We only notice when it is not working.

Renown Industrial Designer, Dieter Rams, established ten “good design” principles, that every designer should follow. One of these ten principles really resonates with me and with what I am about to write in this post. The principle of Is unobtrusive products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

I believe that the same principle can be applied to other types of design such as Service Design, Interaction Design, UX, etc. and not only to Product Design.  Even though designing “experiences” and services seem more complex and less tangible than designing products, often times our interactions with certain “experiences” and services are very obtrusive. Let me illustrate my point by describing two recent experiences that I had with two completely different services. One involved returning a rental car and the other one involved buying a TV. Before, I go on to tell you a little bit more about these two experiences…which one do you think was the good one and which one was the bad one? You are probably thinking that first one was better than the second one, or the second one was better than the first one, or that they both sucked…or they were both a delight.
Well here it is…returning a rental car at the airport was a delight, it was an unobtrusive experience, while buying a TV was simply…painful.

Returning a rental car at the airport

photo

In my last christmas vacations I had the chance to travel with my family to Los Cabos (a popular tourist spot located in Baja California, Mexico). We flew to Los Cabos, because driving from Mexico City would have taken us an eternity, but that’s besides the point. As we drove back to the rental place from the hotel, I could not help but notice how easy it was to return the car and head to the airport. What I thought was going to be possibly an unpleasant experience became a rather delightful one. Let me walk you through the process:

1. As soon as you approach the rental place there is already a sign indicating where cars that are being returned need to be parked. There is a special entrance just for this type of cars.
2. Once you drive in you see the different parking spots.
3. At your parking slot, there is already a sign with instructions of what you need to do next. The next step of instructions was to proceed to the counter and return your car key.
4. At the counter you are greeted by a customer service agent who gets the key from you and sends someone else to check if the car is in the same conditions as the day you rented it.
5. If everything seems good and there are no setbacks, then you get to sign-off your papers and you can be on your way.
6. As soon as you finish talking to the agent, there is already a bus waiting for you outside ready to take you to the airport.

In total, there were six steps. Maybe, there could have been less..but I believe that often times is not about the quantity of steps you need to take to accomplish something, but about the quality of how you go from one step to the next step. Imagine if there was only one entrance for all type of cars and customers (airport shuttles, taxis, rented cars, normal cars, etc.) or what if the parking lot didn’t clearly label where cars that are being returned should be parked, I think the experience would have been more frustrating. But the quality and attention to detail of clearly defining these steps to the customers, help you feel like things are flowing normally and your engagement with the “experience” is far more positive. However, if the “experience” or service was not well thought out and you felt like going from one step to the next was a challenge, then the “experience” or service has failed. In fact, people only notice or often times comment on the design of something once it is not working (or they perceive it as not working), which leads me to my next “experience”: Buying a TV.

Buying a TV

brigtsign1-watermarkedA couple of weeks ago, I went shopping for a new TV for my house. Before going to the store and buying it, I looked at prices online and asked family and friends to see which TV they recommended I buy. I am the type of person who rather buy this type of electronics at a physical store than doing it online as I feel more comfortable knowing the physical space and dimension that they are going to take. Plus, the anxiety of having the product in your hands as soon as possible and saying “It is mine!” is irreplaceable. Well, at least that is what I thought I was going to get from going and buying the TV at the store. It turns out that buying the TV at the store was everything but a pleasant “experience”. As soon as I arrived to the store, I noticed that it was packed and they were clearly understaffed. I knew this meant that my experience here was not going to be the best one, but I had some hope. After all, I was told that the prices at this store were far better than the others I had previously seen. Anyways, let me walk you through this process now:

1. All the TVs were organized in such a way that they were all displayed next to each other and some at very awkward viewing angles (really high-up). They were all playing different channels and at different volume ranges, which made it very overwhelming.
2. The price tags were ridiculously small and some were even missing the price tags, so you had to chase the salesmen around to find out what the price of a TV was.
3. Once you finally overcome the sound and visual pollution that is surrounding you to make that final decision on which TV to take, you have to go find someone that can help you make the purchase (because as I said before they were clearly understaffed).
4. Well after finding a salesman, you find out that she is not responsible for that section and has to go get someone else that can help.
5. After a couple of minutes she finally manages to stop another salesman who can help me make the purchase.
6. We approach the counter (or at least I thought so), only to find out that this salesman took down my personal information to print out in a receipt that I had to take to a different counter where I needed to pay.
7. Fortunately, the line at this other counter was not so long and I was able to pay quickly. However, I needed to go to a third counter to schedule the delivery of my TV, because it was out of stock!!! And the company that manages the deliveries is different from the store where I was buying my TV!!!
8. I headed to the third and final counter, to schedule the delivery date of my TV, only to find out that they were going to take up to ten days to deliver the TV. Ten days…
9. Eight days later I received a call from the deliver company to let me know that the TV could be delivered before and we needed to re-schedule the deliver time.
10. Fortunately, the TV was indeed delivered the next day.

What was suppose to be a simple purchase became a nightmare. I had to go through eight days of wait, five salesmen, three different counters and two different delivery companies just to get a TV. In other words, the overall experience was broken and the service was not well organized and structured. The inadequacies in the experience, made me notice (far more quickly than the previous one) the overall design of this experience, but more importantly judge the poor design quality of the service which made my experience with this service obtrusive.

To wrap it up, I believe that when designing “experiences” and services we have to really pay close attention to creating something that is not obtrusive and almost invisible to the customers’ vision. Because unfortunately, it is easier to notice poor design than good design.

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Above the fold

In a recent conversation between the client and my team, we had several e-mails going back and forth discussing what specific piece of content should go above the fold. However, throughout this discussion it came to my attention the following question, what does above the fold mean? I mean with so many new devices being released to market what do we consider a standard above the fold? Is it the laptop that the client uses to review the work we are doing? Is it the large desktop screens that our designers and developers work on? Or is it the mobile phones and tablets that some of our users carry? Just like many other things that have changed due to the fast paced internet era in which we live, “above the fold” is one of those things that we will need to reconsidered. In this post, I will explore what the new “above the fold” means.

Over the last year I have been working in different responsive web design projects. As you know, responsive web design is a subset of adaptive web design, which means that the site responds to the context (resolutions limitations) in which it is being viewed and re-arranges its content to fit properly. At work we have embraced a new rule, we can no longer create a site without it being responsive. It is no longer a myth, but a reality that people access sites in mobile devices as much (if not more than) as they do through desktops or laptops. Thus, it is fair to ask what is consider to be above the fold?

Even if we create responsive web design sites, we are still dealing with the issue of what is considered to be above the fold. At first one could think, that focusing on what is above the fold for a mobile device could be a possible solution. Well it could be, but what is a standard mobile device? An iPhone? If so, which iPhone? 3,4,4S,5? Not everyone carries the same type of phone, and unfortunately just like phone chargers (yes I went there), screen resolutions vary. Why? Because of product differentiation and marketing obsession, you can’t be the same as your competition. Argo, picking a random device (mobile, tablet, or desktop) is not the solution to this problem.

Instead, the solution lies in having important and interesting information right-off the bat that will engage your users to find out more about your site and thus scroll down to see what is “below the fold”, because as stated by many usability studies, people will scroll. We have been scrolling for a while, so why would we stop now? According to UX Myths (www.uxmyths.com) People not scrolling is listed as their third myth. They argue that “You don’t have to squeeze everything into the top of your homepage or above the fold. To make sure that people will scroll, you need to follow certain design principles and provide content that keeps your visitors interested […]”

Taking this into consideration, we need to be able to assess what type of information needs to be shown to our users first, and what other elements will continue to guide them through the rest of the site. Unfortunately, we still live in a era, where many marketing professionals (even if their title says digital marketing director) still try to apply “offline” practices in an “online” space, which often times fail to be successful. An example that comes to mind is the space we have in the shelves at the grocery stores. Imagine if you tried to pack everything into one shelf, the one that is considered to be eye-level. Well, it is most likely that consumers might get confused and look elsewhere, because everything will be cramped together and become overwhelming to make a decision. Yes! If it is hard to make a decision on what to get, you will give up and leave. Well the same thing holds true when you pack everything into one single place and not evenly distribute it in your site. Probably, one of the hardest things that we face as UX professionals (and other professionals working in this field) is what do we consider important?

Every project is different, every situation is different and business objectives vary. However, here is a list of things that might help you make the decision of what comes first and what comes next:

1. Based on the business objectives of the project try to think on the main trigger(s) that will help users move from point A to point B. If you can connect the following thoughts “What am I doing here?” to “What should I do next?” (keeping the business objectives in mind) then you are heading in the right track.

2. It is not about the interface but about the content. Often times we take up so much space just trying to explain how the interface works that the content gets pushed down. Users don’t care about how the interface works, they care about the content. They will only care about how the interface works, once they perceive it as not working.

3. You know those “Contact Us”, “Need Help?”, “Share this”, “Feedback?” etc. links well those are consider secondary pieces of information, and maybe should not be right at the top. People don’t enter your site and start asking for help, they will if they don’t know how to get around. They will not share your content without seeing it first and they will not give you feedback until they have had a chance to experiment. Even if you are a service oriented site, you should be able to provide this information, but not as small link in the right hand corner of the screen. If it really is important it should be found within the content, and your job is to guide the users to this information.

4. “The latest promotion” has to be right up front. Well? Before you make that decision, consider who is your target audience and the business objectives. Maybe it is more important to first introduce what you do to your users, before you tell them about your latest promotion. Why would I look at your latest promotion, if I don’t even know what you do?

5. Not to sound like a broken record but I have stated this before, you are no longer working in one resolution. You need to think about how this information is being presented in different screen resolutions. You need to think about the context in which your users are entering your site. If they are doing it through a mobile phone then they are looking for different information than if they were accessing it via a laptop or tablet.

In conclusion, this should not be surprising news to anyone working in this field, but the next time you hear the argument “It has to above the fold”, then ask yourself, what is considered to be above the fold? But more importantly try to think of the different solutions that will guide your users from point A to point B then to point C, and so on of your site. You should think about what interesting and compelling information will be in your site and when it should be presented to your users so they can continue to engage with your content. Sites can be like elevator speeches, but just like an elevator speech you need to be good at organizing information: beginning, middle and end, because there is only so much you can say at once.

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Problem Finding helps Problem Solving

I was recently watching one of the UX Week 2012 presentations from Peter Merholz called “UX is strategy; Not design” (which he later renamed “In order for UX to achieve its potential, we need to reframe it as a profession”) where he talked about defining the role of an UX (User Experience) professional and where he/she stands within an organization and in comparison to the rest of the design professionals (Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Industrial Designers, Visual Designers, etc.).

At the beginning of his talk Peter mentions that at his former company (I am assuming Adaptive Path, because at the time of the talk he was working at Inflection, but now works at Groupon) he was called a problem solver, which made me question myself: Am I in the business of only problem solving? And what does that really mean? Then he goes on to question to what level should an UX professional get involved in the process. He compares an UX professional to a film director, whose role is to orchestrate everything, from creating/reviewing the story to executing it properly. I think that this makes total sense as I often times find myself doing this at work. Another comparison my boss likes to make is that we are like the midfield of a football (soccer) team, as we have to be helping and connecting the front and the back, the theoretical and the practical, the strategy and the execution. That is why I question if UX is really only about problem solving?

I believe that when we (UX professionals) are thinking about strategy and carrying out that role, we a really trying to understand what the real problem is before we are solving it. Probably, not shocking news to anyone in this field but often times overseen. Sometimes you can’t solve a problem if you can’t find it. When we are in the process of finding out what the main problem is, we are indeed immersing ourselves in the strategic phase of the process. We are researching all the possible causes as to why something isn’t working right, whether that be from a user perspective, a business one, technology one, system one or all of them. It is our job to synthesize what those causes are and establish what is the main problem to be solved. Most of the ‘eureka’ moments appear in this phase of the design process once we understand what the problem really is. It often inspires us to think of the new solution and establish the success metrics that we will use to evaluate the new solution once it is launched.

Thus, once we have identify the problem we start working towards the solution. We start defining the long-term approach (a.k.a the strategy) and the short-term approaches (a.k.a the tactics) to arrive to the desired solution. Even though it is our job to always think strategically, we are often times performing jobs that are tactical as well. However, as Peter sums it up, our focus is not only on user flows and wireframes, but on helping orchestrate those activities and others (visual design, technology implementation, copy, etc.). As he says we have to sweat the details and deliver on what we do.

P.S: I recommend that you spare some time later to watch Peter’s presentation. Here is the link to the presentation on vimeo (http://vimeo.com/52634329).

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All for One and One for All

It has been a very fruitful, but tiring year, and if there is something that I have learned about my profession is the following: One for all and all for one. It is remarkable how true this musketeer statement is. It is no longer about what your professional title is, but rather what your role as a team member is. Specially in my profession, where what I do is a different job title depending on where I work. I mean this year I went from being an Interaction Designer to an Experience Designer….but really I am still doing the same thing, which is to be a designer. That is why I can proudly say that User Experience (UX) is not merely a profession title but it is a philosophy of work.

I remember having a conversation with a colleague of mine, who complained about the inputs another professional (a copy writer) was giving regarding the experience of the digital product they were creating. I remember his words clearly: “Who does she think she is? I don’t go criticizing her writing…I mean it’s my job to look out after the ‘experience’ not hers!” For a second I was upset, but really I was confused as I was trying to understand why this bothered him so much. I remember replying something as dry as “yeah that sucks” but really it doesn’t suck at all, on the contrary, this person should be glad that there are other ‘professionals’ looking out for the overall ‘user experience’. The person doesn’t need to have a professional title to be allowed to make comments or suggestions as to how the experience can improve. In fact, I am glad that I have developers, visual designers, business strategists, copy writers and a whole lot of other professionals concerned about the outcome of the product or service experience, because in the end UX should be treated as a philosophy of work and not a job title.

In a recent job interview that my colleagues and I conducted, the candidate described her struggle to prove the value of UX in the context of her workplace. She said that everyday was a fight to have this discipline recognized and philosophy of work applied to the day to day work. Many of the senior management staff simply did not value the importance of focusing in UX. And to be honest I was not completely surprised that she said this, despite the growth this field has had and the so many advocates there are over the world. Unfortunately, there still is a significant number of places where having to prove the value of UX still is a challenge.

That is why, I say to my colleague and fellow UX designers, that they should embrace the fact that there are other professionals looking out for what we do and encourage them to keep doing so. And the reason is simple, we are creating products and services that are often times very complex and need to be evaluated from different perspectives that very often impact on the overall user experience.

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Starting from the Middle

I recall one of my classes during graduate school and the difficulty we (students) had to write essays. In order to help us with this problem our professor suggested to start writing our essays from the middle and not from the beginning. This has turned out to be one of the most helpful advice that I have received throughout my academic and professional career thus far.

However, this advice has not only helped me in becoming a better writer, but a better storyteller, and most importantly a better user experience designer. When you start crafting an experience you should start building it from its core and outwards. What is the ideal scenario? What is the ideal experience? What are your users going to be doing once everything is working properly? What is the outcome of interacting with your product? These are some of the questions that will help you define what the core of the experience should be.

After watching some of my students this second semester go through the exercise of coming up with three key screens of their product, I realized that many of them were trying to follow a logic order and start from the beginning before arriving to those key screens. The problem with following this approach was that they started to get caught up with the main details of the interface and not really thinking about the core activity of their product. Many of them were caught up on how the users were going to connect or register to start using their product, which are important steps, but often times not fundamental to the core of the experience. They kept thinking about the first time user, which is natural as they are first time users as well, I mean they are creating something new from scratch. However, they should be focusing on someone who has already gone through that learning curve, a more “advanced” user, so they can focus on the core of the experience. And believe me, they are not the only ones caught in this dilemma, I see myself and fellow designers also facing this problem when creating something new.

I believe we can learn lots from rapid visualization (or sketching). Many product designers do not render full and complete sketches of a product, when sketching for the first time. They often focus on certain aspects of the product that will represent its core functionality, and the rest of the sketch is left to the imagination. Of course, the next phases of the project will help them detail all the other functionalities and attributes of the product at hand so it can be produced. However, that first time when it is being conceived, you have to focus on what’s most important, on what will make it different from the competition.

The same holds true when you are crafting an experience or when you are designing an interface for the first time, you should always start from the middle. Start from what is most important, and not from the logical order of beginning to end. I am not saying it’s going to be easy, but it will definitely help you define the core functionalities and interactions you want your users to have. And finally, starting from the middle might help you define the beginning as well as the end.

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A shift in Advertising

I am close to my first year working at an advertising agency and there are many things that I have learned along the way, especially how advertising has evovled over the last few decades. If we were to look at advertising maybe 20 years ago, before the Internet was fully established as a communication medium advertising was a whole different from what it is today. Unlike 20 years ago, companies and advertising (ad) agencies are shifting their media focus from offline to online. Watching a television commercial is no longer about consuming passive brand information, but there is an actual “call to action” encouraging consumers to either participate in some sort of social activation, which could vary from “Liking” a brand fan page to taking part in an online game.

It is a reality, today we are surrounded with more communication platforms than just TV and radio, we have acces to smartphones, tablets, interactive tabloids, social networks, among others. Many ad agencies around the world are starting to realize that the industry is changing, and therefore the way we advertise has changed as well. As stated earlier it is not about just consuming passive brand information but about actually engaging with it one form or another.

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a global meeting where the Managing Director of the account I am currently working on informed us about the latest meeting he held with another “partner” ad agency. The reason I quoted the word partner is because they take care of the offline advertising part of the same client. However, they have become progressively our direct competitor. They have approached our client with many online initiatives, regardless of their traditional offline advertising background. He made it clear to them, that instead of negotiating and reaching a middle ground agreement, we would go head to head with them. And the reason to this is simple, they are going to continue pushing online initiatives to the client. Yet another further prove that advertising is chaging and we are entering a new era where we are no longer producing communication campaigns but instead creating digital products.

For the last two months, I have been teaching at a private advertising university, the course of User Experience. A totally new subject for all the students in the class. Not only a new subject to them, but also a new way of working and more importantly thinking. For most of them, if not all of them, they are use to getting a brief from the client and coming up with creative ideas to solve mostly communication problems. However, when you are creating a digital product it is no longer about just solving communication problems. Today we are getting briefs from brands that want to expand their online presence, even if their main market has nothing to do with with the digital realm. They are asking us to create new products for the brand or adapting their physical products and creating a digital version of them.

This presents a challenge to many traditional advertiser, not because they are not capable, but because they are taken out of their comfort zone as communication problem solvers and put into a consultant position. In this new position, they need to be capable to advice brands as to what type of digital product a brand should launch and how it should launch it. And most of the times, when you are creating a digital product, you are not only creating one form of it. It could have many forms, as an native mobile application, website, social network app, etc. And within each of these forms the product might serve a different purpose.

In conclusion, this is probably not a big shocker to anyone working in this area, but it has to be recorded so we understand where our industry is heading and what we need to do to be prepared.

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Five Steps

In Donald’s Norman’s book Living with Complexity, he states: “Difficulties arise when there are conflicts between the principles, demands, and operation of technology with the tasks that we are accustomed to doing with the habits and styles of human behavior and social interaction in general.” I don’t think I could find a better quote to sum up the experience I had just a few weeks ago.

I recently injured my knee playing football (soccer), and had to walk around with crutches everywhere I went. But this did not bothered me as much until I had to go inside a bank here in Brazil. One would think that my bad experience at the bank would be due to some argument I had with the bank agent or the fact that one usually has to wait a long time to talk to these agents, or a problem with my bank account. However, my experience was ruined by the process I had to go through to enter the bank. In order to enter a Brazilian bank, one has to go through rotating doors that are being control by a security guard standing on the other side of the bank. Never in my life had I encounter some thing similar to this, I can honestly say that it is worst than going through the metal detectors at the airport. To have an idea of  what this process looks like, I have described it here:

Person entering an Itaú branch in São Paulo

1. First you have to make sure no one is leaving the bank, because if someone is, you need to let them out first before you can go in.

2. Remember that only one person can go in at a time, so if you are with a kid, they need to go in before or after you.

3. Take all the objects from your pockets and place them all on a small bowl shaped compartment that is attached to the door. And if you are carrying something larger than your wallet or cellphone, there are lockers located outside the premise where you can store them by swiping your credit card (but that’s another blog post).

4. After you have placed all the items in the bowl shaped compartment, the security guard who is closest to the door gives the signal of letting you in to the other security guard located across the bank and who controls the rotating door system.

5. Finally, you just have to push the door. If successful you will be granted access, but if you push too hard the door will get stuck and you will have to start over.

In total there are FIVE steps to get inside a f*** bank!! Anywhere else in the world, you just walk right in and out. At first, I was really pissed off and I knew that the rest of my experience was condemned to be worst. Imagine, having to go through this process with crutches, it was a royal mess. I was not told if there was a handicap entrance or a less complicated way of entering the bank. I was also not allowed to go through the rotating doors with my crutches, they had to go in first and then I could go in.  So I placed the crutches on the glass door in front of me and started to push. I felt like I was helping some little kid push the door. However, because I was only able to push so far, the security guard standing close to the door had to intervene and get in through the narrow stretch to try and grab the crutches. She was not successful at first because as soon as she tried to grab them, she dropped one of them impeding the door from rotating. I was getting desperate as not only the line behind me was increasing but everyone else inside the bank was staring. I was surprise to see that after struggling for some minutes the security guard was able to pick up the crutch and pull them through the narrow stretch. After she did that, I was able to push and I managed to get in. It was a terrible experience all the way around, the poor security guard had to struggle to get a pair of crutches inside the bank, I was without my crutches and getting desperate because of this whole situation, the other customers were getting desperate as well because they could not to get in.

A couple of days later, when I was reflecting back on this experience, I could not stop wondering why did I have to go through such a complicated process to enter a bank? At first the answer seemed to be simple, to prevent thieves from entering the bank and stealing money. However, the more I thought about it these two questions came to mind:

1) What is money in the 21st century?

2) And what is bank security in the 21st century?

What is money in the 21st Century?

How many coins or banknotes are you carrying on your wallet right now? I can honestly say that I am not carrying more than 20 reais (around 10 US dollars). When you think about it, we don’t carry banknotes or coins anymore. We carry credit cards and smart phones that have access to services such as Google Wallet, a virtual wallet that stores things such as your payment cards and offers on your phone and online. With these and other ubiquitous banking services booming money is becoming less and less tangible. The banknotes and coins that we carried around for so many decades are going to become obsolete, because after-all money is simply a term we use to describe a medium of exchange. Thus, in the near future this medium of exchange will only exist in a digital form as technology continues to improve. With money becoming more intangible everyday, one starts to wonder what is bank security going to be like in the 21st century.

What is bank security in the 21st Century?

Just like the form of money has changed, so has security in a bank. We are dealing with new set of factors, from new type of criminals such as hackers to new artifacts we use to interact with our money. Today, if your wallet gets stolen, you will probably go online or call your bank to report that your cards have been stolen and they will block all the future transactions, and reimburse you the money that was taken from your account. All of this is possible, because of the technology use to track where your money is at all times. Before if someone stole your money and ran away with it, there would be no way that you could stop them from using it unless you would chase them down the street and fight for it. Moreover, when you think about how much money is kept in banknotes and coins inside a bank is probably much less than the money that exists in bits of information. Therefore, having a security rotational door system in place, is not only complex but out dated.

That being said, I recently read an article on the local newspaper about the possible replacement of this rotational door system in different banks across the country. I hope that they do follow through with their promise, because when you take all things into consideration, is it really worth going through five different steps to enter a bank?

Posted in Brazil, Interaction Design, UX | 1 Comment