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The Trax Experience

The sun was shining, yet barely through the partially but still mostly clouded sky. The entire ground was soaked with a recent shower of precipitation that fell from the sky. There was a slight brisk flow of wind nipping at my uncovered skin as I stepped out of our pearl white Mazda 5. We arrived at the Sandy Civic Center Trax station a tid bit confused. Initially we attempted to make uneducated guesses of where to go and what to do. One train was sitting on the tracks, the windows were tinted sufficiently that from our perspective and distance it was impossible to know if the train was full or empty. After a brief discussion with my wife I decided to just venture out in search of further light and knowledge in regards to how to use this train. A relatively short distance away stood a small octagon shaped building that appeared to be either where an individual much like myself might would purchase a ticket or perhaps a reliable place in which a person much like unto myself might per chance be comfortable to propose a question. I might even say that this octagon shaped building gave the perception that a person much like unto myself would have a sufficient amount of trust that their questions would most definitely be answered. Much to my shagrin as I made my way in haste to this building it was indeed EMPTY.

Several questions began racing through my mind. Was I supposed to sit and wait for the train to open it’s doors? When the trains doors were open would that reveal more obvious answers to my questions? Might there be a ticket scanner on the other side of those closed doors? Was there a ticket scanner on the  outside of the train doors? Where would a human similar to myself purchase a ticket? I anxiously cast my vision abroad looking for some type of signage that would provide me with the helpful information my heart yearned for. As confusion began to envelope me and frustration began to overtake my faculties further impeding my ability to make calm and sane decisions, I approach a man who was also standing near the train much like myself. However, this nice young individual was standing and gazing upon the vast lot of asphalted land which was generously filled with vehicles of travel. With a confused look on my face I muttered, “How does this work?”

The cleanly shaven young man stood with a square chin and sincere eyes that reflected a similar amount of confusion, mostly due to the poor choice of words that tripped its way off of my tongue. He stuttered a response, “The train? Have you ever used it before?”

I quickly and confidently responded, “No, I mean yes the train. Where do you buy tickets?”

The man was nice, eager, and willing to help. Patiently he began explaining where the different electronic ticket booths were located. As he spoke his arm was extended with his index finger firmly pressing forward as he circled round about. Then he even offered me the day pass that he purchased explaining that it was good until a specific time, and he was already through using it. I then explained in further detail, “Well, my work badge is supposed to allow me to use the train.”

The gentle man with a scruffy beard and dark brown eyes turned my attention to a small metal post protruding from the concreate that pathed the very ground in which we walked. It was skinny and rectangular in shape and had a yellow sign with large black san-serif letters that appeared to be in ITC Avant Garde reads, “TAP ON/TAP OFF” with a large black arrow pointing upward to a small yet sufficient sized digital screen. The burly bearded figure with long flowing hair, pointing to the object said, “Just tap your badge on that and it should work.”

We both walked over together and I pulled my work badge out of the inside pocket of my black polyester suit jacket. The flesh of the backside of my right hand brushed softly against my soft black cotton sweater as I slipped into the pocket to retrieve my work badge. I placed it on the sufficiently sized digital screen precisely where that large black arrow was directing me. Sure enough a digitally enhanced beep rang through the cool crisp February air and a green check instantaneously appeared on the sufficiently sized digital screen. Still confused I looked back and the strange old bearded man and said, “Now what?”

He softly explained through his bearded face that I just needed to walk up to the door, press the button on the outside of the door and carefully walk up the steps into the train.

I carefully followed his instructions, and to my amazement I successfully boarded the train and found a mostly empty train with ample blue clothed seats to rest my wearied yet eager to sieze the day soul.

A Terrible Beginner User Experience

This proved to be a terrible beginner user experience. The Trax works perfect for an experienced rider, in fact you only really need to ride the train once to become an expert. Yet there’s plenty of things wrong happening here. I’ve ridden the Trax a handful of times now, and each and every time I either heard someone asking similar questions I had, or they asked me those questions. You shouldn’t have to rely on nice young yet old bearded smooth faced strangers with a square jaw to offer up a ticket and solutions to be able figure out how to use the system.

I rode similar public transportation in the fruitful lands of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In this far far away land you have to actually purchase a ticket before even walking through a gate that swiveled around 360 degrees to where the public form of transportation resided. They also make it very painfully obvious when the public transportation device is ready for travelers to venture off onward in their pursuit of happiness. The doors all open.

Today

Now, you can find me riding the rails with supreme confidence ready and willing to help the rest of the confused beginners. Let’s hope that this story reaches you before you anxiously strike off on your maiden voyage to set this world on fire (figuratively not literally).

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"Don’t bother soliciting feedback unless you’re in a position to act on it. If you’re not ready to start coding or designing, then you’re not in a position to act. It might seem constructive to run surveys asking what your users want, but if their only purpose is to make you feel busy then you’re fooling everyone. Feedback has to result in action. That action is design, implementation, and communication back to the user. Turning the feedback into a to-do list with no one responsible, or a putting it on a whiteboard of “stuff to do someday, maybe” is the equivalent of saying “Yeah, whatever” to your users. They won’t be keen to talk you again."

Quote by Des Traynor

I’ve been working on our feedback experience lately, and I feel like the biggest part of the feedback experience is what happens to the feedback after someone gives it. Sure it should be simple and easy to be able to give feedback, but the real reason someone is leaving feedback is to be heard. So how do we make sure that this is happening? These are the aspects that I want to focus more on.

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The Experience Debate

I recently read an interesting article on Web Standards Sherpa, titled Designing for Content: Creating a Message Hierarchy.” The article was discussing the importance of establishing a content strategy early on in the planning of a website. In fact it makes an arguement that it should be in the beginning stages of the planning.

"When we integrate content creation early in our web development processes, we are more effective at orienting our conversations to the end goals for the user and the business. This is a huge win for our users, who are increasingly demanding meaningful content experiences before they engage with our web sites and apps. It’s also vital to businesses, whose success depends on communicating value in ways that convert bystanders to buyers."

The article goes on to say;

"But why not start earlier in the creative process, before a single line is drawn? What if we all start with a set of primary messages that should be conveyed to users, and then create the visual and interactive experience around those?"

They give two tremendously creative websites as an example.

Take benthebodyguard.com or nikebetterworld.com. In each of these examples, users scroll through inherent hierarchical messaging that forms each site’s primary purpose—to engage and to educate—so users will be more likely to buy. Ultimately, the design serves to highlight the content, rather than the other way around.

This is where the article, in my opinion starts to make some mistakes. This is their example of how to effectively plan out your content first and all the visual and interactive experience then flows around the content as opposed to the content flowing around the visual and interactive experience. Essentially they are making an argument that storytelling is more effective.

What they fail to do however, is to give solid proof as to why these websites are doing a better job at selling their product. They are telling us that these websites are doing a better job with establishing and communicating a hierarchical message that engages and educates the user so they are more likely to buy, but is “Ben the bodyguard” the highest selling app in the app store? What type of results has “Nike Better World” been able to celebrate? Neither of these things are answered in the article.

Don’t get me wrong, I love these websites. I’ve experienced more websites that are very similar in nature. The first one I ever came across was a website by Campaign Monitor with the primary goal to hire some talented people. Another website is Contrast Rebellion, and even the infinitely talented Mr. Joe Faux recently took this approach for his portfolio website. I tweeted, bookmarked, and talked about almost all of these websites after encountering them. They were and are amazingly creative. These websites also did an effective job at getting me to not only scroll through the entire site, but I also read all of the content on the website.

Chris Wilson from Nerd Communications (the masterminds behind “benthebodyguard.com”) offers up this tid bit of information;

"The storytelling aspect, centered on the Ben character, has been absolutely essential to building our buzz and persuading people to ‘hire Ben,’ as we put it. From the very beginning, we gave ourselves the challenge to use this compelling, mysterious personality to get people interested in the theme of personal digital security (not such an interesting topic on its own), and we’ve definitely succeeded in building widespread interest with this method. Even when we first launched the site, there were dozens of tweets out there proclaiming their commitment to buying the app without even knowing exactly what it would offer!"

"However it should really be noted that, without our unique presentation style of the story on benthebodyguard.com, the story likely wouldn’t have gained as much interest on its own. Nobody wants to read big blocks of text online anymore."

So he is offering up proof that the website was effective in building up “buzz” about the product, and it did an effective job at sparking an interest, but was it better? Did it get MORE buzz than websites that took an alternative approach?

Also I disagree Chris… You see he said, “Nobody wants to read big blocks of text online anymore.” That is a bit of an absolute statement. One that doesn’t really offer up any actual proof as to weather or not this is a reality. I personally subscribe to the philosophy that James Archer of Forty talks about in his video presentation titled “Decision Modes: How People Buy.” In the video he basically breaks people into 4 different categories of methodical, competitive, humanistic, & spontaneous. In contrast this belief is based on a lot of years worth of psychological research on humans. Not to say that Ben the Body Guard doesn’t have each of the four decision modes in mind. However, it does support the fact that some people do indeed want to read big blocks of text online. In fact blogs are incredibly popular on the interweb. There are several websites utilizing big blocks of text online that are wildly successful.

The “Ben the Body Guard” approach reminds me of another experience I’ve found in the real world. I think the Ikea experience has many similarities with benthebodyguard.com. In contrast I feel that the Target experience (which is a more traditional experience) has a lot in common with the more traditional approach we’ve seen from websites like Mail Chimp, 37 Signals, Mint, Huge, & the ever popular dare I say cliche example of Apple.

If you’ve never been to an Ikea before it’s definitely a unique experience, at least unique to the American consumer. The store is essentially split in half. On one side is the showrooms, and on the other is the actual warehouse where they have shelves stocked with products and merchandise ready to be purchased.

When you enter an Ikea you are entering their showroom. There aren’t any registers in site, and unless you grab a shopping cart that was left behind in the parking lot, then they don’t have any shopping carts available in the front/main entrance either. You then proceed to work your way through a seemingly endless maze of enchanting and visually appealing staged environments. Essentially Ikea is telling a story and creating an experience. It is not much different then a website which strategically guides your through content like reading a story (benthebodyguard.com).

When you arrive at the middle of the story you enter the Ikea restaurant. So you stop and grab a little bite to eat as you converse about all of the amazing products and merchandise you just experienced. When you are finished with your meal and you’ve had a sufficient amount of time to gather your thoughts and decide what you want to place in your shopping cart. Speaking of shopping carts it’s at this point where they have ample amounts of shopping carts for all of their visitors.

So now with your shiny shopping cart that glides across the floor as you make your way into the warehouse portion. This is where you are greeted with shelves and more shelves of products and merchandise ready and waiting for you to throw in your shopping cart. So then you work your way back to the front of the store where the registers are.

As you make your way to the exit there is a tempting little snack bar, because you can’t go home without 2 hot dogs, a bag of chips, and a soda for $2.00. Or what about a generous sized cinnamon roll? I mean can you really say no to a delicious soft served ice cream cone? My family makes specific trips to Ikea just for the hotdogs. I mean TWO DOLLARS! Seriously? I think I might need to make a trip to Ikea this weekend just thinking about it.

In contrast, this is what the American consumer has grown to expect. In fact when I first went to Ikea I spent the first half of my experience annoyed and frustrated. It wasn’t until I thought about it, and quit expecting Ikea to be Target that I was really able to embrace the experience.

When you enter Target (You can replace Super Target with Walmart, Albertson’s, or HEB and you will basically get the same set up.) you are greeted with shiny red shopping carts. In the entrance are large visually appealing signs hanging from the ceiling advertising seasonal products on sale. The entire store is divided up into different categories and isles of shelves with products and merchandise on display. Hanging from the ceiling are large easy to find and read signs to help you figure out where each section/category is located. At the end of each isle is also more signage which helps you easily be able to understand what lives in each isle. They have made the store incredibly easy and efficient for visitors to easily navigate directly to what they came to the store for.

What Does This All Mean?

Now I love Ikea, but do I love it more than Target? Does the Ikea experience result in me purchasing more than I do at other stores? These are the real questions that need answers.

I see many similarities between these two contrasting store experiences and website experiences we encounter on the interweb. I think the problem that I am having is that this article is saying that the Target experience doesn’t do a good job with establishing and communicating a hierarchical message. That is where I disagree. I believe that both experiences can be executed in a way that effectively communicates a hierarchy of content. I also believe that you can provide a Target experience and still allow the visual and interactive experience to flow around the content. At the same time I believe that the Ikea experience also accomplishes these things as well. It’s not that I disagree with them using those examples. Instead I am disputing that the article seems to insinuate that those types of website do a better job, or essentially they are saying that the Ikea experience is better than the Target experience. When in reality they are just different experiences. I feel that the approach is dependent upon the company/brand as well as the goals of the company/brand and their products.

What Do You Think?

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The Walmart Experience

I read this article by Mark Hurst on his Good Experience blog titled, “Ignore the customer experience, lose a billion dollars (Walmart case study)" where he states that;

"Walmart spends hundreds of millions of dollars uncluttering their stores, removing 15% of inventory, shortening shelves, clearing aisles. Yes, it’s expensive and time-consuming, but this is what customers said they wanted, so you barrel through it.”

You’ll never guess what happens now. (Actually, you’ve probably already guessed, but it sounded better to say you’ll never guess.)”

Sales went down. Way down. I mean waaaaaay down. I’m talking, from the beginning of that project until today, Walmart has lost over a billion dollars in sales. (Yes, billion with a “b”.) It’s actually closer to two billion dollars of sales they missed out on, and maybe more.”

Although I completely agree with his overall claim to what “the mistake” was;

"The mistake was a lack of customer focus. I know, I know: “They ran a survey! Customers loved the idea!” But that’s exactly the problem. Walmart didn’t pursue the question of what customers wanted. Instead, Walmart came up with the answer first, then asked customers to agree to it. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do, because it ignores customers while attempting to fool stakeholders into thinking that the strategy is customer-centered.”

You shouldn’t simply ask customers if they hypothetically like something rather you should observe your customers and see for yourself what they like and dislike. However, I disagree that this was the “1.85 billion dollar mistake.” I feel there are far too many factors involved. First off Walmart had to of already been noticing a drop in sales prior to making this “mistake.” Why else would they even be looking to make any sort of change. Their is a reason why Walmart wanted to be more like Target. In an article posted in May of 2010 on MSN Money it says,

"Fearful that consumers will move back upscale, Wal-Mart is focusing on spiffing up its stores while maintaining a price advantage over Target. Meanwhile, Target is touting more-fashionable offerings by telling customers to "expect more, pay less."

The article goes on further to say,

"Wal-Mart, which is America’s largest retailer, with 4,300 U.S. stores, seems to recognize the problem. A zealous focus on cut-rate prices doesn’t work as well when shoppers are feeling flush. Target, No. 5 in sales and with 1,740 stores, has a different attitude. It drives visits through product selection and a more attractive shopping experience, from shorter checkout lines to nicer restrooms."

So my question now is, why can’t the real “mistake” be that Walmart tried to adapt too late in the game. Perhaps Target’s campaign has just worked better than Walmart’s. Still this article by Mark Hurst has been tweeted, retweeted, dugg, bookmarked, shared on Facebook, and blogged about. To me it seems everyone is searching for that “BIG” user case scenario to back up their argument that you shouldn’t ignore the customer. When in reality I don’t truly feel like this is the example to stick in your back pocket. There is too many other variables involved beyond just this one “1.85 billion dollar mistake.” In fact I think Walmart is even just digging for a “Scapegoat.”

This is all to familiar to natural human behavior. In a humans pursuit for happiness they will find themselves unhappy. When this occurs they start to survey their life to figure out what is causing them to be unhappy. So they will immediately look at the things causing them stress. That is when humans make the “1.85 billion dollar mistake” of looking for “escapes” from the REAL PROBLEM. Sometimes people feel their financial issues is causing them stress, so if they had MORE money then they wouldn’t have financial debt and that would in turn eliminate that stress. So with the stress gone they will then find happiness. In reality it is just like the late “Notorious B.I.G" said, "Mo Money, Mo Problems." Sometimes people will be fooled into believing that they are stressed because they are overweight. So they will go on a diet to lose weight thinking they can escape the stress and that a stress free life equals happiness. Instead they will now just be a skinnier human with new and different stress.

Walmart is NOT doing well in other areas of their business. They are facing a class action suit, and some people just really hate Walmart. So my question is, where do all of these other criticisms of Walmart come into play?

****UPDATE****

On October 29th Retailer Daily actually compiled comparable store sale data from the SEC filings of 26 major US retailers spanning several years, up to the most recently released September 2010 and quarterly numbers. In that post they had this to say;

"While Wal-Mart does not exactly have to worry about losing its number one discount status to top competitor Target anytime soon, Target does appear to be gaining some of Wal-Mart’s expansive market share. Wal-Mart, which only reports same-store sales on a quarterly basis, has been reporting negative growth since its Q2 fiscal 2010 (August 2009). Prior to this, Wal-Mart’s last negative same-stores growth occurred in April 2007, when it still reported monthly results."
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“Walmart didn’t pursue the question of what customers wanted. Instead, Walmart came up with the answer first, then asked customers to agree to it. [They] ignored customers while attempting to fool stakeholders into thinking that the strategy [was] customer-centered.”

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I Love UX Design

Who doesn’t love a good UX design, and who doesn’t get totally frustrated with bad experience design. Hail to all the great UX designers of the world. Spread the love for UX design !!!

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The User Experience of Life

In 2008, Christof van Nimwegen published a paper called The paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter-effective. The paper documents a study on user interfaces and pits two groups of interfaces against each other in order to see how their users perform.

Although I completely understand how the study can be applied as a learning tool on how to better develop user interfaces, I believe it helps us learn an even better lesson in life.

The study had a “friendly” or easy to use interface and a “unfriendly” or difficult to use interface competing against one another.

Nimwegen conducted experiments with 3 different applications. The first is a computerized take on the famous math puzzle Missionaries & Cannibals that was called Balls & Boxes. The other two tasks were called: Conference Planner and Ferry Planner.

The Balls & Boxes problem involved moving yellow and blue balls from one box to the other, whilst following a set of rules. On the screen users would see the balls in two boxes, together with a dish to transfer the balls between them. There was also a set of clickable arrows that let the users move balls and the dish around. Available arrows were highlighted and clickable, unavailable moves were greyed out and disabled. The “unfriendly” version was the same, except all arrows were “available”, giving the user no hint as to what moves they could actually perform in line with the rules of the task.

What Was Measured

Time to solve the puzzle, number of moves made (including number of superfluous moves), number of dead-end states reached, knowledge of the rules test conducted after the puzzle, as well as questions concerning perceived amount of planning and feeling lost during the puzzle. Additionally, a distraction was introduced after the participants solved a few puzzles, which involved a visual rotation task expected to erase Balls & Boxes related routines from working memory. This distraction task would go on for 10 minutes after which the participants would resume the Balls & Boxes puzzle.

The Results

Those on the Internalization interface solved more puzzles. They initially took more time to solve them, but closed the gap quickly as they spent more time on the problem. While they also made a little more superfluous moves the start, they quickly overtook the Externalization interface participants with each experiment phase, and were not beaten on the number of dead-end states. Internalization participants also performed better on the after puzzle questionnaires.

Lessons Learned

In one interface the user is unable to make bad decisions. The user is only offered available choices to help them complete the task. In theory it seems that this would speed up the process and have better results. In a short race it would have, however this type of interface doesn’t allow the user to learn, grow, and develope. When more choices are presented to the user and they are allowed to make mistakes they are able to learn. So as more puzzles are presented the user is able to grow and become faster and better at solving them.

"Externalization makes users count on the interface and gives them the feeling (unrightfully so) that the thinking-work is done for them. This seduces them into more shallow cognitive behavior and discourages undertaking cognitive activities aimed at strategy and knowledge construction. Users who internalize information themselves behave more plan-based, invest more effort in cognitive processes, and are more proactive and ready to make inferences. This in turn results in more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge. This knowledge is easier to recall at a future point in time, and is better transferable to transfer situations where the interface, the task, or both are different, and less vulnerable to a severe interruption."

— Christof van Nimwegen – The paradox of the guided user

Does this mean user friendly interfaces are bad? No. Interfaces where usability is key, for example, ATMs or information websites will not benefit from Internalization since the tasks don’t have the end goal of the user “learning”. The findings of the study are more applicable to serious task environments where learning itself is the aim. Nimwegen suggests to take care with externalizing especially in tasks with: frequent interruptions, educational objectives, skill transfer, high costs, continuous attention and deep domain understanding.

I believe that “life” is a perfect example of an interface where the primary objective is learning, skill transfer, educational objectives, continuous attention, and deep domain understanding. I don’t believe that a person benefits from an environment where their choices are limited to only “good” or “correct” choices.

(— The source for this post comes from a very interesting post I read on Usability Post called “The Dark Side of Usability”)

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I Had a Bad Experience!

I became aware of a nifty little website that will allow you to claim or set up listings in Google, Yahoo, Yelp, Best of the Web, & Bing. So I decided to check up first on Practice Cafe and where their listings stand. Sure enough I noticed that I had already set up and or claimed our listings on Google and Best of the Web. So I decided to go ahead and take the time to set up the others. I chose to start out with BING.

So I clicked on the “claim your listing” link under the logo and was brought to a page that directly after I took a screen capture and tweeted about, because unfortunately I was using Google Chrome, and received a message informing me that I needed to use either IE6 or higher or Firefox 2.0 or higher. Then tried to convince me to download and install Internet Explorer. Which would of sent me to a dead end because I am on a MAC.

I decided to go ahead and fired up Firefox 3 and copy and pasted the URL. I went through the process to set up a listing. I completed all of the necessary fields and clicked on the “Check your listing” button. At this point it informed me that I would need to sign in or create an account. So I decided to go ahead and create an account. I click on the button and begin filling out ALL of the NEW info to create an account. Once I was done setting up my account and clicking on the link in the confirmation email, I was unfortunately sent back to the beginning. Back to the same page pictured above where I had to input ALL of the information in ALL of the fields again.

So when people ask me why I hate Bing, and my reply, like Left Ear (Mos Def) when asked about his fear/hatered for dogs will be, “I haaaad a bad experience.” Now you will understand.

When really it’s my endless bad experiences (ahem… IE6, IE7… ahem) with Microsoft that have added up to one TALL glass of Hateraid against anything and everything the company produces.

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Shane Recommends

Here are the best things I came across on the infinite abyss I like to call the Interweb in 2009. If you pay any attention to my tweets or my “Net Worthy" section on the right side of my blog you most likely already saw all of these. Enjoy™

The Four Ways People Decide

Style VS. Design

Creating a Timeless User Experience

Goodbye, Google

The secrets of Google’s design team

10 Useful Usability Findings and Guidelines

Can You Be a Web Designer?

Start-up Metrics that Matter by Dave McClure

Great Designs Should Be Experienced and Not Seen

Handcrafted CSS