All posts in “user experience”

Product as a P(a)lace

Potala Palace, Tibet

The joy of products. Well, ok, that is pretty rare. Why do you think that is? I personally believe it is because creators of products often do not think about the relationship between user and product. A relationship I hear you cry?! Yes, a relationship. We all have relationships with the environment around us whether it be our favourite mug, our car or simply the dustbin. We interact with these entities on a daily basis. However some, we interact with more.

Some we actually enjoy interacting with.

That’s right, enjoyment from interacting with non-human objects, how bizarre. But the interesting thing is that better products do not always build better relationships. Imagine, if James Dyson had created his bagless vacuum cleaner but it looked and felt the same as any other cleaner on the market. The impact would have been minimal. In fact, the bagless bit is probably the least important. Dyson’s styling of the cleaner made it a desirable item, something we would be happy to spend time with, even look forward to interacting with. It was a shift in relationship with an otherwise ugly and cumbersome object often hidden away.

Dyson changed the relationship from distaste to desire.

So what happens when we come to the web & mobile? If you follow me on twitter you will undoubtedly have heard me complaining about the user experience of websites, apps, CRM. You name it, if I’ve interacted with it, and it’s been bad then I have probably mentioned it. It all seems so simple to me and I really find it hard to comprehend why some products are made so badly?!

The twitter app for iPhone is an example of how to continuously make a good product worse. The latest iteration of ignorance has seen a shift so big in awfulness that I deleted the app altogether. I’ve used that application since I ‘bought’ it when it was called tweetie 2 (before the curse of the twitter acquisition). The biggest issue is that they have now hidden direct messages! HIDDEN! Also if once you have found them and someone has spammed you then if you click on their profile image it no longer takes you to their account so you can block them. No. You now have to remember their username and then search for them and then block them.

Good product to terrible product, so bad I could no longer spend any more time with it.

This matter of spending time with products leads me on to why I have titled this piece ‘Product as Place’. It’s because when I use an application or product I am there, in the moment, in that place and I rely on good architects and interior designers to make my time there a pleasant one, regardless of what it is i am trying to do. The difference is that I am choosing to be in these places rather than it being just circumstance. This concept really doesn’t sound that complicated to me, nor obtuse. Those who build applications have already been given the titles of architect, engineer and designer but more often than not I find myself being pushed towards the brutalist equivalent of a hi-rise council flat. Far from ideal.

Would you spend your time in the sewers if you didn’t have to? I very much doubt it. But for some reason product creators seem to think that we do.

An ugly website is a cave, a bad UX a labyrinth

If you know better is achievable then it’s like sitting in a cave facing a palace. It makes you mad to get lost in the labyrinth when you know they could have built a straight path. If you wonder what a palace might look like (for an application) then download Path which has just been refreshed to show the best UI i have ever seen on a touchscreen device. They have really understood what it is to treat product as a place. You know this as a user when you start pressing buttons not for their functionality but for the joy of the animation when you do so. This delight is what makes a product become a palace.

If you need further evidence of this philosophy then look no further than apple. They NEVER offer you the best technical spec on any of their devices and rarely the best price to boot. But what they are selling you every time is a palace, with no mazes or hidden doors. That is what you are really buying when you purchase one of their products.

Please please please, everybody, spend some time with your products and ask yourself. Do you enjoy being there? Is it a pleasant experience? If given the choice would you happily come back?

If you’re answer is yes to any of these then you are probably in the wrong job (i.e. delusional) or lucky enough to be in the 1% of people who do make decent products.

Our Future As The Audience

empty park seats

Yesterday (as I do everyday), I was reading the International Herald Tribune and had skipped to the Business section in the back where I came across an article titled “Words to Web-wise: Reporters not needed” by Steve Lohr. In it, Lohr talked about a company whose work in narrative science meant they were able to take sports data and ‘report’ on it in the same manner a human would. The writing style appeared natural and sometimes even whimsical with the odd match statistic thrown in for good measure. Fear the lord should this tech get in the hands of the content farmers!  But it raised an interesting question for me. Not about the possible demise of the human writer (although worrying), but perhaps about the demise of the human audience. I don’t suppose we have ever needed to question whether a time would come when we were no longer the audience – it’s always been guaranteed. But maybe things are lining up to change…

Are we still the Audience?

I thought this question particularly interesting in light of my recent thoughts around social [media] and the theory that surely ‘happier customers buy more’. Isn’t the latest assumption that being ‘social’ is fundamentally about being more open and more helpful to keep everyone happy?  It’s been focused on reaching a larger audience; and mostly importantly, one that spends their money. This last point is key – ‘Are we the audience purely because we have the purchasing power?‘ Yes and no. Audience segmentation has existed for a long time – the husband, the wife, the child, the pensioner, etc. All done to ensure that the ‘right’ messages get to you, the messages that’ll inspire you to purchase. So what happens when more consumers let go of their purchasing power? When we, the audience, start giving out our information, consciously or not, in essence telling the media what it is that we want – will we be relinquishing our need to be treated as the audience as well?

If you haven’t watched Kevin Slavin’s TED talk “How algorithms shape our world“, then I suggest you do so pronto quick sharp. It was so inspiring that after watching it I had to stand up in front of my computer and ovate (as in ovation, not egg shape). Slavin talks a lot about how algorithms are constantly deciding things on our behalf and are often now ‘uncontrollable’ and to a degree, free, often colliding with each other and creating results that are  otherwise incalculable. They are all around us – deciding what bits of the Internet we should see, what music we should be buying and which friends we’re most interested in. The decisions are actually already being made on our behalf, it’s just that most of us haven’t realised it yet.

Out of the Equation?

So we’re out of the equation. Or at least we’re getting there. We no longer need to go to comparethemarket.com, our algorithms do that for us daily, finding the best deals and moving our money, spending when necessary to best benefit us. With us out of the picture – the meerkats will undoubtedly be deported back to their warren (in the Soviet Union?). We’re no longer the audience, so the company no longer needs to spend their cash targeting [annoying] us. That goes for social media too. Algorithms do not understand impulse buying nor have emotional attachments. They do not sense or guess; they know. And ultimately, they do not need to be happy. So in which case will more effort be put into creating desirable results for the algorithms? The answer with the most favourable numbers to crunch upon. Who knows, even the ‘Memetic Algorithm‘ will be fanciable. And that means that it won’t be us, but the algorithms that define us. Will the ‘fanning, following & liking’ decease or become non-existent? It’s interesting to think that in the not-too-distant future, brands might not be engaging with us at all and we might actually like that. We won’t be broadcast to, we won’t be engaged with when we don’t want to be. We won’t be the focus.

The communication battlefield is forever changing, we are being required to do less and demanding more but on the same hand are handing over more and more power – our privacy, our data… our money. How long until we are cut out of the equation forever and will we even mind or notice for that matter?

‘Social Media’ should be renamed ‘User Experience’

Man caught a pike

Bold statement? I don’t think so. User Experience has often been sidelined as this thing that people do to their websites (sub-laymans terms) but really ‘User Experience’ as the name suggests is about improving a user’s experience (Ronseal) wherever they may be. Why should it be maligned to just websites? Are we not trying to make consumers feel more at ease with our brands? Yes, the website is often the portal for much of this interaction but we are also crafting new experiences through social media.

For example I have on many occasions over the years declared that ‘User Experience’ is King. [Analogy Alert] What good is Content (the worm) if you don’t have a Net (well designed website) to catch the fish (user). This is inevitably why MySpace failed. They were too busy trawling the ocean with nets that had such big holes that eventually the fish just swam through them, off, off & away.

I also think it would help as a reminder of the User Journey. What is the point in building & developing a great experience on social sites if you are inevitably going to direct them to maze-like website that will melt their brains, patience and unravel all the good work you originally set out to do? It makes sense.

My advice:

1. Get the whole picture
2. Work backwards – last touchpoint to first touchpoint.

All too often ‘social’ is an add-on, an after-thought, and agencies lap this up, it’s easy money. But to really start making a difference you need to pay attention to the two rules above. Stick to them, and we’ll start to make some progress. Perhaps we could create tiers for the level of work a brand does in ‘social’ for example? Would be interested to hear your thoughts and perhaps this could be another blog post?

Top Tier: Total User Experience (UX on all levels of service & interaction including consumer intergration into business. Integrated platforms & departments)

Middle Tier (experimenting with elements of those seen in Top Tier, cross-platform & department developments)

Lower Tier (utilising social media sites for marketing campaigns)

These are off the top of my head…..

© 2009-2013 rhys howell All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright