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Conference Followup – Keynote Address

July 23rd, 2008 by Erick Beck

The Keynote fell on the second day due to the way the conference was organized (one full day with a speaker on the first day, and then 1/4-day sessions with the same topics and others on the second day.) The talk, given by usability proponent Jared Spool, involved issues that we in higher education all face – Cooking Up Gourmet User Experiences on a Fast-Food Budget.

Jared opened the speech with a comparison to Julia Child’s motto of “anyone can cook a gourmet meal,” and then went on to show how this applied to web development. Even “fast food” qualifies when done right. What you need for preparing a gourmet experience is:

  • Meticulous preparation
  • Quality ingredients
  • A creative approach
  • that je ne sais quoi

Truism: most usability problems with an application can be traced back to decisions that were made without having the full information. Gathering this information is part of the preparation process.

Having a defined methodology (set, defined way of doing things) and dogma (dogma = the unalterable belief in a particular idea or concept, unsupported by any evidence) might seem beneficial as they give structure to the development process, and are often touted as best practices for design. However, a quantitative analysis actually shows the opposite – successful organizations are those who can put aside these pre-conceived notions and adapt good techniques to the job at hand.

Good design firms are those with a toolbox full of “tricks,” which is a way of doing something (often not the best way of doing it) which works and gets the job done. By the time you apply the “perfect” solution to the problem it usually isn’t worth it in terms of time/cost benefits. Successful organizations use tricks to accomplish these tasks. The example given – a plumber who faces a blocked pipe takes a wrench out of his toolbox and taps on the pipe until the clog breaks up. Was this the best solution? No. Why didn’t he use the best solution? “Because it would take too long to go back to the truck to get the right tool.”

Example of a widespread dogma: every sub-site and every page on a site should look the same and be branded according to the university website.

Solution to this dogma: use templates to enforce uniformity

Problem with this dogma: There is no evidence that templates create quality design. There is NO example of this in university-wide websites. Templates can create a uniform look, but this does not imply a quality site.

Instead: Focus on tricks and techniques. Research shows that we should instead focus on the following user experience attributes:

  1. Vision – can you describe your user’s experience 5 years from now? This implies that you’re thinking about how people use your site, not just how it looks.
  2. Feedback – have you observed someone using your current design? This is the first stage of user testing and can give you ideas about what does and doesn’t work with what you already have.
  3. Culture – do you reward creative thinking? For example, do you reward designers who expose flaws in a design? You should, each flaw encountered by your developers is one less for your end users to find.

Good design can be discovered with a “5-second test.” Take a page (not an index page, but a content page) and look at it for no more than five seconds. Then, without looking at the page, can you identify all of the major ideas that the page is attempting to convey? For example, if this is an e-commerce site, is the “Pay now” or “View My Cart” button readily apparent and easy to find? The most promenent pieces of the page are what gets identified in the first 5-seconds, so this should not only test that your layout is right, but can help you see if you are emphasizing the wrong thing.

Lessons to learn from the 5-second test:

  • Design pages for a single intended purpose
  • Users complain about clutter – don’t give them something to complain about
  • This test identifies if a page fulfills its purpose
  • Home pages have multiple roles – don’t try to use this test there
  • With Google and other search engines we often skip the home page and go directly to content – make sure the page holds up on its own
  • Put emphasis on design of content pages rather than home pages

Jared’s blog:

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008 Miscellaneous
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