Tag: user experience

Getting the most impact from user experience

Over the past 10-15 years, the practice of user experience within organisations has matured significantly. But why do some organisations get more benefit from UX than others?

The answer stems from how UX is positioned within the organisation, how the organisation measures the success of its investments, and how UX groups seek impact. Those who report having a high degree of impact behave differently to those with low impact.

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Solving real world problems [video]

btcproblemsolving-630x420In this remarkably frank excerpt from a recent conference presentation, Justin Watts of Lloyds Banking Group (LinkedIn profile) explains how his organisation has adapted their digital transformation approach to solve real world problems. Continue reading “Solving real world problems “

The thought before the click: the locus of attention

This is the second in a series of fundamental user experience concepts useful for understanding people’s behaviour when using the web and mobile.

Scrabble Pieces VectorLet’s play a little game.

  1. First, think of your first name.
  2. Now, think of the last letter of your surname.

Neither of these are difficult tasks, but it takes longer to complete the second than the first. This is an illustration of the difference between conscious and unconscious thought. While your first name springs to mind immediately, you had to work a bit harder to come up with the last letter of your surname.

Meanwhile, when you were completing the tasks you had to switch your attention from this page to the task and back again. In doing this, you had to adjust what’s called your “locus of attention”.

Continue reading “The thought before the click: the locus of attention”

The paradox of the active user

This is the first in a series of fundamental user experience concepts useful for understanding people’s behaviour when using the web and mobile.

The paradox of the active user is a concept that was first articulated by John Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson in 1987 at IBM’s User Interface Institute [PDF].  It describes a phenomenon that is ever-present, and still relevant to the way that people use the web and mobile devices today.

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Is user experience really expensive?

While the market for user experience consulting has continued to grow over the last five years, some organisations are only taking their first steps in prioritising investment in professional user experience consultancy.

And it’s often these organisations who need it most – charities with internal disputes about their brand and what to publish online; small businesses who have a world of opportunity at their feet but apparently no money or time to grasp the nettle; local authorities who struggle to separate internal needs from user needs, and therefore navigating and reading their content is frustrating.

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“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” *

ios7 screenshots

This week on t’internets the Twitterati have been set alight by the hype surrounding the “design” of Apple’s new iOS – version 7. I say “design” because many of the commentators have been quick to highlight the aesthetic qualities resembling those of Apple’s key competitors, whether they be Google’s Android or Microsoft’s Metro UI schemes. To my mind these debates are inevitable but unfortunately lack much in the way of value.

The debate lacks purpose because after a while, and specifically for interfaces that are often used, aesthetic aspects become secondary to utility. It’s also been proven that UX designers themselves are very poor judges of the quality of an interface based on looks alone (see Dillon and Black, Aesthetics and user performance [PPT]). That is not to say, however, that aesthetics are not important. It is more that aesthetics are just one element of the experience and should not be assessed in isolation.

Aesthetics and emotion in digital interfaces is a topic that is endlessly debated in UX circles. Stephen B Andersen in particular makes a good case for how aesthetic excellence creates a more emotive bond between your product and your customer, and how brand also plays a role in helping people forgive disappointing functional design or lack of utility.

And while aesthetics are important, there are so many more important topics to focus on. It’s a shame, for example, that the aesthetics debate around iOS7 will most likely cloud the very interesting direction Apple is taking towards integrating its mobile devices and its laptop and desktop machines. For me, these are the new parts of the Apple user experience that will have lasting impact once the new OS appears. There aren’t so many pretty pictures to accompany those, unfortunately.

And so, the blog and tech journo hype machine rolls on to the next big launch. We will have to wait until the autumn to see whether iOS really improves the user experience.

* Quote from Steve Jobs, 2003

Customer Experience and the organisational value chain – what every UX Designer needs to know

When you design a website for a company, you are just a cog in the overall machinery of a business. This machinery is what I’ve been trying to get my head around of late, as the opportunities for ‘digital’ driving customer experience improvements start to impact on all customer-facing areas of the organisation. I’ve rationalised my thinking into my understanding of the Customer Experience Value Chain.


Being part of the team who designs a company’s website, you are likely to be working for the marketing group within the business. This puts you right in the middle of two competing areas of value for the organisation – moving down the chain to drive short term revenues from Sales, and moving up the chain to the long term strategy focus of brand and business model. As a web designer, it’s likely you can’t have any influence on what product or service the organisation is selling. But you can ‘position’ that product or service in a way that makes it more attractive to people – by leveraging the brand (which is usually already defined for you).

You can make the sales process slicker and remove the obstacles to conversion. You can help customers self-serve their support requirements and give them more transparent access to the Customer Service team.

But still, you’re still just a pawn in the organisation’s game. This is no excuse though. Being unmotivated and doing a bad job won’t give you greater influence.

To have more influence you need to move up the value chain. By reaching beyond the traditional Marketing sphere and focussing on the Experience, you can take a holistic view of all of the interactions and touchpoints your customers have with your company. You can look to optimise those interactions and have a positive impact on customer perceptions of the Brand.

This, in my view, should be what Marketing is tasked with delivering, but in my experience too often Marketing is too closely linked with more commercial functions like Product or Sales, which diminishes its impact and value.

Being involved in defining a brand is possibly the holy grail of marketing. In an ideal world Brand drives internal culture which in turn drives the ways in which the company’s staff behave when dealing with customers and how the company listens and communicates. No self-respecting UXer would deny that Brand is a key input to defining Experience.

But possibly an even more influential role in defining and supporting the experience is Organisation Design. Management consultants and UX people the world over are often heard bemoaning how the siloed nature of our traditional ‘factory-minded’ company structures effectively prevent the collaboration and innovation required to deliver great customer experiences.

It’s a CEO’s role to shape the organisation’s reason to exist, how staff are organised and how departments work with each other to produce the outputs required to deliver profitable growth. Business Model and Organisation Design go hand in hand.

What to take from all of this? Building great customer experiences starts with the Business Model. Asking the CEO “what business do you think we’re in?” may lead to some interesting conversations. So I think UX people need to think bigger – don’t moan about the organisational design or the business your company is in. Go and find out from the CEO how you can start having an influence higher up the Customer Experience Value Chain.

Marketing as a change agent (pt 1)

I went to a very interesting event in that there London last night at the incredibly swish Ogily offices in Cabot Square, Canary Wharf. I was there to see Matt Watkinson present some highlights from his new book Ten Principles behind Great Customer Experiences. He was accompanied by Rory Sutherland, the erudite Vice Chair of Ogilvy. Matt presented six of his ten principles, explaining what goes into great customer experiences, and how a company should think about creating them.

Continue reading “Marketing as a change agent (pt 1)”

Good/bad design – a response to a response

I got in this evening to find this in my Twitter feed:

Now, as regular readers will know I’m no stranger to a bit of polemic.
Nevertheless, read Mr Howells’ post first.

My response:

If web design is not the designer’s responsibility then what is a designer’s responsibility?

You say that “design” is too easily equated with “style” but then you equate responsibility for “navigation” and “content” with an information architect’s role. Something wrong there.

At the end of the day, even Gov.uk (which you think is great) has someone leading the effort and I can guarantee that person has a strong idea of what they want. Design-wise, IA-wise, editorially, technically and so on. Good design (and user experience) needs to be orchestrated.

Are you saying you’d rather not have that role? Well, then you’re wimping out, and you’ll be the “stylist” on many projects to come.

Antiquated CMS systems do not lead to badly-maintained websites. Bad design does.

So, as a designer, once you’ve finished your shiny visuals in the halcyon design phase of a project, you wander off to the next client, with your fingers crossed that all goes well. Then, 6 months later you return to the site to find that all is not well, and that your perfectly-realised designs are not being carried through. *Welcome to the real world!*

Design in the real world means design that works in the real world, operated by real people. If you’re not following your efforts through so that real people can use them, then you’ve only done half the job. If real people don’t understand your design or can’t fit their content into your design, then you’ve failed. If you can’t figure out how to train people to use a CMS, come on, this is child’s play!

I currently am responsible for a number of pretty well known travel websites that bring in hundreds of millions of pounds in revenue each year. None of them has a CMS.

A CMS doesn’t equal success with design or with content.

I look forward to your response.

Dark patterns and the travel industry

Dark patterns: a term popularised in the field of User Experience by Harry Brignull, UX guy at Clearleft. But what are they?

Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of laziness or mistakes. These are known as design anti-patterns. Dark Patterns are different – they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.

Remind you of anything about the travel industry? (Or rather, remind you of everything about the travel industry!?!)

Travel brands generally have a fairly poor reputation in consumers’ eyes for being slightly underhand and potentially deliberately misleading when it comes to pricing their products. Whether it’s a hotel, a flight or a package holiday, if you buy travel frequently no doubt you’ve had the experience where the person next to you on the ‘plane or at breakfast has paid a different (usually lower) price to you and it makes you mad.

The accusation from consumers

The main thrust of the accusation from consumers is that travel brands deliberately rip off their customers all for the sake of a few quid here and there. Worst of all, it appears that the most loyal and valuable customers are treated the worst when it comes to pricing; doesn’t loyalty count for anything these days?

There’s evidence for this too….

1. Ryanair are infamous for their almost anti-customer approach. (But bizarrely it seems to be working.) An article by Chris Anderson(of Long Tailfame), shows how Ryanair don’t make their money from ‘plane tickets. The ratio of 70:30, where the 30 is roughly the money made from the ticket is possibly not much of a surprise to people who have experienced Ryanair’s relentless drive for ancillary revenue.


2. Easyjet are next up. Adding insurance into your basket when you buy a flight in order to up the margin per passenger is could be described as sleight of hand, and actually passengers do need insurance in order to fly. They just don’t necessarily need to buy it from Easyjet. Plus adding on credit card surcharges even when a debit card is used for the transaction — a mere bagatelle!

3. Price transparency is an issue – why can’t travel companies provide a price breakdown so I can see exactly how the price is made up and ensure there’s no miscalculation going on?

4. Most of all though with tour operators, customers get most enraged that exactly the same holiday can be sold for different prices depending on the closeness of the departure date and the amount of availability the operator has at the time of purchasing. No other industries would be allowed to get away with that!

This all adds up to a sneaking feeling – often backed up by evidence as in the cases above – that travel companies are all about trying to get one over on us, and as consumers we need to do all we can to highlight it and punish it (by voting with our feet and spending our money with the “better” operators).
This sadly, in a nutshell, is one of the keys to TripAdvisor’s success.

What is happening in reality

From my 8 years’ experience working in a larger tour operator I think I have a bit of insight into what goes on behind closed doors. Call me defensive if you like, but these are some of the arguments that have been thrown back at me over the years.

1. Consumers don’t understand the travel business model

Insiders like me know that there are very few customer-facing industries that have as many externally-derived complexities as travel. An “ordinary” package holiday relies on so many links in the chain to get right, and typically, if you’re operating at any sort of scale, you plan for things to go wrong. Some of those things are out of the company’s control. And yet some customers expect – sometimes to the point of physical abuse – for the company to rectify them, even if it means ‘changing the colour of the sand‘.

When it comes to making money in travel, despite the large profits announced by the larger airlines and tour operators, people don’t realise that the margins on each sale are extremely tight. If you’re at 5% profit (before tax) then you’re probably outperforming the market. (Compare that to Google’s >14% and Apple’s 22%. Facebook I would rather not go into… Amazon’s should be the topic of another post…)

Cost control and delivering results are the usually the top two priorities for any travel CEO and CFO team – especially over the past 4-5 years’ of rocky economy. The competition and macro-economics drive a lot of short-term thinking.

So what to do:

a. Open up. Tell people about your business in the same way that made.com has done in home furnishings. Customers may be interested and trust your brand more as a result. Perhaps remind people that other industries like greengrocers operate a variable pricing model and have done since markets were invented. C’est la vie!

b. Close down. Customers don’t NEED to know about your business – why should they be interested? Your brand should simplify and hide the complexities away from the customer so your brand to them seems like a magical black box or a magic wand.

An imponderable choice!

2. Low margins and a competitive environment attracts bean counters to the top jobs

It takes a certain decisiveness, defiance of logic and determination to swim against the tide of the big players in travel. It is an industry steeped in introspective thinking, supply chain fragmentation and a relentless drive towards commoditisation through value-engineered competition and technology disruption. This is precisely where number crunchers “get their kicks”. Unsurprisingly, the internally-focussed risk-averse approach has worked, year after year. And it still is working, for some. So why change?

Those wanting to raise the bar a little higher, and get out of the inevitable race to the bottom this implies, can consider new value-creating levers:

  • defining your brand clearly (First Choice)
  • product differentiation and exclusivity (Thomson)
  • customer service (Virgin)
  • or customer experience even (I humbly volunteer: Crystal Ski)

These are all skillsets that sit within (whisper it!) Marketing, in my experience the least powerful department in a travel compa
ny. (The most powerful is Finance, as it is in most companies, in case you were wondering).

3. Low margins prevent IT investment, increasing “work arounds” and driving complexity that surfaces in online interfaces

The legacy systems that most big travel companies use are not just legacy as we know it today. Expedia’s core software was coded over 15 years ago, I am reliably informed. You can call that legacy – even in a supposedly dotcom company. Some of the systems I have dealt with were designed in the 1970s. In COBOL, or FORTRAN. They are not “legacy” they are “pre-historic”; there may be just 30 people in the world than can continue developing and maintaining them.

These systems were never designed to support the large-scale self-serve real-time requirements of the web, let alone smartphones and tablets. And yet, it’s too risky and expensive to replace them wholesale.

The easy win here is to provide “low hassle” product options. Products that don’t require any explanation for customers to hand over their credit card to buy from you.

4, The business model needs changing – but transformation is not easy

Low margins also drive lack of investment in new technology – to solve these problems and correct any busines model issues

Low margins drive low salaries meaning the best people who can transform your company probably work for expensive management consultants with swanky offices in central London.


Getting to the nub of the issue

Dark patterns will always exist where the leadership of the organisation is not customer-focused – and 9 times out of 10 they aren’t, and to hit their business objectives they don’t have to be.

Ryanair, Easyjet and hundreds of other airlines and tour operators continue to make profits and satisfy their shareholders without needing to put a huge focus on the customer. There are simply too many opportunities to innovate from the inside on supply chains and operational efficiencies to take the risk.

Most UX people don’t run large corporations, yet. When they do they will need to fight the fight with the number crunchers and bean counters to come up with good win-win solutions. So expertise in design will only be one string to their bow.