Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No *** for passwords!

At the recent UPA conference in Portland, I attended a session that was on best practices in the registration process. The talk was okay, but the conversation around it was more interesting. One of the things that got raised was how users had problems creating passwords when the system changed the password text to ****. People thought it was for security if you were in a public place, but then Stephanie Rosenbaum piped up and told us the real history. Apparently, this was a holdover from old word-processing machines that created a paper receipt of everything you typed. In other words, we've developed a standard based on an old, out of date technology!

Jakob Nielsen commands that we stop using password masking in his most recent alertbox article. He points out that as we are moving to a more mobile device-centric world, misspellings and mistyping becomes more common. This is a real problem for masked passwords because the user won't know that they've made an error until the password fails. He does offer a carrot to those who want to keep masking: make it optional and let the user decide.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The best advice I think I've gotten in my career

Next to my desk is a yellowing sheet of paper that I treasure. On it are 3 rules that I live by in my career, and I thought I'd share them:
  1. Say NO
  2. Keep standards reasonable
  3. Take time out for thinking
These rules were written down on this paper during a conversation with a colleague, Pete Amico, who was brilliant enough to see through my frazzled state and offer me such sage advice. Pete left the company years ago, but the rules are still up on my wall where I look at them frequently.

Say No.
Here's the thing. I tend to be one of those people who really wants to help. So, I say yes. The problem is, it isn't really possible to do everything. In order to be at my best, it is important for me to make choices and say no to things I could do, and even things that I really should do. Saying yes to everything means that I have way too much going on to handle well, which brings us to rule 2.

Keep standards reasonable
I have high standards for myself. I tend to hold all of the work that I do to this high standard. That's great when I can pull it off, but not when I am trying to juggle multiple things. It isn't possible to do "great" on everything. I have to prioritize what is absolutely critical to do really well, and what will work if I just do okay. To do that, I need to follow rule 3.

Take time out for thinking
When there is a ton of stuff on my plate (because of my tendency to say yes) and I need to put in a lot of time to do it right (because of my tendency to hold myself to unreasonably high standards), I find myself with no time for thinking. Thinking, though, is critical to produce high quality work and to figure out what my priorities are.

So, the three rules are rules that I need to live by. Maybe they'll help you too.

(ps. consider applying these rules to designing products too... )

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Business + Anthropology = nirvana, or something else...

Navi Radjou blogged last week about R&D 2.0, which he suggests is more about anthropology than engineering. His blog on the Harvard Business Publishing site was focused on R&D in emerging markets, but is representative of a trend I've seen in the business literature lately.

I'm intrigued with the recent business "crush" on anthropological/ ethnographic methods. It seems that people are thirsty for real stories and deep understanding to give them direction.

I fear, though, for the impending backlash. If businesses don't apply those stories and lessons to improve their products and services, the role of ethnography may be seen as a passing fancy, a waste of precious resources. I think the key will be to have people who can translate meaning into direction and business implications.

If we do succeed in making businesses more sensitive to where customers are really coming from, it could be a beautiful thing. Business people will benefit from having the deeper customer understanding that comes from ethnographic research, and researchers will benefit from having to apply rigorous business thinking to their findings.

But... part of me is thinking back a few years to when the crush was on psychologists and usability. It isn't that usability isn't critical to businesses these days, it is often cited as one of the more important elements of the success of products. Many companies now have usability professionals on staff or regularly hire usability consultants to conduct research for them. However, in an era of limited budgets, I'm not seeing much growth or even discussion of the need for adding more psychologists to the payroll. (Maybe I'm not looking in the right place). I think that the problem is that usability is often thought of as a quality assurance step, instead of a strategic goal. Psychologists and usability researchers help perpetuate this by focusing on "usability problems" instead of the cognitive principles that can guide the direction and design of usable and enjoyable solutions. Our time hasn't past, but we have kind of dropped the ball in focusing so much on such a small piece of the picture.

For anthropologists and ethnographers (and user experience researchers who have a broader skillset than just usability testing), I hope that you can leverage your current moment in the spotlight to show real business value and differentiation through the work that you do. If so, everyone benefits and we will continue to see growth and excitement around the integration of ethnographic research in business.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

UPA 2009 in Portland - Day 2

This was a really long day. But a good one. I started off with a great talk from Susan Weinschenk on crafting presentations. It focused on telling a compelling story and was very engaging and fun. I went to it because I was following her talk with my own talk on presentation slides and I wanted to make sure I knew what she was covering to ensure that mine didn't overlap too much. Her talk was full of tips about giving the presentation itself. I was safe.

My talk was about how the slides you present affect your credibility and influence. I structured it so that it would be kind of an "evaluation" session where we'd evaluate slides from real findings presentations. It was kind of an experiment. I wasn't sure how it would go. In retrospect, I would have done a few things differently... I would have offered more examples of good slides and best practices to counterbalance with the not perfect examples I used. Some people in the audience loved it. Others hated it. I guess I can't feel too bad about that type of reaction.

Later in the day, I gave my talk on Research Traps. It went very well... (slides are up on Slideshare). This was pretty much the same as the talk I gave last fall, but this was a much shorter speaking window. I had 30 minutes and it filled the time, but it wasn't too rushed and the audience seemed to get a lot from it.

I went to a talk on having a "Field Day" at Yahoo... kind of a customer intimacy experience for non-UX people based on the "Hack Day" concept. It was pretty cool. Mark Wehner and Tom Wailes talked about how they got multidisciplinary teams of 3 to go into the field and spend time with a customer, focusing their interaction on something that interested themselves. Then, they returned to the office and constructed posters to illustrate their most interesting insights. They had 2 minutes to share what they'd learned and prizes were awarded for good research behaviors (best artifact, best quote, best poster, etc). Very nice twist on "teambuilding".

I also went to a talk from Peter Roessler, from, about a Graffiti wall that they'd put up to collect qualitative data from target users at a user conference. It was kind of cool. They had moderators man the wall so people could come speak to them if they are "auditory" thinkers, people could draw if they were "visual" thinkers, and... could collaborate on answers or not. Kind of cool. Got me thinking about some of the benefits of collecting data in public spaces.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

UPA 2009 in Portland - Day 1

It doesn't really feel like day 1 of the conference, since the past two days were tutorials and workshops and lots of meet and greet time. I stayed up last night talking until past midnight with old colleagues/friends from the Bell Labs days. That's one of the great things about conferences... catching up and sharing memories.

This morning the conference kicked off with a talk from Jared Spool. He's usually entertaining, but I usually don't completely agree with what he has to say. Today, though, was a different story. He was talking about how the field needs to grow and change. He pointed out that usability is not the same as user experience, and that as a field we need to transform ourselves. He talked about how we need to move from being just "usability practitioners" who smooth out the bumps to being "user experience professionals" who focus on delivering delight through the end-to-end experience. (Preaching to the choir).

Then, he talked about the difference between critics and coaches, and encouraged us to "Stop alienating people!" (wow, this from Jared???). He shared some research about successful and not successful teams. How successful teams were flexible and relied on tricks and techniques, whereas unsuccessful teams relied more on methods and dogma. Very entertaining and oh-so-true.

He talked about how we needed to broaden our skills and to specialize more deeply at the same time.

He talked about 3 core UX attributes (for teams):
  • Shared vision of the future of the product
  • Regular feedback by observing customers
  • Rewarding failure.
He said that it was our job to curate the failure process because "risk-adverse organizations produce crap." Okay... it was Jared.

Jared also did two STAR moments in his presentation (aka very entertaining parlor tricks):
  • He had 40 people in the audience fill out a survey then use their bodies to plot a visual graph of their data for the audience (we did similar things at VizThink this year and now I'm a big fan)
  • He had someone hold up a 67 foot string to illustrate a proportion and opportunity chart. Very dramatic illustration of the 3 inches of string representing the number of people who generated 80% of revenues versus the 67 feet representing people who come to the e-commerce site...
I went to several other talks during the day, but I'm much too tired to summarize right now. I'll get to it later... tomorrow I have 2 talks and will upload slides and commentary as soon as I can.