User Experience

I just had an interaction with an insurance company’s website while shopping for home owner’s insurance. I experienced a very odd feeling of total frustration. I was frustrated with how the site was architected; in other words, it was difficult to get a quote in an easy manner. But what I found to be odd was that the site was no worse, from an interaction architecture perspective, than the other insurance companies I visited before it. The only difference was that this site had much better visual design. This lead me to a hypothesis that, for almost all users, a good visual design increases my expectation of the usability of the site. I expected the poorly visual designed site to be a bit awkward and clumsy. But for the great looking site, I expected it to be easier. This actually lead me to believe the better designed site was much worse.

I drew up the following graph to illustrate how I think this might play out:

Visual Design VS Interaction Design


For clarity, I define “visual design” as the pure aesthetics of a design. Some may argue that you can’t do good visual design work on a crappy interaction architecture. I don’t agree with that. I’ve experienced lamps, toasters, phones, computers, even automobiles that were pretty but confusing to operate. I’ve had many clients come to me to fix “apps” after their creative marketing agency designed something totally beautiful that was totally unusable. In the reverse, I’ve had many IT departments come to us and ask us to make their poorly interactive architected system “pretty” (I even had several companies specifically ask me to put “lipstick on the pig”). I can honestly say I haven’t seen a single engagement be successful under these circumstances.

If I’m correct, not only is good interaction design far more important than good visual design, but adding good visual design to a poorly architected site will actually do more damage than just leaving it alone.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – I’m considering a study to prove this out.

Last night we held an incredible event at the IxDA conference. An opening party that included 2 DJs, a experimental digital marching band, a local band called Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, an open bar, and catering by the Top Chef winner. It was the best conference party I have ever been to.

I was asked to introduce the band, and I decided to say something about the state of user experience design to the group:

You are a bunch of elitist design snobs that only care about pretty pictures and fancy documents. When it’s all said and done, the world really does not care about design.

That’s what they were saying about all us five years ago. But over the last five years we have changed businesses, disrupted entire industries, revolutionized countries, and are transforming the world.

The nay-sayers have mistaken our passion for foolishness, our righteousness for arrogance, and our empathy for weakness. They wanted us to conform to the way things have always been. To comply with decades old processes that produced crappy software
People now know us as problem solvers, but that’s a half truth.
Yes, we solve problems. But more importantly, we effectively communicate the solutions…What we do is actually is one of the only true forms of practicing innovation.
Believe that what we do matters,
We are changing the world..

First, I should say I am a big fan and customer of  Express. Their fitted MX shirts are the only shirts that fit me since I’ve been working out, they are not crazy expensive, look great, good quality, and they offer a fantastic selection in all of their stores. I received a direct mail piece from them today to entice me to shop online with them (I almost never open a DM piece anymore, but since I’m a loyal customer I thought it was a great way for me to pick up a few more shirts at a discount).

The offer was $30 off a purchase if i shop online with them… I went to and landed here: 10/7/2010

There are thousands of wanna-be ux experts in the world that love to pick on the design – it is easy to be a critic. But I think this site epitomizes the issues I have had for quite some time with how retailers approach their online experience.

My primary issue with the site is that it does match not their brand. If you walk into an Express store, you notice that it is clean and a bit modern – not over stated. It has a slightly pretentious decor with european house music softly playing in the background, white walls, clothes meticulously folded and stacked. The site however tells me their brand is all about spamming me and offering me discounts. It is what I would expect from a store that sold neon lights and bar stools.

Most of their site is dedicated to signing up so they can send me more marketing stuff – if their emails are as thought through and targeted as their home page, why would I want more of it? It is the equivalent of a man standing outside of their store holding a megaphone shouting “give me your email address and I’ll give you 15% off in this here place”.

I came here to buy something (which I assume most people who navigate to do). How much room did they dedicate to that activity on their home page? 10%! I guess the second reason I would go to their site is to find a location – all of 2% of their site is dedicated to FIND YOUR STORE.

I would wager this site is the frankenstein of decisions by committee and mis-guided customer feedback. A VP said “we need social networking” and the facebook & twitter badges appeared. A few vocal customers in a focus group said “is the site secure?” and the McAfee badge was added. Someone in marketing said “we need more email addresses” so they popped up a modal email window the second you hit the site. Someone said “we need to increase sales” and coupons and discounts appeared. Someone said “people like our music in our stores” so the Express Radio appeared.

This site is a clear demonstration of what can happen when you do not take the time to really understand what your customers want from a digital channel and mapping a strategy and rules of engagement to those user needs.

I wish I could say that this site was unique. They they are making mistakes nobody else is making. Unfortunately, etail sites are incestually bad. They all steal their bad ideas from one another instead of looking to their customers to create something meaningful.

About a year ago I saw a google executive, Vince Chirico speak on a panel at a local conference. One of the things that stuck out from that session was what he said about Google’s philosophy on how it builds new applications. He said:

Google focuses on Utility, Usability, and Monetization. And in that order

Every Google application has had deep thought given to what features would be best. Once the application is near feature complete, they look at usability. Usability is the secondary priority.

I was chatting with John McRee, one of the authors of Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software, about how that model is a bit broken. And, more importantly, how they are missing a critical piece of developing effective software, user experience. We often talk about the difference between usability and user experience and John just blogged about it. Well worth a read.

But even if Google’s divine trinity is good enough for them, is it in the right order? Should usability come after utility? I think if you are evaluating an application you can say that without utility is is not useful. But I would argue that without usability, it does not offer utility. When developing software, shouldn’t we have the conversation about utility and usability at the same time? And can’t we do better? Can’t we also make the software enjoyable?

Thought I’d share an excerpt from Chapter 3 of our book “Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software“. By far, this the most definitive explanation of why enterprises need to reconsider how they’ve approached software development in the past. RFPs, Fixed Bidding, Waterfall, all have dangerous implications to the success of any software project. Many companies use the wrong analogies when planning projects; they plan using construction metaphors. This chapter does a great job explaining that in reality, planning a software development project should be more like planning a war.


Uncertainty and the Unknown

Uncertainty and the unknown are enormous, unavoidable, and fundamental components of every software development project. Being at peace with this reality means you can approach the project in a way that adjusts and flows to account for the unknown. If you fight uncertainty and the unknown—or, even worse, if you suppose they don’t exist—it’s a path to defeat.

The mistaken belief that uncertainty can be entirely stomped out through upfront planning and everything can be known in advance is the root of many of the worst problems and errors in the management of software proj- ects. This arises from the misapprehension that software development is com- parable to and can be managed like other types of large-scale engineering proj- ects—building a bridge across a valley, for example. Bridge building and soft- ware development both have components of science and engineering, and of art and craftsmanship. But the role of uncertainty and the unknown, and the way science, art, engineering, and craftsmanship work together throughout the course of the project are very different. Those differences demand a fun- damentally different approach to management of the project.

The notion may seem discouraging, but it’s much more accurate to compare software development to war than it is to compare it to bridge building. While the battle of software development is fought more with electrons and Mountain Dew than bullets and napalm, the battlefield is a complex, dynamic, unpredict- able system of activity residing in shifting political and operational contexts.

The Humility of Unknowing

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.


To demonstrate how uncertainty and the unknown are inevitable compo- nents of a software development project, we’ll examine why the bridge- building analogy fails and the war analogy succeeds. But even with the aid of analogies, it’s extremely difficult to explain why uncertainty and the unknown are unavoidable to someone who’s never been in the trenches of a software development project. Much of the understanding comes from see- ing how design, creativity, and inspiration factor into every aspect of build- ing an application. It also comes from having seen how false certainty, and the demand for it, can cause failure and lead to poorly designed products.

It’s difficult to explain or prove this fact except to state it this way for now: you understand your project far less than you think you do.

And so do your stakeholders, by the way. For your project to be successful, you need to cultivate in yourself and in your stakeholders a certain humility and a recognition that, for as much as you know, you know very little, and that the essence of the project is to investigate and solve a complex problem and not simply to implement a known solution. Embracing this humility of unknowing isn’t a resignation to defeat or admission of weakness, but rather is a state of wisdom required to allow you to succeed.

The Weakness of Foresight and Planning

The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently—like the effect of a fog or moonshine—gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.

—Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Everything required to design a bridge to a valley is knowable in advance and can be planned to an extremely high level of accuracy before construction begins. All of the important goals, variables, and constraints can be accurately obtained before design begins.

Once those key considerations have been discovered, the design of the proj- ect begins and can be entirely completed before construction starts. With accurate and complete designs in hand, construction is then all about ensur- ing the pieces all come together as designed. Construction is not concerned with any remaining questions about the design and isn’t burdened by the risk that the design will change during the course of construction.

By contrast, a general preparing for battle can estimate the strength and disposition of his forces, the resources and capabilities available to him, the attitudes and aptitudes of his commanders in the field, the lay of the battle- field, the strategic goals of the battle, the state of the enemy’s forces, and the parameters for success. He also has history and personal experience to help him intuit how events will unfold. Based on this knowledge, he can formu- late a plan for the battle.

But this plan, no matter how carefully devised, is inherently incomplete and imprecise. It is wholly premised on estimates of the conditions before the battle and entirely ignorant of the unforeseen conditions that arise during the battle. These unforeseen conditions are based as much on the vagaries of weather, emotion, chance, and uncertainty as they are on even the best-laid plan. This reality is the basis for the famous quote:

No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.

—Helmuth von Moltke

The same is true of software development. No matter how well you think you understand the domain and no matter how earnestly you’ve thought through the requirements, there is still great uncertainty in the original facts and premises and a vast depth of the unknown still awaiting you. As with battle, the outcome will be determined at least as much by what comes dur- ing the course of the project as by what comes before it.

Not all unknowns are bad, by the way; it’s in solving the unforeseen problems that great design and inspiration can take place. Some unknowns may be rev- elations about your customers and users that fundamentally change how your business interacts with them, or they may be undiscovered opportunities for progress, innovation, efficiency, and improvements to your company’s bottom line.


If you are interested in reading the whole chapter, you can download it here.

More excerpts are available here

Better yet, don’t be so darn cheap and just go buy the book here

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