February 23, 2004

The Business of Design

Skip intro and jump to Mark-Peter debate

Customer Experience professionals, Information Architects, Interaction Designers, Usability Experts and old school HCI professionals; ultimately all have a common aim. Making users' lives easier. Yet all of us are intensely possessive about our titles and lose no opportunity to lock horns over every chance of an argument.

Mark Hurst, the well known customer experience guru delivered the latest salvo recently. Mark, usually mild mannered and polite, on occasions does ruffle some feathers when speaking about other UX disciplines. He once launched into a passionate debate with "friend" Lou Rosenfeld and more recently, last year Mark wished that usability professionals disappeared.

Why they disagree

In his latest newsletter Mark is taking information architects to task yet again. In it he reiterates the "Page Paradigm," a usage pattern first proposed by him in 1999 which states that on any given webpage users will either click on something that takes them closer to their goal or click the back button. Mark argues that the user's goal is the primary motivation for his behaviour and that consistency in navigation that information architects strive, is irrelevant.

Peter Merholz, founding partner at Adaptive Path doesn't like this simplification. Over at his blog, Peter is arguing that there's never a single Goal. Many users have many different goals and those goals shift over time, therefore consistent navigation is important.

, who is correct? Well, both of them stand correct in their own domain and incorrect in the other person's area of expertise. Mark Hurst and Peter Merholz come from different professional backgrounds; e-commerce for Mark and large enterprise wide content based websites and intranets for Peter. This lack of common ground in their past professional experience influences their pronouncements. While Mark is correct -- in e-commerce -- it does make sense to lead design from user goals but as Peter says, on entreprise wide content based sites with tens of thousands of pages, it's often impossible.

Mark's firm Creative Good has always specialised in the online retail space. Almost all case studies on Creative Good website deal with e-commerce sites. Whereas Adaptive Path's website, does not mention a single online merchant in its client list. Most of the 24 listed clients fall in the category of large content-based enterprise sites.

The "Holiday 99" report and the "The Dotcom Survival Guide," reports in which Mark first introduced the concept of Page Paradigm analysed customer experience of online retail. The latter even specifically mentioned the PP applies to online retail. It's only now that Mark has removed this reference to online retail in the description of Page Paradigm.
"Based on our research, we have found one simple rule (the "Page Paradigm") that describes the online shopping habits of most online shoppers."

P-35, The Dotcom Survival Guide. June 12, 2000 [not available online anymore]

Users do have a singular Goal while shopping

On all e-commerce sites, big or small, users almost always have a single primary goal: making a purchase/securing information about it. One can usually divide this big goal into three smaller goals that cover almost all tasks that users perform on shopping sites.

a] Enter the shopping process. This involves homepage, categories, navigation, search interface.

b] Select the correct product/s. Involving search results, product lists, comparison, product detail, decision agents, call to action etc

c] Exit the purchase. Registration, checkout, help, privacy, payment, shipping, etc.

So it's fairly easy to look at e-commerce in terms of specific user goals. Which is perhaps not true for large enterprise portals, intranets and extranets [although I lack experience in that area to say that with certainty]. One thing I do agree with however, is that the way the web works now, consistency is extremely important to navigate large hierarchies.

Imagine where would Yahoo's classification go without any consistency. How can you find content as deep as 7 or 8 layers if the labels are inconsistent? So, they are probably both correct. PP does apply to e-commerce quite well [Mark's domain] but doesn't hold so true on large portals [Peter's area of expertise]. Mark needs to realise the origins and the limitations of the PP pattern and Peter must accept that it applies perfectly well to e-commerce, no matter how large the site is.

Information Architecture and Cost Justification

The different between these two work domains explains other things too. Creative Good proudly proclaims that their work usually gets 40-150% improvements in key metrics. Adaptive Path, whose founders have recently been losing some sleep over trying to figure out how to demonstrate ROI to its clients, has no such numbers to show.

The likely reason for this is that unlike content websites where higher (ad-) revenue is a factor of increased traffic; on shopping sites, even the smallest change in user experience is immediately reflected in revenues since higher revenue here depends upon conversion rates, even with traffic remaining constant.

Adaptive Path and perhaps much of the IA community is focussed on solving the problems of large content sites, intranets and extranets that do not have direct revenue streams. Not that it's a lesser goal, but perhaps less rewarding compared to e-commerce. So IAs shouldn't be surprised that they're finding it so hard to demonstrate returns: it's because the sites they work for DON'T MAKE MONEY. At best, they can be tools for saving it.

Real Good Experience

Peter calls his post "The Oversimplification of Mark Hurst." Well personally, I love simple. Simple is usually clear and understandable. It probably loses some accuracy but as long as the loss of resolution isn't significant, I'd go for simple-and-largely-true that everyone understands as opposed to complicated-and-accurate which few of us get, any day. Simple is good.

Customer Experience is the closest design philosophy to the way I work. What I like about Customer Experience folks is that:

- they understand business,
- they look at the bigger picture,
- they understand that strategy takes precedence over design,
- they demonstrate results [transforming results in some cases] and,
- apparently they've met remarkable success in balancing business and user goals

That said, I'm not a CE fan. I've argued against Mark Hurst in the past. Mark's perspective on e-mail management for example is inherently flawed. He continues to argue for users to take control of their mailboxes without providing any real solution. I've tried to argue that managing e-mail is a tamable design problem. Opera's M2 e-mail program has attempted to solve it. Then there are other programs that have tried to solve this problem in the past and more recently IBM's Remail and Mitch Kapor's popular Chandler Open source project is attempting the same thing. A reader of this blog recently sent me a demo of an interesting new corporate e-mail management program developed by their company.

Back to customer experience, one of the reasons I hold back from embracing the methodology completely is because Mark has repeatedly said in the past that making a technology easier to use is the most important advancement that can be made.

This is completely incorrect in my book. Mark is again losing the holistic perspective he so passionately champions. The greatest advancement to a technology will be enhancing its value proposition - the reason for which it exists. The problem it solves. Value that matters to the users and keeps them satisfied or delighted.

Say, if it's an oil rig we are talking about, the real good experience lies in digging deeper not in making it easier to manage the controls because it's the former that matters most to the people who invest in such a technology. In any business, companies that serve their customers' most fundamental needs are likely to be most successful. In online retail, that could by offering a larger range of choices, waiving of shipping costs, sameday delivery, better prices, product innovation, personalised experience or any other solution that's critical to the customer.

An intuitive interface enhances that inherent value proposition the product offers. Ease of use is not an end in itself. A remarkably usable product will be worthless if there's no value in using it. BUT a product with an exceptional value proposition will still be successful even if it may be extremely difficult to use or learn. Take SMS, e-bay or even using a bicycle or a car for the first time. These are products/technologies that are very difficult to use or to learn to use. Yet they are remarkably successful and ubiquotious because they deliver tremendous value to the user.

Another reason I don't go along very far with Mark is because Creative Good is now eyeing domains other than web. I think there are far too many critical user problems with the web, even in e-commerce - Creative Good's domain of choice, to look elsewhere just yet.

However unlike Information Architecture and Usability, Customer Experience does have a strong relationship with the business domain. Ultimately what matters most is that the user is satisfied and the business made profitable. Here's a favorite quote from Don Norman:
"Usability is NOT the goal. Honest, it isn't. usability is always secondary. The goal is to satisfy the needs of the user. Information, functionality,.... And if you work for a company, one goal is to keep the company profitable....Would I degrade a product if I knew it would increase sales? Yup."

Don Norman
Last edited 10.55am PST, 23-Feb-04

Notes and links

The OK-Cancel guys have a funny take on these disagreements and turf wars. View the comic strip from last week and this week.

Learn more about Mark Hurst. Mark's newsletter entry on Lou's interview [scroll down to Sept. 6]. Read Mark's opinion on the usability profession. See past mentions of the term "information architecture" on Good Experience newsletters

Learn more about Peter Merholz and Adaptive Path. His response to Mark's latest newsletter.

Clients and case-studies from each firm Creative Good and Adaptive Path

Both the initial reports are unavailable online. Interestingly, the recent reproduction of Page Paradigm does not include the following sentence that existed in the Dotcom Survival Guide 2000 report: "Most customers want to achieve one particular goal on a site." This again supports the hypothesis that the PP concept is influenced by its application in online retail.

My post on the current state of UX, e-mail management as a critical problem, Mark's report and Opera's M2. Nelson E-mail Organiser is a plugin for Outlook that makes it remarkably easy to organise e-mails. Mitch Kapor's Open source project Chandler, for personal information management. IBM's Remail project.

February 19, 2004

User Control and Data Entry

"I'd rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways that computers can understand."

Sergey Brin
Co-founder, Google.
A couple of days ago, dad wanted me to look up a conversion on in the internet. He wanted to convert a figure in square meters to square yards. I knew the formula for meter to yard conversion but wasn’t sure if the same would apply for square meter to square yard. [yes, I’ve always been lousy at Math].

So I thought of trying Google’s calculator feature. I had first used it a few weeks before the launch...I found it browsing around their features page. But that day was my first attempt at using it in an actual need.

Dad almost never browses the internet himself – he usually asks me when he wants something looked up. But he knows quite well what a search engine is and what it does. So I found it quite revealing that he wasn’t surprised when I told him that I could do the conversion on the search engine itself.

He expected it to work that way.

Multiple doors to success

Google succeeds where every competing search engine fails. Yahoo, Excite, Altavista, MSN all lead me to search results – links to pages that might possibly contain the answer but don’t immediately provide me with it. Leaving me with the undesirable job of trying to screen out what appear to be incompetent links and visiting those that appear to be competent until I get to the one that really is. [That’s the way search works, doesn’t it?]

On Google, I simply enter 225 square meters in square yards and it promptly reveals the answer: “225 square meters = 269.09776 square yards”.

That’s not all. Google goes out of its way to address needs of wide range of audience. It works even when I use the UK variant [metre] of the term meter. It suggests correction when I make a spelling error. And to my delight, still provides me with the correct answer when I try query formats different from the one that is popularly known to work for such conversions – (known unit in unknown unit). I had no idea that I could also:

Order it to... convert 225 square meters in square yards
Ask it: how many square yards in 225 square meters? (works without ? mark too)
Do a reverse lookup: square yards in 225 square meters
And try the formula route: 225 square meters = ? square yards.

This is remarkable. An absolutely brilliant interface. Not only does it latch on to the metal model of even the lowest denominator, but it doesn’t stick on to one rule or method of performing the query… stretching the limits of the search engine to support more than one right way of phrasing it, thereby accommodating a much wider audience.

This perhaps goes beyond satisfying the user. This is about delight. One may argue that most people probably won’t notice it. But at least in my case, it filled me with joy.

Squeezing it through

It’s also a great example of considerate software, as Cooper and Reimann define it in About Face 2.0. In the book, they lay out over a dozen different characteristics of considerate software that include being forthcoming, using common sense and anticipating needs.

One that I particularly like is, knowing when to bend the rules. They discuss this further in a chapter devoted solely to data entry where they introduce the concept of data immunity and fudging.

The common method of taking user entered data into the system – say when the user submits an online registration form - is to scan each entry for validity - as defined by the programmers in strict, unbendable rules.
"The programmer erects barriers in the user interface so that bad data can never enter the system. The pure internal state is commonly called data integrity. ... The software must maintain a vigilant watch for bad data, like customs officials at a border crossing. ... Anything on the outside is assumed to be suspect, and after it has run the gauntlet and been allowed inside, it is assumed to be pristine."
This is how it’s done all over the web. Prevent bad data and you will be safe, this is the maxim. For example, in address fields, users are made to suffer long drop down menus to select their state instead of just allowing them to type the two-letter code. One of the reasons this is done is to prevent bad data from entering the system – a user might make a typo.

Instead of rejecting suspect data, Cooper argues that program should strive to immune the system from being affected by bad data. Therefore, instead of halting user’s critical task, it should inform him of the error at a later stage.

Error messages are terribly disrupting. In user tests, one often watches the user feel stupid, guilty or angry on such occasions. Consider yourself at the checkout stage of a shopping site and being asked to register. With some courage you commit to the registration form and then right after you hit submit, the site tells you, you’ve made a mistake.

Now what’s easier, abandoning the purchase when there are five more steps ahead of you or to drag yourself through each of them with the possibility of encountering one or more error messages?

Data immunity requires that the system accept everything while keeping records so that when the user becomes aware of the error at a later stage [say, at order confirmation, in the above example], he has detailed information at his hand to make changes. It is the programmer’s responsibility to build safeguards in the system that prevents user from coming to harm.

Fudgeability is the system’s ability to accept data that has been fudged by the user. A simple example is the omnipresent e-mail field. Your e-mail address must contain the @ sign and a dot or it will not be accepted. If you’re commenting on a blog entry and don’t want the spambots to collect it, there’s no way to fudge it by inserting ‘at’ instead of the @ sign.

You can certainly fake an e-mail address but you can’t fudge it.

The common argument behind these concepts is that the system must be flexible and tolerant, keeping user needs ahead of its own. Ensuring that the user remains in complete control of his environment. Cooper sums it up quite well at one place.
"If an automated data processing system is too rigid, it won’t model the real world. A system that rejects reality is not helpful, even if all its fields are valid. In this case, you must ask yourself the question: “Which is more important, the database or the business it is trying to support?”"

Immediate source of Sergey's quote: Ziya, our friendly referee on the SIGIA discussion list.
Possible original source: This post on John Udell's blog. Sergey was speaking on the technology behind Google and the elusive goal of a truly intelligent search.

Learn more about Google's co-founder Sergey Brin

I’ve often found revealing insights on user requirements by making an interface run though people who are not familiar with the conventions of the domain. In the case of search engines for example, ordinary, beginner users often consider it a place to get answers to their questions. The term they use is not “conducting a search” or “looking up” but “asking.”

All books by Cooper including About Face 2.0.