’s usability sin

There are few things that universally qualify as web design FAILs. The esteemed Jakob Nielsen has a list of Top-10 Web Design Mistakes from 1999 which, in web years, is a long time. Long enough that you think people would have learned.

Arguably, most of the ten mistakes he lists are not so hard and dry. For instance, it is not too hard to imagine situations in which opening a new browser window (mistake #2) is not a clear cut screw-up. And some of the mistakes are less serious than the others, e.g. #8, “jumping at the latest internet buzzword.”

But there is one holiest of holies that you just don’t mess with: breaking the “back” button. The back button is the second most used browser action, right after clicking a link to follow it. Breaking the back button is a clear signal that you haven’t thought, or don’t care, about your users.

So why does’s Phones & Accessories store think they’re above this? It’s aesthetically pleasing, but trying to compare phones on their website was easily the most frustrating web browsing experience I’ve had in a long time. While I usually think it’s not very helpful or informative to be so flippant, in this case I call: user experience FAIL.

ThoughtWorks in Toronto: Forging a new alliance between business and IT

I attended this morning’s Toronto edition of ThoughtWorks‘ new Quarterly Technology Briefing, on the subject of Forging a New Alliance: Cutting-edge software to power the Business/IT relationship. I was a bit turned off by the title, which sounds kind of “marketing speak”ish, but was convinced by the fact that Martin Fowler, ThoughtWorks’ Chief Scientist, would be presenting — not that I know much about Fowler, but I’m familiar with some of his ideas, and am always eager for free opportunities to be intellectually stimulated (and to enjoy some good continental breakfast).

What presenters Fowler and Scott Shaw, Director of Services for ThoughtWorks Australia, were talking about was essentially the inefficiencies and poor communication fostered by traditional IT-business relationships, and how we should, in the words of Fowler, “get rid of IT” — a trend he says is already underway. The way to thrive in such an atmosphere, says Fowler, is to move IT closer to the business people.

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Some reflections on Aurora, browser of the future

Let me say first that this is some amazing conceptual work. Coming up with something that is genuinely new (or, depending on your metaphysics, at least seems so) is difficult work. It is rare that something comes along in the world of desktop software in general and web browsers in particular that can be called revolutionary, but I think Aurora fits the bill. I don’t want to get all hyperbolic–Aurora isn’t going to change political systems or rid us of our oil dependency–but I think you have to give respect where it’s due, and the team at Adaptive Path have clearly done some top notch work on this project of coming up with the browser of the future.

Rather than try to explain it, here’s part one of the video (link rather than embed because Vimeo’s embed code isn’t valid XHTML).

What I like most about it is how it clearly demonstrates the power of the semantic web. Data tables, event listings and so on are all (presumably) marked up to be computer- and human-readable and Aurora is able combine them with data from other user-defined and automatically-generated relevant data sources.

The visual effects are undoubtedly sweet, but it’s the interaction design choices that really make the video interesting.

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Leveraging the shape of information

Came across a good presentation from 2004 by Victor Lombardi, called Incorporating Navigation Research into Design Method (PDF) that discusses (among other things) the “native shape” of information, and how to leverage it in design.

Three images, drawn from research by Elaine Toms (citation in PDF above, all images taken from PDF above) comparing the “recognizability” of three different version of the same document, which in this case is a Chinese restaurant menu. The first two versions were recognized most often by study participants

two presentations of Chinese restaurant menu items, one with original formatting
two presentations of Chinese restaurant menu items, one with original formatting

However, the third, while recognized less often, was recognized twice as fast by participants.

third presentation of menu content, using original formatting but with non-meaningful information
third presentation of menu content, using original formatting but with non-meaningful information

In another experiment by Toms that Lombardi touches on, content from one genre (e.g. content from a menu genre) was formatted in a fashion typical for a different genre (in Lombardi’s example, as glossary entries).

When participants were asked to identify the genre they selected the genre of the format, not the content. So in this case they would have said this is a page from a glossary. This again reinforces the impact that form has on our understanding of a document.

restaurant menu content formatted as glossary entries
restaurant menu content formatted as glossary entries

The take-away for web design is that when the information you’re presenting has a “native shape” — one that users will be familiar from the real world — don’t overlook it as a powerful and intuitive way of conveying meaning.

Visualizations of information architecture / user experience

It seems like the meaning of terms like “information architecture” (IA) and “user experience” (UX) have been contested since their introduction, with the result that web design neophytes intrigued by the fancy titles “information architect” or “user experience designer” and eager to learn more, are typically exposed to a bunch of loud and sometimes fairly unprofessional debates that shed more heat than light on the topic.

Which is why I was glad to come across two visualizations recently that help make it easier to explain IA and UX.

The first is from an old article by Peter Morville, IA expert, from his now-defunct column, Strange Connections.

Drawing an analogy with a similar chart in Geoffrey Moore’s book, Living on the Fault Line, Morville characterizes IA as a deep, layered field with the holy trinity of “Users, Content, Context” at the bottom (something readers of his Information Architecture for the World Wide Web will recall), and the more tangible deliverables like wireframes at the top.

The other visualization, from Peter Boersma’s blog, is even more compelling (for me) because it clearly and somewhat contentiously demonstrates the difference between UX and IA, without drawing an artificially rigid boundary between the two.

This revised T-model lead to the coining of two new terms: “armpit IA” (for someone who works at the intersection between shallow IA and UX) and “shoulder IA” (for someone who bridges UX and business IA).

As you go deeper in the IA column, you get into really technical, nerdy things like controlled vocabularies (how do you define when “pool” refers to a swimming pool or a game played in a bar?), while a bit higher you have the kind of IA that every decent web designer engages in (coming up with link labels and content organization schemes). If I had to place myself somewhere on this chart, it would probably be in the armpit. Being in the armpit is more glamorous than it sounds (but only slightly).