Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Questions to ask for any UX project

A question was asked recently on the IA Institute mailing list which read:
"...they asked if I can give them the top 20 recommendations of things to consider or do for every web site they approach. I am struggling to figure out where to even start as I tend to approach each project differently with some general guidelines in mind but I am not sure how to pass on or teach that to the team."

Here's the list I proposed in response, and I think it's a good list of questions a UX team should consider for any project they undertake. Although it wasn't what the OP had in mind, my list seems to have hit the money as far as other UX professionals are concerned.

  1. What is the purpose of the site as far as the business/organization is concerned? Sales? Marketing? Service channel? Entertainment?
  2. Who will use the site?
  3. What will those people be trying to do on the site?
  4. For each of those things, how do they think about those tasks?
  5. Where are those people likely to be when attempting to do these things (home, work, on a bus or at a cafe) and what will they likely have access to (computer, laptop, mobile etc)
  6. Is the organization the only one offering these services/tasks? If not, how will you differentiate yourself from the competition?
  7. If you are the only organization offering it, what will you do really well to make it difficult for someone else to do the same thing?
  8. What are the things 'behind the scenes' that need to take place in order for the site to do what it needs to do?
  9. For each of those things, is the organization up to the challenge?
  10. When these people use the site, what perception do you want people to take away?
  11. In considering that perception, how will you design the visual elements, the content, the interaction, the customer service, the functionality, and performance to make that perception a reality?
  12. What site structure will best support the tasks your visitors need to undertake? And how will they move from one task to another?
  13. If people arrive at your site somewhere other than the home page, how will you provide them context and communicate both intent and possibilities?
  14. How will people find your site? And how do the activities you undertake to encourage them tie in with your other design consideration?
  15. How will people engage with your company? Will you engage with them openly in environments like twitter, or in one-way mechanisms like email or enquiry forms?
  16. What search functionality will you provide to help people find things on your site?
  17. Including your search, what will you measure, analyse and track to help you determine the success or failure of your site?

Now, the list was thrown together and doesn't really have the structure I'd normally prefer, but then UX strategy tends to be an exercise in integrating capabilities and strategies from across an organization and melding these together into a coherent approach to delivering something meaningful to your audience.

Point 1 addresses high-level organizational goals. What's the "big picture" purpose of the site.
The answer to this question should seem fairly obvious when you hear it, but it's important to ask it, have the client think about it, and provide a response. The purpose of the site should also directly contribute to one of the organization's overall goals. If it doesn't, then why go to the effort?

Points 2 & 3 ask for information about the intended audience for the site/service. The answer can come from your Marketing team, or the Brand Manager, or Product Manager, or eCommerce Manager etc etc. The point is: you should have a clear idea of who the site is being targeted towards and why they'd use it - before you begin.

Answering points 4 & 5 usually requires some research. How much research depends on how well you know and understand the audience groups identified in 2.

Points 6 & 7 deal with competitive positioning and competitive advantage. These are business concepts that should have formed part of the thinking behind the original site concept, but sometimes an organization will come up with an idea without surveying the landscape for possible competitors.

Points 8 & 9 deal with organizational capabilities, infrastructure, resources, people, processes. Some people think of these as competencies, but that's a notion we'll have to tackle some other time. The questions here ask whether or not the organization can execute the intent of the original concept.

Points 10 & 11 relate to your organization's brand value and the core of the user experience you want to deliver. What is the essence of your organization? How would you like people (customers, staff, the public-at-large) to think of you?

Point 12 is a broad-swipe question relating to the information architecture for the site.

Point 14 needs your marketing & communications people to think about how they're going to go about attracting people *from your target audiences* to the site.

And then Point 13 ties those two activities together to ask how you're going to accommodate those people when they arrive at your site, but not necessarily where you expected them.

Point 15 refers to your customer service offering, but also refers to issues around ongoing issue identification & resolution; product/service design for future iterations; alternative marketing & communications channels; and how you draw that arbitrary & imaginary line that delineates "them" and "us". To what extent will you include existing customers in the design of future products? To what extent will you incorporate customer input into the choice & design of componentry or functionality?

Point 16 is fairly self-explanatory, and is related to both 12 & 14.

And finally, 17 should identify any key success indicators; data needed for ongoing assessment & improvement programs; and data needed to learn more about your audiences.

So, our UX strategy touches on and incorporates elements of operations and strategy from Marketing, Brand Management, Corporate, IT, Service, Product Management, Engineering, Logistics and Communications. Essentially everything: because *everything* is what affects your customer's experience with your organization.

I wasn't the only one to respond to the original question...here are some of the follow-on comments related to the list I offered above...

Daniel Szuc, Apogee HK:
"Quick Suggestion : http://www.usability.gov/pdfs/guidelines.html

Note -- you can follow all/some the guidelines (as listed above) and sadly still end up with a product that may not have value to both business and/or target users.

So this is where Steve's list becomes important as it allows the business to ask some of the more "strategic" questions up front to determine the who, what and why, understand value proposition, before moving into the design, IA and writing the content. Its the beginnings of a due diligence :)
Stephen Collins, AcidLabs (edited slightly):
Steve's list is ... absolutely what you should be showing people in terms of their building an understanding of UX strategy. While IA/UX does have aspects that can be codified, you're much better off approaching the whole question the way Steve has, addressing user types, needs and tasks as well as business positioning and differentiation.

Really good UX ... is often more about business and customer strategy applied to the web, rather than menus, navigation and the like. Those things are obvious outcomes, but the drivers should be very much business outcome and people focussed, rather than, for example, expressing the org chart in the web site structure (a mistake I have seen too often)."
And I should thank Stephen for providing the suggestion to transfer the original discussion-list response into this blog post.

If you're interested in hearing me talk about UX strategy in a bit more detail come along to this year's Oz-IA conference in September. Although the schedule is yet to be confirmed, we can always find a corner to chat in!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What I want from an e-book reader...

I buy a lot of books: paper books. Hardcover and paperback books. Books for work; books for learning; books for entertainment; books for escape. Today I spent $260 on books - 9 in total.

But I don't own an e-book reader, although I love the idea of having my library of 400+ books available on one little device. And here's why...

I'll buy an e-book reader when:
  • The reader has wireless internet connectivity built-in
  • I can buy books directly from the reader; none of this business of downloading to a computer and syncing across. A little like buying music for my iPod Touch.
  • The text of the book is presented as text, not PDF; and not an image. I should be able to change font size and the typeface; copy words, sentences, paragraphs etc;
  • I can search the text of the book;
  • I can highlight a word and execute a search on Wikipedia or Google or Yahoo! or MSN;
  • I can visit the website that's been created for the book;
  • I can publish my book library to a site, complete with reviews, comments etc and engage in a discussion with others about books that I've read, or thinking of reading. This might be as an application in Facebook, or something new.
  • I can annotate books and add tags
  • I can subscribe to online journals, magazines, and RSS feeds - including newspapers - and read them on the device.
  • The reader is a full colour screen.
  • I can 'loan' my copy of a book to a friend by transferring it to their reader. If I do that, it's no longer on my reader. This could also act as a way to give people Gifts.
  • I can organize my books by Author, Genre, or title; and I can search across my entire collection for "books that contain Linden Avery" and those will be returned to me.
What would you like to see in an e-book reader? And what do you think of my ideas above?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

In support of the Long Tail

The special (Jul-Aug) edition of Harvard Business Review released this week to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Harvard Business School includes an article by Anita Elberse "Should you invest in the Long Tail" (page 88). In the article Anita questions the way in which online sales have played out over the last couple of years and compared this to the behaviour predicted by Chris Anderson's model of The Long Tail.

The Long Tail's general thesis is that the reduced costs of inventorying large numbers of low-volume products (the 'tail') will lead to companies generating new revenue streams beyond the traditional model of 'block-buster' or 'superstar' products (the 'head').

Elberse inspects sales data from sites such as QuickFlix, Rhapsody and Nielsen VideoScan and Nielsen SoundScan 'which monitor weekly purchases of videos and music through online channels and offline retailers'. Looking at Rhapsody over a 3-month period Elberse finds that 1% of titles accounted for 32% of sales; 10% accounted for 78%; and a total of 1 million titles were available for download.

Chris has already commented on the article over at thelongtail.com where he looks at the different definition of 'head' & 'tail' he and Anita use in their analysis, and the different conclusions one reaches as a result. I won't bother going through the same points other than to say that: if you're going to critique a theory based on data your gathered, the least you should do is use a definition consistent with the original theory.

So, lets look instead at the part that really caught my attention - Implications for Strategy - the recommendations for retailers Elberse puts forward based on her analysis of the retail data.

1. If your goal is to cater to your heavy customers, broaden your assortment with more niche products. Despite the earlier conclusion about the Long Tail not being borne out by the data, this is essentially a long tail strategy. Although Elberse offers it with the full expectation that those niche products won't really sell, but will attract more people to the store to buy the block-busters.

The success of a long tail strategy relies on a strong referral network fueling new customer acquisition as a way of maintaining the low-cost positioning necessary. The breadth of the offering is one of the key factors attracting new customers.

2. Strictly manage the costs of offering products that will rarely sell. If possible, use online networks to construct creative models in which you incur no costs unless the customer actually initiates a transaction.

This recommendation seems to me to be so obvious as to be trivial. A Long Tail strategy is impossible to pursue effectively if you are accumulating costs associated with inventory regardless of sales. In order to offer a broad catalogue of product for sale it is imperative that inventory costs are either zero or entirely dependent on a sales transaction occuring.

3. Acquire and manage customers by using your most popular products. Again, this seems like trivial advice. Of the examples offered, only the provision of a recommendation engine provides any real value to the customers. Unlike "designing the flow of web pages so that consumers, even those searching for hit products, are naturally directed into the tail" - I was really surprised at this as it appears to fly in the face of any modern concepts of service design and customer-centredness. Especially as it also seems to conflict directly with the fourth tenet:

4. Even though obscure products may have a higher profit margin, resist the temptation to direct customers to the tail too often, or you'll risk their dissatisfaction.

I was a little disappointed to see no mention here of social networks and their value as a means of promotion of the store as a source of obscure products. As a form of essentially free marketing, it would seem to me that actively cultivating social network effects as a promotional tool would be high up on the list of advice to retailers hoping to take advantage of long tail economics.

I was also disappointed that Elberse performed no analysis (at least none that was shared) on how the product profile of heavy customers changes over time. Were their early purchases block-busters or obscure products? How about their more recent purchasing activity: in the head or the tail?

Finally, I would have like to have seen a comparison carried out between online & offline purchasing profiles with respect to the purchase of 'head' or 'tail' products.

I do agree with Anderson's happiness to see such a well-researched piece appearing in the HBR, and on a topic so close to our hearts. Following so hard on the heels of Tim Brown's article in the June 2008 issue on Design Thinking, it is especially pleasing. However, I don't agree with the slant Elberse has taken in her interpretation of the data, nor the strategy advice offered to retailers.

Take a read and let me know what you think.