How to boost user experience

“I like solving puzzles,” declares Michael Ferguson, speaking recently on the blog of search engine

The admission is a good thing for Ferguson: as Ask’s Senior User Experience Analyst he’s tasked to probe into the impulses, fears and thoughts of online users.

In fact, the company hails him as the “first stop when we want a better understanding about end-user motivations and behaviour.”

Ferguson is well-placed to dispense golden nuggets of wisdom about how we act and interact in the digital age.

His portfolio of interactive work includes production work on CD Rom, stints on the Lollapalooza (music) tour, and the experience of running his own interactive design firm.

Today, his role as an authority on user experience dictates that he tries to understand “all aspects” of internet users’ lives.

How users find and use information, particularly through Web search, is central to his role at the corporate.

He then takes these observations to help his colleagues in Design, Marketing and Engineering build “valuable and delightful experiences.”

Although serving a large outfit, his unique insights won’t be wasted on micro businesses – like freelancers - that want to launch online, or tweak their presence to deliver better user experience.

Web writers over at the Ask blog posed the following questions (Q) to Ferguson, whose answers (A) are below:

Q. User Experience in 30 words or less. Go.

A. User Experience is the full range of thoughts, feelings, needs, values, perceptions, abilities, and goals people bring to your product or service, and then experience while using it.

Q. “Senior User Experience Analyst”-that's a mouthful. What's that entail?

A. lot of the job is gaining insight into people- their motivations and behaviour. I try to understand them in all aspects of their lives, and then focus on how they find and use information, especially with search. I then help the design, marketing, engineering, and R&D teams build valuable and delightful experiences. (At least, I hope I'm helping!)

I also act as an evangelist for users-both publicly and within the company. The more empathy for user experience everyone involved has, the better products we deliver.

Q. What happens during a typical user testing session?

A. We capture user experience in a variety of ways, from server logs to ethnographic studies, where users keep journals and take note of what happens in their home, work, and mobile experiences. The basics are always the same: we have people complete tasks with our (or our competitors') products and see how it goes.

Q. Who's doing user experience right?

A. With so many businesses focused on customer experience, it feels to me like generally everyone's doing better. Even local government and the IRS have been trying to be more approachable and "usable," both in physical and virtual spaces.
Online, I'm impressed with Wesabe, which shoots the tricky whitewater of mixing social network collaboration and your credit card activity. Check out all the ways they get you comfortable with that - like the CEO's phone number front and centre.

Q. Who's doing it wrong? What's your best recent example of a bad user experience?

A. Um, DirecTV telling me on January 8th that they can't install my new service 'til February 7th - three days after Prince plays the Super Bowl half-time!
And this is after they set up my account and took my credit card. Now, I understand that this time of year is hard: football season combines with the holidays to move lots of TVs. But it's like that EVERY YEAR. So DirecTV needs to manage hardware inventory and installation contracting to account for that seasonal burst. Ugh. Otherwise, I like their service a bunch.

Q. What's the most annoying usability mistake you see on the Web?

A. Using "Click Here" makes me go kookaburra. Just have the link text describe what's behind it! It's like having a note on a door that says, ‘Turn the doorknob below and push to get into the kitchen,’ instead of a sign just saying ‘Kitchen.’

Q. Who is/are your User Experience guru/s?

A. Of course I started out reading some of the canonical stuff from Dan Norman and Brenda Laurel and a host of others, but now there's so many people doing good work. Now you buy a coffee maker and there's this whole unboxing experience that sets a mood, gives you history and tips, and propels you into the using of the thing, wrapped in a warmly branded context.

Q. What are your rules for Web usability?

A. Usability's not really governed by rules. People tried that a bit in the mid-90s and they just don't apply universally--it's more "what works for this user and this business in this situation." Some general themes I keep in mind:
1. Speak clearly: use direct and simple language.
2. Make it clear where someone is in the experience and what their choices are. Make the choices distinct from each other.
3. Reduce work on the user's part wherever you can. Less to think about, with fewer clicks, keeps them in the flow.

Q. What have you not seen in search that you think should be incorporated?

A. I don't know how we'll do it, but when I search I'd like to have a sense of where else there'd be good information. Offline resources like libraries and social groups that meet and exchange information or online services that may be behind registration systems. The interface now implies "this is it, we've searched the whole of everything and here's what you get."

Q. What books or sites would you recommend for someone interested in user experience?

A. As far as blogs, I'd say Adaptive Path’s Blog, Kathy Sierra and Dan Russell's Creating Passionate Users, Christina Wodtke's Boxes and Arrows, and Luke Wroblewski's Functioning Form are good places to learn more about current issues in user experience design. A great, fast, entertaining overview of usability is the book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. If you have anything to do with making Web sites, at least read that.
Also check outDesigning for Interaction by Dan Saffer, . It breaks down the process of collecting user needs, creating and testing great experiences, and doesn't focus just on the Web. Design issues for physical devices and spaces are covered as well.
Beyond that, it's always good to read stuff from fields outside of your business to get ideas.

Q. Funniest thing you've ever seen in a user testing session?

A. You definitely meet all kinds of people. But there was this one guy who somehow got through the original screener interview who didn't know how to use a computer. I think he thought it was going to be a focus group where he could fade into the background--but it was a one-on-one session with me. He sat there terrified. I felt bad for him, so I taught him some basic stuff about how it all worked and gave him his money.


9th March 2007

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