “A 100-Year View of User Experience.” In it, he expects the UX profession to grow to be 1 percent of the world’s population by the year 2050. Pretty cool, I thought, and moved on with my day.

Then, I listened to the UX Podcast, where hosts Per Axbom and James Royal-Lawson pointed out that Nielsen is actually predicting two UX futures, and one of them is dystopian.

At one point, Nielsen says the UX profession will “turn to solving the advanced economies’ productivity problems, expanding the goal of the UX profession beyond the current obsession with addicting users to their social media feeds.”

Then, in the next paragraph, Nielsen says “The other 99% will thank us as they will finally master technology instead of being oppressed by it.”

The podcast hosts were skeptical.

“How is he confident that we will move from making people obsessed with social media to solving the world’s problems?” asks host Per Axbom. “Either people will actually thank us, or they will be hating us.”

“Can we survive the journey that he’s predicting without being burned at the stake before then?” wonders Royal-Lawson.

I have a personal theory that everything in modern life is addictive.

  • I spend a lot of time turning off notifications for apps on my phone – I can see how they keep you chasing that next hit.
  • When I was in college, I could check email in the basement of my dorm, or in one of the stand-up terminals in the student union. I remember checking my email in one building, then being compelled to check email again when I got to the next building. The hit of dopamine was that strong.
  • I read a book recently called “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” The upshot is that the food industry A/B tested food for the last 50 years, and have learned how to jack up the quantities of the title nutrients to keep us “craving.” It’s not too far from the A/B test I’m running on my website.
  • In the last few years, slot machines have been designed to ring out if they have a “near miss.” Of course, a miss is as good as a mile, when it comes to slots. But it keeps people thirsty for their next strike.

Anyway, it’s not a huge concern for me at the moment. I’m trying to get people hooked on college programs that could improve their life. But still – it’s something to think about.

A or B?

I mentioned we relaunched our website last month, and now I can report that we’re doing our first A/B test on the new site.

We’re testing two versions of our Request for Information button. Our traffic is currently split between these two pages:

  1. https://www.cscc.edu/admissions/index-1.shtml – RFI in the middle of the page
  2. https://www.cscc.edu/admissions/index-3.shtml – larger RFI at the bottom of the page

Stay tuned, we should have a winner in a few weeks.

A/B testing is something I want to do a lot more of. It offers the possibility of statistically valid customer insights without having to, y’know, talk to a bunch of people.

I subscribe to Behave.Org (formerly WhichTestWon), a semi-weekly newsletter of A/B tests. You guess which one you think is the best, and then see the winner. It’s totally humbling – I get about 60% of them right.

This is our first A/B test in about four years, since we started the web redesign process. We did about a half-dozen A/B tests on the old site, and I must admit we never implemented a change that had a statistically significant effect.

I’m not sure how to account for that. I reckon choosing a college is a pretty robust process, with a long “sales cycle.” So maybe it’s not susceptible to micro changes in UI. But I keep plugging away, keep looking for some way to move the needle.

I fancy myself a person with pretty decent taste. But, like, how do you know for sure? I feel like we spend a lot of time making decisions democratically, or by seniority. Hopefully this’ll give us  some data on how to make things better.

Cropping Blues

Last week’s reading finally explained to me why I’ve been having such trouble cropping photos in my new PhotoShop. Last year, I got upgraded from CS4 to Creative Cloud 6 or so, and the cropping regime is very different.

On page 120 of the Norman book, he talks about the metaphors we use to control scrolling on a computer screen. Are you scrolling the window down, or are you scrolling the text up? This is an open question on desktops, but on phones it’s pretty obvious that you’re swiping the text up or down. So Apple has switched to a moving-text model, but PCs haven’t followed suit.

It’s similar with PhotoShop. In the old version, you have a photo and you overlay the cropping selection on top of it. You can see it around the 1:00 mark of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dy7S9HZ4Rw4&feature=youtu.be

With my new PhotoShop, you can resize the crop window, but generally you are moving and zooming the photo behind it. It’s taken me months to get used to the change.

I suspect this change is also driven by mobile. On a phone, it would be silly to change the size of the crop window. The crop would quickly get too small to be usable. So you change the size of the picture while the crop stays constant.

(As usual, my phone implements this in a weird way. You can move the crop window in some cases, but you can’t move a photo after you’ve blown it up within the crop window. So you have to hope the crop window lands on the part of the photo you’re trying to show.)

 

Motivation drives user acceptance … but don’t count on it.

I have a key example of motivation driving software acceptance: My mother and my mother-in-law on Facebook.

Neither of them is particularly tech-savvy, but once they heard there were adorable grandbabies on Facebook, they were logged on right quick.

The motivation factor is a key problem at my school. We spend a lot of time teaching students how to do basic tech tasks because they were never motivated to learn them. They can download illegal music on their phones, but they never learned how to attach a file to an email.

In his video, Prof. Sherman talks about making the signup process frictionless to get users into the product before their motivation wanes. In my opinion, Pinterest may have taken this a bit too far.

As I signed up, it required me to select five areas of interest and instantly presented me with a premade board. But I had to hunt a bit to find out how to make new boards and even how to create my own pins. I suspect this is driven by business requirements rather than straight usability. I believe the company is trying to make things easier for casual users, in an attempt to gain more market share, at the cost of making things a bit more tricky for power users.

Extrinsic motivation can be a crutch for usability, as Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes found. He found he got better feedback from free users than enterprise users, because he could not count on their loyalty. He had to work harder to keep them, and it made the product better.

“Your product is a piece of sh*t”: How this feedback changed my company – by Ryan Holmes

 

 

The Bucket Affords …

My challenge for the last week has been fighting habituation – trying to “think like a beginner” as Tony Faddell says.

The Bucket Affords …

I was at Hot Chicken Takeover (a local chicken joint) last week and I saw a little metal bucket on the counter.

It took me a minute to figure out what it was there for. The bucket affords putting things in – but what?

Then I saw the bucket was sitting in front of a box of drinking straws. There were some crumpled-up straw papers in the box, cluttered up with the unwrapped straws.

I stuck some of crumpled-up straw papers in the bucket.

So there you go. The crumpled straw papers signify that the bucket affords trash.

Cancel or Delete?

Here’s one from my phone. I was trying to cancel a meeting, so I selected the calendar item and pressed delete.

Here’s the dialog window. Does pressing “delete” cancel the meeting, or does “cancel” cancel the deletion?

Follow the Users Where They Are

In the Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman recommends following the users wherever they go, following them into the shower if necessary. The Greater Columbus Convention Center took this to heart. I saw the following kiosk in the bathroom there the other day.

Publishing vs. Software

That Jesse James Garret chapter really crystallized it for me – I’m a publishing guy trying to do software.

In Chapter 2 of his Elements of User Experience (.pdf), Garrett says the web grew out of two traditions: 1) The world of software design and 2) The publishing / media / blogging world.

“One group saw every problem as an application design problem, and applied problem-solving approaches from the traditional desktop and mainframe software worlds. (These, in turn, were rooted in common practices applied to creating all kinds of products, from cars to running shoes.) The other group saw the Web in terms of information distribution and retrieval, and applied problem-solving approaches from the traditional worlds of publishing, media, and information science.”

I’m a former reporter, so I come very firmly from the publishing side of the biz. But a lot of the challenges I face right now aren’t writing challenges so much as software challenges.

My current white whale is an online catalog for our college. To solve this problem, I need to lay out a series of web controls which allow users to manipulate the information so they can make an informed decision. So what I’m trying to create is less like a traditional college catalog (aka a book), and more like an e-commerce application. My favorite design inspiration is Stark Bros Nurseries & Orchards.

To be sure, this also involves wrangling a lot of content. But to be successful, it has to work like a great piece of software.